A Mishmash Of Things

Growing up in my largely white small town in the largely white state of Minnesota, going to temple meant, at its most fundamental, seeing people who looked like me. I remember my time at temple as always joyful, chants perpetually buzzing in the air like the very pulse of the sanctum, little kids in bright salwars running around and occasionally sneaking bits of fruit and rice offerings when the priests weren’t looking.

As a kid, I never distinguished between religion and culture. I don’t know if the unwitting conflation made things more simple, or more complicated. Later I would explore this, the ways of Hindu nationalism and the deep seated roots tangled from the Partition; the meanings of national identity and God, and hatred and love. But then, as a kid, I didn’t know a whole lot about any of this. I didn’t know any Indian dialect and didn’t know much about my “homeland” at all because we only went to India once a year or once every few years, as my parents worked full time. But of all the jumbled up pieces within me that made me diaspora and Indian and American, the one I understood the most was worship. Also, importantly, I felt that it understood me back. I convinced my parents to drive me out 45 minutes to the temple every Sunday morning for Sunday School and spent afternoons afterward at the temple, prayed every night with my family around our small shrine, and celebrated major holidays like Diwali with our family friends lighting diya candles and eating sweets. We did special pujas on birthdays, first days of school, etc in which we also lit incense and left it burning all night. When my grandfather was losing his sight and his motor skills due to a stroke, I taught myself the sacred Sanskrit script so I could carefully guide his hands, wrapping mine over his to trace the characters on pieces of paper. In Hinduism, it is said that God manifests a light within each of us. These moments were all precious to me because I felt the closest to that self light. I didn’t ever take them for granted. I was always seeking them out, and I never thought I would feel doubt. 

There’s a line in Midnight Children by Salman Rushdie that’s resonated with me for a long time. It’s about the main character’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz, who’s Kashmiri in a time when the last vestiges of British rule are most prevalent there. He’s just come back from studying medicine in Europe and is constantly struggling with his clashing identities. He unrolls his prayer mat and prostrates himself, only to clunk himself in the head and give himself a bloody nose. The line goes: “And my grandfather… was knocked forever into that middle place, unable to worship a God in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve. Permanent alteration: a hole.” As I grew up, I struggled with the cultural-generational gap between my first generation immigrant parents and my second generation self. As I grew away from traditional culture, I also grew away from traditional religion. I began to describe myself as agnostic. Reconnecting with Hindu worship would mean I had to face the turbulent and often traumatic experiences I had relating to the manifestation of cultural values within my personal narrative. An alteration that I believed permanent: my middle place. 

Attending BU allowed me the time I needed to recollect myself and finally make that distinction between traditional culture and my diaspora culture, and the way religion fit into all of that, and the way that I fit too. Worship requires vulnerability. Devotion requires trust. I found both of these characteristics through prayer. I sought this out because I believed it was an essential part of the sense of self I was carefully reconstructing. I finally began to understand that my relationship with God was just that: mine. It did not have to be connected to the problematic cultural values that my parents grew up learning and it did not have to be connected to toxic Hindu nationalism that I witnessed in the larger Indian American community as a uniting and powerful force. Instead it was about love and trust, finding strength, reflecting, and seeking out compassion and kindness, to name a few attributes. These characteristics are features that almost every person seeks out, and Hinduism allows me to explore them through my relationship with God. Every day I learn about myself and my identity in new ways is also another day that I learn about my relationship with God. I find myself full of joy and light as I experience the journey, accepting not only my faith but doubt as essential parts along the way so I can keep my steps sure and steady.

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