That said, for people leading simple lives in poverty or other kinds of difficulty, I can see that religious beliefs might be a source of hope. The evidence of people’s eyes may be that such hope is seldom fulfilled, but on the other side we have both fear and the hefty weight of tradition which usually tip the scale towards irrational, mystical belief. As the lottery marketers would say, you have to be in it to win it (even though nearly all of you won’t).
For the last ten days we have been in Nepal. It is an extraordinary country and the experience has been at times overwhelming. The madness of Kathmandu’s traffic—cars, motorbikes, cycles, rickshaws, pedestrians and cows all hurrying along the same narrow, unmade, littered streets with no sign of any highway code except perhaps for a slight preference for proceeding on the left—leaves us breathless (almost literally, considering the dust). Then there’s the Stygian scene at the ghats on the river where families come to dip the feet of their dead relatives in the filthy water before cremating their bodies on open wooden pyres. The city’s ancient buildings are beautiful, the temples impressive, the views of the Himalayas humbling. And through all this we are charmed by the open, welcoming, friendly, cheerful Nepali people, surely one of the jolliest crowds of folk you could meet anywhere.
Yet Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia and Kathmandu one of its least developed cities. The cheeriness cannot come from any rational assessment of the situation. The people we speak to are unanimously gloomy about the country’s political and economic prospects. Corruption is rife and the landlocked country is squeezed (economically and, geologically, quite literally) between its two thrusting neighbours, India and China. In the region’s sprint to prosperity, somehow Nepal is getting left behind.
There’s a lot of religion in Nepal. All the major brands are represented. Indeed, as the location of the most likely of Buddha’s birthplaces, the country can claim a role in inventing at least one of them. Everywhere we look there is a temple or a shrine, sometimes huge but often no bigger than a rabbit-hutch. Everywhere people are ringing bells, lighting candles, offering sacrifices and saying prayers.
I have no doubt that praying to a favoured deity serves some positive purpose for the person saying the prayers. It makes them think, perhaps, that they’re doing something positive to improve their situation and this no doubt can provide satisfaction and solace.
But on the minus side, it must be remembered that praying involves a bit of effort. If you’re going to do it properly it takes time and you also actually have to say stuff, even if it’s only in your head.
In Nepal, they’re aware of this slight snag and have invented the prayer wheel to streamline the process. A prayer wheel, which might better have been named a prayer drum, is a vertical cylinder, mounted on a spindle, containing a mantra written on a coiled bit of paper. When you spin the wheel, the words inside are supposed to be scanned by the deity in some magic way and thus are deemed to have been delivered, all in a fraction of the time it would have taken you to say the prayer yourself. You don’t even need to know the words.
Mrs Pobaan is not impressed with this high-tech praying apparatus. She likes her washing machine and cannot imagine a car without electric windows but, when it comes to praying, she favours the manual methods that are still universal in Thailand. ‘No pain, no gain’ is her motto.
‘If you actually say the prayer, it shows it comes from the heart,’ she argues. To her way of thinking, spinning a wheel doesn’t demonstrate to an observant deity the same commitment. Mrs Pobaan’s eyes have become moist, showing this to be an issue of considerable importance.
But if the temples’ labour-saving prayer wheels attract Mrs Pobaan’s disapproval, she is almost speechless with disdain when we encounter Nepal’s ultimate auto-incantation device, the solar-powered prayer wheel.
These machines take praying convenience to the max. Widely available wherever you go, you pop one of these gadgets on your sunny windowsill or glue it to your car dashboard and it will happily spin all day. Powered by the sun, it will recite the prayer you’re too busy to incant and, if the salesmen are to be believed, all the available luck, preference and merit will be credited to your mystical account. This is E-Z-prayer, designed for the modern man on the go.
Arguments in favour of particular religious practices are often convoluted, but I reckon new lows would need to be plumbed to justify such paraphernalia as the solar-powered prayer wheel as having any function but to gather dust on your mantelpiece.
Let’s consider what’s going on here. You purchase one of these shiny plastic devices, set it going and forget it as you rush about your hectic life. Back home, light from the sun (presumably created by a divine being) falls on the small solar panel. There it makes electricity which turns a cylinder containing a printed prayer, addressed and thus delivered to the deity.
Your presence isn’t required. As you tend to your rice harvest or hang out with your friends, the deity makes the wheel go round and is bombarded with the prayers it generates. The middleman has been neatly removed from the process, except of course as the recipient of all the good luck produced by the working of the machine.
Frankly, if I were God, I’d want to see a bit more effort before I bestowed my favours. I’d consider solar-power prayer wheels a real swizz.