I was obsessed with gods when I was a kid. I was raised detachedly as a Hindu, in which we had our own in-house puja every few months, went to the temple even less often and still ate beef when we had a hankering. I viewed my participation in Hinduism as an infrequent chore, but entertained a curious fascination with Hindu mythology.
I devoured every edition of a comic book series that transformed the timeless and boundless sagas into picturized, bite-sized narratives. I took to the task of printing out pictures of gods, framing them and placing them somewhere in the house to bolster the divinity of our family.
Loosely, each god symbolizes something: destruction, creation, wealth, wisdom. I felt the more I ‘had,’ the more I learnt about them, the better off I would be. Basically, I treated them like Pokémon. There was little to nothing spiritual about it, but I let my parents assume that there was since it was a useful assumption.
My grandma, an ardent devotee, also conflated my interest in mythology with a strong spiritual sense and gifted me a book of Hindu ponderings. It provided my first insights about religion, and ironically, what I took away from it undermined the very notion of religion.
It was a small poem that said God is the ocean. Every single person is a droplet, and each one made it to the ocean. Whether it fell into a stream, a creek or a river, it eventually made its way to the oneness that is the ocean. Hindus may have many gods, but they also believe that each one is just a representation of one god and apply this same understanding to other religions.
The prospect stirred something in me, something like the comfort of unity, which became more meaningful to me later. More specifically, whenever someone tried to “save” me. This has happened to me numerous times growing up, as I’m sure it’s happened to most brown kids growing up in America. They all had good intentions and were just trying to protect me. However, I struggled with the implications of these well-meaning individuals.
I didn’t want to be damned, and I was not attached to Hinduism in the way they were to their religion. I thought, ‘why don’t I just convert to be safe?’ Then I thought, ‘well, which one?’ More than one member of a religion shared with me their truth, and I didn’t know which one was the truth. Merely picturing an ocean quieted these internal dialogues and allowed me to politely decline conversion.
My faith developed further when I cried for months because I was gay. Before I struggled with my sexuality, I knew I had my whole life to change my mind if need be. Now, however, I was destined to burn in hell for eternity since I already screwed up or was already screwed up. I was doubly conflicted with the question of whether God existed in the first place, an uncertainty I still contemplate.
What saved me was the conclusion that if God did exist, he would certainly care about how good of a person I was rather than who I blushed at or whether I even believed in him. I figured that choosing a single set of rules out of many to express belief or disbelief was void, precisely because everyone would reach him. I also had some sense that doing the right thing was a kind of prayer in its own way. Consequently, goodness (in context, I later clarified) must be the sole criteria for final judgments because it could be the only standardized criteria if there was one.
This is my self-assuring belief system. I respect everyone else’s beliefs, however, I also believe that accepting some extent of overlap among religions would go a long way in solving religious conflicts and dismantling the means to abuse religion. Religious competition creates a monarchical atmosphere, and it’s upsetting that many take advantage of this environment and think it’s okay to do bad things as long as they are in their God’s good graces. It’s more upsetting that some anoint themselves their God’s trusted advisors and bargain with others in exchange for putting them in his good graces.
Is it so radical to suggest that the differences among the popular world religions in which the fundamental tenet is to be decent, are largely contextual and, to a much lesser, extent spiritual? Perhaps not, especially when radicals of any religion are those who wish to both force their spiritual beliefs and punish diversion through any means necessary.
I’m not naïve enough to insist this mantra of interfaith unity be universally received. The very idea of it may be offensive to an inmate that fell on their faith to survive long stretches of incarceration. Religious conviction enables life-sustaining hope during the hardest of times for many, but this message should resonate more with others — those who don’t need it for strength but wear it as a mask of self-righteous immunity or employ it as a perverse strategy to accrue wealth and power and carry out violence without shame.
No one should be judged based on whether they are an atheist or an evangelical, or whether religion is their livelihood. People should, however, be judged for their actions. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where someone can exploit religious zeal and the divisions it produces to move billions. Is it any wonder why politicians must constantly flaunt the faith and appeal to the faith leaders of their constituents? Why it figures so deeply in their decisions for better or for worse? Maybe someday we’ll live in a world where this column wouldn’t tank a hypothetical political career. Or at least one that still has an ocean.
Narayan Reddy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Reddy, Set, Go! appears alternate Mondays this semester.