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Losing—and finding—my religion away from home

ways and means

As much as I love it at Duke so far, I can say one thing for sure: the food is bland. The spiciest thing I’ve had here was called “chili broccoli,” if that says anything.

So when I heard that (free) Indian food was being offered at a pooja (religious ceremony), I knew I had to go. Who knew when I would next encounter spicy food?

Running in rather late, I was able to catch just the ending of the pooja in question. They had already begun the final part: aarthi. To summarize, each person raises a candle to a statue of god (in this case, Ganesha) and offers flowers as signs of respect and worship. To be entirely honest, I don’t know the full details behind the prayer or why it is normally done at the end of ceremonies. The important part, however, is that a chant is recited by the entire congregation. Namely, Om Jai Jagdish Hare.

As the group began to chant the hymn, however, there was hesitation—faltering. A graduate student had to take initiative and sing it himself as others chimed in sporadically. For a song Hindus recite regularly at religious rituals, it seemed all of us were unaware of the lyrics. And it wasn’t just Hindus at Duke—this was a group of Hindus religious enough to attend a religious ceremony at 9 p.m. on a Thursday. Despite this fact, I (along with most others) mumbled along to the chant.

I felt ashamed in many ways; as a child, I had many of the religious hymns and chants memorized, but now, it seemed that I couldn’t remember the most common one. Where had my knowledge gone? Why was it so difficult to remember? It dawned on me the problem at hand: there weren’t any parents present. As much as it embarrasses me to admit it, it was always the parents who led religious rituals at home. They knew the songs, they knew the process, and they were able to remind us of how to worship.

Religion has always been an important part of my life, but it wasn’t until now that I realized how fragile it is. Everything, from the daily observances to special events and festivals, requires some special care and knowledge and devotion. Perhaps the scariest part of this experience was realizing that I had to pick up the mantle. This is the time during which I should study religion and learn how to practice it. Because, as I realized in writing this, I will have to supervise my children as they learn religion. My ignorance would carry on to them. From here, I learned my major lesson from that night: if I didn’t choose to keep my religion alive and well, no one else would.

Not to mention, unlike in the past, many people don’t live near their parents anymore. Who is there to remind us to celebrate our rituals, our traditions, and our religion? We don’t have anyone to correct us or to give us support during rituals. In many ways, a modern Hindu is left to their own devices regarding religion, and many of us seem unprepared for that task.

No one will step in to save all the religious rituals and rites, because they are mine to protect. When someone has a question about Hinduism, it is on me to respond and to be educated. And, if I ignore my responsibility, then I have no right to complain if my tradition, religion, and culture just become footnotes in a textbook.

It’s safe to say that religion has been very different at Duke than it was at home, but not all of it has been scary.

In the same vein of wanting to expand my connection and understanding of religion, I joined a small Bhagavad Gita reading group. At home, I had never really discussed the Gita with other Hindus or had a place to learn about the text. Instead of doing independent study, I can actually talk about my perspective and have it challenged. In a way, I can really come to grips with what it means to be Hindu by talking about it with others.

My most different experiences have been outside my own religion. The university setting lends itself to a very close relationship between different faiths. Until a few weeks ago, I had never sat through a full Sunday Christian worship service. At home, I likely wouldn’t have considered driving on a Sunday morning to attend a service; sitting on a ten minute bus ride to the Chapel, however, was simple and low effort. In a way, it made it easy for me to consider having a new religious experience. It wasn’t the same as a small group praying or discussing scripture; in fact, I haven’t seen Hindus perform regular services with sermons and congregational prayer. It just isn’t common, at least not among American Hindu temples.

The experience was refreshing and eye-opening. It was simply satisfying to see a large group of people came together to pray. Although I didn’t say all of the prayers or hymns, I did feel a connection to a few. For one, I didn’t recite the Apostles’ Creed. But I did read along in the New Testament lessons and listen to the sermon. There was something to understanding God and worship from a new perspective, and it is almost impossible to think I would have had this experience at home. And thank goodness that I did, too. I understand Christianity in a new lense, in a new fashion that I wouldn’t have before.

Being at Duke isn’t just about academics or extracurriculars for a career. A major function of university life is to allow students to become well-rounded in their wisdom. Students are introduced to global perspectives, gain social skills, and expand their scope of understanding. Why limit this to learning about race, gender, or nationality? University should also be a place of expanding the religious literacy and understanding of the students. The world (the United States included) remains very religiously diverse. Can an education be complete without discussing this facet of human life?

For me, my experiences with religion away from home have translated to a few truths. Don’t forget to practice religion. Don’t lose track of tradition while chasing academics. And don’t just invest in one faith. Duke has proven itself to be a wonderful place to explore religion, both as a global concept and in its many local varieties.This campus not only has numerous religious groups in close proximity—they are each open to sharing their perspectives. I know that I have a lot more to learn and to experience—I haven’t even been to Shabbat yet!

Akshaj Turebylu is Trinity first-year. His column, “ways and means,” runs on alternate Fridays.

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