How many of you would believe me if I said, I met God! It is true, but it also depends on how you define ‘God’. I am born and brought up in India where most people are religious either because they love God or because they fear God; most of them fall into the second category. The belief that God is confined to temples or trapped in the photo frames is too absurd for me. When God is omnipresent then I can pray anywhere; if God is everything then every and any name I call, be it my family, friend or someone on the road, whether it is an Indian or English, whether it is Krishna or Paul, it will still be chanting God’s name.
In India, we have innumerable Gods who have vehicles (vahana) assigned to each of them which they use to travel. Interestingly, most of them are animals or birds and we pray to them too. But why so many Gods? I think I have figured this out in my own way. You can agree or disagree with me. I will reveal it at the end, because realization always happens in the end!
The first time I remember encountering God was when I was 16 years old, when I went to Singapore to my uncle’s place for summer vacation. Singapore is a safe place, so I dared to venture out by myself. One morning I went out for a walk; I saw a nature trail and started trekking, lost in the magnificent old wrinkled barked trees with umbrella canopies. Those huge spiders hanging in the air and the murmer of a stream accompanying me on my walk, I lost track of distance and time. At the end of the trail, I found myself in a remote colony of houses, where I sat on a swing in the colony park musing over the beauty of nature. Suddenly, there were dark culumonous clouds, lightning and thumping thunder with an eerie silence in the air. I could not go back the same trail as trees tend to fall during heavy rain and they closed the trail temporarily. It started raining heavily within the blink of an eye and I got drenched thoroughly in no time. My phone battery was dead, I had five dollars in my pocket and a bus card, but I didn’t know which place I was at.
I saw many houses but not a single person on the road. I set off on a road ahead in the heavy rain, unable to see more than two meters ahead as the rain drops splattered over my specs with not an inch of dry cloth to clean it. I kept walking in trepidation, my head bent. Suddenly, a truck appeared seemingly out of nowhere and a man from the truck shouted out at me saying, “this is a prohibited area, it leads to a military camp” and asked me to move in opposite direction. Scared to the core, not knowing what to do, I kept walking in the opposite direction. Then a jeep came filled with men and one of the guys shouted, “Get in”. I tried to ask who they were and where they were going but the rain was so heavy, they could not hear a thing; they signaled me to get in and so I did.
Even today I remember the thump of the closing door and my heart was in my mouth for I knew nothing about the men. I could feel my heart beat so loud that it faded the sound of the rain into the background. Somehow, I gathered up all my courage and asked one of the guys who looked like an Indian where the jeep was heading to. He told it would drop people at the main bus stand, that it was a kind of shuttle service in remote areas. This guy’s name was Subramanyam (name of one of the Indian Gods), not that it made much difference to me but the fact that he was an Indian was a comforting thought. I sat silently looking out at the rain, when I started to wonder how much would they cost me for the ride. What if it was more than 5 dollars? I built up my courage again and asked Mr. Subramanyam how much they would cost for the ride. He said, “it‘s a free shuttle service run by the Singapore government for travel to and from remote areas“. I thanked God in my heart and sat silently; after almost two kilometers, the bustling thoroughfare came into sight.
I looked at the map in the bus stand to see the place I was at and how far it was from the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the place I was supposed to reach to get home. From what the map read, it was quite far, and I was once again lost, but this time in my thoughts. The worried look on my face invited Mr. Subramanyam to extend help. He asked me where I had to go. I told him all the details I knew. He said, “it‘s very far! You need to change two buses“. The confusion on my face further deepened. He said, “Don’t worry! I will come with you in the first bus and get you into the second bus.” He was going out of his way to help me! As he said he came along with me and got me into the second bus that would take me to my destination. The smile on his face when I waved goodbye is etched forever in my heart. I saw God in him that very day and it was my first encounter with God.
After I was back home, I kept remembering his luminous face again and again. Evening, when my uncle came home from work, I narrated the whole story and we looked up in Google maps trying to trace the trail and how I reached the other end of the city, but we couldn’t find any way. I didn’t know how the morning trail lead me to the other end of the city but I knew the God within Mr. Subramanyam was there with me to bring me home safely.
The second time I met God was very recent. It was in September 2023, on the Vinayaka Charuthi festival day. Festivals are very special because they bring people together, there are flowers hanging everywhere, the neem leaves welcoming you at every door, colourful rangoli, chanting, pooja, and the yummy delicious food fest at the end. Like every other home, we made many varieties of food and had a sumptuous meal. My mother always prepares a little more food on festivals as we offer food to some needy person, be it anyone who comes asking for food or even anyone on the roadside. It was evening and we went out looking for any person who was willing to take the food. Gone are the days when you could find scores of people ready and willing to take any food offered. To the contrary, now people look very suspicious when offered anything other than money. There were no takers, the roads looked deserted. I told my mother there was no hope of finding anyone at that time of the day, but there was one lady and her daughter sitting on the footpath along the road in the company of Ganesh Idols that were left unsold. My mother wanted to give the food packet to them, but I was hesitant to ask lest they refuse or take offence. Nevertheless, my bold mother who didn’t care about their probable accusation went up to them and asked if there are okay to take the festival food. The girl looked at her mother hesitantly; her mother nodded her head in assent and the girl took the food packet. Immediately she opened to see what was there inside and the expression of surprise on her face! It remains etched in memory. My mother’s hand that gave the food to them is where I met God. While we celebrated the festival two lanes aside, these people on the roadside were working so hard to make both their ends meet. I am not saying Mr. Subramanyam and my mother are God but I am definitely saying there is God in everyone and it is exhibited when you extend your hand to the one in need. The reason we say ‘Thank God’ when something goes right or we are saved from danger is because it is God in that other person or in you or the circumstances that made it right.
What about when things go wrong? Is it still God’s doing? Yes it is, but the reason it would have happened may not be very apparent to us. Doing good to one might do bad to others. Nature has always been that way. When a tiger hunts and feeds on a deer, the tiger is saved and deer is sacrificed, but if the deer escapes, the deer is saved with the tiger left suffering. When my father passed away, I was very upset. It was a heart attack and he had not been keeping well for more than 3 years. It took two years to reconcile with the fact but now when I think back, I think his suffering was relieved by leaving his body and that it was good for him. However as his daughter, to never be able to see his physical form again was very painful. His pain was greater than mine, I believe, and so it was a relief for him. I have to thank God for granting him that relief.
Why do we have so many Gods? From all my ramblings above, you may have got a clue as to what I am about to tell. The answer kept getting clearer to me the more I met God. The reason we have and worship so many Gods along with their animal vehicles is that “There is God in everyone and everything. The form may vary, what name you give may vary, how you look at them may vary, but every body has God”. We describe pig as a lazy and untidy creature and think of it with disdain, yet we worship ‘Varaharoopam’, which is lord Vishnu taking the partial form of a boar. Why did he have to choose such an undignified animal? I am sure he has better options. I think it was meant for people to realize that everything has God within it. If you look at the Shiva temples the main diety is only a stone column with a base, not any face or body or sculpture. Lord Shiva is considered to be the destroyer, the destroyer of ego, maya, and worldly illusion. The story behind why he is not worshipped as a human form as other Gods can be read elsewhere but I think the reason he is worshiped in stone is because he wants to convey to us that there is God in stone too. As the saying goes “Jitne kankar utne Shankar’ meaning “How many ever stones, those many Shivas’. If you can see God in a stone, then the message is you can see God in everything. Whether the Gods we worship are real or not is not my argument but the stories of our mythology have profound lessons that they are narrating to those who are willing to listen.
There is a great sense of relief when people believe in God because we accept that we are not the ones to control things, so we are not guilty of our failed efforts. We have something to hold on to when things go beyond our control, it’s kind of our ego being surrendered and developing humbleness. It warns you to not to do something wrong because there is a punisher who will look into it. Belief in God leads people to tread the right path. But the real question is, “Are we believing in God? Or the form of God?” The conflict of religious and cultural differences with respect to God arises only when our beliefs are tied with respect to the form of God but not with God itself. It is fine to associate God with a form because it is easy to imagine. Nevertheless, it would be better not to restrict ourself to forms but to see God in every other body and more importantly in ourselves. Wherever you encounter kindness, love, selflessness, you have encountered God. For the definition of God is simple ‘God = Goodness’.