Sometimes I wonder what it would take to cause me to doubt my religious beliefs, or break the observances I hold so dear. As a religious convert, I’m probably a bit more enthusiastic about religious observances than most, a badge I wear with pride and no small amount of self-deprecation. Generally, once I learn about a particular principle or observance in my faith, I embrace it wholeheartedly and expect that I will never break it. Over the two years since I first started seriously following Hindu practices, however, I’ve found myself comfortable with quite a bit of flexibility in my observances. I’ve come to believe that the intention, motive, and spirit of an action is more important than its appearance or even outcome. At home, I will help my parents cook a non-vegetarian dinner when ordinarily I wouldn’t go near such food with a ten-foot pole. If I’m sick (or on a deadline) I will sleep through my normal morning worship. And I’ll even break fast days, very important signs of faith and commitment in my tradition, if my love and gratitude for God will be deepened through it.
This January, I spent a week in Paris on a choir tour. It was a challenging and intense experience: long rehearsal hours and daily concerts, constant chill, constant tiredness, constant mild hunger (as a vegan, my diet consisted mainly of bread and apples), and profoundly affecting hours spent wandering through the spirit-imbued cathedrals and historic sites of Paris. I felt blessed to be able to spend so much time diving into sacred spaces, exploring history-made-3D, history just on the other side of the tangible, especially when I was undergoing austerities and thus much more open to the depth of these experiences.
The first day of the trip happened to be ekadasi, setting the mood for the whole experience. In the Vaishnav tradition, one fasts from grains and pulses on ekadasi and focuses on prayer, worship, and religious study. It was also a day packed with activity for us. We landed in Paris early that morning after a sleepless red-eye, made the long journey to our various hostels, and had a free afternoon to explore. We were staying in the Latin Quarter of Paris, home to the Pantheon, Notre Dame, and a variety of famous universities including the Sorbonne. It was quite incredible to wander through the Pantheon, a monument to human endeavor from the Enlightenment era, and sit in prayer at Notre Dame. Our rehearsal that evening was at Saint-Severin, an ancient Gothic church. Saint-Severin remains one of my favorite Parisian churches. Its low, broad structure and thick stone pillars feel very earthy to me and speak of a deep reverence for a mystical Divine. By the end of the evening we were all pretty exhausted, hungry, and chilled to the bone – not to mention jet-lagged. Eventually the small contingent of vegetarians in the choir made our way to Le Grenier (“attic”) de Notre Dame, a very European vegetarian restaurant blocks away from the Notre Dame.
By this time I was so tired and awestruck that my mood had completely mellowed and nearly flatlined. I’m normally pretty mellow, but even so my colleagues were somewhat concerned – especially when they found out that I’d been fasting since we’d left New York the night before. At some point, I began to wonder whether my mellow mood was in response to feeling God’s grace at so many points during the day or simply low blood sugar. Given the concern of my colleagues and the arduous days ahead, it made more sense to take some dinner than to leave myself in a completely exhausted state the following morning, a two-concert day. I realized that it would show more gratitude to God to take food and be able to maintain worship late into the night than to forget Him in an exhausted collapse.
That was the first time I’d broken ekadasi intentionally. Though the food was pretty tasteless by American standards, after humbly offering it mentally I found myself savoring every bite as truly Krishna’s prasad, or mercy, and feeling tremendously grateful for all the wonderful experiences of the day. I perked up pretty quickly and enjoyed talking with colleagues about our experiences that day and our hopes for the rest of our tour. That evening I spent about an hour reading about Krishna’s pastimes before I slept, and the next day I was incredibly energized to sing and see all I could.
While normally I follow religious observances pretty strictly, I don’t regret breaking ekadasi in Paris. I felt more able to express gratitude and reverence for God by taking food that evening. Under circumstances of illness, travel, or consideration for loved ones, one should feel able to set aside the letter of religious regulations if doing so will increase one’s ability to express gratitude, compassion, and humility. Does this make me a bad devotee? Probably not – though it’s arguable whether I’m a good devotee to begin with. When a young Vaishnava asked his guru Srila Prabhupada what would happen if he broke certain vows, Srila Prabhupada was shocked. “There’s no question of breaking your vows,” he said. Similarly, a friend recently recounted to me that at his brahmin initiation, his guru said that breaking vows would be shaming the entire parampara, lineage of teachers. It’s a difficult contradiction, certainly. I can personally wiggle out of it as a non-initiated follower, but I still hold that under contingencies the spirit of an observance is more important than the action.
In the Qur’an it is allowed for Muslims to pray only three times a day while traveling, though normally the five daily prayers must be maintained quite strictly. One of the major teachings about the nature of God in Islam is that He will expect of a man the utmost he can do in his duties (religious and material), but that He will not ask more of anyone than he can give. In a sense, God makes it easy for us to approach Him; He expects us to live our full potential and does not place any burden on us of further demands.
In our daily lives, it’s often difficult to meet the demands of our various responsibilities in work, family life, our communities, and our religious observances and spiritual practices. It’s important to do our best to live up to the responsibilities we have accepted. Beyond anything else, however, God wants our love. Our greatest responsibility, then, is to act in such a way as to deepen our humility, reverence, and compassion. And sometimes this means breaking rules.
Also published in the Princeton Journal of Religious Life, Spring 2012 edition.