You would expect an event titled “Ask Me Anything (AMA) about Hinduism” to start with questions and answers.
Instead, participants were greeted with a mini cultural carnival at a hall in the Asian Civilisations Museum on 18 August.
About 100 people milled around booths decked out in Indian snacks like samosas, a corner carved out with eight mats laid out to practice the ancient Hindu discipline of Yoga, and a spot for participants to have their hands painted in the traditional earthy-red hues of henna.
It was a lively affair, with the steady hum of a mass of conversations often giving way to the staccato rhythm of Dhols, a traditional Indian double-sided drum.
It seemed odd at first blush. Where were the answers that were promised? Dig a little deeper though and you come to realise that the answer was already unfolding around you.
Gods, prophets, and scriptures may come to define the great religions of the world. But it is the simple human experience that forms the bedrock on which faith lives and thrives.
The AMA series was always about understanding - not proselytising or deciding which faith was “superior”. Given that Hindus make up only 5 per cent of Singapore’s population, chances are most Singaporeans have little to no sustained interaction with fellow citizens who profess the Hindu faith.
So what better way to start than to experience the faith as seen through the eyes of the faithful themselves? As event organiser Shahrany Hassan said at the beginning, the aim was to go beyond conversations.
After an hour, the participants settled down for the discussions segment. Here, participants were split into groups of about eight to ten.
Lead facilitator Farid Hamid had set the tone for everyone and said: “We are here to talk about our human experiences.”
To that end, participants shared the kind of values, attitudes and behaviours they wished to see on display during the discussions. This included compassion, being open minded, humility, and respecting confidentiality among others.
In line with the view to understand human experiences and not get bogged down with jargon, the group discussions focused on sharing of personal views and experiences.
Of the many views shared, two stood out.
A 17-year-old student spoke about what devotion meant to him. There were three levels, said the young man. First, was the simple motivation to do something, second is to be focused. The height of devotion however is to be in a trance-like state.
For a lady in his group though, it was the act of questioning itself that exemplified devotion - quite contrary to a “trance-like state”. Another group member echoed the view. Religion is actually a space to “nurture” and explore the doubts.
The sharing of personal views and experiences, coupled with the mini-carnival earlier primed the participants for the final session of the day, the question and answer segment.
The panel was helmed by three practitioners of the Hindu faith.
Ranganayaki Thangavelu (Ranga) volunteers at a Human Values Education programme for children. Ranga co-leads a local Voluntary Welfare Organisation that focuses on community based work with children, youth and families from less privileged backgrounds.
Anand Chandrasekhar is a social science researcher working in the area of leadership development. He has been a student of the Bhagavad Gita since childhood and volunteers with various Hindu organizations conducting classes on Hinduism for children, youth and adults.
Shivanand Rai (Shiva) is a management consultant but has been actively volunteering with various Hindu organizations since he was 16-years-old.
The moderator Wei Fen Lee, is a business anthropologist and ethnographer who specializes in South and Southeast Asian cultures. She has spent more than a decade studying Indian culture and religion through an academic and market research lens.
The toughest question was about caste and colourism. Why was it still an issue?
To Ranga, it was simple: The disdain for dark skin is just to make money off whitening creams. She said that “current social norms are not representative of Hinduism”. Shiva added that all the Hindu Gods are “black and beautiful”, so how can the faith itself be colourist?
As for the caste system, Shiva asked how many in the audience shook hands with a construction worker or a cleaner in the past week. When no one raised their hands, Shiva
added: “No one? Scary isn't it. There is an undercurrent from not interacting with some people?”
Different people do different work and contribute in various ways. “We should live together” and function as a unit, said Shiva. Problems arise when people make it a hierarchy and judge each other.
Someone asked if a non-Hindu was to die, did it mean he or she would not be at peace? Anand said simply that a non-Hindu does not automatically be in hell forever. “It does not work this way,” he said. Added Wei Fen: “It’s the openness of perspective is what I like about Hinduism.”
Another participant picked up on that and asked if the open-ness of Hinduism led to differences with regards to how religious texts should be interpreted.
It’s a “very important question” said Anand. The fundamental holy texts called the Vedas were interpreted through a process of dialogue. There is even a branch of Veda which states that there is no god. Different interpretations do arise, depending on “your relationship with God”, added Anand.
This led to a question on whether Hinduism is a monotheistic or polytheistic faith. Anand said that “God is one”, but for the faithful it is “hard and abstract” to interact without visualising a form and so different people give different forms to help them relate to the divine.
Which is why, added Shiva, just as nature is diverse, so are the various expressions of manifestations of God. He asked: “Are we saying that any drop of water is separate from the ocean? At the end of the day when you think about billions of years, a human concept of polytheism and monotheism, does it really matter?”
Other questions were raised too, on karma, rebirth, enlightenment and so on, but the common thread running through it all was the understanding that there are many interpretations of the divine.
As Ranga said, “if your belief is not on this reasoning, then so be it”. In other words, live and let live, and partake in the shared human experience.