Finding My Religion

Yes, I’m playing with the title of that R.E.M. song

I wouldn’t say I grew up in a religious household, and by that I mean that religion was never really an expectation. Well, it was an expectation, but I wasn’t expected to “believe” anything per se. It was more a part of a routine. Something that we practiced as a family.

Going to other Indian households in the States and seeing similar home-temples (we call mandirs) in my friend’s house only reinforced the idea that everyone just happened to sing the same aarthis and light the same diyas that we did. I don’t even think it registered to me, until I was in first or second grade, that being Indian and Hindu was different from being “American” and Christian. The realization only really struck me when I was enrolled in a private Episcopalian school in Portland, Oregon for Kindergarten.

The Oregon Episcopal School was, and I’m sure still is, a very special place. It was the first place that I encountered uniforms, school traditions, cafeteria lunches, and after school care. The school also boasted a truly eclectic group of individuals, and we found a way to celebrate everyone. I remember some of the Irish childrens’ moms organized a leprechaun hunt on St. Patrick’s Day one year, and a Jewish mother brought in a menorah collection during Hanukkah. We even had an Indian clothing fashion show during an assembly, when I was in second grade. At its core, however, it was an Episcopalian school, and thus also the first place where I engaged with a religion outside of Hinduism.

Sure I’d seen movies where people got married in white dresses instead of red, and had friends who wore cross necklaces and had names that were easier to pronounce, but until arriving at OES, all of these things seemed like choices. Of course, in a sense, they are, but I perceived them as less racially, religiously, and ethnically-charged choices. If I wanted to have a white dress when I got married, then I’d do it. If I wanted to name my child Sarah instead of Saumya, then I could.

With this blurred perception of the now apparent divides in the world around me, I happily marched into the chapel every Tuesday to hear the school preacher speak. As far as I was concerned, it was just as much a part of school life as Spanish class, and because this was my first school after Pre-K, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I remember that the preacher was a woman, and I remember her always adjusting her stories so that we would find them more interesting.

Whenever I think of OES, I think of one particular sermon that she delivered. She spoke of a cat that she named “Sophia the Princess of Power”. Sophia’s struggle, in this story, was over a plastic ring taped to either a cereal box or some other container. It was a prize and she was greedy. There might have been conflict with another cat, and there might have been some message about how greed was a vice, but all I remember, to this day, is that this woman had a cat named “Sophia the Princess of Power”.

Our chapel, if I remember correctly, had days where the whole school — either elementary, middle, or high school, would gather for a service. Once you reached first grade, you got to be a part of the elementary school gathering, and sometimes even the whole school gathering. The chapel was beautiful, with high ceilings, wooden interiors, and surprisingly comfortable pews. Around Christmas time, the choir and bell-ringing group would perform at the altar, which lit up the room in a way only song can do. During other times of the year, our singing had to do the job, accompanied by the giant church organ that sat just behind the altar. I remember being able to see where the brass pipes let out, but never having a clear view of who was playing.

To ensure that we sang on cue, we were taught to navigate the hymn books set in the pews. During music classes, along with more typical children’s music, we would learn to sing the songs of God. I remember a few better than others. There was one about being the apple of God’s eye, and there was the classic “our father who art in heaven”, which I now know is called the Lord’s Prayer. That last one I had even learned in sign language while in Kindergarten. I don’t remember how to sign it anymore.

When I was in first grade, walking into the chapel was overwhelming and exciting. We went in first, because we were the youngest, and the older kids would all pour in after us. When we entered, the preacher looked at us and instructed us on how she would signal us to kneel and stand up, hold our hands in praying or pick up our books. I immediately froze, unsure what she meant by “hands in prayer”. She walked up to me and asked me how I prayed at home, and I showed her how my mother had taught me to press my hands together, namaskar. She told me that was perfect and to do just that, even if other people were doing their own thing. That made me feel so welcome.

I used to eat up the stories from the Bible, an avid lover of stories as I was, and I would go home and tell my parents what I’d heard in chapel. They seemed to enjoy how much I was enjoying church.

While singing, standing, praying, and sitting were all important to church, there was one thing that almost distracted me from just about anything else that we did. The acolytes.

Oh my gosh. The acolytes were by far the coolest and most important people in the entire ceremony. There were always three, always second graders. They got to wear long flowing robes, white with intricate embroidery, along with colorful satin stoles, depending on the time of year. The one in the middle carried the cross on a staff, while the ones on either side of the wide-based triangular formation held candles. When it was time for the service to begin, the organ would play music and we would all stand up and watch the acolytes make their way down the aisle. They stared straight ahead at the altar, undisturbed by their giggling friends or the gawking glares of the younger students. They were amazing. I was always jealous. Once they reached the altar, they would place their respective staffs in a holder, and then, in synchrony, turn and be seated right at the front of the pews, where the preacher and some teachers sat.

When I reached second grade, the prospect of being an acolyte was all I could think about, and I soon learned that they went in order of birthday. I was born in June, so I had to wait a long time, but I got to hear stories from many of my friends in the meantime. “The robe was so itchy” one of my friends said. “The candle went out when I was practicing,” another laughed. That’s right. This was a role so sacred, that one had to PRACTICE. Amazing. When it was my turn, my parents came to school to watch me. I was one of the candle holders, but probably the proudest one there ever was. I don’t think I ever felt that important at the age of eight. It was the peak of my second-grade career.

The Episcopalian nature of the school also manifested in a few other ways. There was a day everyone was invited to bring their pets to school to have them blessed. I drew a picture of my rabbit for the ceremony, but I remember one girl bringing in two horses. “How are they going to get in the chapel?” I thought to myself.

Ash Wednesday and Lent were also a big deal.

The cross that was traced on my forehead at the end of Ash Wednesday services reminded me of the scarlet teeka that my mom put on my head each time we prayed as a family. At the time, I used to wipe it off, embarrassed and unwilling to explain why it had been placed on my forehead. On Ash Wednesdays, however, I saw people all over school bearing their ashen crosses in confidence. I wore mine too, silently noting the tinge of jealousy I felt. It actually took me years to be comfortable with wearing a teeka in the States, perhaps because of how it labeled me as “an other”, or someone different. I didn’t like being different, or at least I didn’t like being reminded that I was.

The whole concept of giving something up for Lent must’ve seemed a bit extreme for elementary schoolers, so the preacher asked us to instead refrain from saying “Hallelujah” until Easter. The giggle-fits and looks of pained restraint that we tossed out while veering away from this forbidden fruit were honestly hilarious. It was almost treated like a swear word at that time of year, not that we knew any.

I do remember that the word “Hell” was found etched into a bathroom stall when I was in first grade. None of us, however, dared to say the word. The rumor that spread was thus more along the lines of, “someone wrote H-E-double hockey sticks in the bathroom!” Those who weren’t great spellers, missed out. Those who understood went on pilgrimages to the bathroom to steal a glance of the scandal for themselves.

There were also days when the ideas of the chapel made it into our classroom, although this was not often. When I was in Kindergarten, our class pet, a black and white guinea pig named Happy, passed away. I don’t think most of us realized that Happy had died until we saw our teacher’s puffy red eyes and heard her sniffles one cool spring morning. Later that afternoon, the preacher came to our classroom and sat down with us for a special edition of circle time. She showed us a book that talked about loss and moving on. All I remember from the book was an illustration of two butterfly wings, detached and floating in the breeze. “Happy has moved on,” she said, smiling warmly. We looked at her with blank faces. Our teacher sniffled once more.

When I was in third grade I moved to public school, partially because OES was very far from my house and I didn’t have any friends that were neighbors. Chapel wasn’t a regular part of the Findley Elementary school curriculum. It was a little strange.

I moved to India when I was ten years old and just about to start fifth grade. Moving closer to my roots meant that my Hindi got better, and I connected with my culture in a much more immersive way. I had school holidays for Diwali and Holi. Almost all of our neighbors knew what these holidays were, and we were invited for pujas, or prayer ceremonies, at other people’s houses. Often I’d see temples and statues of Gods in the streets, and sometimes we’d even go to these temples outside of our home. Most people wore a teeka at some time or another. Some wore them everyday.

Being in Bangalore, I also saw a lot of crosses marking where Churches were, and minarets where Mosques stood. I heard the call to prayer from a Mosque near my home on days I didn’t have school, and smelled the incense from mandirs during evening walks around my neighborhood. Religion, as I’ve experienced it in India, has a chance to blossom and flourish in communities in a way I had never seen in Portland’s Beaverton district. It was everywhere. It was comforting.

Like I said before, religion was never imposed on me. My mother taught me the songs and names I needed to know to partake in prayers, which I mostly thought of as family time more than God time, but also took the time to explain what we were doing. When I ate a hamburger as a child, my parents explained to me that I could if I wanted to, but also explained that our ancestors didn’t eat beef because they saw cows as a very useful animal — providing milk, and power for transportation. When we’d sing and ring bells, my mother explained to me how the vibrations could help you connect to those around you and lift your spirit. When we went to ancient stone temples, she asked me to imagine what those songs would sound like echoing powerfully through the halls.

My dad often says, “Hinduism isn’t really a religion, it’s more of a lifestyle.” As with every lifestyle, you can make choices on what works for you and what doesn’t. At this point in my life, I’ve come to find that I like eating chicken, regardless what day of the week it is, but I will restrain myself if I know that there’s a religious festival, and my family thousands of miles away is doing the same. I use it as a point of connect. I use it to feel closer to my roots, and the people in both my culture and my family.

I carried this analytical approach to religion with me to college, where I took up an additional major in English literature. When you’re reading English literature from most eras, you’re basically reading either religion or religious derivations. So many allusions come from mythology or the Bible, and so many motivations are explained through religious theories.

Interestingly enough, I wound up reading more from the Bible in college than I ever did at OES. Many of my peers came from Christian or Jewish communities and were more familiar with concepts ranging from an “Old Testament God” to Original Sin. Many of these stories existed in the back of my head, albeit trapped in the claws of allegorical cats, but I worked hard to catch up and make sure I was on the same page. It was the ultimate exercise in exploring intertextuality, and I deem myself mentally stronger from it.

Coming to Thailand, the first non-secular country I’ve lived in, gave me a chance to experience religion in an oddly familiar way.

Buddhism’s links to Hinduism, and Thai’s roots in Sanskrit, has given me some interesting — sometimes unexpected — access points to Thai culture. When I see people holding their hands together in a Wai, and bowing to touch their heads in front of a Buddha statue, I get it. When people go to temples and light incense, and pace around the perimeter a certain number of times, I get it. More than that, I get why people go to the wats here, even if they aren’t the most religious people in the world. It’s what their parents did. It’s what the community does.

In college, when I felt frustrated or disconnected, I would often follow my friends to churches and temples. One of my closest college friends had a love for religious buildings, and towards the end of my college career I went with her to both Ash Wednesday services and visits to the S.V. Temple in Pittsburgh. Both of these spaces included routines that I either hadn’t followed in a while, or didn’t know, but that didn’t seem to matter. I was fortunate enough to be guided through my confusion and have the chance to just be, in a room with others that wanted the same.

There was one Ash Wednesday when I went through a sort of existential crisis. I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, and I couldn’t find the strength to work through the day, and so I apologized to my professors and braved the journey across the street to the Old Gothic Cathedral closest to me. For the first ten minutes I felt like an imposter, someone who had walked into a club that they didn’t belong to, but I remembered holding my hands together as an eight-year-old, and did the same. The anxiety I felt, being there alone, confused, and mentally distressed, was soon soothed by singing voices and solemn chants. I barely listened to a word that was said, but I took in every ounce of connection that I felt that day. It was cathartic. Having the cross drawn on my forehead grounded me back to that grand Chapel at OES, before taking me back further to my mother dotting my forehead with damp vermillion powder. The spirit of the building and those in it made me feel safe, I didn’t have to answer to anyone, and no one could find me if I didn’t want to be found.

When teachers tell me about religious ceremonies here, in Thailand, I almost always ask to come along and carefully follow their lead through rituals that they’ve done so many years in a row. While we bow our heads in some places, and are allowed to chatter in others, the connect I feel is unlike anything else. There is something surreal about the submission of autonomy to something that may or may not exist. To be sure that one must light three incense sticks, no more and no less, and that one must wear either all black or all white while mourning. It’s a kind of suspension of disbelief that breaks barriers, and forces you to focus your energy somewhere outside of your own life for a short period of time.

I wouldn’t call myself religious, but I am a very spiritual person, and I do believe that there is value in channeling your energy towards something, be it a God or something else. The sense of community and connect that you receive in return is just a bonus — the company of others that are trying to make sense of the world around them, in an accessible, welcoming environment. I see nothing wrong with seeking a little guidance when you’re in doubt, and I think it should be up to an individual to decide where they need that guidance from. For some it might be an elaborate ceremony, with rhythmic chants and fragrant flower offerings. For some, it might be a naughty cat with her eye on a shiny plastic ring.

This blog, medium.com/@aatal, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Apeksha Atal and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations

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Apeksha Atal

Apeksha Atal

Trying to make sense of the world, one word at a time