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Religious observances

A trip to Goa, where Christianity and tourism together have created a climate in which alcoholic intoxication is far more visible than elsewhere in India, brings forth an unpopular and unfashionable opinion on the subject…

Living some of the time in the UK leaves no room for doubt that alcohol is the object of an almost religious devotion. Karl Marx may once have worried that religion might be the opium of the people, but in 21st-century Britain at least, the situation is clearly reversed: alcohol is the religion of the people – the entire British people, not just the working classes that Marx was concerned about. If there’s one characteristic that unites all income levels in the UK, it is a profound belief in the innate splendour and eternally salvational qualities of alcohol.

In the original sense of the word religion – to bind together again – drink is far more widely applied, and superficially far more effective in its way, than the communal worship of some transcendent entity ever was. Certainly, the British are exemplary in their devotions. Every evening after work, where the Hindu may dutifully call in at the temple to ring the bell and utter a prayer or two, the UK worker trots off to offer his or her libations, and gain relief from his worldly woes, at the long, shining altar of the nearest public house. (For an alternative and entirely harmless form of relief, why not visit the mandala galleries?)

Here, in the ritualistic intake of strange fuming and semi-poisonous liquids, lies the instant answer to all prayers – at least for an hour or two. As the mysterious, alchemical, temporary transformation of the being takes over, social differences can be forgotten, along with uncooperative colleagues, unpaid bills, blocked sinks and bulging waistlines. The world is suddenly a beautiful place, full of smiling faces in soft focus. After a while, it may elicit the odd blurry hymn of praise and even a shambling, wobbly dance of worship. Hey, let’s be merry – we have found a fast ride to heaven, and tomorrow we may die, or at least find ourselves back in hell again.

Without this regular act of worship, how intolerably dull and drear our lives would suddenly appear. Why would anyone deprive himself of the peerless presence of this divine liquid light source? There is no other god than this – all those wooden and marble ones have failed us, but this watery deity never fails to deliver.

And for those killjoys who choose not to partake in these religious rites, there is the threat of being branded a heretic. How dare they stand aside from the crowd, blind to the truth to which it bows down in such humble and unquestioning obeisance? What perverse spirit leads them to refuse to partake of the devotional elixir of life? Which alien doctrines must they be following? To which infidel faith do they belong? What right have they not to sacrifice themselves dutifully to this jealous and possessive god?

For there is sacrifice involved, of course: the payment of the exorbitant dues exacted by the temples for their sacred fare, the regular self-flagellation of the night and the morning after, the gradual clouding of the mind and poisoning of the body, and the occasional prostration and public humiliation when the god transports his worshippers a little beyond acceptable norms of behaviour. There are other hazards of the religious way of life, too – vomit-strewn night-time streets and the marked tendency to mindless violence among more fundamentalist devotees are two, although such drawbacks do not appear to deter the faithful from their beliefs.

Heretics may watch all these religious observances with some dismay, but when a religion becomes institutionalised, and its observances unthinking and habitual, there are some thoughts that also become unthinkable. In his early 20th-century novel, The Immoralist, French writer André Gide created an absolutely unconventional and somehow enlightened character, Ménalque.

Intriguingly, among the shunned and vilified Ménalque’s amoral and socially threatening behaviours is a wayward taste for sobriety. Sobriety, he declares, is, for him, ‘a more powerful form of intoxication, one where I retain my lucidity… I seek to heighten life, not diminish it through intoxication… I love life enough to prefer to live it awake.’

This honest and healthy attitude can only be expressed through the words of a dangerously heretical character. (The words accompanying the small mandala Inner eyes echo Ménalque’s views from a slightly different angle.) It is indeed beautiful to see the world with a clear and unclouded head – lucidity itself adds extra sparkle and crispness. (The mandalas of the Nature gallery reflect this bright, fresh vision.) Only then may all life’s absurdity and insanity, as well as its magic and mystery, stand revealed.

And if the magic and mystery of this world, right here right now in front of us, cannot be seen clearly and accepted in its totality, what hope is there of clarity in any of the worlds that might lie beyond this one? (Visit the Mind gallery for a few speculative glimpses into the beyond.) Cheers…

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