I have always believed in God. For me, God is a supernatural power that keeps a track of the good and bad things in life. I believe that religion and faith is a personal thing, and I don’t like to talk much about it. I follow what I like, and believe that other people should have the same right. I grew up in a religious family, and to a great extent, we believed in customs and rituals and superstitions. And growing up, a lot of festivals and celebrations were related to specific religious reasons, so a lot of traditions that I like are centered around religious festivals.
One such festival is Navratras – it’s basically a 9 day festival twice a year when people worship Goddess Durga and her multiple forms, and of course, the victory of good over evil. When I was a little kid, I started fasting during Navratras. I don’t exactly know when or why. My family mentions that I started fasting when I was 6 or 7 years old, even though nobody else at home did, and I continued to do that till a few years ago. I have a lot of fond memories of fasting during Navratras and on some other major Indian festivals from the time I lived at home. In my college hostel, special food was provided during this festival, so I continued to fast. And then, I moved to the US almost five years ago. It was hard to fast everyday, so I started fasting only for the first and last day. I’m a vegetarian by choice, so I would refrain from eggs and alcohol during those nine days.
Since the last year or so, I have been questioning the reasons for my fasting. As I look back and try to understand why I fasted, the earliest memory is striking a deal with God that this is something that I would do, and in return, I wanted God to grant whatever I wanted at that time. My wishes varied – from a stable job for my dad, to peace at home, to doing well during exams, to a relationship working out with one of my boyfriends, and so on. At times, I was just thankful for what I had, and didn’t demand anything from God, and again fasting was my way of expressing gratitude. I think that religion was my family’s way of dealing with our situation, of somehow thinking that things can change if we try hard enough and God is happy with us.
Another thing that I remember was that I told people that I fast and/or pray regularly, people have always appreciated that and that made me feel like on a moral high ground, that I was a good person. I still pray everyday, but I choose not to mention it to people anymore – it’s just a way of life for me and I like to start my day with a small prayer. While I was being religious and following all these things, I also refused to follow some customs. For e.g., I continued to pray/fast/visit the temple when I was menstruating because I didn’t see any reason not to. I also would not care about showering before praying and other such rules.
The last few years have been specially tough for me, academically and personally. I was always a good student and did well at school and my struggle through graduate school and the PhD degree have led to low self confidence and self esteem over time. To add to that, there has been the adjustment to growing up, living independently, and dealing with a complicated relationship. I have also started questioning everything that I grew up with and the popular culture and values surrounding me now, which adds to constant internal conflict and a feeling of alienation.
One of these conflicts that has come up has been my religious values. I have recently realized that a part of what I follow is driven by fear. When I think about things logically, it seems like we have made God into this strict warden who will punish you if you don’t follow certain rules and rituals. For e.g., when I was living at home, we were told not to cut hair/nails/etc. on specific days of the week; and if you did, a minor thing that would go wrong that day would be attributed to being punished for not following that rule. Or now, if I would eat eggs/drink alcohol on any specific religious day, God will punish me with consequences. When I think about it logically, it makes no sense.
But there is this fear that what if I do something and things do go wrong. I’m exhausted dealing with all that I have to, and really don’t want to add anything on to it. And maybe there’s also a guilt for not following the specific rituals that I have cherished over the years. This time, I will be in San Diego during Navratras. While I’m OK not fasting, initially, I was considering not following any dietary restrictions.. A few weeks ago, I mentioned it to my mom and she freaked out. One of the things she said during that conversation was, “You’ve done so much for so many years, why do you want to ruin everything now?!” And that made me think, I did all this earlier out of choice – it was my way of negotiating with God, and/or thanking God. But I’m not sure if I feel the same way now. I have come to a point in life where I feel that as long as I’m a good human being and kind to other people, that should be enough. And even if I want to do something, it should be out of choice rather than compulsion. But I feel that I’m not brave enough to actually live with this decision and still continue to do things based on my earlier beliefs..
Over the last year, there are also times that I have questioned God’s existence. When I see human rights abuses and discrimination and the amount of cruelty that human beings show towards other people, I feel that God can’t exist. If God existed, there wouldn’t be so much pain and suffering in the world. But that’s a totally different story, and I don’t want to go into that right now.