Although my family hails from Kerala, the beautiful southern coastal state famous for its backwaters, snake-boat races and Ayurveda, I was born and brought up in the the cosmopolitan city of Bangalore. My family consists of my parents, my older brother and his wife. Currently, I am working on my PhD in anthropology and live in a picturesque town in Germany called Heidelberg. With its cobblestone streets, the castle and the Neckar river and with my bicycle as a constant companion, I couldn’t have asked for a better home.
For those of us who don’t know, could you tell us about the basic tenets of Hinduism?
Known as the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism has a history so ancient that it maybe difficult for someone who hasn’t “studied” it to even begin defining it.
One of its distinctive attributes is its openness to the differences in defining one’s adherence to the faith. There is no single religious text that is the basis for the faith but a combination of them. The Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanischads and the epics are all important religious texts but are also open to interpretation by different groups of followers.
Amongst the various tenets of Hinduism, the one that is closest to me is the law of Karma. Described in many ways by other religions too, Hinduism believes that you are sure to reap what you sow, and that your actions determine the outcome.
Another aspect of the religion I really like is the importance given to animals and nature. I think when one speaks of the wind god, the sun god and the like, the meaning is metaphorical. When there is no respect for other creatures or towards nature, the effects are there for all to see.
What are the biggest misconceptions about Hindus?
I think the biggest misconception about Hinduism is that one can make generalizations about beliefs. Hinduism is ancient, vast and has innumerable sects and includes so many gods and goddesses, that what is a rule or belief for one need not hold true for someone else.
When one talks about the concepts of vegetarianism, wearing the bindi on the forehead, dowry, celebrations like Diwali or Holi, there really are no absolutes. Hinduism allows and accounts for diversity in the people practicing it. All Hindus are not vegetarian; all Hindus are not expected to visit the temple and you’re not “pulled up” if you don’t visit one.
How would you define your relationship with your faith?
As a child I was taught Sanskrit and Malayalam prayers by my grandmother. I went to the temple to offer prayers on important festivals. But the relationship did not stay static. I went through what I see as a typical life cycle of someone trying to understand how faith fits into their lives.
I questioned a lot of things as a teenager, flirted with atheism, explored the nuances of other religions and believed that secularism and religion did not go together. Now, I am comfortable with the idea of ‘Hindu’ being one of my multiple identities. My beliefs and faith are rooted in the early lessons that I learnt from my grandmother. Being the strong, fantastic lady that she was, her attitude towards being a Hindu has most definitely shaped mine.
I have a loose adherence to religion. A temple visit nowadays, with the smell of incense, vermillion, fresh jasmine flowers, and music takes me back to some of my most defining memories of growing up. It gives me a sense of comfort and a feeling of being close to my grandmother. I have also realised that religion doesn’t necessarily have to be equated with dogma. It can engage you, make you reflect and push you to be a more positive influence on the world around you.
Have you ever questioned your faith or considered a different religion?
Yes! I did question my faith a lot as a young adult. I also toyed with the idea of converting to Buddhism.
I now realize that my own religion gives me the space and freedom to explore multiple ideas and to find my own interpretations of the faith using the vast references that are available within Hinduism. I also enjoy reading philosophy and I think Hinduism gives me a lot of room to think about my role in life and the path that I choose. I do still enjoy reading about other religions and their beliefs very much.
I know that you live in Germany now. Has it been difficult to find a temple? How do people react to your faith?
I have not made the effort to find a temple in Germany. While I was in India in the past year doing field work on my PhD, I did get curious and googled locations of temples in Germany. But I haven’t visited one here as yet. I look at a place of worship as being incidental in my faith. I do enjoy spending time at one if there happens to be one close by. Else, I can read and meditate in my home as well.
I have not had any strong reactions to my faith. Most of the questions I am confronted with are stereotypical ones posed to people who are Indian- about arranged marriages, the caste system and untouchability. I happen to be vegetarian and have been so throughout my life. In social situations, people who have met me for the first time always ask if my motivation in being a vegetarian is rooted in my religious beliefs.
What does your belief system bring to your life?
I think I realized at some point that the faith you follow becomes what you make of it. That is why there are such different interpretations of the same religion across the world. To me, Hinduism and the interpretations that I make of my faith prompt me to re-evaluate my relationships, my sense of self and even my motivations for my actions. To me, religion and more importantly my faith is personal. It is one of the innumerable influences that have shaped my identity but it certainly does not solely dictate my life or the choices I make.
Any advice for people interested in exploring Hinduism?
A fun book that I really enjoyed reading is Sanjay Patel’s wonderfully illustrated ‘The Little Book of Hindu Deities’. There is intrigue and drama in all of the stories surrounding our Gods and Goddesses, and Sanjay wonderfully introduces us to them.
Another book that is easily available with translations in many languages is the Bhagavad Gita. Considered as one of Hinduism’s most popular holy texts, the Gita (as it is otherwise known) consists of the lessons of life that Lord Krishna imparts to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Being metaphorical, I find it a good book to carry around and dip into for snippets of wisdom.
I also highly recommend the epics- Ramayana and Mahabharata for sheer drama and theatrics. For those with a taste for a writing style that pushes the boundaries, I would suggest that you grab Ashok Banker’s wonderfully imaginative series on the Ramayana.
Are any of you Hindu? Any questions for Sri?