Ever wondered what helps us make it through life in the face of adversity and darkest of moments? We all have belief systems whether or not we are mindful of them. Our beliefs give us a sense of purpose, inner strength, positivity and hope. It could be a collective cause that moves humanity, the chanting of mantras to create positive energy, rituals to diffuse familial hardships or prayers to prolong life.
We all know Isaac Newton as a scientist. But did we know science was his tool to seek God? Probably not. We may not see how his devotion to God is related to his scientific discoveries. But Newton had a unique and proactive relationship with his belief system. He sought divinity in science and science in divinity. A man of science, a man of God.
Beliefs are so deep-rooted in our psyche that they’re like invisible maps that help navigate the world around us. Intangible though they might seem, they determine how we live life. So, what’s a belief system? What does it do for us? Dr Baiju Gopal, professor of Psychology at Christ University says, “It’s a combination of our experience and culture. It’s a bridge between our sense of self and the society we live in. It helps us assert our cultural identities and individualities.”
Gautam Buddha and Sigmund Freud are known to have suggested that suffering is a consequence of fixed beliefs. It’s not surprising, then, that we have a tough time trying to align our beliefs with a new environment.
Indeed, man is a social animal. We all have the need to belong somewhere, to someone or something. When meeting this need becomes a challenge, our beliefs can get shaky. So, with time, we develop a belief system that works better for us. For Bangalore-based architect Prahallad Badami, a stay in a different country as an exchange student brought a paradigm shift in his beliefs. He admits, “I had a privileged, orthodox and regressive belief system, up until I was 15. I was quite closed in my thinking. But then, as an exchange student, I experienced life differently. I had to survive in a highly prejudiced environment.” With that, Prahallad’s belief system was overhauled. He developed more openness out of his need for inclusion. A decade later, he identifies himself as a liberal person.
Changes in our environment certainly affect our belief systems. At the very least, our beliefs evolve, if not change altogether. In fact, both Gautam Buddha and Sigmund Freud are known to have suggested that suffering is a consequence of fixed beliefs. It’s not surprising, then, that we have a tough time trying to align our beliefs with a new environment. According to Dr Gopal, our individualities are constantly challenged by our own belief systems, if not others. “Certain things are harmonious for both individuals and society at large. Say, a mutually supportive set of values. Once we see that, we tend to consciously include it in our belief systems,” he explains.
In the case of Muscat-based Falak Saleem, mere curiosity turned her towards a religious life. “My parents aren’t religious at all and they never expected it of me either. But this very attitude of theirs got me intrigued about Islam and the practice of hijab,” she explains. Religion is now an everyday spiritual fulfilment for Falak. She particularly loves the spirit of generosity Quran teaches. It spreads goodwill, she believes.
We lead diverse lives. Our beliefs, and our reasons to adopt them, vary just as much. No matter what belief systems we inculcate within ourselves, the one thing we all seek is harmony.
Sometimes, the darkest of experiences can send us seeking answers to deep questions from belief systems. Bharati Ramachandran, who runs a non-profit agency for NGOs in Bangalore, shares, “When I was in college, my best friend fell terminally ill, and she was just 21.” This sent Bharati on a journey to understand life and death. After much soul-searching, she found peace in Nichiren Buddhism. It’s a life philosophy which believes every human being has infinite potential. She believes this helps her see the good in everyone and everything.
Then again, we may not all go for a complete makeover of our belief systems. We may simply choose the parts we’d like to inculcate. Belief systems are just as easily affected by choice, as they are by family and societal norms. Dania Zafar, a graphic artist based in Lahore, too finds that her belief system changed with time. She grew conscious of her personal values which were liberal. Unable to connect with the rigidity of the religious belief system she was born into, she adopted logic and rationality.
Of course, our beliefs needn’t always be religious. Say, a vegetarian may follow a meat-free diet, merely out of love for animals, and not due to any religious beliefs. In fact, some of us may be agnostic or atheistic. Others may even develop their own belief systems. Take Bangalore-based media professional Anusha Ravi, for instance. She celebrates all festivals throughout the year, religion no bar. “I love the cheer that comes with all festivals. I celebrate Christmas just as happily as I do Eid, Ugadi, or Baisakhi. It’s my idea of spirituality,” she says.
We lead diverse lives. Our beliefs, and our reasons to adopt them, vary just as much. For Prahallad, it was the need to be accepted that made him a liberalist. For Dania, it was the need for individuality that made her a rationalist. The loss of a loved one turned Bharati inward, and gradually, into a believer of innate goodness in all. Curiosity sent Falak on a religious path, while the need to spread joy turned Anusha into an upholder of inclusivity. It seems, no matter what belief systems we inculcate within ourselves, the one thing we all seek is harmony.