A Spiritual Journey

“And guess what? It wasn’t even beef!” Venkat ended darkly. All six interns sat around a table, sipping afternoon chai and sharing stories. Venkat was referring to an incident last year, when a Muslim man was beaten to death and his son severely injured in a village outside of Delhi because his neighbors suspected he had killed a cow and eaten beef. The conversation moved on to the BJP, India’s conservative political party currently in power, and the influence it has on religious tensions. I love these unstructured moments because they make me feel uncomfortable, and push me to think outside of preconceived notions. The challenge of understanding India’s religious history and current dynamic was one of the main reasons I decided to intern here. My interest began in high school, when I read Life of Pi, and became fascinated by the notion that religion is an alternative story that makes life’s narratives more memorable and meaningful. I wanted to see India’s temples and mosques and churches for myself, just like the ones described so beautifully in the novel. The coexistence of so many major religions in one geographic area excited me. I longed to just sit back and take it all in, but at every intellectual corner I turned, I was begged the conundrum: what indeed is the effect of religion on Indian society and culture?

The answer is too large for me (or anyone else, for that matter) to tackle. It is also a process of discovery that I feel intimately honored to be experiencing now. I can only speak for my own experiences. I grew up in a family that was not very devout by typical standards: we prayed in church on the occasional Easter and Christmas, but at the same time we also venerated long-dead ancestors who were ostensibly important, yet shadowy figures from ages past. On the morning of the day I was accepted to Penn, my dad burned incense and asked a bodhisattva for a blessing. My world seemed full of contradictions, and when I was younger and before I knew better, all I wanted to do was to fit in with my Christian, single faith friends. Imagine my delight when I came to south India and found the coexistence of so many different beliefs! The diversity felt so refreshing. In our small neighborhood of Richmond Town, a majestic church stands next to a proud mosque, and temples dedicated to various Hindu gods are sprinkled on street corners. We pass by one every day on our way to work. Before I arrived, I was told that south India is a very religious land. It has higher concentrations of vegetarians than elsewhere in the country and echoes of the Dravidian traditions are still alive in the architecture of temples and the rites of priests. What surprised me, however, was the deep influence these religions would have on my everyday life.

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The beautiful Masjid-e-Azam mosque in Mysore stands diagonally across from St. Philomena’s Cathedral.

In this holy month of Ramadan, the roads next to our neighborhood mosque spring to life in the evenings. Young men wearing topi caps gather to eat as the scent of shawarma wafts from street vendors. We live close enough to hear the daily calls to prayer. Walking into the Muslim quarter always feels like entering another world, as Arabic replaces the Kannada script and meat becomes readily available. I appreciate the stark differences, because it reminds me of the idiosyncrasies of my childhood. I was someone who wore many hats. Last weekend, we visited Mysore and climbed 1000 steps up to Chamundi Hills to see the Chamundeshwari Temple. Each step was adorned with kumkuma powder, and we could only imagine the painstaking care past pilgrims must have taken to make this route so holy. I was awed and touched by the devotion of the thousands of people crowding into the temple, as I brushed shoulders with aging women and young children. Even the cows that wandered around the bazaar were treated differently and people were eager to rub kumkuma powder on the cows’ foreheads. The next day, we visited St. Philomena’s Church. Even though it was under renovation, its grandness and beauty could not be obscured. I remember seeing women wearing bindis kneeling and praying before an image of a contorted Jesus on the cross. I felt oddly comforted by the idea that multiple faiths can interact and coexist, even within a single individual. India seems to epitomize the struggle I’ve always had with my identity and the numerous influences of different belief systems.

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Around the back of Chamundeshwari Temple in Mysore. You can’t see the crowds of people from here, but if you turn the corner you’ll walk into a bustling bazaar with literally thousands of visitors.

It is easy to choose to see only one side of an issue. Although I love the religious undertone of every interaction I have with India, conversations and thought-provoking questions offer a different perspective. With so much diversity, cohesion is hard to achieve, and the balance between minority rights and the will of the majority is constantly in flux. I’ve come to better understand the view some people have that religion is more divisive than unifying, that societies are better off without it. Perhaps I, too, would have this opinion if I had grown up learning about the damaging long-term effects of Partition or the senseless killings in Gujarat or the fear of internal terrorism. More than anything, India has opened the door to new ways of thinking about religion. I’m so incredibly thankful for this opportunity for self-discovery and intellectual inquiry, and I know that my return to Penn will reflect these newfound understandings.

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About Tina Gao

I'm currently in the class of 2018, concentrating in Finance and Social Impact with minors in International Relations and Religious Studies. I'm delighted to be interning with Janalakshmi in Bangalore this summer!