I grew up a Buddhist. Or at least, they tried to make me one.
Growing up, it was interesting to see how my parents approached religion. My mother was zealous and by-the-book. Truly bad luck was attributed to karma. Poya days were inevitably spent at the temple. Monks were never to be argued with.
My father was the complete opposite. Sarcastic and irreverent, he had a deep dislike of all temples except the Saman Devalaya (and I suspect that was only because there was a priest there who could hold his own in an argument with him). All attempts to get him to the temple failed miserably; the only thing he did on Poya days was sleep. Nevertheless, he had a curious fascination for the corruptions of Buddhism – kapuwas, thoilas, the worship of the odd deities that every Buddhist in Sri Lanka runs into from time to time.
I had Christian friends and Muslim friends, of course. Whatever their schisms and denominations, they prayed to a single, all-powerful God. But growing up, I found all of these deeply dissatisfying. Karma seemed like a mathematical equation that nobody had solved. The Abrahamic God seemed like an excuse; the concept of a being so infinite is too far out of my ken. I could not understand why it would micromanage a bunch of humans on a dustball on the far edges of the galaxy.
And the kapuwas? Shamans. Bullshit peddlers out to make a buck.
What I was looking for, even though I didn’t know it, was not salvation, but a role model. Someone to live up to and look up to. I know that parents are supposed to be our role models, but parents are human too, and therefore inconsistent and fallible.
My search for gods first took me to the Romans and then to the Greeks. What a treasure! What a magnificent pantheon! Zeus, old, cunning, wary, lustful. Apollo, the all-too-perfect son. Hephaestus, inventor supreme, hated by all for his deformity. I was flung into a wealth of stories and mythology. I was instantly drawn to what I felt was a much richer tapestry. Here was an entire army of role models.**
I fancied Hephaestus. Like him, I had few friends, but he made important things nonetheless. I didn’t believe in him, but I made a habit of asking myself: what would Hephaestus do? It was easier to relate to than a giant beard in the sky or a cosmic equation. I never turned the other cheek. I simmered and got to work.
I eventually lost my interest in that pantheon and started reading up on the Egyptians, the Japanese, the (very colorful) Hindu pantheon. I eventually settled on the Norse – a mythology which contains, Odin, who hung himself from the cosmic tree to gain wisdom, wanderer, seeker of knowledge, breaker of laws, outcast, patron of rulers and outcasts alike; Tyr, the honorable, one-handed god of law, justice, oaths; Thor, the personification of brawn; and Loki, the ultimate trickster.
What I loved about the Norse gods was not their clearly defined roles, but their personalities. We all know an Odin – an unscrupulous, very smart loner. We all know a Thor – a guy who believes his fists will solve everything. If you’ve ever been to school, you’ll know at least one trickster.
Now, I’m not advocating any pantheon over the other, but this is what’s I feel is lacking in modern religions – at least the ones I was exposed to*. I was taught, by and large, to live by one set of codes, and to think of what this one figure might do in my stead. What would the Buddha advise? What would Jesus do?
The older I grew, and the surer I became of who I was and what I was like, the more certain I became that this was never going to work out. I am not Buddha. Or Jesus. Not even close. And I probably will never be. I don’t want to be. I want a different set of ideals to live up to. God in His (proposed) infinite power is not something I can relate to. I want more gods***. A little less powerful, a lot more human, and therefore a lot more real.
Do I believe that thunder is Thor striking his hammer? Or that Gaia (the Earth) emerged from the void and was fertilized by Uranus (the sky)? Not at all. I believe what science proves. The earth was not made in six days. Humans were not sculpted from clay. For me the gods have never been about how the world functioned.
Instead, it’s a question of what path I chose to follow in life. Instead of the Buddha or Jesus, I can now chose to ask myself: what would Odin do?
And in that choice lies all the difference.
*But even Greek mythos felt off, mostly because none of these gods were human enough to inspire. Hermes was the messenger, yes, but he also was a part-time prophet and inventor; not your god of marathon runners, then. Athena is wise and cunning in battle, but that overlaps with Ares’ job? Only Hades seemed reasonable; as God of the Underworld, he clearly disliked his job, but he took it very seriously, and he had a soft spot for musicians. The whole lot of them were too beautiful too perfect, and their job descriptions had too many overlaps.
**Note: I have next to no knowledge of the Hindu religion, a fact I very much regret. I’m yet to read the Bhagvad-Gita.
***It’s interesting to note that back in the day, more people subscribed to this wordview. Many of the old religions were polytheistic. Instead of a single overpowering God or karmic system, they had complex personalities with individual skills, needs, desires and histories.