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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 was partly because the road trip was for a specific purpose: to travel not simply in pursuit of freedom and friendship, but to see the guru of the particular Hindu sect to which our families belong. The guru, who was visiting from India, was stopping at temples in all the cities we had originally planned to visit, and we were going in tow of the celebrations and the religious services that would ensue. These services began as early as 5:30 a.m., and to really have a view of the stage where the morning prayers took place, you had to arrive around 4:30 a.m. In Atlanta, as it turned out, we were staying with my friend’s generous relatives in a house full of people who were also trying to make it to the temple early. So my friend and I would rise from our comforters on the floor around 2:30 a.m. to beat the traffic in the bathroom, breeze through our own prayers, and drive with scratchy eyes through the cool summer dawn to the temple, where we stayed until late night. The calendar exuberantly projected the end of this trip around my college move-in date, almost a month and a half later. We came home in a week, our zeal wrung clean out of us.
My friend and road trip companion had once written and mailed me an essay about why, after several teenage years flitting in and out of the religious community, she would go to college with a newly consecrated faith in God. She concluded by inviting readers to ask her more about it. “I’m not afraid to tell you,” she had written, a bold declaration at the end of a long essay with narrow margins and abundant exclamation marks. Despite a certain evanescence falling off the pages, it was one of the ripest modern understandings of God that I had ever read. I was thoroughly enamored by her and her spitfire, fiercely noble personality; I molded my relationship with religion after hers.
But college extended, in a way, the exhaustion I felt in Atlanta. It’s hard to pinpoint what changed and when in the coming months. I rarely saw her, and something about our convictions felt distant and inapplicable in the college world, where people believed so differently and so strongly that to insist on the truth of anything at all was to use shimmering cobwebs to hold back a ship. I called my friend less often and stopped leaving long messages in her voicemail. The tight twine of religion that held our friendship together finally let loose. I think she felt that too, because we never talked about that essay.
In college I began to study religion. I made my closest friends in Dharma, Harvard’s Hindu students’ organization, with whom I often discussed religion. To every one of these encounters, I brought with me a bit of her and the faith we shared: Seeing the best in people. Acceptance. Curiosity. Experiencing a living, loving God. A love of nature, of indie, folksy pop, of Christian worship music.
But from every single one of my encounters I also took something away: a realization that my tiredness was of waking up for a straight week at 2:30 a.m., and not of religion in general, which had always been, and continued to be, filling for me. A contempt for doing things for the optics. A discipline, a manner of practice that gave my days some structure. A reverence for the potency of a dissenting opinion. Most importantly, perhaps, a glimpse of a future where I can teach my children something of both worlds — of the unbridled impulse to road trip, the warmth and fellowship of a temple and its rituals, in addition to the quiet introspection, strident individualism, and courage required to assert belief.
My years in college have tempered those insular exclamations and universalizing flourishes, which felt so young and impractical. The mechanism by which this has happened: the power of discernment. I know now that I can take everything I have — from my beloved friend and our symbolically failed road tripping to my growing appreciation of Hindu literature and art, from my new close friends and daily practices to the wealth of my everyday experiences — and sift for joy and truth without doing away with any of it. I can know what makes me tired about religion without jumping on the bandwagon criticisms that are often levied against religious communities; I can know what and whom I would drive across the country to see without worrying about whether the front row will have filled up. The sifting isn’t just a fancy way of talking about convenient choices. It’s a way of making meaning even when the convictions don’t fit the context, because there is a commitment to shaping the context and not the conviction. It’s not a small thing to know what you want.
I have a photo of the two of us on the last day of our road trip, the day we drove back to St. Louis from Atlanta. I’m holding my phone, perhaps I’m setting up the navigation or getting ready to play some acoustic song. I don’t know what either of us expected of the future; all I know is that both of us were looking forward to getting some sleep. As a semester unlike any I have known coughs and sputters in its final moments, I, too, am looking forward to some rest.
Pranati P. Parikh ’21 is a joint Religion and Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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