Try declaring to an uncle or an aunt, that you do not believe in God. Worse still, ask them *why* they believe in a blue-skinned being flying around on a giant eagle saving the world. The initial response is a startled silence, followed by a quick look around to see if anyone else overheard it. This is then followed by much tsking and shaking of the head - "Shhhh...you shouldn't talk like that!", they'll say.
What do they mean, "shouldn't talk like that"? It is an honest question, for crying out loud. I get especially upset when people say this to children. If a child asks you a question about God, you owe that child a sensible answer. It may or may not be the right answer, but it is better than giving the child the impression that even *asking* such a question is criminal.
When I was 10, I attended a discussion session organised by a Hindu religious group. In a mixed gathering of children and older people, a middle-aged woman was talking to us about God. When she said "Any questions?", I stood up and asked "But how do you know God exists?". It was a genuine question, I wasn't being cheeky. The speaker smiled at me very condescendingly, and said I was too young to understand, and that when I grew up, it would all become clear. Meanwhile, it would be better for everyone if I just sat down and joined in the prayer.
I sat down, feeling snubbed. I was seething inside. Did my question not deserve an answer, even a small one? It was my first brush with religious tradition, and I remember thinking how closed and narrow it was!
Later, I asked my father the same question. "Appa, why do you believe God exists?". He smiled and said, "Well, I don't really have any proof. But several wise and good men in whom I believe think they have seen and experienced the truth. And because I believe in them, there's a good chance God exists". I was happy with the answer - it gave me something to think about. "Who are these men?", I asked, and it led us into a discussion of Indian philosophers.
The point is not whether my father was right or wrong. The real point is that he gave me a logical answer to his beliefs. It is when people brush aside questions, or spout dogma instead of answers, that I see red.
As I grew older, I made my own observations and deductions. I now believe that we still don't know the real answer to whether God exists, but I've also come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter. All I want from religion - if anything - is a set of rules to live my life with a clear conscience. And since I have already made up my set of very satisfactory rules, it is not particularly important to me to figure out whether God is for real.
This is not a particularly radical line of thought. Several Indian schools of religion have similar views. Buddhism, for example, is most definitely an agnostic religion. It believes that the eight-fold path of living will lead to salvation, and does not require any belief in a divine being. Mahavira, who founded Jainism, said quite clearly that he didn't believe in a Creator God - he chose instead to believe that the universe has always existed, will always exist and is governed by natural laws.
The Mimamsa school of Hinduism believed that there is a natural Karmic law, where cause and effect apply, with no need of an all-powerful God to enforce the law. Carvaka, who founded a stongly atheistic sect in around 300 BC called the vedas the ramblings of rascals, and said:
While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death’s searching eye;
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it ever again return?
The Rig Veda itself, which modern-day "Vedic" fundamentalists revere as the one authentic source of Hindu religion, says of the creation of the universe:
Who really knows, and who can swear,
How creation came, when or where!
Even gods came after creation's day,
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start?
Did He do it? Or did He not?
Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
Or perhaps, not even He.
When you read books of Indian philosophers, it is obvious that we have a great and ancient tradition of religious questioning, of frank open thought. Tragically, the tradition is no longer alive. In its place, we have dogma, backed by political and economical lobbying. The rot has set in, and I fear it is irreversible.
P.S. Whether you believe in flying Gods or not, I think that painting of Vishnu on Garuda is a beautiful example of Bundi art. It is from art.com, and retails for $50.