In the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on questions of ethical and religious significance, predominantly in the context of South Asian literature and Hindu perspectives. My hope is that in some way or another, whether or not the topics of this column are in any way resonant with readers, they normalize further discussion about growth and discovery in the context of religion and ethical life. As I near the midpoint of my final undergraduate year, this final column is a cursory glance at a discovery I made in college, and the ways in which it has grown me.
The summer before I started college, I went on a road trip with my best friend from high school. What initially began as a plan to traverse the country, driving from St. Louis to Atlanta to Chicago to Toronto to San Jose, was eventually curtailed to St. Louis, Atlanta, and Chicago by our helicoptering parents, who were concerned about safety and our blustering youthfulness. In the end, we drove only from St. Louis to Atlanta and back to St. Louis; nothing was really as romantic as it seemed in the music videos.
This past weekend was Diwali, the Hindu New Year. I associate Diwali with being at home among family, with rows upon rows of traditional lamps, and with the triumph of good over evil. But Diwali’s beauty can feel ephemeral. The dancing firelight eventually vanishes. The epic Ramayana, from which some stories of the triumph of good originates, doesn’t end so happily after all. The semester’s work comes crashing back after a weekend of cooking, cleaning, and family worship, and it’s like you had only been folded into a world of your own foolish construction.
This year, Diwali reminds me of my father, who underwent major back surgery about this time last year. The surgery was successful and my father is healthy. But for every year leading up to it, my father, a natural and skilled athlete, an intrinsically brave man, was perpetually in pain. I have vague memories of this fact, when he was a little bit more irritable after a long day of performing procedures as an indefatigable physician, or when he did not want to eat dinner at the dining table and instead watched TV from the couch. Still, it was only after I read about ankylosing spondylitis, the autoimmune arthritic condition that my dad has, on an organization’s website that I realized the degree to which people with this condition feel pain: “Bad days felt like grizzly bear claws and teeth ripping through my connective tissue and joints.” And, “I struggle to keep my mind positive and just want to cry… which on occasion I do.” For a time, I hardly believed that my father felt this kind of pain, because if I am having the least bit of discomfort, he is the first to advise ibuprofen. It is as if the fact that he has suffered from chronic pain means nothing for how others should learn to bear it, too.
Disputes over Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholic faith — as her Supreme Court confirmation hearings unfold — obscure, more than anything, a dearth of discussion around the role of religion in the American national identity. While Barrett’s confirmation is out of our hands, the future of living in a multifaith community isn’t, and the fact that religion is often a site of political contestation in the United States urges us to reassess our assumptions about religious belonging, whether we identify as explicitly religious or not. Can a Supreme Court justice practically believe in a religious truth without imposing it on anyone else?
There’s a strange comfort in discovering that the bedtime stories my parents chose to tell me often came from one of the longest epics in the world: the “Mahabharata.” The “Mahabharata” is a fourth-century BCE Sanskrit poem traditionally attributed to Vyasa, and its stories permeate the Hindu tradition. It’s about a fratricidal war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas over the kingdom of Hastinapura, and narrates the intertwining fates of these clans and their successors. Part of the comfort is that the “Mahabharata” is long — about seven times the Iliad and Odyssey combined — and thus an endless ravine for a wandering mind.
More central, though, is the scale and texture of the epic’s violence and loss, and the fact that it always seems to engage with my contemporary predicaments. In the end, even in triumph, every insult, favor, disguise, and promise matters—sometimes with catastrophic consequences. When the war has run its course, the battlefield is described as a river of blood where pebbles are severed heads. The casualties are not just enormous; they are total.
What happens during a Zoom glitch? We’ve all experienced one. Maybe the video freezes and memorializes a hilarious gesture. Maybe the pitch drops and the audio slows to a comic crawl. When it ends, maybe we apologize for the terrible Wi-Fi. The glitch reminds us that technological shortcomings smother our social interactions. I’ve found few situations more frustrating, especially when I want nothing more than to be with people I cannot see without Zoom or the platform in question.
That assumption — that without Zoom, FaceTime, or Skribbl, I cannot be with others — is one I reinforce daily as the pandemic rages on. In a quiet, empty house while my family members work, I frequently brood over whether it’s worth expending the energy it takes to call or text someone for some liveliness and movement, or whether I should just bunker down and write my thesis. The fact that those are the only options often alarms me, because I’m actively buying into the illusion that other people are absent without my motivation to initiate the interaction and the technological media I have (or don’t) to access them.