a smorgasbord, not a set menu

Part of the lore passed down orally in my family was that Jesus lived in India for many years. That he was an avatar of God, like Rama, Krishna, Buddha and others before him. That he lived in the Himalayas in his youth and learnt about samadhi from Indian rishis. That he was therefore able to survive after he was lifted down from the cross and placed in a tomb. That he returned to India and lived to a ripe old age in the Himalayas. And that his tomb is in Kashmir.

It sounded too far-fetched to me. Surely a young boy wouldn’t leave his home and family in the middle-east to come and learn about spiritual practices here, so far away, through high mountain passes and biting cold? And if he came here as a youth how did he die here at eighty? When did he preach in his own country then? I simply pushed the story to the back of my mind with the rest of Indian folklore.

My actual introduction to Christianity was at the age of nine when I began attending a school run by Christians. A school day started with Chapel every morning, and I learnt a lot about the religion over the years.

Born Hindu, I never had to commit myself to any one image of god because we had a pantheon in our pooja ghar, or altar. And when we went to other parts of India we worshipped at temples of gods who weren’t even on our altar, because all gods of all religions are representations of the only god there is. My parents said that a holy place was a holy place regardless of religion, because people bring only pure, clean thoughts and prayers to their holy shrines, and all places of worship are therefore imbued with holiness.

Growing up, I did wonder about the multiplicity of gods in Hinduism, unlike in other religions. Hinduism is monotheistic, but people worship god in hundreds of different forms. They invoke god in the form that traditionally represents what they need fixed: like goddess Lakshmi for money worries, analogous to the Christian patron saint, St. Nicholas; or Saraswathi, the goddess of music and art, who is similar to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music; or any of the gods – like Ganesha, Hanuman, Krishna, or Durga-mata in desperate situations, like St. Jude, or Jesus himself. Prayer is just a matter of reaching out to god in his most relatable form in the circumstances, either directly or through an intercessor.

The name by which I address god doesn’t matter, nor does it matter if I don’t engage with him at all. I can be an atheist, which will make me a nastik Hindu, or an out and out materialist, which will make me a charvaka Hindu, none of which are bad or wrong; they are just where I happen to be on my karmic path. I can even worship Jesus as my ishtha-devatha (god of choice) and follow the path of bhakti yoga (path of love) and still be Hindu. Looking back, this is what I probably did for a couple of years in my teens when I read the Bible, went to church and subscribed to an American Christian youth magazine called Young Ambassador. All this fits in with the claim that Hinduism is not a religion, just a way of life, which can leave a child quite confused.

As a young adult, the Hindu way of thinking gave me freedom to not commit myself irrevocably to a fixed set of beliefs. I was wary of being expected to handcuff myself mentally to things I had stopped believing in, something that happens when you permanently accept any dogma. Religious syncretism allowed me to change or modify my beliefs when I understood something better while dipping into the teachings of different religions and philosophies, and I made up my mind that this was how fluid it was always going to be.

Being a medical student, one side of me said it was just neurones and synapses that process information continuously and throw up new patterns of thought, perception and emotion, and nothing was real, especially not god and religion. Another side of me said it was more than that, beyond science. There was room for that internal debate too because I didn’t have all the answers then, nor do I have them now.

What was my takeaway from learning the teachings of Jesus as a child? By clearly distinguishing between good and bad, they simplified the world for me at an age when I wasn’t yet able to grasp the complexities and nuances of Hinduism. Having been introduced to two religions simultaneously I saw the world of abstract ideas about life and god as more of a smorgasbord than a set menu. Theism, as I still see it, is only useful if it enables us to live in harmony on earth, and not quibble over the name of the Maker or form armies to kill each other in his name.


In 2002 I came across Jesus the man, a book by Australian historian and theologian, Barbara Thiering. One bit I remember from this book is that Jesus and the two men who were hanged along with him ­­– Simon Magus and Judas Iscariot ­– were brought down from the crosses on Pilate’s orders. They were then imprisoned in a burial cave where Simon, who belonged to a community of healers called the Therapeutae, revived Jesus. He survived and was taken to safety, a few days after which he left the country.

Around the same time I read Jesus lived in India by Holger Kersten. This book is about Jesus’ coming to India after the crucifixion. Apparently he lived to be eighty and was buried in Rozabal in Srinagar, Kashmir, when his life ended. The ancient inscription on his tomb says Hazrat Issa Sahib meaning Tomb of Lord Jesus. And it still exists!

I didn’t think of any of this for a long, long time as I was busy with profession, children and home.

Then, a few days ago, I read The Lost Years of Jesus by Elizabeth Prophet. This concerns the time Jesus left Jerusalem with a caravan of merchants at the age of thirteen and lived in India till the age of twenty nine: the lost years that are not accounted for in the Bible.

To quickly summarise, Jesus apparently spent six years in Eastern India in Hindu centres of learning like Puri, Rajagriha and Kashi. He later moved to Hemis, a Buddhist monastery in Leh, Kashmir, where he lived till the age of twenty nine. The Buddhist lamas refer to him as a Buddha (= the enlightened one), the Buddha Issa.

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I visited this Buddhist monastery at Hemis in 2007 on a family vacation to Leh in Kashmir. This is where Jesus is said to have spent the lost years that are not accounted for in the Bible.

Records of his teachings, as well as his biography, were maintained in the Hemis monastery in Leh in Kashmir. A Russian journalist, Nicolas Notovitch, heard about them by chance. He went in search of them in 1887and had them translated from Pali into Russian. His book, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, was first published in 1894.

The existence of these documents was subsequently verified by reliable people, viz. Swamy Abhedananda (1922), Prof. Nicholas Roerich (1925) and Madame Caspari (1939), the details of which are in Elizabeth Prophet’s book.


The questions I had asked as a child were answered. But more than that, thanks to trying to make sense of all that I heard in school and at home regarding god, I had concluded that swearing allegiance to any religion was not necessary. Cherry-picking from all of them was fine.

There’s this quote from ancient Indian literature called the Puranas: “Like a honey bee gathering trickles of honey from different flowers, the wise man accepts the essence of different scriptures and sees only the good in all the religions.”

Despite the differences in what religious fundamentalists say, at the deepest level we all feel the same thing in terms of what god, or the idea of god, is supposed to do in our lives: be there for us when we need him. Sometimes it’s easier to anthropomorphise god, and that’s fine too. The problem arises when a group of people act as though their virtual image of god is a photograph that god physically posed for, while others’ images are morphed ones of an imposter!








‘In search of Home – the forgotten tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits’. This was the topic being debated on NDTV today on ‘We the People’ anchored by Barkha Dutt. There were seven or eight panelists whose opinions were so divided that there were temper losses and utter chaos among them.

But when it was the turn of the audience to ask questions or give opinions – wow! Every youngster spoke eloquently, rationally and passionately about moving forward in peace. They acknowledged that Kashmiri Pandits, among other groups, had been wronged. The eagerness young Muslims showed to have Kashmiri Pandits back in Kashmir was heartwarming. I don’t know how much of the government’s plan to facilitate their return to their home state can be implemented. As a young Delhi-based Kashmiri Pandit from the audience – he would have been a toddler when his parents left Kashmir – asked, “What will I do there?”

But, the point is, the youngsters don’t want strife. They have a smarter take on what is important, and it certainly isn’t Religion the way our politicians understand Religion. A Sikh Kashmiri friend had once told me that Kashmiriyat was more her religion than Sikhism in many ways. I got the sense that many Kashmiris present in that studio today would agree.

I switched to CNN right after ‘We the People’. There was an interview with a 19-year-old Israeli boy, Udi Segal, who was in jail for refusing to join the army. He says: “I cannot take part in an army that occupies another people and makes Israeli society more violent and apathetic to what is happening”.

IMG_1226When most of our generation depart this world the baton will hopefully pass on to better people like Udi Segal and the young people in the audience at the debate on Kashmiri Pandits. And not to the narrower-minded people who have been responsible for all the cruelty and destruction in recent times.

I took this picture last month at the World Trade Centre museum in New York.

“Never a thought of race, creed…” I wish…

Maybe related, maybe not

I was flipping through an old favourite book, Che Guevara’s ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’. The description of Cuzco as el ombligo del mundo, or the navel of the world, sent my thoughts spinning in a different direction today. I grabbed a pen and scribbled down the chaotic associations that swam around in my head before they could evaporate, as they often do.

The Latin word umbilicus is ombligo in Spanish and bombli in Konkani, my mother tongue. The mbli is common to all three. The English navel is closer to the Sanskrit nabhila and German nabel. 

The word for God is a variation of Dev in many Indian languages. In Hindi it is added to the name of a god as in Ramdev or Krishnadev. In Konkani it is Devu. In Kannada it is Devaru. It is Dios in Spanish, Deu in French, Dyw in Cornish and Dew in Breton (got this from the net).

The word alma, soul in Spanish, and atma, soul in Sanskrit – do they have a common origin?

The colocasia plant that I grow in a pot in the balcony

Pathraday, a spicy roll made out of colocasia leaves, is believed to be a purely Mangalorean (Konkani) dish. But is it? Punjabis make pathrode out of cabbage leaves, something I recently came to know! Does that make the basic recipe for pathrode 2000 years old, when the forefathers of present-day Mangaloreans and Punjabis might have been neighbours along the banks of the Saraswati river?

Kukkad in Punjabi and kunkad in Konkani both mean rooster, or maybe fowl in general.

The Gujarati and the Konkani words for lunch, jaman and jevan respectively, are similar.

The English word name is naam in Hindi, naava in Konkani and Marathi, nombre in Spanish.

You is tu in Hindi, Konkani, Spanish and French…

And of course, the words for father, mother and some body parts like chest (chaati in Hindi), etc. are well known to be similar in many languages.

Some words for water: Czech, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Croatian and Macedonian – voda, Latvian – ūdens, Albanian – uji, Basque – ura (from the net). In Sanskrit it is udaka and in Konkani it is udaka, or uda.

Ura > uda > voda > water; or water > voda > uda > ura. Is that fanciful, or did it happen like that?

There are five main Dravidian languages. The word for water is nearly the same in four of them – neeru in Kannada, neerlu in Telugu, thanneer in Tamil (abbreviated to neer or thanni) and neer in Tulu. But it’s vellam in Malayalam…

Where does meen, the word for fish in Kannada/Tamil/Malayalam/Tulu, come from? And why is it chaapalu in Telugu? 

Mina is also the constellation of Pisces. Is that from Tamil (Dravidian) or Sanskrit (Aryan), both ancient languages? That is, who named the constellation ‘mina’?

The name meenakshi means ‘eyes shaped like fish’, derived from meena and akshu (‘eyes’ in Sanskrit, as I’ve understood until now). If meena is Tamil and akshu Sanskrit, and Meenakshi is a goddess worshipped by Tamilians, how did akshu come into it? Is akshu a Tamil word absorbed into Sanskrit by Aryans? And Meenakshi is a Dravidian (Tamilian) goddess married to Shiva, an Aryan God!

How exactly were the Aryans and Dravidians connected? Is it even true that Dravidians lived here, and then the Aryan conquerors came and pushed them southwards?


I came across this paper on how it is wrong to jump to conclusions based on phonetic resemblances, when I browsed the internet just now:


The writer, Mark Rosenfelder, goes on to explain why we are so easy to fool. These resemblances are fascinating nevertheless. 

Mark is probably right, and I am one of those folks whose eyes glaze over when you talk about probabilities. I guess I romanticize Proto-World, because the present-day world really gets to me at times. Other times, when I’m comfortably ensconced in bed with a book and the air-conditioner is set at a temperature I like, I can clearly see why those may not have been very good times!

Rueing ’47 – at the Wagah Border

He was ‘Missing In Action’ for five years.

A Prisoner of War of the Japanese during World War II.

My husband’s grandfather was a doctor in the Army, held captive in the jungles of Malaya by the Japanese. At the end of the War, when Japan lost, he was freed along with the other POWs.

Image00013A letter arrived at his home in Dehra Dun saying he was coming home. It was astonishing – and hard to believe – after five years of not knowing whether he was even alive, almost given up for dead.

When he stepped off the train three weeks later to the cheers of a huge crowd in Morinda, Punjab, he was so weak and unsteady he could hardly stand. A little boy ran up to him and clung to his knees like a limpet. He had never seen the child before; it was his youngest son, Surinder, born 21 days after he left for the War. The other little children, a boy and two girls, were now 15, 13 and 10. They stood shyly to the side with their mother, away from the throng of men surrounding their father, and gazed at him in wonder. I see the same look in my mother-in-law’s eyes when she recounts this story about her father.

Knowing all this, and even about the torture inflicted on his father in Malaya, his son Surinder went on to join the Indian Army and retired as a Brigadier. He is now in his seventies and still looks every inch a soldier.

What is it about their homeland that makes people feel so strongly? Why do people want to serve in the Army and protect their countries? Why does pride stir in our hearts when we see our national flag flutter in the breeze at the top of a flagpole?

About a month ago we were at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan. It was 4 o’ clock, when Beating the Retreat happens, when the flags of both countries are ceremonially lowered.

There was a large crowd of Indians on our side and a sizeable crowd of Pakistanis on the other side of the gate. Everybody was cheering: ‘Hindustan zindabad!’ echoed by ‘Pakistan zindabad!’ from across the border. I couldn’t help wishing Partition had never happened.  After all, we had been one people for eons – Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

Part of the ceremony
The gate between India and Pakistan
Lowering the flags of both countries together

The countries of the subcontinent are like nuclear families that have split off from a large joint family under acrimonious circumstances. The families continue to meet on festival days to exchange prasad and sweets, just to see each others’ faces, and keep lines of communication open, hoping for better days when they can love and trust each other again. A little ruefulness is inevitable, especially when they think of their shared past, and the trust that meant you didn’t always have to be armed and vigilant, the way it is with India and Pakistan now.

Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh

We spent three days in Amritsar in Punjab last week.

The Golden Temple by night was a glorious sight. Volunteers took care of the temple and its ceremonies with much love and devotion. They made all visitors, Sikh or otherwise, feel welcome.



We visited it again the next morning. It shone in the pale winter sunlight, radiating peace and purity.

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The massacre of Sikhs and Punjabis, the bravest of Indians, by the British is one of the many horrifying chapters in Indian history.

We visited the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial where the massacre took place on 13th April, 1919.  On that fateful day in 1919, a group of people had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh near the Golden Temple to protest the arrest of two leaders. There were also thousands of pilgrims who were there to celebrate the Baisakhi festival.


Reginald Dyer, a British general, ordered his soldiers to fire on the crowd. The bullets were fired towards the narrow passages through which people were trying to escape. More than 1000 innocent people died, about 120 of them jumping into a well in panic. The bullet marks are still visible on the walls of surrounding buildings.

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The exhibits at the Jallianwala Bagh museum and the stories they tell about what Indians were subjected to by the British makes one wonder: ‘How did it come to this?’

The British entered India as traders in the 1700s. Soon they got involved in our politics and turned our country into a colony. The rest is history.

And what have we learnt from this? Not much, going by what’s in the newspapers. Some excerpts from a recent article:


  • Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s invitation to China to set up special economic zones and industrial parks in India…
  • Haryana is going all out to woo Chinese companies to buy farmland…
  • Chinese investors have also visited Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu looking for probable sites.
  • Chinese investors are being offered land for ‘purchase’ and they will have the right to re-sell the land.
  • …policy of protecting national borders certainly needs a review considering that the Chinese are being allowed to purchase land within the country. But will Beijing ever allow Indian companies to buy such huge tracts of farmland in China?

My question is: Why do we have to sell the land to the Chinese? Shouldn’t it be leased for a limited number of years, if at all?

But then, there is this too, quoting from the same article.

Indian companies were buying land in Africa, Asia and South America. Of the 848 land grab deals concluded globally since 2008, 80 involve Indian companies that have invested in 65 deals to grow food grains, sugarcane, oilseeds, tea and flowers. And as a news report computed, India has already bought land abroad nine times the size of Delhi.

How are the countries in Africa, Asia and S. America okay with this?

The US National Academy of Science calls it ‘a new form of colonialism’, while mainline economists term it as a model of economic growth.

Which one is it?

Keeping it simple

In this advanced stage of civilisation, why do we behave as if gods are candidates standing for election and we need to canvass for them?

Are we insecure that if followers of one god predominate, those outside the group will be persecuted or annihilated? Is this why we create armies of followers to protect our interests, and call it religion?

If not for this one collective insecurity, god and religion would be purely personal. They would not be the basis for wars and terrorism.

Let me assume that only one religion will ultimately survive, after the machinations of all the players. Will there be peace? Unlikely.  There will be disagreements among sects in that religious group, and splinter groups will break away. And a new chain of violence will begin…

The ancients revered the Power by acknowledging its manifestations. They worshiped nature as the sun-god, moon-goddess, wind-god, water-god and so forth. That was Religion. That was Prayer. Has religion evolved over the centuries or simply got into a complicated tangle?

Wouldn’t we be better off worshiping nature? Individually. Privately. Quietly. Just celebrating Life and being grateful for being alive.

Sun god, like Surya
Moon goddess, like Diana
God of water, like Varuna
Tree goddess, like Isis
Goddess of agriculture, like Demeter
Goddess of home and hearth (private and municipal), like Hestia
God of fire and smithery, like Vulcan or Hephaestus
Mother earth, like Terra

Once upon a time in Goa


This is a bronze bust of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. It is enshrined in our family temple in Goa. He was one of the five men who saved the sacred idols of the deities from Portuguese invaders in the 16th century.

This is our temple, the Ramnathi temple, in Ponda, Goa. It was originally in Loutolim, but was destroyed by the Portuguese. A new temple was consecrated to the deity in Ponda, 11 km away across the Zuari river.

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This is what my ancestors who lived in Goa at the time of the Goa Inquisition in the 16th century were up against.  The Goa Inquisition by A.K.Priolkar is a well-researched book that chronicles details of that time.

To begin with, the Portuguese had a 41-point code for Goans, some of which were:

  • No worshipping their own deities
  • Ban on wedding-related activities like distribution of betel leaves and flowers, serving a wedding meal
  • Restriction on wearing Indian garments
  • No observing religious fasts, performing obsequies
  • No growing tulsi in their backyards
  • No building or maintaining temples; violation was dealt with by demolition of the temple and confiscation of its wealth for pious (?) work by the Portuguese.

Those who flouted these and other random rules – something that was bound to happen, because all the things on the Portuguese’s list of bans were a normal part of life for Goans – fell afoul of the Goa Inquisition. They would be tortured in the presence of their families by being beaten up, having their eyelashes yanked out, or bones broken. . .

By 1570 they had a law that said people who did as they were told didn’t have to pay taxes for 15 years, as long as they used their brand new Portuguese names and erased all memories of who they used to be!

The moral of the story of the persecution of my forefathers in Goa by the Portuguese, as I gathered in bits and pieces over the years, was this: “Everybody has his own idea of God and that’s okay, because nobody’s seen God. What the Portuguese people did was wrong. They were ignorant. Our forefathers left our homeland because it was important for them to be independent, not live like slaves”. In other words, accept that every religion is okay and don’t impose your beliefs on others. But hold on to your convictions, because they make you who you are. An independent person.

If every child learns this there will be less distrust and hatred among people in the future. Since a large number of wars have been fought over religion, there may be fewer wars too. And perhaps people wouldn’t feel it their duty to torture those who worship god by a different name.

In theory, it would be best if people could be ‘good’ without theism. In organized religions, rules for good conduct are laid down on the premise that people will fall into sin without them. Does that mean a majority of people need a God to stay their course in that direction? The fact that thousands of places of worship exist in every country, maintained by thousands of religious heads, makes me think that’s likely; of course there are social, economic and political reasons for the existence of places of worship too, but I’ll ignore that for the moment.

Obviously then, theism will not go away. The only way forward would be to allow everyone their own brand of theism.

Just as I will not blindly accept someone else’s beliefs, I won’t foist mine on others by any means, blatant or subtle. Should I induce a person to adopt my religious beliefs, depriving him of the inner growth that comes with thinking things out, I would be stunting him. He would be the human equivalent of a Sequoia tree in its bonsai form. I can’t feel good about it, nor can I score brownie points with my god, if he’s a fair god.

I know that what my forefathers went through is exactly what indigenous populations everywhere went through when explorers decided that they owned not only the lands they ‘discovered’ or ‘conquered’, but the human beings who lived there as well. Any reader can look back at the history of his own land to know I’m right.

Shouldn’t we try to change the status quo? How? By teaching kids to be tolerant, and never telling them, “Our God is the only true god, other religions have it wrong.” By telling them instead, that religions are different paths that lead to the same god. Or, if we are mature and secure enough, telling them that religion isn’t about god at all, it’s just a way of life.

Others’ thoughts on the topic: