I was brought up in a religious household. My parents were both passionately god-loving and innocently spiritual. They would resort to cultural practices even in their everyday activities. No haircuts on Tuesdays; fast one day a month, sometimes three, as a prayer for one of the thousand gods they prayed to; leave the house for important things only at auspicious times in the day; never put books or papers at the foot of the bed where you usually put your feet; and the list can go on spanning an entire day, week, month, and our lifetimes. These practices were so ancient that the reasons behind them were buried in eons of retelling and polishing. There were also so many, that even as inquisitive children we would tire of asking about every single move.
On the same scale, my household would also teem with notions of science and math and technology. Every new technological advancement would be incorporated. The Science and Technology section of the daily newspaper The Hindu, would be fought over. My grandfather, who used to live with us, would cut out biotechnology sections from the newspaper for me to read after school. My father would sit with me and solve my quadratic equations. My mom would draw parallels with chemistry in the kitchen.
Religion, culture, and science co-existed. Childbirth was considered sacred, but no fetus was as sacred as the health and needs of the mother. There was no shying away from allopathy when it eased discomfort. Religion and culture decided our everyday functionality while science orchestrated our lives at large. Marrying for love, or marrying outside of my culture was taboo, but freedom of expression was encouraged as was original thought. Grades were important and careers even more so, but creativity and adaptability were applauded. My parents would rush us kids to the hospital for a tetanus shot when we grazed our knees or skinned our elbows, even as in transit my mother would lament that we wouldn’t have hurt ourselves in the first place if only we had left the house at the auspicious time and not the evil hour. Somehow, ideologies managed to coexist. I don’t have another childhood to compare this to, and there were likely a lot of times when I rolled my eyes at religious rules and even downright loathed them, but I can’t help but think that having experienced this, I am a more inclusive person today.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said “God is dead… And we have killed him.” That is true for me. Somewhere down the road, I decided I cannot keep up with all the rules, that they do not serve me in the life I now live, and just gave them up one by one, gradually. I don’t pray anymore. I don’t have a clue of what hour is auspicious and what evil. I cut my hair whenever there’s an appointment available. There is but a shadow of that religious upbringing that lives with me – dark, weightless, and hidden away – having shaped me, it has lost its solidity. But those were my formative years. That amalgam is the foundation of what I am today. Would I have been better if my childhood was devoid of the religious notions and cultural practices? Would I have turned out any worse if my family didn’t believe in science at all? Being a scientist now, I want the answers to both questions to be affirmative. But also, as a scientist, I have to acknowledge that they each played their own significant roles. One of them just had to become a shadow.