In Pursuit Of The Supreme Being
I was confused while growing up about many things; I did not know what I wanted to be. I’m not sure if I even had a clue about life and life’s most significant problems in my teen years. However, I was least confused about the concept of God growing up. I saw my parents making their daily offerings to the dozen or so deities — some small statues and some pictures, all smudged in yellow and red colors. They were all placed on a small altar made out of a decrepit yellow stool. We were living in a house less than 400 sq meters in size at the time. The kitchen, bedroom, living room, and half-bathroom were all welded together in a tiny apartment. My father started his day off by reciting the mantras he learned from in his childhood — offering oblations to Vishnu (Protector), Shiva (Destroyer), Krishna (One of Vishnu’s incarnations), Brahma (Creator), Lakshmi (Goddess for Wealth), Saraswathi (Goddess for Education), Ganesha (God for Good Luck), Hanuman (Monkey God), Balaji (God for Success in the material world), and a few other gods and demi-gods. My mother explained on a peculiarly calm Sunday while making dosa batter on a stone-ground mill that each God needs to be praised every day, and they need to be offered water, food, and clothing (cotton) daily to please them. She further elaborated that not doing so will disrespect the Gods and punish us — sometimes in this life, and sometimes in afterlives. I think I was in my first grade when I got a hold of this book of mantras and memorized them and followed his footsteps of morning prayers for a few decades after this dialogue. My household was not unique regarding this; almost every Hindu I know starts their day by making prayers, offering oblations, and making wishes to the deities.
On some special occasions, especially the day of my final exams or critical dates that required God’s ‘intervention,’ I used to make special trips to temples. I remembered visiting the Hanuman (Monkey God) temple on the Sharjah Cup finals in 1986 when I was 11 years old. India was about to compete with our arch-rival Pakistan on this fateful day, and I wanted all the gods to support India’s cricket team this day. My mother advised me to offer three coconuts and seven incense sticks for good luck and make 108 pradakshinas (circumambulations) around the temple. I had a feeling my wishes would not come true when I realized my chappal (sandals) were stolen when I finished my rituals. Things got worse when I reached home, and my mother chastised me for not just picking up another pair of chappal instead of coming home barefooted. She explained this is the ‘cycle of karma’ from her minimal understanding of this topic. Javed Miandad, the Pakistan batsman, hit a sixer (the equivalent of a home run in cricket) in the last ball (pitch) of the match, and this seemingly impossible outcome defeated the Indian team. I cried myself to sleep that night and woke up with nightmares of this fateful moment even after a month. My older brother kept teasing me on why I brought terrible luck (Shani, one of the planets that bring bad luck, to be precise) to our team, which did not help my immature, toddler-like spirits. Though I felt like it a few times, I never directly questioned Hanuman, the “monkey god,” on why he took my coconuts and did not deliver on my wishes. I remember standing at the altar and inquiring the priest on whether I can get my coconuts and incense sticks back. The half-naked, young priest, who was wearing his saffron dhoti — shooed me away rudely, yelling profanities while reciting his supposedly sacred Vedic mantras.
I started exploring supreme beings from other religions in my teenage years, and this was not very hard as I went to a Catholic day school — Roch Memorial High School. We started our days making Christian prayers, and we had a massive Lady of Health Church in the middle of the school playgrounds. I visited the church as extra insurance on critical days, like attending the state-wide elocution competition that I desperately wanted to win in my middle school years. I observed the visitors around me to learn the proper way to make offerings at the church. I lit the candles, kneeled in front of the altar, and made a cross by touching my forehead, two shoulders, and the navel with my right hand. This was natural for me; I never really worried about different faiths or varying practices. I just wanted someone to listen to my prayers at this age — I did not care whether it was Ganesha, Krishna, Shiva, Hanuman, or Jesus Christ. I just wanted to make sure I won the competition. Despite all my preparation and offerings, I did not place in the competition I cared deeply about. As I grew older, I stopped worrying about seeking refunds at the temples and churches and started accepting my “fate.” My mother tried to console me with her version of stoic philosophy in her sing-along melodic tune: “What is supposed to happen, will happen! What’s not supposed to happen will not happen!” I know this was supposed to calm me down, but I hated the idea that I did everything I could, but I still had to deal with things outside of my control like fate, destiny, and gods (and their moods). It was all too much to handle for an immature middle school kid like me, just trying to fit in.
My childhood obsession with supreme beings only became stronger as I grew up. At one of the religious gatherings during my high school career, a Swamiji explicitly advised that rituals are just a tiny part of being a good devotee. He suggested that I fast weekly, put a bottu (red dot) on my forehead daily, eat only a vegetarian diet, and be celibate until I get married. I had just hit puberty at this time, and I remember one of the Swamiji’s overzealous disciples whispering in my ears — “celibacy: in mind, body, AND spirit. Remember!” or something like that. I was working hard to realize my dream of becoming a doctor at this time, and I had little time for anything else. Most of the days, I studied for over 15 hours a day, sleeping less than 3 hours a night. Regardless of how much effort I was putting in, I wanted to make sure that the gods were happy with me, so I prayed daily, fasted biweekly, and visited temples weekly. I was not the smartest person in my classroom, but I was always in the top 5% of my class rankings. However, to become a doctor in my birth caste, I needed to place in the top 0.01% of the applicants taking the common entrance exam (EAMCET). I missed this position by a fraction of a point and ended up joining the pharmacy school instead. I eventually learned to credit all my successes to the gods and attribute all the failures to my shortcomings, fate, and failure to meet the gods’ expectations.
I came to the United States at age twenty-three, and for some unexplained reason, my religious fervor only grew stronger after coming to the nation with very few Hindus. I visited temples, even fortune-tellers, and priests who only took pride in selling out talismans and signing me up for expensive yagnas, preying upon naive fortune seekers like me. I could not understand how we can subscribe to concepts like fate and karma and still seek to avert these predetermined consequences by tying threads to our hands or wearing necklaces with cheap pendants on them for luck. I have seen many cardiologists, scientists working in NASA, and tech-savvy CEOs wearing these devices along with rickshaw wallahs, produce vendors, and beggars. For some reason, even my understanding of the infinite universe, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, organic chemistry, space-time continuum, and string theory did not come to my rescue against these charlatans selling useless threads in the name of the gods. I kept convincing myself that if a billion people worldwide were subscribed to this idea, I should agree and abide by such rituals. However, the older I grew, the more suspicious I became. This pushed me back into more rituals, more prayers, more fastings, more temples, more talismans, and more yagnas. The vicious predatory cycle continued until I met a Vaishnav monk.
I met Mitra (Mark) on a fateful 30-degree winter day in Clemmons, North Carolina, in 2005. It was freezing out there that day, and I ran out to get some formula for Varoon, my son — who was about a year old at that time. Mitra is a Caucasian man; he was clad in a white Kurta and white dhoti in the middle of a Walmart parking lot. He approached the people walking into the store with a smile and offered to give out Bhagavadgitas at no cost. Some people were ignoring him, and some were moving away from him as though he had leprosy. As I walked towards him, I saw an indelible smile on his face, regardless of what profanities the people were yelling at him. I could not resist understanding this smile and the underlying fortitude. I walked to him, accepted his Gita, and gave him $20 as a donation. Unfortunately, that’s all the money I had in my wallet. When I inquired on the source of his strength and how he could withstand cold weather and frozen hearts, he explained with a smile that for every 100 jeers, he gets one smile (and a good donation), and that’s worth his time. I later realized that the entire ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness) was founded on the practice of book distribution. Book distribution allows this society to create awareness, generate revenues, and attract new members.
Though I was born Hindu, I never read Bhagavadgita. Frankly, I never saw a hard copy of this book in the first thirty-plus years of my life. We were going through some very turbulent times at home during this time. I felt like Krishna was the answer I was looking for all these years. According to Vaishnavs, Krishna was the Supreme Being, and all the demi-gods just reported to him. Vaishnavs also subscribed to the philosophy that life on earth is a purgatory and the real-life is in the heavens. Krishna devotees could live in eternal bliss after death in the abode of the Supreme Being if they lived disciplined, Krishna-conscious lives on earth. I was going through intense turmoil at home and extreme stress at work to manage multiple high-priority projects. Taking abode in a supreme being and agreeing that this misery would lead me to a great afterlife was probably the only thing that kept me alive during this time.
In 2016, I was at a crossroads on personal and professional fronts. My 15-year marriage all but collapsed and was heading rapidly towards a divorce. Varoon, a 12-year-old boy at that time, was trying to wrestle between basketball, puberty, and the new family dynamics of split parenting. Veda, our 9-year-old daughter, was missing her mother and trying to make sense of it all. I was trying to figure out how to run a company in financial distress and balance out my responsibilities as a single parent at the same time. I felt like I was doing a terrible job as CEO and failing both my kids, living with a constant sense of guilt and remorse on all the decisions I could have made better, and all the ways I could have been a better spouse, father, and entrepreneur. During this challenging time, I tried to find solace in my religion. I tried to shut down any feelings of self-doubt by meditating more. I tried to overcome any ideas of guilt by fasting for more extended periods. I searched for the Supreme Being by reading Bhagavadgita, Upanishads, and Vedas, and the more I read, the more confused I became.
I convinced myself in 2017 that the only way I could clear my confusion about religion is by immersing myself completely in it. I decided to get initiated as a Vaishnav. I followed the advice Mitra’s wife, Maharha, gave me to join her congregation under her spiritual master. I was initiated a few months after Trump took his oath of office. I subscribed to a strict Vaishnav diet (vegetarian food with minimal spices and no garlic and onion). I followed Ekadashi rituals on every eleventh day of the two lunar cycles of the month — abstaining from eating grains and fasting more. I brought home deities of Krishna and Radha and performed Abhisheks (oblations) every morning and evening. I learned mantras, read scriptures, and performed meditations. I chanted the prescribed Hare Krishna mantra 108 times, 12 times a day. I followed all my prescribed rituals, yet the doubts only increased exponentially.
Every time I read the sacred book, Srimad Bhagavatham, which was supposed to be orated by the Supreme God himself, my skepticism only increased. There were contradictions in every other stanza of some of the scriptures. I wanted to switch to the source of all Hindu books, the four Vedas (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharvana Veda). I purchased a translation on Amazon and started trying to make sense of the original scriptures. The more I read, the more I realized that Vedas were filled with misogynistic customs, hedonistic verses, and unacceptable ceremonies that led to human sacrifices until the early 1900s, Sati rituals (burning of widows in husband’s pyre), racism, and significantly worse beliefs beyond the comprehension of humanity.
To make things worse, I felt like Vaishnavism confused me more than Hinduism, as people were still petty despite the outwardly saint-like appearance. There were unnecessary squabbles between different temples, political strife between overzealous members within a small congregation, and worse. Probably the straw that broke the back of my faith was the constant pursuit of donations. I was in a financially vulnerable position and emotionally distraught as well during this time. I felt obligated to pay at least $500 a month to my temple because of the constant calls from my spiritual master and some of his trusted advisors. I tried to attend weekly calls with my congregation, and the more I learned, the more I felt out of place in my new family. I was in pursuit of answers, and for Vaishnavas, Krishna is the answer for all questions. It is no different than other organized religions.
I am not sure if my gradual disenfranchisement of organized religion led to my immersion in philosophy or if it was the other way around. Regardless of how I arrived at it, I dabbled in philosophy and different philosophers during the year 2019. I spent hours listening to School of Life YouTube videos on different philosophies shaping our understanding of the human race. I was enamored by Plato’s “world of forms” at first but quickly realized the simplicity of such a hypothesis. Kant, Descartes, Camus, Socrates, Seneca — I listened to the segments about them, read books, and made notes on each. My big questions on the existence of God and our purpose in life were answered only when I stumbled upon two eccentric and often misunderstood philosophers — Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Philosophy is not without contradictions and conflicting viewpoints. See the following excerpt on existential philosophy vs. essentialist philosophy, for example:
The existentialist worldview proposes that our life has no predefined purpose; we merely exist. The upside of this take is that we have free will to determine not only our fates, but our personality, values, and worldview. Nothing is decided for us. The essentialist worldview claims that there is an “essence” to our being, an aspect of ourselves that precedes our birth and plays a role in determining our future.
It is true that most philosophers don’t agree with each other. However, since these are just viewpoints and not “words of god,” we can choose our path based on our own interpretation and internal belief systems, and core values.
One of the concepts I struggled with during many experiments with Hinduism and Vaishnavism is the presence of anthropomorphic gods. Hinduism has integrated some animals into god forms — Ganesha (diety with elephant head), Narasimha (diety with lion head), Kali (diety with a horse head), and Hanuman (diety with monkey head); however — all these forms have human bodies, clothing, and jewelry. Vishnu’s Dashavataras (10 incarnations) include Matsya (Fish), Kurma (Turtle), Varaha (Pig), Narasimha (lion), and Kalki (Centaur) forms. However, they are all anthropomorphized. When the supreme being created the entire universe, with all the galaxies, black holes, milky ways, stars, planets, asteroids, oceans, mountains, plants, animals, and microbes, I struggled with the idea that this supreme being should be in a human form. That’s the fundamental premise of the Krishna consciousness philosophy. I fervently believe that if the construct of a supreme being is real, all beings — living and non-living alike — will subscribe to this faith. If such a being has to be respected by all living entities, it cannot present with a human form. Imagine an ant praying to a higher power. It will probably perform rituals to a supreme being that looks like an ant. The same applies if dogs, goats, sharks, and cows believed in a supreme being. They will see the supreme being in their form, not some foreign being (aka human). This realization made me subscribe to Arthur Schopenhauer’s pantheist god.
I heard on one of the audio segments that Schopenhauer fervently believed that god cannot have any emotions. From what I could surmise, he came to a realization that the anthropomorphic god that most organized religions believe in cannot fit the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent qualities we ascribe to the supreme being. In short, Schopenhauer believed in a pantheistic god, which closely resembled nature itself. Nature is omnipresent (present everywhere), Nature is omnipotent (has all the power), Nature is omnibenevolent (treats everyone the same), and for all we know, Nature is omniscient too (it knows everything). Should we even seek some mythical, extraterrestrial, supernatural form when the god is all around us? For me, the answer was obviously simple. I decided to dump (at least secretly) all my assumptions about the supreme being and accepted nature itself as my god. I did not make such a radical departure from faith transparent to everyone — not until I met Freidrich Nietzsche’s writings on the übermensch.
The more I understood the fallacies of the ritualistic god that I subscribed to since childhood, the more emboldened I became to stop the rituals, offerings, and oblations altogether. However, I was afraid to share this departure from the faith with my parents and loved ones. In fact, I pretended to be a good Hindu by performing sacred rituals on festival days. I continued to play the role of a good Vaishnav and offer half-hearted oblations to the deities. All of this changed when I learned about Nietzsche’s prescription for becoming an übermensch in one of my philosophical readings. Contrary to Schopenhauer’s position that all humans are doomed to lose under the influence of Will to Life, Nietzsche believed that some humans can rise above the common man (junta) by using their sheer Will to Power. Nietzsche called these humans übermensch (overman or superman). However, the path to such rise required serious courage to break out of the camel phase (the phase where we accept all beliefs, rituals, and assumptions pushed down from our parents and forefathers), and then fight off the Lion phase (a phase where we want to argue with everyone and try to convince them why we are right and they are wrong), and ultimately reach the child state (this phase is the stage of fearless creativity with infinite willpower). Nietzsche called the child state the übermensch (superman). As soon as I understood this, albeit superficially, I knew exactly what I had to do to make the final transformation in my pursuit of the supreme being.
I explained to my parents that I was no longer a practicing Hindu, and they did not know what to think of it. While they did not question my decision, they probably assumed this was just a phase as I had been trying a few experiments with my faith for the past few years. They did not try to change my mind like I thought they would; they respected my decision. I explained to Mitra that I had lost faith and returned the deities to devotees who can take better care of them. I discussed my transformation with Varoon and Veda, who were now 15 and 12, respectively, only to realize that they were both in similar phases of their journey. Varoon is a self-proclaimed agnostic, while Veda is an unabashed atheist, and they are both übermensch as they don’t really worry about what others think of their position regarding religion. They defend their position if they have to, but they are not trying to change anyone else’s belief in their version of a supreme being.
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? …”
“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss…”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
The last year or so of being untethered from an external supreme being has been quite liberating, to say the least. I stopped worrying about fate, destiny, karma, gods and their moods, and other concepts outside of my control and started focusing on my inner self. I decided to adopt my moral code, which resembles Kant’s Categorical Imperative, especially the universal principle (act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law). While Kant’s foundations for the universal law were based on theological principles, I have no problem accepting this as my approach towards the world. I don’t believe in heaven or hell anymore, I don’t believe in Karma and fate anymore, but I do believe in doing the right thing, regardless of the consequences and regardless of who is looking or not. At least, that’s where I am in my journey. I am pretty sure this will be tested in the coming days, and I will continue to evolve as a result of this pursuit.
So, who is the supreme being, exactly? You are! According to Nietzsche, übermensch is in all of us. We just need to begin the process of finding ourselves by overcoming the beast and reaching the overman, by passing over the abyss. How do we do this overcoming is entirely up to each and every one of us.