Am I a Hindu? (Part I)

Seems like a straightforward ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question doesn’t it? Regardless of how things are for me, I’m sure that for many of you, it really is that straightforward. You may harbor no real doubts whatsoever about your answer to the question in your own case, whether that answer be a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. And given your personal sense of clarity on the matter, you might even be tempted to say in exasperation, “Well, either you are or you aren’t, Apurva!” and throw in a quick quip about how us philosophers gotta complicate everything for no goddamn reason. You might even try to answer the question for me—which is a move I would find supremely annoying, so do me a favor and don’t bother…please.

Despite its straightforward appearance, and irrespective of whether that appearance happens to be your reality, the more I’ve wrestled with the question over the last few years, the more elusive any straightforward answer has become. At this point in my life, I’m just not sure. And the story of how I got here is complicated in ways that are deeply personal and often painful.

One thing I can say with some certainty is that I was raised a Hindu. As is the case with most immigrants, after my parents first came to the United States, alongside economic opportunity, they searched for community to help them secure some semblance of belonging and purpose in their new country. Fortunately for them, they found it through a Hindu organization called Swadhyaya in which they eventually became quite active members, or krutisheels. Me and my older brother were raised to be a Swadhyayees—not just lay members, but dedicated krutisheels like my parents.

For a long while, I think I played the part quite well. I did nearly everything a budding Swadhyaya krutisheel was expected to do. I attended Swadhyaya Kendra every Sunday. While my parents watched hour-long, video recorded sermons or pravachans by the founder of Swadhyaya, me and my brother would attend concurrent classes held for the kids called Bal Sanskar Kendra. Every night at 8:30pm on-the-dot, we’d pray together as a family. I attended all the Swadhyaya events and festivals I could. I took part in plays, dances, hymn recitals, and more, during cultural programs. I memorized chapters from the Bhagavad Gita and various other Sanskrit stotras or hymns. Every year, over the summer, I went to Swadhyaya camps. First, for kids who attended Bal Sanskar Kendra, and then to camps held for older youth. And when I could no longer attend as a participant, I attended as an organizer. Every Thanksgiving, I’d go to a three day long retreat or milan with my brother and parents, often prioritizing that over other extended family gatherings. When I learned to sing and play the harmonium and keyboard and my brother learned to play the tabla, we would lead and accompany devotional sing-a-longs or bhavgeets, which we came to be quite well known for in Swadhyaya.

When I got old enough to be considered an adolescent, in addition to Swadhyaya Kendra every Sunday, every Friday I attended Yuva Kendra, a group where Swadhyaya youth or yuva would meet for an hour every week for discussion and debate. Because I was now too old for Bal Sanskar Kendra, I also started attending pravachan, during which I would diligently take notes like my mom and dad. Eventually, I got pretty good at understanding Hindi and Gujarati, so after pravachan I would sometimes help my peers understand the difficult sections of it. One the most memorable experiences I had growing up was participating in some truly hilarious street plays with my fellow yuva boys. We performed these really fun plays every year for a week or two every Janmashtami at the end of the summer break. On Gita Jayanti every winter, I’d participate in elocution competitions, and sometimes I’d even win.

Another activity that was at the heart of Swadhyaya was a thing called bhavferi. We’d drive from Indian (primarily Hindu) household to household sharing Dadaji’s message while building what we called divine relationships. I was fairly regular in going out for it. There were a couple of years when I went out for bhavferi nearly every weekend. I still remember the way bhavferi coordinators, and eventually I, would explain what we were doing: “Don’t think of yourselves as going out to convert people. Think about what you do when you find a good deal at a store. You go ahead and enthusiastically tell your friends and family that there’s a good deal at X store. You’re doing the same thing during bhavferi. You’re just sharing information about a good deal with your divine brothers and sisters. If they decide to take advantage of it, that’s their decision. You’re not converting, you’re merely sharing in the midst of building divine relationships.” I’m not sure I buy the argument about conversion anymore, but I have to say that Swadhyaya was doing some truly exceptional things in its heyday—things I wish the organization was still bold enough to do today.

The point is, I was a pretty darn dedicated Swadhyayee growing up. Swadhyaya was the center and focus of my life. You can even say that I didn’t really have much of a life outside of Swadhyaya.

During my first couple years of undergrad, I was still playing the role. I got accepted to the University of Maryland, College Park as an aerospace engineering major. My brother also went to the same university since we were only two grade levels apart. Given that he was much more of a popular kid than I was, I had it pretty easy. I swooped in, riding on his coattails, which is basically what I did all throughout my K-12 education, and now in college. Since I’m averse to introducing myself, it was nice that people already knew about me from my brother. They’d ask me all excited, “Are you Ojas’s brother?!” It was great to be welcomed with open arms without having to do anything at all to earn it. I even joined an Indian-American fusion a cappella group called Anokha where my brother was a beat boxer. I sang pretty well, so we made a good duo. I was lucky to have him there. I don’t think I would ever have auditioned if my brother wasn’t already in the group.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take advantage of the incredible opportunity I was given. It’s something I regret to this day. I was grossly self-righteous; I was one of those kids that didn’t want to be “corrupted” by college life. Though I stayed in the dorms for the first couple years, I’d go back home every weekend. Part of it was that I was socially awkward, but a lot of it was also that I thought I had better things to do. I never bothered to get to know or spend time with people on campus, people who were often eager to get to know me. I didn’t really make any friends on campus, thinking my relationships in Swadhyaya were sufficient, which really backfired a few years down the line. Many tried, but I never gave them a chance. I could have had a beautiful college experience and built some incredible life-long relationships along the way as many of my peers did, but I squandered it.

Most of my time in undergrad, some even at the expense of my own academic work, I spent preparing topic for Yuva Kendra. By that time, I had been attending Yuva Kendra for quite some time and eventually I took up a leadership role as a sanchalak. Typically on Wednesday nights I’d take Yuva Kendra on campus, and then on Fridays I’d drive home and take it there. I loved preparing for it. I loved leading Yuva Kendra. I loved reading and researching on the topics we discussed and debated. I found it thrilling. You can say my love for research and teaching began with Yuva Kendra. Even thought I squandered my college experience, I did faithfully play the role of a good Swadhyayee, and I really did enjoy it while it lasted.

None of this is to say that I was some ascetic child living in line with strict moral and religious rules. I was a kid, and I was like any other kid out there. I had my rebellious years. I was an academic disappointment in elementary and early middle school. I’d forge my parents’ signatures to avoid showing them my progress reports. I’m pretty sure there was a point in middle school when I was a bully. I had my fair share of childhood crushes and girlfriends. I was pretty weird about it too. I remember one year during Thanksgiving milan when I was pretty young, probably in middle school, I had the strangest ideas about what would impress the girls my age. For some reason, I thought if I jumped off some chairs and wiped out on the floor in front of them that this “daring” demonstration would somehow impress. WTF was I thinking? I’ve tried to make sense of it, but I just can’t. It was just plain nuts. And then, when I got a little older, I was an awkward hormonal teenage boy…and you all know how that goes, even if you don’t admit it in public—though, I do think many future children would benefit and be saved from a ton of unnecessary mental anguish and shame if we all did, but that’s for another time. Let’s just say I forgot to clear my browser history at home when I was in high school. Not a good day.

Back to the point, if you asked me at any point during my childhood and early adolescence if I was a Hindu, my answer would have been: “I’m a Swadhyayee, and given that Swadhyayees are Hindu…I’m Hindu.” Okay…I admit I probably wouldn’t have given such an extended response structured in such impeccable logical form—X is Y, Y is Z, ∴ X is Z. I probably would have just said, “Yep, I’m Hindu.” I had no reason to think otherwise. Beyond some quibbles about ‘Hindu’ being a name given to us by outsiders, I don’t think many Swadhyayees seriously doubt that they’re Hindu. Whatever may be the case with other Swadhyayees, I for one never felt the need to question whether I was a Hindu or justify my answer to either myself or to others. I was Hindu. It really was that straightforward.

If memory serves me right, it wasn’t until the second half of undergrad that things began to appear just a tad bit less straightforward. In fact, I think this was the first period in my life when I began to have anything close to any serious doubts about anything so personal.

It was at this time that, unbeknownst to my parents, I had switched from being an aerospace engineering major to a philosophy major. I was pretty great at aerospace engineering, but it was pretty clear that I had no real interest in it. I didn’t find it thrilling like I found preparing for Yuva Kendra thrilling. In fact, I only chose the major because it was at the top of the alphabetical list of possible majors when applying to colleges. It sounded cool and I was too lazy and negligent to look any further, so that was it. I’m pretty sure my parents had thought I had lost it when I finally told them I switched majors. They were definitely angry, but more than anything else, I think they were just worried.

I didn’t choose philosophy in the same way that I chose aerospace engineering. I chose philosophy because I thought it would make me a better Swadhyayee. That was at the heart of it. We always considered the founder of Swadhyaya, Pandurang Shastri Athavale, or Dadaji as we called him, to be a philosopher, among other things, and of course I wanted to be like him. So I took some philosophy classes, and I loved it. I can’t say I was at all good at it. I actually failed a class before I graduated, tanking my close to 4.0 GPA. But I loved it. Eventually, I convinced my parents that it would be okay. I gave them a pretty elaborate explanation for why I did it too.

When I was a kid, my parents had taken me see Dadaji on my birthday on a rooftop somewhere in India. I don’t remember the details all that well, but they always remind me of the story of how Dadaji gave me an “Indian cake” when he found out that it was my birthday. It was an idli, but of course both my parents and I always tried to read as much as we possibly could into that incident—“What did it mean? What was he trying to tell me?”—probably adding a whole lot more than was ever there. When I was explaining why I switched majors, I somehow connected my decision back to that episode. The logic of the explanation probably made no sense, but emotionally it worked pretty well. It’s not like I was trying to manipulate my parents. I meant it. I was being sincere. I was sure that Dadaji had great plans for me, and this change is what I thought would get me there. The fact that I would have to stay in college for an extra year would ultimately be worth it.

Ironically, it’s the philosophy that eventually burst my bubble. But not quite yet. Despite things becoming a little less straightforward here and there, my doubts at the time were never about whether I considered myself to be a Hindu. Sure, I had serious doubts about certain specific beliefs I had earlier taken for granted, but that was the extent of it. After taking a few classes in philosophy, as any dabbler in the philosophical arts should, I began to have some serious doubts about my belief in God, in karma, in reincarnation, among other things. This wasn’t just some methodological doubt invoked for the sake of generating some intriguing dinner conversation, but genuine doubt. At the time, however, I was more concerned with finding alternative ways of understanding these ideas rather than discarding them altogether. The hope was that these alternative accounts would serve to clarify what I meant whenever I said I was a Hindu. While I was still sure that I was a Hindu, I did begin to see that I wasn’t quite clear about what that meant.

It was at about the same time that I also began to have some serious doubts about certain practices in Swadhyaya. To give just one example, when I started out as a Yuva Kendra sanchalak, I had taken for granted that all the youth, irrespective of gender, would sit together in Yuva Kendra. That’s how it was when I first started attending, and that’s how it was when I first started serving as a sanchalak. It was my default expectation and I saw no problems with it. 

Swadhyaya, in my experience, changed pretty rapidly during those years. Eventually, every Yuva Kendra was separated by gender: young men went to Yuva Kendra, while young women went to Yuvati Kendra. Reflecting back, the arguments for the change were pretty darn sexist. I don’t really know if Swadhyaya had always been this backwards on gender issues during my childhood; after all, as a privileged young boy with no girl siblings, I didn’t really have occasion to think about it growing up. When this change occurred, however, the regressiveness kinda hit me in the face, especially when I was called upon to justify the change to my youth. It felt as if we were rolling back time on progress. Nevertheless, as with my Hindu identity, despite my qualms here and there, the doubts never reached a point where I would seriously question my identity as a Swadhyayee. And as a Swadhyayee, I was still securely a Hindu. I did, however, begin to see that I wasn’t quite clear on what that meant either.

People don’t tend to shift suddenly from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’ on such fundamental questions of personal identity. The transition is nearly always gradual. Even if the shift is perceived by onlookers as sudden, as if the object of their vision has had a sudden mental break, it’s usually not at all sudden for the person undergoing it. By gradual, though, I don’t mean insensible like the steady growth of a mountain. I mean extended and full of anguish. That’s at least been my experience.

Though gradual, these transitions do have identifiable phases, like the phase of budding doubt I recounted in the last section, and they don’t just blend into one another producing a blotchy brown canvas. It’s often more like a panoramic photograph taken at sunset, with blue on one side and pink on the other. It sounds beautiful until you realize that before the night begins, you have to travel through the dusk, a dangerous blend of light and darkness that makes it very difficult to see where you’re going.

The next of these phases was a period of utter confusion. And it was at the end of my fifth year in undergrad, as I was graduating with a BA in philosophy and trying to figure out what I was going to do next with my life, that this phase began with a vengeance. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if I even remember the details correctly. It was a pretty rough time in my life, but I will do my best in the spirit of full disclosure. I will tell you the story as I remember it. But in the meantime, while I gather my thoughts, let’s take a little break. That was LONG and I’m sure you’re just as exhausted reading it as I am having written it.

Until next time!

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