So much is said about the demanding variety of religion — the imperatives, the necessities, what you must do and what you can’t do. People will even talk about mystical or numinous religious experiences — the epiphanies and the revelations. But there is, apart from all this, an utterly unemphatic kind of religious expression. It is not thoughtless, certainly can be thought through, but it is not, in the first place, thought. Habitual expressions of gratefulness to God might be one form it takes.
I thought about this form of religious expression, once removed even from ritual, the other day when I went to Data Darbar in Lahore. I would imagine that most people who call themselves Lahoris have at one time or another visited it, and not necessarily for religious reasons. Like any true shrine, it houses the holy and the unholy in equal measure. Crime, prostitution etc have been connected with it, or with the complex life it supports. My grandmother, with whom I went, made me take off whatever jewellery I was wearing before I went in. This precaution had no effect whatsoever on the reverence with which she approached it.
It is rather wonderful that the Latin word ‘datum’ — plural data — means ‘what is given’. Sometimes this is also information, the sense of the word that has come to dominate. Data in Urdu means the giver. God as the giver of all things is perhaps the most familiar formulation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition; even outside it, deities were givers of one thing or another. The muses were givers of song; Venus-Aphrodite giver of fertility. For this worship is due; but worship is always an asymmetrical offering. However jealously or avidly claimed by the deity, it does not recompense. The giving always outstrips the thankfulness with which it is received.
This perhaps recognises the nature of the things, or some of them at least, that religion is concerned with — things for which there is no accounting. Where did life come from, and why? Why is there something and not nothing? What moves people to build and love and procreate and hope for continuation, in spite of the fact of death? Why is there an excess of life which seems not to exhaust itself or burn itself out?
Play with the thought, and it’s not difficult to see that, if life is believed good, then there is an original act, or an always sustained act, of generosity that humans have to reckon with.
Of course this can also be thought of as a curse, an anti-blessing. In some versions of Gnosticism, for instance, it is an evil god who creates the human world. You only have to look around and wonder: how could a good god create the world as it is? To some this is a form of irreligion, which religion tries, paradoxically enough, not to negate but to contain.
‘Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life… shall save it.’
Probably the main association that most Lahoris have with Data Darbar is that of giving. It is said, how accurately one cannot know, that no one in Lahore can go hungry at night because of the Darbar. There are extensive arrangements outside the shrine for making offerings of food, which disappear the minute they are doled out no matter what the hour of the day.
Once inside there was more giving, of tabaruk — nuts and sweets — and money. I noticed that everything was being handed out without distinction to anyone who wanted it. There was no trying to determine if people were queuing up again and again just for a bit of fun, or if they were greedy and undeserving. Distributions were indiscriminate.
To give is to imitate God; it can’t be a bad feeling, whether achieved in humility or grandiosity. But what about the receivers? They did not seem abject, or too grateful. Their frenzy had a sort of impersonality to it. The givers wouldn’t be there without the takers; the latter are, in a way, the former’s ticket.
By the time my grandmother was done, she had run out of all cash. We had none left for the shoe-token man. The question arose how we would get our shoes back. I suggested that we beg some money ourselves, as we had been begged from. My grandmother wouldn’t have it. So we explained our predicament to the shoe-token man. Now we have incurred what we prefer to think is a debt to him. He preferred to think of it as a fee-waiver.
I left with the sense that it was perhaps an accident whether you were on the giving or the receiving end. Nothing quite accounts for which side you’re on, or how long you’ll stay there, or indeed what you are in a position to give — a basic instability that divides us from the divine, and of which shrines and suchlike are perpetual reminders.
Sarah Humayun is a freelance journalist who lives in and away from Lahore
Source: Daily Times, 13/10/2008