Religion by the numbers

Dear Uma: Julia Roberts has become a Hindu claims Hello magazine. It's the result of having starred in the movie Eat, Pray, Love.

Dear Uma:

Julia Roberts has become a Hindu claims Hello magazine. It’s the result of having starred in the movie Eat, Pray, Love. The book has apparently had an enormous impact on the American imagination, mostly the imagination of the women, would be my guess. Men, after enthusiastically going with the “Eat” part would lose interest, while women would do the work of “Pray” in order to get to the part they are primarily interested in – the “Love.”

Roberts and her family now regularly attend temple services and are happy to be observing the strictures of their new faith. My immediate question was just how observant are they prepared to be?

Having only the vaguest of memories of studying Hinduism during my days of soul-searching all the major religions on offer, I did some research and, ‘Whoa, Nelly!’ The path is not an easy one, especially if one is planning on doing it following the rules of classical Hinduism. Being a Muslim, a Jew or a Christian is equally demanding and explains why, in my case, I decided to spend more time with the Wiccans, whose expectations are much more fun, less time-consuming, and contain no dire promises of punishment should a follower forget to observe a rule or even bend it a little.

Robert Sapolsky’s essay on religions and their rules of practice found a spooky similarity between them and the rituals of people suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Similarities so striking he was led to believe that all the rituals of Big Religion were likely once the private ones of a lone individual who manifested these behaviours to a degree that brought him to the notice of his tribe. Very likely he was given some title such as shaman or medicine man, with the oddities of his behaviour being held in awe and a certain amount of respect.

Sapolsky goes on to list these oddities, noting they occur in some fashion or another in all major religions, and his treatise began, conveniently enough, with Hinduism.

OCD victims are similar in their rituals in that they concern themselves firstly with numbers, followed by rituals around cleansing, food, and the entering and exiting of certain places. A follower of classical Hinduism must be prepared to spend a good part of everyday ensuring all the rituals are completed. Here are a few of them, and I am not making this up.

The days initial cleansing and prayers must begin two hours before sunrise. The right foot must touch the ground first. Defecation must take place in the open, with a list of things that cannot be looked at while doing so. (I have the list, should you desire to know more). The washing afterwards goes as follows: 10 times for the right hand, seven times for the left, and five times for both together. This is followed by the washing of the feet three times. There must be 12 mouthfuls of unswallowed water, and all this is before breakfast. There are hundreds more rituals to be observed in the course of an ordinary day with the numbers going way up on any and all of the special days.

Orthodox Jews have complex strictures on cleansing and consuming food. For instance there are rules on which species may be eaten, and how the animals are to be slaughtered. There are a prerequisite number of hours that must pass between a meat meal and a dairy meal. Should any of the utensils from meat and dairy meet, they are considered contaminated. A simple washing, even a good scrubbing with bleach and a wire brush will not be enough; the utensils must be buried in soil for a specified time to purify them. Again with the numbers: magical number for the times the threads must be wound in a prayer shawl, for instance, and the number 18 signifies life while the number 39 represents the omnipotence of the Lord. Most amazingly, there are 613 rules to be observed each and everyday, 365 of which are things that must be avoided and 248 tasks that must be carried out.

The Muslims also have a rule as to which foot takes the first step of the day. They go a step further by specifying which foot goes first into the lavatory and which foot goes first when they leave. The number of unswallowed water is different from the Hindus, but the ritual is there, the magical number. There is the washing of hands and the sequence in which it is done, followed by the same strictures and numbers for washing the body. A prayer said with clean teeth is 70 times better than a prayer said with unclean teeth. Public worship is 17 times better than private prayers.

The Christians have their prerequisite numbers of Hail Marys, and their Stations of the Cross and the ritualistic use of rosaries. They have rules for entering and leaving their places of worship, for the hours of prayers, for birth control, baptism, and in some cases for music and dance, among the many numbers of similar strictures and observations.

The oddest thing, that all Big Religion shares, is the rule that any mistakes made in the carrying out of these rules means one must start over! Can you imagine; you have a job to get to and you screw up at number 212 of the list and have to start again?

OCD is understood to be an anxiety disorder, so one must ask, do the rituals diminish that anxiety? It seems not. The rituals are demanding and the punishments measured in eternity, but the comfort comes in going from a nameless dread to a dread that is abundantly named, measured, weighed, catalogued, and most importantly, shared. The lonely obsessive compulsive can find community in a religious affiliation.

New information from the field of neurobiology, although not necessarily relating only to sufferers of OCD, have found that damage to a certain area of the brain increases the vulnerability to ‘superstitious conditioning.’

If you recall the work of B.F. Skinner, you will remember that this was the study he did around random rewards, and superstitious conditioning was the term he came up with to describe what happens when a subject is rewarded without knowing what he was doing to deserve the reward. I reread some of the material and many things became clear to me. Now I know why hockey players don’t shave during the play offs, and why some people have ‘lucky’ underwear.

Sapolsky was careful to state that he was not claiming a person who is religious is a person who is brain damaged; he merely said “Individuals with any of a number of neuropsychiatric disorders could find certain types of religious beliefs or activities an effective and consoling refuge.”

At one time this writer was also heard to observe that it is not considered to be a sign of robust mental health to hear voices in burning bushes, wrestle with angels, or talk to the dead. Methinks the man is a doubter.

I don’t know why Julia couldn’t have skipped all the hard stuff and joined the church of yoga. It fills all the desires of the age: cute and expensive outfits, costly instructors, sacred places in which to worship, fitness, and a spiritual aspect that can be cut to one’s personal cloth or avoided entirely.

Yoga is also ever-changing and expanding, another aspect that is necessary in the modern age so that some people can be cool and current while others are stuck in the old ways. If you are doing hot yoga, circus yoga, pre- or postnatal yoga, acro yoga or hip hop yoga, you are so yesterday. Now there is ‘ganja yoga,’

with the instructor who started it calling her classes Follow Your Bliss. Yup, it’s just what you would think: smoke a little weed before getting into your ritualized bending and twisting. She claims it relaxes the students and enables them to access the poses more easily. I’ll just bet it does, and I’d also bet some students find one pose and stay in it for the length of the class, preferably one of the prone ones. It is no surprise to learn her classes are full.

If Roberts is planning on carrying out the tenets of her new faith to the letter, I think Eat, Pray, Love may be her last hurrah as a movie actor and I, for one, would miss those shining rows of perfect teeth lighting up the screen.

Blessed be,


Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.