Finding Faith: How I Discovered Religion When I Left India

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Finding Faith: How I Discovered Religion When I Left India

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

n the 1995 neo-noir film, The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey’s character tells his interrogators: Keaton always said, “I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.” Once upon a time, I agreed with that sentiment entirely.

I used to be one of those people, who told people at parties that I didn’t believe in organised religion, but that I did believe in some higher power, even though I didn’t know what it was. It’s like avoiding a route after a black cat has crossed your path – as a rational human being you don’t believe in it, but you don’t want to offend it, whatever “it” is.

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It was a comfortable position to be in, especially since my family and social circle never really immersed itself in religious life. My friends shrugged off religion with the same level of antipathy you reserve for a cup of Starbucks latte, or spoke with disdain about God. The peak of our religious participation would be at Diwali, when my grandfather would tell us to do the pooja and bhajan-kirtan. Even then, the goal was to try finish it as quickly as possible and rush to the celebrations and chaos outside.

Of course there is a twist in this tale.

Things took a turn when I moved to Edinburgh to study a couple of years ago. Within a couple of weeks of moving to the new place, I became friends with a group of people who were smart, funny, and incredibly fun. We organised dinners and constantly cooked for each other, spent long hours in the library together, and spent our weekends at local Scottish pubs. Most of the folks in my group were older, pursuing PhDs or masters programmes.

The last thing anyone could have expected, when I moved to the west, was that I’d somehow discover religion.

Most of them were also “practicing Catholics”, by which I mean that they took an active role in Catholic religious life. To my Dilliwala mind, this was a whole new world. In my entire time at Delhi University, I hadn’t met one person who spoke with enthusiasm about being religious. No young person I knew willingly attended religious ceremonies or valued it in their personal life. For so many of us, religion and all its attendant paraphernalia of ritual and ceremony, was tolerated at best, derided at worst.

But here I was, in the west, hanging with a bunch of university students submerged and excited about religion being an active part of their lives.

My closest friends belonged to a Catholic movement called Communion and Liberation (CL). In my experience, CL played out as weekly meetings called the School of Community, where CL members in a particular area met to discuss a prescribed religious text and reflect through its lens on their own life and experiences. They discussed and debated, sang songs, and through it all, attempted to find some answers to philosophical and moral questions we face during everyday existence. The meeting ended with a prayer, and in the case of my friends, led to dinner and beer before calling it a night. Other aspects of the religious life mostly included going to the church for mass on Sundays, weekly charity work, and going on spiritual retreats.

The last thing anyone, including me, could have expected when I moved to the west was that I’d somehow discover religion.  

Hungry for new experiences, I decided to participate in the CL life and educate myself. I found a sense of community and belonging that I’ve rarely found at any other point in my life. Even though most Indian religions are premised on the idea of community, I’d never actually experienced it back home. With my CL friends and their community, I truly experienced the feeling of kinship. I never attended mass but was always welcome to the Sunday dinner that followed it; I wasn’t a regular at the School of Community, but if I chose to talk, my views were always respected and no opinions were forced. I was never asked to contribute or participate in any way than I felt greater than my reach, and mostly always went because my friends did, and in turn discovered something even more beautiful.

I used to be one of those people, who told people at parties that I didn’t believe in organised religion, but that I did believe in some higher power.

CL has a beautiful tradition of sitting together and singing, and that pumped life into spaces we would occupy. Food would always be an essential accompaniment (but I mean most people were Italian). Homes were always open, help extended even before one could ask for it, and a love without conditions pervaded.

At one point, someone who shared my earlier indifference to religion, told us, “It’s nice, but still weird to see you so into it.”

“Into what,” my friend asked, “into believing in something?”

That’s when the penny dropped. Belief in something – anything – is what undergirds our lives. It anchors us to an idea, offers us an understanding of the world that goes beyond our immediate selves.

Communities are formed on the basis of shared belief, and hence the “belonging” is bound to shine. How then did faith become something that is so highly idolised, yet so deeply misinterpreted and misunderstood? Growing up in a world where religion has been used to spread hate and terror, bag votes in politics, used as an excuse to maim, murder, and kill, how do we understand it in a context apart from that, to love and be loved? Where do we draw the line?

That said, maybe organised religious life is beneficial to a community – maybe it isn’t. Heaven knows it’s caused enough trouble in the past. I only know that in my small experience of it, it has only led to harmony and calm for everyone involved. To try and open up our minds.

I found that to simply say that I believe in something was not enough. But reminding myself through certain practices and a sense of rigour of a faith I would like to hold on to – and in turn finding love and belonging – was much more than enough. I can say with assurance now that faith can be a positive lens to see my life through.

Now back in India, I visit the temple every Tuesday and, surrounded by grandparents of all shapes and sizes, stay for the entire prayer. I’ve no special affinity for the Gods or the idols they are represented by, and neither do I buy the boondi ka prasad. But it just acts as a reminder of an idea: I set aside a special time every week to remember that I am being looked after and am grateful for my life. I’m nowhere close to an answer, and don’t think I ever will be. But part of the charm is that it’s always going to evolve.  

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