Religion is both a complex and simple concept that has brought people together over its centuries of existence. As we move into a world that is increasingly secular, the clash between those who remain faithful to a religion and those who choose not to is fascinating to experience.
Although I don’t consider myself to be religious, I come from a family of two conventionally opposing religions: Hinduism and Islam. My mother has an Islamic background and my father has a Hindu one. My name is derived from both Urdu and Hindi. Neither side of my family has strong religious inclinations but certain members are more devout than others.
Having lived the past eight years in Mumbai, I have been aware of the Hindu-Muslim conflict at its strongest through consuming Indian media. The fact that people are so defined by their religion confuses me, and it makes me wonder if religion is a defining characteristic of us as human beings.
While attending a summer program with a course on the stock market at Columbia University (a topic I soon realized was of absolutely no interest to me), I chanced upon a religious conundrum in the bustling, artsy and liberal city of New York. A close friend of mine in the program was from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. She had lived there her whole life and aspired to attend university in America in a couple years.
At first glance, one would presume she was a devout Muslim girl, simply because she wore a hijab every day—yet as her personality unraveled, she truly embraced the coined term “21st century Muslim.” She never failed to impress me with the immaculate selection of hijabs that so effortlessly matched her wardrobe.
One day I asked her if I could wear her hijab for a day and she sprinted to grab me a hijab. I wanted to explore how the hijab made me feel as a young woman and whether it caused any internal disturbance or external (i.e., social) disruption. I walked down the streets I had been walking every day with her, took the subway and finally arrived at an Italian restaurant when finally I felt slightly at peace. It’s challenging to explain the glances that I received but they made me slightly uncomfortable. For two weeks, I had strolled the same streets and never realized the looks that she received; I was rather shocked by my obliviousness and inability to see something that was clearly right in front of me. “Does this happen to you often?” “Yeah.”
I began to relate this event back to India, a very diverse, multi-religious country, and looked at the religious dynamics in a place that I was truly familiar with. I soon came to realize that religion, however indistinctly, played a role in several news articles, conversations, and even descriptions to generalize areas.
That said, where it plays the largest role is in sport; the famed sport, cricket, that every Indian (myself included) is a die-hard fan of. At the international high school that I attended in Mumbai, there were several individuals who possessed as much knowledge of cricket as I did of baseball, which is to say, close to zero. During the World Cup in 2011 my school played only one game, the India-Pakistan Semifinal match. I agree it was a very patriotic game but I have always questioned why those two teams. The symbolic meaning behind India-Pakistan is not just between two countries but also between two religions. There are several people who I know who don’t care much about the religious politics that play a huge role in India, but somehow and in some way begin to get truly nationalistic when India defeats Pakistan in a game of cricket.
What I find bothersome with that mentality is that therein lies a sense of superiority and that a country, however diverse it is, as in the case of Pakistan, can be boxed in and categorized into one religion. What my multi-religious background and time in India have taught me is that the extent to which you practice religion should depend solely on you and does not speak for you or define you in any way. Breaking the barriers set by the traditional religious backgrounds that our ancestors passed on to us and bending them to our desired lifestyle is the most exciting part about our current generation.
There is no need to stigmatize a country or a person just for their religion, because their religion and their practices are essentially personal matters. We have the ability to adapt and truly take advantage of the small world that we live in while respecting those who share it with us. By allowing those who choose to be religious to follow their path and not make assumptions about them, we can build a world that has true religious harmony.
Sanam Godbole is a member of the Class of 2019.