Lavina Melwani

Faith in a higher power infiltrates all of life in India. When things are tough or challenging, you see God is at every corner. There are countless ways spirituality merges into all aspects of life from small roadside shrines to massive temples; how nothing begins without the invocation to Ganesha, be it a new store, a new film or just a school examination. There is a puja or prayer ritual for every joyous occasion, from the birth of a child to a new job to settling into a new house. There's even a puja to bless a newly acquired car, with flowers, incense and a priest!

Since life in urban India is lived out in the open with multitudes in close proximity, you often get to see these interactions first-hand. Every small temple has just so many visitors, laden with garlands and fruits. Alongside each temple sprout up flower, food and sweets stalls.

There is so much belief in the power of the Almighty that Gods play a civic watch dog role too: as cleanliness inspectors! The ideal way to discourage people from throwing garbage in a public location is to paint Lakshmi or Ganesh on the walls. The space immediately becomes sacred, ultra-clean, a space for worship!

Ganesha, the Lord of Good Beginnings, sits on the dashboard of many a car and symbolically steers the wheel. I have seen many drivers fold their hands in prayer before beginning a driving journey. In fact, huge trucks which regularly ply the frenetic highways have colorful images and names of God painted on them. Even the smallest auto-rickshaw has a makeshift shrine on the dashboard. After all, what can be better than having God on your side, a combination of infallible driving instructor and guardian angel?

Driving through towns and cities, I am always amazed to see the number of small roadside businesses and eateries which have the name of God embedded in the name of the business. Sai, Krishna, Ganesha, Shiva, Lakshmi and Sri Ram are all popular invisible partners in these businesses - now who wouldn't trust enterprises with a name like Krishna Bank or Ganesh Groceries? Google 'Shiva Restaurant' and you get 621,000 results! Ganesh Group gets over 706,000 results. No wonder the day doesn't begin at these businesses without the lighting of incense, invoking the blessings of the deity.

Weddings are of course big on divine blessings and Hindu rituals invite all 300,000 Gods and Goddesses to bear witness and bless the couple. Every region has its own intricate wedding rituals and favorite Gods are invoked in different regions of India. There are also temple visits by the couple, feeding of the poor and rituals (hawans and kathas) at home - all to connect with the Divine Power. Ganesha is the favorite at weddings and most Hindu wedding invitation cards will have his image embossed on them.

Major Hindu festivals are a parade of the power of belief as hundreds of thousands gather to celebrate these auspicious days. On Ganesh Chaturthi, the 10-day celebration of Ganesh's birth, entire cities are involved. On the last and final day, they carry small and big images of Ganesha to immerse them in the ocean and to bid him farewell. There is just so much love and devotion and children often have their own small Ganeshas to worship. For Hindus, God is not someone sitting far away in the sky - he is within them, and a friend. Many have an intimate relationship with Ganesha, even creating images of Ganesha playing cricket or in the image of a Superhero. The love and devotion that they feel is expressed in these forms of art and decor.

Janamasthmi is the birth celebration of Sri Krishna and it celebrated with as much joy as a family members. Temples are decorated and illuminated, and thousands of devotees spend the day fasting and chanting. A decorated crib is the center of their attention and when it's past midnight, the veils are removed to show the Baby Krishna. Huge celebrations and feasting follow.

Of course the one day where faith is proclaimed in lights and with amazing firework displays is Diwali, the Festival of Lights, a joyous celebration of the return of Prince Rama from a 14-year banishment to the jungles by his stepmother. His return and victory over the demon Ravana is proclaimed with festivities, food and lights. The festival is celebrated for three days and all work shuts down as the masses celebrate the triumph of good over evil.

Faith, however, is a daily part of life which begins with a special routine for each individual. One person may begin the day with early morning meditations; another might pick marigolds from the garden to place in the home shrine; another may choose a quick visit to a temple before work; yet another may stop at a roadside shrine with urban chaos all around. I have seen others begin their day on the waterfront, by feeding the pigeons and the fish, as an act of devotion to God. Some people make silent chanting a part of their commute, others may read a sacred text. For many the belief in a higher power is entwined with their daily lives.

Indeed, the power of belief works everywhere - from street-side vendors to a Clean India campaign to even major hospitals. In these interactions between man and God, even a cancer patient finds a way to connect one-on-one with God. On a recent visit to the ultra-modern Medanta Hospital in New Delhi, I saw that in the large lobby there was an entire wall strung with prayer threads. The afflicted and their friends and families could each pick up a thread from a large bowl which had the inscription 'Every life is Priceless'. They say a silent prayer and then tie their sacred thread on the wall, next to hundreds of others. One can see that even a highly modern hospital, the epicenter of science and technology, recognizes that belief is all-powerful, sending out positive vibes. For patients to heal and recover, prayers and God's help are vital.

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