People Living with Mental Illness are Giants Among Us

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Giants Among Us

     What if we lived in a world where people literally grew in stature from experiencing tough moments in life? Imagine a place where we couldn’t look down on men and women struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, where we couldn’t frown upon suicidal thoughts or therapy or vulnerability – because we’d be looking up in admiration at giants among us. I’d like to live in that kind of world. A world where we stood in awe of people who carried pain, indeed gave way when they walked in the room, whispering to each other: “hey, there goes a giant. Damn, I respect them.” I caught a glimpse of such a world a few weeks ago at our first annual MannMukti retreat.

MannMukti (“mental liberation”) has been live as an organization for a year now. I’ve been working on it since even earlier – pulling together thoughts and ideas into a tangible avenue for change since summer of 2016. We’ve grown from a staff of 4 to 23, added volunteers, and garnered thousands of followers online. But perhaps the most impactful moment of this journey to-date has been a weekend we shared in April together. About 17 of MannMukti’s members stayed together at a rented house in Austin, TX. We shared laughs and meals, but more importantly we shared experiences in safe spaces. Comforted by the knowledge that everyone present acknowledged the validity and normalcy of mental health experiences, I believe we opened up in unprecedented ways to each other over the course of a weekend. It started on Saturday evening.

As part of the weekend, we hosted MannMukti’s first major event, titled Slam the Stigma, where we brought in 5 speakers with diverse personal and professional experiences with mental illness to share their story. The speeches were followed by a panel and an incredible open mic portion where audience members spoke, through poetry and through the heart, about what they had experienced that connected them forever to mental health. I initially started MannMukti because I lost a friend to mental illness issues, and I had my own struggles with bulimic behavior throughout the years, but I always felt I was privileged with my mental wellness. On that day, I truly realized that privilege.

I sat gripped to my seat in awe during the final portion as people grabbed mics in confident fists and moved mouths that told jarring stories. I saw giants rise up in front of my eyes as they spoke of pain abuse struggle strength pain. They grew in stature with each sentence until there was no space left in the room for judgement – so we simply respected them for their truth instead. I closed my eyes and fell into darkness, grasping for handholds of peace amongst all the pain I heard, but the giants didn’t need that. They had learned long ago to walk along the Earth pacifying pain and penalizing peace, holding those two impostors in the same hand.

We returned to the house after an emotional evening of tears, and I expected to come back to a quiet home, shaken by the stories of stigma we’d just lived through. When I stepped in the house music was blaring. People were laughing and dancing. I was dumbstruck by how we as a group had put aside the wounds and vulnerability of the past three hours for a typical Desi song and dance affair. My respect only grew. As the night outside grew darker, I stared out from the kitchen at a living room lit by the sheer brilliance of humans who were choosing to be happy despite fate’s attempts to steer them otherwise. I wished in that moment that the world could see us, could know that people who seek therapy or take medication laugh, even sing, like everyone else.

At brunch the next morning, we started to debrief about the previous night’s event. Every time someone said they wished that such a safe space/ event existed when they were in college, a profound doubt swelled up inside me: Could this have prevented my friend from passing away? Was he proud of what we were doing down here? Eventually, a banner was brought out from the previous night’s event, where people had written down an answer to the question: If You Could Go Back… what would you say to yourself or your friend that was dealing with mental illness? As we read through the answers slowly, memories of last night and last life poured out as the floodgates opened – no, prose won’t do our feelings justice:

Tears not from our eyes, taps

Direct connect to project

Hurt, with so much history

From the soul out to the sun

Rivers flow – words waiting for release

If we could only make this stigma cease

We swim through the tears

To meet with our fears

Know that on this day we are

We simply are

No designations of disorders

Nor shame from judgmental orders

When I was born, my eyes

They looked like this

My smile,

It curved like this

My heart,

That pounded like this

Know me for these or know me not at all

Either way, I just

Exist.

Long after others had left the table, I remained there crying unstoppably. All this time, we had been running this organization to reduce the stigma of mental health in the South Asian community. I hadn’t realized that stigma existed on two levels. We had been talking all this time about the external level, a dark cloud of silence that had settled over the South Asian community. We thought our job was to use MannMukti as a pair of scissors to cut through this inescapable net and free people from stigma. But stigma exists at another level – it exists within each one of us as we internalize the attitudes of the external community. A devilish little specter deep inside that whispers in the weak moments: you’re not normal, you don’t deserve happiness the same way, you’ll never be understood. As I cried that day, I felt this little specter had been banished from within each of us who came together to be truly understood and seen over that weekend. Doing good by just one person makes a life worth living, and I felt like we all had done good by many that weekend.

       As we started packing and settling into cars so we could leave Austin, I circled outside in the bright light, gazing at the people I had shared this weekend with. Giants I had looked up to for the past 48 hours went back to their regular sizes. Out of courtesy for the world outside, they confined their strength and power to a singular glint in their eyes. So the next time you speak with someone who shares their mental illness experience with you, treat them with respect and support because if you look closely, you’ll see the glint in their eyes. You’re walking among giants.

This post is in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, MannMukti’s one-year anniversary, our first annual retreat, and all the people who’ve engaged with MannMukti in the past year –  you’ve changed my life and many others with your support. 

Go to MannMukti.org today and take the pledge here to help end mental health stigma! Help us change minds to better our world!

 

*Views expressed are entirely my own and do not constitute an official MannMukti statement

 

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My Lessons from Dr. King

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On Saturday, late into the night, I was uncharacteristically sad. Aiming to numb my mind with a generous heaping of Facebook memes and articles that I would “save for later” (really tho?), I opened up my browser. Many years ago, I had set my homepage to BBC.com at the suggestion of a dear friend – she said it would help frame the Internet as a place of learning instead of distraction. On Saturday night, it fulfilled this promise. One of the headlines on BBC was a commentary on the “greatest American speech,” an unplanned eulogy of MLK Jr. delivered by Robert Kennedy. Falling for the clickbait, I dived in. But I didn’t find the speech by RFK particularly inspiring. I opted instead for the source of those remarks, someone whom I admired greatly and whose 50th death anniversary our nation had just mourned. I found myself somehow on YouTube watching a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King was at his most poetic and prophetic, talking about his desire to do God’s will even if he couldn’t live forever, even if he couldn’t join us in the Promised Land. It was vastly unsettling that he spoke those words on the day before he was murdered. It was the type of unsettling that travels from the mind into the body, creating a knot of inexpressible feeling within your gut before it finally penetrates your soul, and makes you question everything you know. Suffice it to say, my sadness had been replaced by the requisite awe with which we are called upon to hear Dr. King’s oration.

I sat there in the dark on Saturday night, listening to King’s voice rise up and down, scolding me for seeing the blackness on skin instead of the darkness in the content of my character. As an Indian immigrant and an American citizen, I thought about my inability to place myself in the history of the civil rights movement. Should I venerate it for its similarities to Gandhi’s satyagraha? Should I find myself in a past life, as one of thousands of peoples of color standing at Dr. King’s marches? Should I acknowledge the racism and deeply ingrained colorism of my own community, my intimate family even? If I do so, am I still allowed to side with Dr. King today?

These questions with no answers settle in the recesses of our minds, only to appear in the too-rare moments of self-doubt that are profound enough to be termed “reflection”. I still didn’t have answers but I knew I loved the voice of this man Dr. King. So I found myself in that comfort zone on Saturday night, as I progressively watched more and more of King’s mountaintop speech. Earlier that day, I had to read passages from the Hebrew Bible for a class. For better or worse, the pervasiveness of my Divinity School education caused me to connect my reading to what I was hearing. I started to hear a greater significance in the mountaintop that he referred to, a placement of Dr. King as the Moses who would lead the enslaved and mistreated people of God to a promised land. A land that he would not attain: “I may not get there with you,” he so presciently said. Just as Moses could not go all the way to Israel. Goosebumps spread far and wide on me. I shut the laptop and laid in the darkness, pondering our untapped potential for goodness and Godliness. Do any of us struggle for the mountaintop anymore? Or do we simply circle around the base of the mountain, having a reverence for revolution without the courage to actually revolt?

Sunday and Monday passed by as routine days do. Tuesday morning I showed up to class characteristically late. I typed notes mindlessly as routine students do. The professor droned on, monotone, about the Hebrew Bible for 40 minutes before coming to a final point about the adaptation of the Jewish Exodus myth throughout histories and mediums. In an amazing stroke of coincidence, he started to talk about Dr. King’s mountaintop speech and its relation to Exodus. As he recited words from the final part of the speech, a hesitation snuck into his typically steady voice, which turned into a halting, and bloomed into full-blown tears. He had to excuse himself for a moment, and I was left utterly shocked. It was that same unsettling feeling from Saturday night. Something inside me was reeling. Here was an old white man working at Harvard University, easily vilified as an epitome of privilege, reduced to tears in front of his class by Dr. King’s words.

One of my classmates asked a few minutes later, “why was that so meaningful to you?” To this the professor responded in a simple honesty:

“I grew up in the segregated South and lived through the Civil Rights movement. That was an incredibly different time. I saw Dr. King bring together people from the extreme left and right. He gave me hope that progress was possible, and even if we’re in a dark tunnel today, I have hope because of Dr. King. When I visit my relatives in the South, I see the change with my own eyes. For him to make the speech foreseeing his death, to put himself in the place of Moses…”

He trailed off as tears overtook him again. Once composed, he was able to make a joke about his age and becoming more sensitive. He resumed all the demeanor of a man who used to be a Dean at Harvard, but with one concession – a crack in the veneer. Vision and connection for a few seconds between one human affected by, and many humans unaware of, the feeling of living alongside Dr. King. After class, I gave the professor a hug and thanked him for being real.

It was one of my favorite moments all year in Divinity School. Too often in the sterile idea chambers of these academic towers, we dehumanize ourselves and our subjects of study. In a misguided attempt to meet arbitrary scholarly standards, we press our capacities for feeling and emotion into a neat package and leave it at the classroom door. But this is frankly foolish in the Humanities. Another wise professor of mine recently said:

“All forms of study produce knowledge. The sciences and social sciences produce knowledge that is useful for others. The humanities, on the other hand, produces knowledge that transforms the knower. Transformation is the sole purpose.”

Similarly, too often in the daily mill of our lives, we allow our patterns to grind us into mere fractions of what we could be. With hamster-wheel cynicism, we refuse to believe that a book, or a movie, or a great human’s speech, could transform us, truly change our lives. Why not? When the words are as profound as a King’s, when our hearts are as open and vulnerable as my professor’s, why can’t we be transformed? Dr. King left us 50 years ago. But we have to pick up our burdens and journey on through the desert, for we are yet to reach the promised land where we may bask in the sunshine of King’s dream. Let us continue to be transformed, for King is far from a figure of history, but a judgement upon the living, urging us from within our hearts to satisfy his radical visions. We can start by listening.

Religion, Faith, and Hinduism in: Black Panther

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SPOILER ALERT! But really, if you haven’t seen Black Panther yet, YOU’RE WRONG!

Hopefully turning this into a series of blogs on finding the Hinduism in places you wouldn’t expect!

Black Panther, rightfully so, has been breaking box-office records all across the globe since its release in Mid-February. Yet, one country where it had a slight hiccup was India: one particular line in the movie was censored out. Immediately before his challenge fight with T’Challa, M’baku yells out “Glory to Hanuman!” in theaters across the world except in India. There he simply says “Glory to.”

Killmonger Meme

Is this the quality of your censorship?!

In the Black Panther comics, the name of M’Baku’s Ape God, the White Gorilla, is actually Gerkhe. The name in the movie was purposefully changed to Hanuman – a well-known Hindu deity (even one of Obama’s favorites!). Ironically, the largest Hindu-majority country in the world could not hear that reference because the censors felt it would offend Hindus. I, along with many other Hindus, disagree – hearing Hanuman actually gave me a small moment of pride in the theater. All this made me wonder: what other connections to Hinduism, religion, and faith, can we find in this incredibly complex (and badass) movie?

Apart from the obvious verbal reference to Hanuman by M’Baku, another deeper reference to Hanuman occurs later in the movie. After T’Challa has lost his fight to Killmonger, T’Challa’s remaining supporters, led by Nakia, make the trek to the Jabari mountain. As we know, when Nakia is walking up the mountain she is in possession of the magic herb that will eventually revive T’Challa. As she and her party walk in to meet the Jabari chief, we are greeted with a gorgeous vision of the mountain tribe’s living quarters. Lights become clear against the tranquil night sky, showing a starry collection of Jabari settlements across the surrounding mountain range. And above all these settlements, we see a gigantic sculpture cut in to the edge of the mountain: a great ape holding his arms high, supporting the rest of the mountain with his arms.

In the Hindu Ramayana story, Hanuman is a semi-divine ape who is fiercely loyal to the main character Rama. Rama, his brother Laksmana, and Hanuman are fighting a great war against the story’s villain Ravana, when Laksmana is severely injured and seems to be dead. Rama, completely distraught, begs Hanuman to leave the battlefield and fetch a magic herb that can give new life to Laksmana. The herb, called sanjeevani, is located leagues away on a far mountain. Hanuman uses his powers to quickly fly over, but is unsure how to identify the sanjeevani on the large mountain. Not wanting to disappoint Rama, Hanuman uses his strength to hoist up the entire mountain on his hands and bring it back so Laksmana can be revived. In a beautiful parallel in Black Panther, Nakia brings a life-giving herb to the Jabari mountain, where she is able to bring T’Challa back to life under the statue of Hanuman holding a mountain.

Hanuman mountain

While the Ape God is the deity of the Jabari tribe, the other three tribes of Wakanda worship the Panther God, Bast. The historical Bast is an Egyptian Goddess, generally depicted as a lioness or cat, and associated with both warfare and protection. In this sense, God is a woman in the Black Panther universe (finally!). While many early religious traditions similarly worshipped the powers of women, modern society has not come to deliver on those promises. But Black Panther purposefully bucks this trend. Like Bast, the women in Black Panther can protect and cure (Shuri), go to war (Okoye), or do both (Nakia).

In addition to Bast and Hanuman, the characters in Black Panther frequently refer to worshipping ancestors. Interestingly, communicating with ancestors in Wakanda requires crossing into an ancestral plane that mirrors the living world, except for a “cosmic” sky of purple, black, and blue hues. Both times that he crosses to the ancestral world, T’Challa is greeted by his father and several other ancestors, who effortlessly shapeshift from panthers to human forms. Similarly, in some views of Hinduism, we believe that the world we see is one of illusion (known as Maya) and seeing the Truth requires gazing past this illusion. In the True view of the world, we recognize that everything is connected by a universal soul (Brahman), and when we die on Earth we become part of that soul. By being buried, i.e. temporarily killing his worldly existence and ego, T’Challa connects with the world beyond illusion. His ancestors continue to exist in that world, and take the panther form, because they have merged with a universal soul/ energy that is the same as, and one with, Bast.

Finally, I would be remiss not to make a connection to my favorite story in Hinduism, the Mahabharata. While there are many possible connections to make due to the parallel of two sides of a family vying for a throne, I want to focus on a different type of conflict parallel. When T’Challa fights Killmonger (N’Jadaka) and is being torn apart, we see Nakia pleading to the elders and Dora Milaje to step in: “is there nothing that can be done?” To this, the audience responds with a distressed silence. An incredibly poignant and distressing conflict of personal righteousness versus the duty of tradition: which one takes precedence? A similar dharma conflict occurs in the Mahabharata when Draupadi, the wife of the main characters, has been gambled away in a dice game and is about to be violated by her captors. She appeals to the elders and generals present at the dice game, pleading “is there nothing that can be done?” There too, the elders stare back with distressed silence, unable to act on their personal morals in the face of obligations to society’s traditions. This is a parallel exploration of conflict in the two stories: when faced with a set of conflicting morals, how can you choose one? Do we choose tradition because we are scared to act on personal morals without validation? Do we let oppression continue in our societies simply because of tradition?

Draupadi salt

(Draupadi on left). Throw that salt, girl! 

Black Panther is a cool superhero movie. Beyond that, it’s a movie that represents black people in ways that are unprecedented in America. Further beyond that, it’s a movie that questions and even turns upside down our typical conventions of race, religious belonging, women’s roles, and commitments to tradition. Personally, I am proud to see my favorite Hindu God, Hanuman, included in a movie like this. I believe peoples of color could do with a little more cross-reference and cultural appreciation. Instead of the Indian censors being offended by a harmless shout-out, why not use it as a cause to examine and celebrate our similarities to African cultures? After all, Black Panther has shown that it’s a winning formula. Wakanda Forever!

Don’t Tap on the Glass

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Some recent thoughts I’ve had on the study of Hinduism in institutions of higher learning. As usual, pushing for positive changes (adding new viewpoints/ diversity) instead of negative changes (subtracting existing things). 

Think about the last time you went to an aquarium. You likely passed by at least one tank that caught your attention – maybe the fish were particularly colorful or diverse. You probably stood around for five minutes or so, looking at the different varieties, pointing them out to your friends. Now imagine those five minutes weren’t enough, and you wanted to dedicate your life to studying some of those fish. You buy a tank, keep it in your study, observe and record what the fish are doing on a regular basis. You come to understand them to some extent. You know what they eat, how they move, perhaps even whether they are in a good mood. But as badly as you want to understand them, even if you were to get inside the tank and swim around, there would just be some things you don’t understand. You will never be a fish.

Far from being an odd trip I just tried to take you on, this analogy explains the current state of Western scholarship on India and Hinduism.

Patrick

Okay, it was a weird analogy. Let me explain

Since my freshman year of undergrad, I have been learning about my religion and country of birth in books written by white, Western scholars. The majority of “renowned” scholarship on Hinduism since the 1700s has been done by European and American scholars. Certainly, some Indian scholars have been doing important and valuable work at Indian universities, but due to the unfortunate power structures of higher learning and a colonial history, Western universities and their published ideas reign supreme. This is compounded, of course, by the fact that those who have immigrated to the US or Europe rarely want their children to study humanities – such things are meant to stay hobbies. Because of the doctor-engineer-lawyer mantra, Indian students in the West are often not in a position to contribute to the academic discourse in powerful Western universities.

This has consequences. While much of the current Western scholarship on Hinduism has produced insightful work and should continue, we need more Hindus studying Hinduism to develop a full, accurate picture of the religion.

In the 1970’s, the term “Orientalism” came about. Back then, it referred to a manner of seeing or studying Eastern societies from a Western lens. Seeing through this Western lens meant having your vision of the East clouded by things like the lingering power dynamics of colonialism, racist undertones, preconceived assumptions about the nature of gender, religion, and relationships, and a desire to “exoticize” the Eastern “other”. The result? If you grow up in the U.S. and learn about Hinduism, you are learning one main message: polytheistic religion that invented caste system and worships cows. While these things are all true to some extent, this is hardly the full picture of the diversity of Hinduism. But these ideas don’t originate in a vacuum! First, scholars of Hinduism espouse certain views on Hinduism. Then these views are distilled by people who oversee textbooks, then perhaps mixed in with some ideas derived from popular culture, and eventually fed to children in Western schools. And finally these views tumble out of kids’ mouths in the form of insults and bullying of Hindu children living in the West.

Cow worship

The kinds of images I saw in textbooks growing up, which led to plenty of mean jokes about my religion. Far more than an experience of bullying, such incidents may make Hindus outside India less likely to identify with their religion or appreciate it.

In the present-day, the word Orientalism is enough to send a shiver up the spine of any white scholar of Hinduism and immediately make them defensive. There has been a concerted effort to distance themselves from that term and ideology, and to their credit, many Western scholars do an amazing job. They expose parts of Hinduism that insiders just might not see, and they make a real effort to immerse themselves and understand (to stick to the fish analogy, some people are starting to develop gills).

However, it would be silly to think we’ve completely moved past Orientalism. For example, much of today’s Western scholarship on Hinduism revolves around two topics: yoga and tantra.

The first seems to be largely for the (self-)interest of understanding something which has become part of Western culture. The second often seems to be a continuation of that desire to exoticize Hinduism – a notion of “let’s see all the ways Hindus could write about sex and odd rituals”. These aspects of Hinduism should not be denied, but the amount of scholarship dedicated to them obscures the truth: most Hindus are not thinking about how to incorporate downward dog into that night’s sex ritual. How about focusing scholarship instead on issues that can make a difference to modern Hindus?

Beyond the focus on certain topics, there is also the issue of lacking context. By assessing the actions of a society with the standards of another, you inevitably pass judgments. In classes, time is occasionally spent hearing the professor and some students basically say “whoa, India is crazy huh?!”. Of course, many of the religious rituals of Western Christianity may seem “crazy” to Indians, but that nuance is lost when there are not enough Hindu students in the classroom or Hindu professors in institutions of higher learning. The onus is on Hindus living in the West to get involved with the study of religion (I’m trying to do my part!). Then, if insider perspectives are given the voice they deserve, scholarship and teaching can both improve significantly: published articles and books on Hinduism will have a broader set of perspectives, and classrooms will afford different types of education to students of Hinduism.

Today is not the Orientalism of the 70’s, but a new breed. It is one that continues to exoticize the East and Hinduism, through the dominant power structures of the world, but then tries to point the finger of appropriation every which way except at itself. I’m not saying I expect people to magically be able to take the perspective of a worldview that is so fundamentally different than their own. I’m not saying the West shouldn’t study Hinduism through classrooms and scholarly articles. By all means, let’s learn about each other’s cultures, and let’s give Hinduism the attention it deserves as the third-largest religion. Let’s even expose the flaws of Hinduism and the way it’s being politicized. I’m just saying that there’s a way to do this with respect, dignity, sympathy, and consideration of what Hindus think and need. To achieve that, we need more insider perspectives, we need more attention to popular religion, and we need more sensitivity from outside perspectives. If you’re going to come and look at the fish tank, just don’t tap on the glass.

Tap on Glass

The Indian Dream

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When I think of my childhood in India, Ramani always comes to mind. Ramani and her wrinkled face that stretched into a gap-ridden smile, often accompanied by laughter as contagious as an afternoon yawn. Seemingly frail limbs with strength enough to squeeze you breathless by the end of a massage. Thin saris of myriad colors, always with just two accessories: huge, thick silver anklets on her leg. It looked like she had been chained by the legs in a prison and managed to break out. Ramani didn’t give birth to me but she did most other things a mother would do. She stayed in my family’s humble home provided by the Railway Commission, and worked for us day and night. Now she’s nearly 70 and continues to work odd jobs for different families in her village. She’s lived her entire life working as house help, and had little to no classroom education herself. But through her insistence and her savings, somewhere along the way all her grandchildren received college degrees: one has even made her a great grandmother, while another works as an engineer in Dubai. When I heard about how well her grandchildren were doing, I was amazed at the speed at which the circumstances of Ramani’s family have changed, while Ramani herself had stayed so much the same. In a way, her story encapsulates much of the Indian Dream as it is today.

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She always hated photos…

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A second mom to me in many ways

In the 70 years of her lifetime, which coincides with the lifetime of India as an independent country, education has become the Indian Dream. We talk in America of the value of hard work and sayings like pull up your “bootstraps.” While the American conversation is centered around this idea of working hard, perhaps originated from a post-WWII prosperity where hard work gave you a suburban house and two kids, the Indian conversation seems to have been centered around education. In India, education is instead the escape from hard work. From a young age, your family tells you to study hard precisely so you don’t have to “work hard” like they had to, or struggle like they had to. For many families in India (mine included), “hard work” doesn’t bring nostalgic memories of men clocking in at the shipyard/ factory/ office and getting home by 5 to eat dinner with the family in front of the TV. It brings memories of uncertainty around where your next meal would come from. The work of educated jobs in modern India, conversely, is not the debilitating hard work of our country’s past; and for some, education is the only way to escape generations of low social status or caste expectations. So education became the promised land upon which Indians’ dreams were built.

Untitled

Whatever the hell that means…

Over time, even this need for education become more specific and demanding. From 1950 to 2005, the number of colleges in India grew by 35 times, while universities multiplied by 18 times.¹ Just from 2008-2015, the number of engineering colleges nearly doubled, while student intake more than doubled to ~2 million a year.² Part of the cultural reason for the increasing demand for education is pure competition. Due to the 1.2 billion population, there are just not enough jobs available for all the qualified applicants, and it’s understood from an early age that you have to study hard enough to beat your peers in this pursuit (the minimum score needed on entrance exams for any chance at medical school seat is around 91%).

As our education becomes more demanding and we become more ambitious, the Indian Dream slowly morphs. Once it was enough to be educated and have 3 meals a day, now it’s about having a job that can afford A/C in your apartment, a car, and children (just look at the Indian conglomerate Tata – its best selling product lines are A/C units and cars). In fact, the middle class now makes up 50% of India’s population, while households with disposable income of $10K has grown twentyfold since 1990³. Upward mobility and the Dream are being realized every day. Ramani’s family realized this middle class mobility in the short space of a lifetime thanks to her insistence on education. Of course, for those who want much higher disposable income, the Dream has often led them to leave India altogether in search of even more learning and opportunity (like Ramani’s grandson). More recently however, stories of Indians moving back to India from the US, or forgoing immigration altogether for a high-paying job in India are increasing.³ Technical education has even afforded us options for our Dream.

MC

This emphasis on technical education and the speed of advancement have left the Indian Dream in a limbo of contrasts that could only be conjured in the subcontinent. On one hand, education is enough to surpass the centuries-old caste and class barriers that have so structured and defined Indian society. As I mentioned above, Ramani’s grandson works an engineering job that takes him between Dubai and India. No one there needs/ cares to know that his grandmother still works as as house help – and so his class and caste no longer define him as much as his occupation. This is the case for many young Indians working in software/ engineering fields in Indian cities – occupation is the new hierarchy. On the other hand, however, the generation of children that were born to a newly independent India in the 40s still have the memory of strict hierarchy defined by ages past and hardened by the British (this reminds me of Americans who lived before the Civil Rights Bill was passed). The fire of that memory has to run out of fuel, but it cannot be stamped out all at once, as its embers burn through passed down values. To this day, despite all my attempts, Ramani refuses to sit on the same couch as one of us who “own” the house. She always sits on the ground or a small stool. My grandmother, who’s spent the most time with Ramani, finds this to be the natural order of things and asks me to let it go every time I come to India and try to disturb the order. This begs multiple questions: would Ramani’s grandson feel hesitant to sit on the couch as our guest? Does education and a good career (i.e., the Dream) provide you a place at the table when societal baggage says you shouldn’t have one? How inclusive is the Indian Dream really?

I originally thought of writing this six months ago when I visited India in January 2017 and heard about the success of Ramani’s family. I wanted to say something purely about the progress brought by education and hope in my home country. Instead, I couldn’t help but realize that things are not so simple.

In January, I was sitting at my grandmother’s house, just passing the time on a lazy afternoon. We had informed Ramani, through her son-in-law, some days ago that my family had come to visit from the States and we’d like to see her. We received no response or any indication that she would be coming. But that afternoon, she waddled through the door, holding a single straw bag with everything she needed for 2 weeks. When she had hugged all of us and settled in a place on the floor, as the look of sheer surprise faded from our faces, I took a good look at her. She represented at once the future of all that is possible in a progressive and independent India, but also the ancient relics of caste and class-based shackles that forced us to walk when we could’ve been running. I saw in her the simple, forward march of hope.

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Source Notes:

  1. World Bank
  2. All India Council for Technical Education
  3. World Economic Forum

5 Reasons Not To YOLO: A Philosophy of Rebirth

This essay was written for the purposes of a class at Harvard Divinity School: it is purely a philosophical argument written for a class and does not intend to offend or endorse anyone or their religion. I fully accept that these arguments are not fully developed, and welcome any counterpoints. The original title of this essay was: Two Lives are Better than One: Rebirth as a Superior Moral Impetus for Social Justice Projects.


Religion has famously been referred to as the “cry for help.”[1] Over millennia of existence, we humans have had any number of reasons to cry for help, but the continuous, inescapable motivation has been the knowledge of our own mortality. We humans have never been satisfied with one life. Long as life may be for some of us, we are left always with regrets, left always with alternate paths we would’ve taken or experiences we would’ve enjoyed. So we have created a foolproof answer: life beyond death; clever aphorisms to claim that “death is just the beginning,” and an inherent faith in our limitlessness when faced with the cruel reality of limited life. Still, even in creating this belief in an afterlife, we have disagreed as to what form such a life will take. The Ancient Egyptians had one vision, the Chinese another vision, and Jesus yet another vision entirely. How do these different visions of the afterlife affect our current lives on Earth?

For those of us who are concerned with our conduct of life and living a good life as such, we must consider how our religious beliefs affect our treatment of living beings around us. Our commitments to revolutionary projects, moral behavior, and more can shift and change with the worldviews we assume through inherited religious systems of thought. Accordingly, our impetus to change the world through radical or incremental social justice projects can also vary with our understanding of life’s end. If I believe in rebirth, I am bound to think differently about my life’s work than if I believe in an eternal Heaven. To be more specific, my moral imperative to create social justice can vary greatly depending on whether I think I’ll come back to this same Earth or inhabit an ethereal plane for eternity. In this essay, I am interested in identifying the afterlife belief that best serves us for carrying out service to our fellow humans.

I argue that a Buddhist belief in rebirth provides a greater moral imperative for carrying out social justice work than the Christian belief in Heaven. In this essay, I will first discuss the belief of a heavenly afterlife, using selections from the Bible and Soren Kierkegaard, to prove that it has a limited moral imperative for improving the mortal world. Then, I will discuss how a belief in rebirth empowers and mandates one to improve the society they inhabit. Crucially, and this cannot be stressed enough, I do not ask people to change or reject the religious beliefs their faith traditions have provided. This essay simply asks the reader to consider how they conduct their mortal lives with an intent to improve the world– that is to say, one can be a faithful Christian but still carry out social justice work as if they will be reborn. I do not argue for a religious belief in rebirth, but I certainly ask for all of us who are interested in improving the world to act and serve as ifwe will be reborn. In doing so, I believe we can imbibe the best life lessons of the Hindu and Buddhist rebirth traditions, regardless of what our religious identity may be.

The Escape of Heaven

Heaven, like the idea of eventual release in many religions, allows a person to escape from the conditions of the mortal world. Unlike the Buddhist Nirvana, Heaven offers a continued existence that is supposedly blissful in nature, and (crucially) unending. The paramount question for the purposes of this essay is whether access to this immortal heavenly life requires a person to improve the mortal world. Before establishing this, it is first worth establishing general expectations about Heaven. To do so, I borrow from Soren Kierkegaard, who was used as a primary example of Christian philosophy in our class, and I additionally use direct passages from the Christian New Testament.[2] Three points need to be made here before scrutinizing the Heaven belief and its moral imperative for social justice: 1) Christians believe in an eternal life after death, 2) that eternal life exists in Heaven or Hell separate from the mortal world, and 3) righteous people gain access to an idyllic eternal life in Heaven. Once establishing these, we can turn to understanding how exactly one strives to be righteous enough to enter Heaven.

In his introduction to The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard directly distinguishes the Christian worldview as one which believes “death is by no means the last thing of all, just another minor event in that which is all, an eternal life.”[3] Clearly for Kierkegaard and for the Christian imagination, death is what enables the realization of one’s eternal potential. He believes that humans are a “synthesis of the infinite and the finite.”[4] The end of the finite life, then, allows a Christian person to finally access the infinite life that was always due to them. Crucially, the finite and infinite lives exist on different planes entirely. This is confirmed in 1 Corinthians: mortal flesh and blood does not inherit the “kingdom of God,” but a separate existence of “imperishability” will be provided to the Christian believer upon death.[5] From this passage, we can surmise that in the Christian belief about death, a person takes on a separate form and exists on a separate plane, with no continuing relation with the mortal world. The concerns despairs problems issues injustices of the mortal world have no bearing on the eternal life – in the separate plane of unlimited existence, there is no holdover of one’s previous limited existence. Furthermore, as Jesus explains in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount, the idyllic eternal life is awarded to the “righteous” in the “kingdom of heaven.”[6] Again in Romans, the Bible states that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory” of the afterlife.[7] Thus we may also gather that the life beyond mortal life is free of suffering: we are all too familiar with the popular depictions of heaven as eternal happiness, pearly gates upon pristine clouds. To achieve this however, as Jesus said on the Mount, we must be “righteous.” Herein lies the crux – whether or not the righteousness worthy of Heaven involves a sufficient imperative for doing social justice work. I believe it proves insufficient for the following major reasons, which I will elaborate upon in turn.

  1. The blissful afterlife is detached from the mortal world, giving less incentive to make this world better.
  2. Since there are no hierarchies in a perfect Heaven, an individual can aim to do the bare minimum that provides them access to Heaven.

I.

If I act based on a Christian vision of the afterlife, which is ultimately more glorious and hopeful than my present life, but has no connection to the mortal world, then I have less incentive to improve the mortal world. Over the course of an eternal life, only a miniscule fraction of my life would be spent on the limited Earth, and the vast majority spent on the unlimited plane of Heaven. Given that eternal Heaven is a glorious and happy existence, the miniscule fraction of my life would contain the greatest suffering I can experience in my eternal life. I am able to retain a hope through this suffering because of the promise of Heaven, but ultimately I am constantly looking forward to the escape of Heaven. I will accomplish what I can, or be as righteous as I need, to attain Heaven, but I have no reason to go above and beyond to help the society that I only share a miniscule fraction of my life with. If I believed that I had to return to the Earth in some way, or that I would continue to be connected to the mortal world after death, then I would have a need to improve the conditions on Earth. Absent of that potential to return to Earth, I have a limited reason to engage in difficult social justice work with my time here. Mortality and Earthly life already contain enough individual suffering, and I would not want to take on the extra suffering of others in community service work, when this Earthly life is a miniscule fraction of my eternal life. Let us consider an example: If I have lived my life according to the injunctions of Christ’s Sermon the Mount, and I have dedicated the bulk of my life to successfully eradicating hunger in my community, then by the age of 50 let us assume I have lived a life worthy of Heaven. At that age, let us also assume I have the influence, money, and power to tackle another problem in my community, like gun violence. If I do not address that issue, I will go to Heaven and never experience that problem again. Since Heaven is a separate existence, once I have attained it, I have no incentive to go about fixing all the problems I can fix: I no longer have to face the problems that continue on, even those that were caused by me, because I live in a separate plane.

II.

The impetus then, is to live a life that grants me access to Heaven, and no further. Let us consider another example. If I am an American man with firm belief in Christ, I have acted in accordance with his teachings, and have volunteered every weekend at a homeless shelter, I am presumably living a life worthy of Heaven. I am loving my neighbor, which Dr. West claimed in class is the crux of the Christian moral imperative.[8] Yet, when I see on the nightly news that bombs are being dropped on innocent people in Syria, I have no imperative to act against those injustices, because I have already earned Heaven, and in Heaven I don’t have to hear about those Syrian casualties for the rest of my eternal life and I will experience no guilt. Since Heaven is a blissful existence, there are presumably no hierarchies or power discrepancies between those who were more and less righteous on Earth – once I have achieved heaven I have “made it.” Thus, even if the mortal world is in a state of complete disarray, with dictators unleashing chemical weapons attacks on their own citizens, the eternal world continues to exist blissfully separate from such problems. If I have already lived a life worthy of Heaven, I have no incentive to stop those chemical weapons attacks because I have already guaranteed a good life for myself. I do not have to leave my country to join rescue efforts in Syria and take on difficult work because it will not afford me any better place in Heaven. So I can safely stick to doing the bare minimum, and my imperative to do social justice is curtailed after I have done enough “Heaven-worthy” deeds in the world.

Given the two points above, there may well be counterarguments from those who prefer to believe in Heaven, and I shall address two such arguments here:

A. The idea of an afterlife in Hell is a deterrent for not helping others, or for doing the bare minimum to achieve Heaven.

B. The crux of the Bible is to love thy neighbor, which is a call to perform social justice to reach Heaven.

A.

The concept of Hell is certainly a deterrent from performing immoral activities, but it hardly seems to be a deterrent from living a patterned, individualistic life. In other words, a “good” person can live free from the fear of Hell but they are not motivated by hellfire and brimstone to radically improve the society around them. Again, let us consider a concrete example. Consider the case of a 75-year-old white Christian woman who has recently retired. Over the course of her life, she has followed all of the commandments in the way Christ prescribes on the Sermon on the Mount: she has never killed, never coveted another woman’s husband, rarely even lied or felt jealousy in the long arc of her life. She worked a high-paying job at a respectable bank in New York, volunteered every month, donated to her church often, and gave money to the Red Cross occasionally. While she has never personally mistreated others, she never spoke up against discriminatory mortgage lending policies in her bank, even after she had the power to do so. Surely, most Christians would not consider such a person worthy of going to hell. She is simply guilty of falling into the Kantian patterns[9] that define “good” morality in modern-day America, without breaking outside of her boundaries to revolt against prevailing systems of prejudice or oppression that harm communities outside her own. She is a good person, who does not need to worry about going to Hell, but she is not a person who strives for social justice. She is not a person to go above and beyond the call of individual goodness to strive for societal goodness or improvement. Thus, the concept of Hell is not sufficient for prodding people into morality that is focused on social justice.

B.

As Dr. West proclaimed in class, the mark of the Christian is to “love thy neighbor.”[10] Drawing from Kierkegaard, Dr. West went on to say that loving thy neighbor means finding the image of God in another that is worthy of your love, and setting your heart on the possibility of improvement in each person. Accordingly, Christian belief is committed to the power of transformation in each individual, and by extension committed to the transformation and improvement of society. Thus, the achievement of Heaven is predicated on satisfying the call to “love thy neighbor.” There are two counterpoints to this general belief, as it regards loving thy neighbor as a call for social justice work.

First, love as a belief in another’s ability to improve, due to the image of God within them, is separate fundamentally from what is required in social justice – a belief in shaping social structures to fit individuals as they are. If we desire to bring about social justice as it relates to the education gap between urban minority youth and white suburban youth, we do not just need to love the urban youth and believe in their ability to grow out of their conditions. We must be committed instead to changing the very conditions that they have been forcibly thrust into as a result of years of segregationist policies and poor educational equity in our society. There is nothing we need to change in the youth, and everything we need to change in the society itself – the weakness of love as a model is that it is too dependent on individual connection and forgiveness. To bring about social change, sometimes we simply must hate the structures that create oppressive conditions.

The second counterpoint, which builds off the first, is: as Dr.West himself said in class, Jesus was not an abolitionist.[11] That is to say, loving thy neighbor is an entirely different concept than uplifting thy neighbor. I may very well love someone who is a slave, but my love is not predicated on lifting them out of their slavery. For indeed, love is supposed to be unconditional, but uplifting someone is grounded entirely in seeing their conditions and removing them from those conditions. If we are to be committed to improving the world around us, we must be dedicated to uplifting our neighbors, not just loving them. Thus, the Christian model of loving thy neighbor to gain access to the afterlife proves insufficient for compelling people on Earth to bring about social justice. It did not even prove sufficient for removing slavery when Jesus walked the Earth.

If acting as if we will go to Heaven is insufficient, as discussed above, for compelling individuals to improve their societies, then how is acting with the assumption of rebirth any better? In the remainder of this essay, I shall discuss the belief in rebirth as an alternative to the dominant monotheistic model of belief in Heaven, and posit that it provides a greater social justice imperative.

Rebirth as Ultimate Cause for Engagement

           The crux of the rebirth belief, as it relates to social justice imperative, is the following: Rebirth means that we are bound to return to a world of our own making, as any sort of lifeform; therefore, it is incumbent upon us to improve that world for any and all lifeforms inhabiting it if we want to secure a better life. Before delving into the main points that support this claim, allow me to first establish an understanding of how rebirth works in a Buddhist worldview, by drawing from content in Sources of Indian Tradition and class lectures.

In the afterlife beliefs of ancient India, mainly of the two major strains of philosophical thought, Hinduism and Buddhism, individuals are bound to come back to the Earth again and again in a cycle of rebirth. When one life ends, there is simply a waiting period before transmigration occurs, and the person is reformed as another individual and born again.[12] This continues to happen without end until a person reaches the state of Nirvana, where rebirth ceases and the individual existence is entirely ended after death. While this may seem unsatisfactory compared to the vision of a glorious Heaven aforementioned, it is important to keep in mind Buddhism’s First Noble Truth: in Sanskrit, sarvam idam duhkham, i.e, all this is suffering.[13] Desires, cravings, and our lives on Earth formed by them, are wholly impermanent and thus causes for suffering in some way. This also means that there are always more problems on Earth to fix, because the Earthly existence itself is one of suffering. Nirvana, escaping desires and rebirth, is thus the only way to reduce one’s footprint of causing suffering to others on this Earth, but achieving Nirvana is incredibly difficult. Enlightenment, the mental state that enables on to achieve Nirvana at death, can only be reached by a deep understanding of “the nature of existence, then by a carefully controlled system of moral conduct, and finally by concentration and mediation.”[14] Most people are bound to live hundreds or thousands of lives on Earth before they are able to achieve Nirvana. Naturally then, the overriding concern in any one life is not achieving Nirvana by its end, but instead positioning oneself for a spiritually better life in the next rebirth. In short, the believer of rebirth does not have a Heaven to look forward to, but instead another life on the same Earth that they have just left. As such, this belief has profoundly different implications than a belief in Heaven. The major points to be discussed are as follows:

  1. If an individual is bound to come back to this world, they want to create a better world to be reborn into – there is a continuous incentive to better the world.
  2. Since rebirth can happen in any lifeform in any location, there is an impetus to spread one’s desire for social justice throughout the world.
  3. Rebirth occurs through the process of karma, so God is not involved, and any change I wish for in the next life must be brought about by myself and other humans.

I.

If I accept a Buddhist belief in rebirth, then I cannot assume my relationship with the mortal world ends upon death. Indeed, I will have to come back to the world shortly after and live out another life, instead of attaining a new type of eternal existence, as seen in the Christian model. Thus, upon death I do not travel to a world of God’s making, but instead a world of my own creation – in essence, a true belief in “reaping what you sow.” The conditions I leave the world in will be the same ones I return to, and I will not be able to escape that cycle for hundreds or thousands of lifetimes. Since I directly reap the results of my mortal deeds in the next life, I have every incentive to live the best life possible. If I simply live the bare minimum of good moral conduct, without trying to improve the world around me, I will continue to be reborn into the same or worse position in life. But by striving to improve the world, I may be reborn into a better society. Unlike the world of Heaven, there are indeed hierarchies and power structures in the mortal world; if I accept them as such, I will continue to be born into them and suffer through them. Thus, if I want anything about my existence over lifetimes to change, I must venture out to affect that change myself. For example, if I believe that the voter disenfranchisement of minorities in the U.S. is one of the evils of this country, I am not able to escape it upon death by entering Heaven. I enter once again into a world where it is rampant, again and again, until I take it upon myself to help address that societal ill with other activists. Once I have done so, there are then other forms of suffering for me to address, because suffering is ubiquitous.

II.

Crucially, the social ills you can experience in a Buddhist worldview are not limited to the community you are born into for a given lifetime. If I am a man born in Sri Lanka, then in the next birth I may be a woman living with limited rights in Saudi Arabia. In the birth after that, I may be a polar bear struggling to balance myself on the melting ice caps of the Arctic circle. In the birth after that, I may be a child in Syria, dodging the bombs of government forces as I trudge from building to building looking for my lost parents. And so on and so forth. After I die, I may come back as anyone or anything in any part of the world, and so to put it simply, the world is me and I am the world. This is the ultimate cause for engagement with social justice: being able to put yourself in everyone else’s shoes because you may well inhabit them in the next life. To borrow from the poetic words of Miyazawa Kenji about this Buddhist ideal:

If in the east, there is a sick child, I want to go and nurse him. If in the west, there is a tired mother, I want to go and carry bundles of rice to her. If in the south, there is someone dying, I want to go tell them not to be afraid. If in the north, there is a quarrel, I want to tell them it’s not worth it… that’s the kind of person I want to be.[15]

In this worldview, there is not a blissful satisfaction of looking forward to Heaven, but instead a constant, nagging drive that tells an individual: somewhere out there is someone who is suffering, and I may become that person in the next life. With an understanding of the entire world as one’s community, there is a greater incentive to fight for social justice worldwide. This is a profound call to not just “love thy neighbor” but to uplift thy neighbor, to remove the causes of suffering to the best extent of my abilities because all suffering is my suffering.

III.

A natural consequence of believing in rebirth of your own making is that God is not necessary to dictate the conditions you are born into. Instead, a belief in karma facilitates the cycles of life and ensures that just repercussions follow any good or bad action that one takes.[16] As such, if I believe in Buddhist rebirth, it is not possible for me to pray for the world to be changed, because there is no God who controls a Heavenly realm and grants access to it. I must seek to change the world myself, or it will stay the same for my next birth and beyond. This too has profound repercussions for the imperative to do social justice work. Too often in the wake of mass shootings in America, we hear that it’s most important in such times to offer prayers for the victims and their families. Instead of adopting that worldview, if we adopted the Buddhist belief in rebirth, then prayers are immediately not sufficient. The only way to prevent such deaths is to revolt against the existence of gun worship in America, taking society into our own hands instead of praying for its betterment. Indeed, an individual may be born in the next life as the parent of a child who is needlessly shot down at an elementary school. To act as if karma operates in the world, one would have to assume that the societal problems we decide to overlook or ignore are the very ones we will experience in our next birth. Rebirth thus provides no excuses out of engaging in social justice work – it is consistently and prevalently necessary in a world of suffering.

Given the three points above, there may well be counterarguments from the Christian point of view, and I shall address two such arguments here:

A. Once an individual does decide to strive for Nirvana, they too detach themselves from the suffering of the mortal world because they cease to exist, and thus an imperative for social justice doesn’t exist.

B. There is no memory of past lives or ability to predict future ones: we are only consciously aware of one life so there is no incentive to serve others for the sake of social justice.

A.

When the Buddha isolated himself in deep meditation and achieved Enlightenment, he realized he would attain Nirvana. Instead of staying in isolation and heading towards an early death for release from the world’s suffering, he entered back into the world and taught others what he had learned for over 40 years. This idea has been enveloped into the Buddhist tradition as the concept of the bodhisattva ideal: even once you attain Enlightenment, you hold off on Nirvana out of a selfless desire to help others reduce the suffering in the world.[17] Thus, even when an individual has gone through hundreds of lifetimes and has finally readied themselves for the end of their births, they sometimes still continue to take birth solely for the purpose of helping others. Crucially, this is built into the rebirth belief: the desire is not to escape and leave everyone behind once you reach Enlightenment, it’s to help others on their own path to reducing suffering or bringing about social improvement. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, most living people who believe in rebirth do not strive to attain Enlightenment in their current birth, whereas most people who believe in Heaven are actively trying to attain Heaven in their current birth. The possibility of not being reborn does not weigh into the decision making of most who believe in rebirth and thus there is no detriment to the imperative for social justice.

B.

As stated in the introduction, choosing to conduct one’s life as if one will be reborn leads to a greater imperative for social justice – proof of rebirth is besides the point. Just as Heaven believers have faith but not definitive proof of Heaven, rebirth believers act on Earth with the faith that they will be reborn. Moreover, in the Buddhist view of rebirth, there is no Self or soul that remains from birth to birth, and instead it is merely the changing desires and conditions of one’s previous life that take some form in the next life.[18] Thus, the reduction of suffering on Earth is not done for the sake of a promised reward – there is no soul to collect that reward nor a guarantee that one will remember the good deeds of a previous life. Still, social justice work can be carried out because when one acts as if they will be reborn, they automatically identify with the world around them and want to reduce its suffering for good karma in this life and the next (see point II above). In other words, a belief in rebirth can make social work a thankless deed – but one should not strive to improve the world to be recognized for it.

Conclusion

If we consider again the idea of religion as the “call for help,” a difference between the two belief systems described above becomes clear. The Christian call for help is answered by a Heavenly existence that enables one to escape from Earthly suffering. The Buddhist call for help is answered by the very people who call for help themselves, through lifetimes of attempting to improve the world. As discussed above, the blissful afterlife of the Heaven view is detached from the mortal world, giving less incentive to make this world better, and allows one to do the bare minimum for access to Heaven. In contrast, the rebirth view has a continuous incentive to better the world for one’s subsequent births because change must be brought out by human action. Moreover, the desire to help others applies to the entire world because rebirth can happen in any community in any place. Yet, given all of the above, I would still not ask anyone to change their religious belief in Heaven if so inclined. There are incredibly valid faith reasons experiences for believing in a Heaven and I fully encourage others to keep believing in such an outcome. What I argue for instead, specifically for those who are interested in improving the world, is for people to conduct their lives as if they will be reborn. The crucial point: you do not have to actually believe in rebirth, but serve others as if you will be reborn. You do not have to actually believe you may come back to Earth as a child in Yemen, but when something bad happens in Yemen, try to serve those people as if you were going to be Yemeni in the next birth. We must do this because our moment in history calls for it.

As Dr. Unger mentioned in class, humans do not get to choose their moment in history. Despite that fact, accidents of birth or historical circumstance are disturbing grounds for a choice of philosophy, a choice of how to live one’s life. We live in an unprecedented time of religious and ideological access on Earth and it behooves us to think comparatively across religious systems, picking the beliefs that best resonate with our individualities, instead of lumping ourselves into automatic faith categories.[19] If I am a Hindu living in Mumbai, I can still try to learn something from the Christian ideal of “love thy neighbor.” If I am a Zen priest in Kyoto, I can still learn from the ideal of submission built into the very name of Islam. I can do so because this moment in our world’s history affords me that opportunity. Why not take it? For too long, we have lived our lives based on 17th and 18th century European ideas about categorical, intractable differences between humans instead of trying a 21st century syncretism to achieve better results. For those who want to lead revolutionary projects that better the world, combining ideas is key. By acting as if we will be reborn, we fundamentally identify with every single person and their suffering on this Earth, because that person could be you someday. What better way to uplift and engage with others than finding ourselves in their existence?

[1] Cornel West, class lecture, 2/28/18.

[2] Unfortunately, I cannot cover all Christian/ Heaven belief philosophies within the confines of this essay. These texts were chosen for their alignment with the general course materials.

[3] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. London: Penguin, 2004, 38.

[4]Ibid., 43.

[5]The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Philadelphia: American Bible Society, 1989, 1 Corinthians 15.50-54.

[6]Ibid., Matthew 5.10.

[7]Ibid., Romans 8.18,

[8] Cornel West, class lecture, 2/28/2018.

[9] Michael Puett, class lecture, 4/4/18.

[10] Cornel West, class lecture, 2/28/18.

[11] Cornel West, class lecture, 2/7/18.

[12] Ainslie T. Embree, ed. Sources of Indian Tradition. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1960, 96.

[13]Ibid., 95.

[14]Ibid., 97.

[15] Kenji Miyazawa. Miyazawa Kenji: Selections. Translated by Hiroaki Sato. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007, 219-220.

[16]Sources, 96.

[17] Michael Puett, class lecture, 3/21/18

[18]Ibid.

[19] Roberto Unger, class lecture, 4/11/18.

Grandma’s Suitcase

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My grandma loved to travel. I called her Ammamma, which literally translates to “Mom Mom” in English (this was fitting because she did have twice the Mom power). Ammamma went on her final trip this January. When I heard that she was packing up to leave, Mom and I flew over to India. We wanted to help her pack, but really we wanted to convince her to stay. We sat in the hospital waiting room every day for 7 days while she packed her things. She didn’t seem too sure about going at times; we would take turns going in to see her in the ER and convince her to stay. For a while we really thought she was going to listen to us. But in the end she had packed all her things and insisted on leaving. She left so she could finally see the rest of the Earth, but also to see whatever was beyond – this planet was probably too small for her travel bug.

Ammamma left us, but she left behind one red suitcase after all her packing. It was some sort of parting gift to me. I decided to open it: it was big, like the suitcases I would bring to India that were filled with Western chocolates for my cousins. When I opened it, it wasn’t stuffed with chocolate though. There was just a bunch of boxes, different sizes, shapes, and colors. As I peeked into some of the boxes, I realized each box had a message in it along with a vial, and each vial had colors swirling around in them, sort of like lava lamps or the potions in Harry Potter stories. Each one looked and swirled a little differently. I was confused but then I saw a note tucked away behind the top zipper inside of the suitcase. It was written on simple lined paper, like the kind Ammamma used to write God’s name a thousand times every day.

The note said the suitcase was full of her regrets, and I’d have to keep them now. They weren’t regrets of the past, she wrote, since she’s had a long and good life, and we’d spent enough time in each other’s company. No, these were future regrets. All the moments in my life she would regret to miss, since she had to leave for her trip. I would have to carry these future regrets until the right moment, she wrote, because they should never be opened early. The sadness would be too overwhelming if I did that.

Now that I understood, I decided to open the boxes one by one. The first colorful one on top of the others was labeled “Marriage”. I opened the ornate box and found a very decorated vial within. The future regret was swirling around with a bright orange color, dancing around the vial excitedly. I knew it shouldn’t open it yet, so I just loosened the cap a little, just enough to hear the faint noise of wedding trumpets and dancing inside, the smell of food and friends and tears of joy. I tightened up the lid again and read the accompanying note. Ammamma wrote that she would regret not being able to bless me at my wedding, to look my wife up and down and smile with approval. After 63 years together with her husband, she said she could’ve given me a lot of good advice. I put the note and vial away and took out the next box, labeled “Children”.

The second box had a vial with light, airy swirls of pink and blue that seemed to be playing with each other. When I loosened the top a bit, it sounded like innocent laughter and even more innocent tears; it smelled like sleepless nights and baby food and family. Ammamma wrote that she would regret not being able to hold my children in her lap and make silly faces at them. She said she would’ve liked to be there to tell my Mom to relax, to teach her how to be as good a grandma as she was. That last bit of cockiness made me giggle. I put this box away too, and reached for the one labeled “Success”.

This vial was bigger than the other ones, it had separate compartments but all of the regrets were swirling around in a bright blue cloud, speckled with white and gold. It looked like a dream and I could’ve stared at it for days. When I finally opened it just slightly, I heard the sounds of applause, I heard my name being called by announcers at microphones. I smelled the aroma of books, and the intoxication of education and wealth and power. Ammamma wrote that she would regret not being able to clap for me at my PhD graduation, or see the dedication page of my first book with her name on it. She would’ve told her friends about me with pride, she said, would’ve shown them my Wikipedia page. She wished she could’ve been there to comfort me when the first attempt didn’t work out, because she had the faith to know nothing would stop me. She warned me to act on my dreams too, instead of just dreaming about them. With that warning, I finished the note and took one last look at the beautiful blue swirls before putting away the vial and box. With three boxes out of the suitcase, I could tell the next one took up a lot of space – it looked like a heavy regret. I heaved out the box labeled “Growth”.

This vial was even bigger than Success, as big as a basketball, but not as pretty. The regret was swirling around in one thick yellow wave, slowly undulating up and down for what seemed like forever. This one sounded like a regular day, with voices and traffic and arguments and laughter. It smelled like suburbia and trees, and the changing of the seasons. Ammamma wrote that this vial was an exception to the rule. This vial was so big because I’d have to let it out drop-by-drop over the course of a lifetime instead of waiting for specific moments. This regret, she wrote, was for all the regular moments she would never see, all the mistakes I was going to learn from, and the wounds she could no longer kiss. This vial was because she wished so dearly that she could’ve seen me grow, slowly coming to terms with the passage of time like she had. It was because she wished she could continue to be a part of my life. Ammamma left directions: I’d have to open this every now and then, but just a careful drop, because it would be make me sad. Sad to remember her absence, the lack of her gleeful voice on the other end of our weekly phone calls to India. Every time I opened it, I would also need to open the vial she had packed underneath it she wrote. Impatiently, I put down her note and let out a bit of “Growth” before waiting.

Immediately, I saw memories of Ammamma cooking my favorite dishes, going walking with me in the evenings and proudly telling neighbors that I was her grandson. I remembered the way my Mom would lie in her lap and look absolutely vulnerable just because she could be a child again in that one place. I remembered the shouts between Ammamma and my grandpa that would be followed with laughter. And when I remembered all these things, I started to cry uncontrollably. I cried because I wished she was still there with me, just like the note warned me about. Squinting through teary eyes, I put away the vial and desperately reached for the last box, hoping for it to be a huge, but instead found the smallest box yet: “Love”.

When I took out the vial, it was effortlessly light and inside was a viscous swirl of red, but it didn’t look or move like the other regrets. It was perfectly still, constant in every sense. When I opened it slightly, it sounded like the laughter of old friends and the lullaby of a new mother. But it smelled even better, just like hugs from Ammamma. Ammamma wrote that this too was an exception, and it truly was not a regret at all. She said I could open it now and dump it all out, and it would just replenish itself over and over. I remembered her directions from the last box and decided to dump out the Love to cure my sadness, before I even finished reading the note. As it exited the vial, the Love ballooned and enveloped me immediately, I felt that I was floating and someone had wiped away my tears with a mother’s expertise. And then I smelled Ammamma’s hugs. I heard the sound of her voice shouting “Hellllooo Abhi” when I would arrive at her front door in Vijayawada. Then I closed my eyes and I saw it too, so vividly I saw the memory of her racing to hug me at the door when I arrived, telling me it’s been too long, and what will I eat, and why am I still so skinny? I could see her right in front of me, smiling up at me with 5’1” of pure affection, and we both just laughed at the feeling of holding each other again after so long.

Then, just as it started, the vision went away, then the sounds, then the smells. But that floating feeling lingered, and the smile was being so stubborn that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud again. I watched the Love replenish itself and since it was small I just packed it right in my pocket so I would always have it. I put all the other boxes back in the suitcase, just the way Ammamma had arranged them. Just before I zipped up the suitcase, I remembered that I hadn’t finished reading Ammamma’s note for Love, so I sat down to finish her words:

“I left you with so many future regrets because there is so much I wanted to experience with you. When you reach your milestones in life, when you’re married or write your first book, you’re going to feel my absence because of those regrets. But for every future regret I left you, remember that I also left all my love here for you. Consider this love my soul, understand that it is both endless and effortless, and will stay with you long after you’ve made your own final journey.

Love,

Ammamma”

Family

Grandma, Grandpa, and I during my Bieber hair days

Cracks in My Cell

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“How are you doing?” people usually ask, whether or not they know I’ve lost family recently. I don’t answer these days. My external representative takes care of that – the face I put up for the world. He tells people “I’m doing alright”. The word choice is deliberate, it comes with a wild hope that someone will remember my usual answer of “I’m doing great!” and wonder what’s wrong. I need them to wonder because my true self isn’t able to speak out of this cell.

I’m in solitary confinement right now, my self sentenced here by Grief, who says I need to do time for losing my grandma. I tried to plead my case, I told Grief that it’s not what my grandma would want. I told Grief that I’m supposed to be strong right now for my mother’s sake, she has it a lot worse than I do. I told Grief that I have to be the positive one in the family. Don’t you get it? But Grief brought down his gavel devoid of justice and sentenced me to solitary. Loneliness and Doubt carried me with tied arms to my cell of hard grey stone – they opened the padlock door, threw me inside, and stood guard outside. I have a bed, a desk, two cloudy windows, a punching bag, a bathroom, and stone. Lots of grey, bleak, stone.

So I’ve been here for a while now, waiting for my release.

Some days are better than others. I write a lot at my desk since I’m alone; there aren’t as many distractions. There’s an elegance to the introspection. Some days, I work all day and at night my brain is tired and it just sleeps in peace. Other days though, when I go to sleep, the demons crawl out of the corners of the cell. They don’t say much but they show me things. Bad things. The way we waited every day in the hospital with dwindling hope, the sound of my family’s tears, the sight of my grandmother’s final moments. And always the absence of my grandma, they always show me that. It makes me toss and turn and not sleep. Something’s missing, I’m less loved than I was a few months ago. A rage boils within too. When I think about the hospital staff, the shouts of relatives at the chaotic funeral ceremony: rage. I go to my punching bag, I hit it hard. Thud. I’m not satisfied. Thud, thud, thud. Step, punch, step, hands up, jab, jab, rage. The bag just keeps coming back. One day I rage so deeply that I hit it straight out of its chains, just so I could feel like I had defeated something when everything else had me beaten.

There’s two small windows in my grey stone cell, on either side of the locked cell door. I look out for help every now and then on the right side window; I see friends. They’re… busy in their own lives. They’re working towards something important, or they’re a thousand miles away or, they just feel a thousand miles away. They can’t see me through the cell glass, and I don’t knock on the window – why aren’t I able to just knock? I go to the other window on the left side. I can see family in this one. I see a mother that’s lost her mother, a father who’s recently lost his brother, and another grandma who’s lost her son. They’re strong beyond belief, Grief couldn’t contain them to solitary like he did to me. They can’t see me through the cell glass, and I don’t knock on the window – how can I possibly ask these people for help when they’re dealing with so much more than I am? No, I usually walk away from the window instead. But the other day, just as I was walking away I see my Pop coming up to talk to my external representative as usual. My representative is supposed to handle this. He’s going to say that I’m alright but something falters, an error, a break in the system. There’s just tears and mumbling and Loneliness and Doubt step aside for once to let Pop into my cell for a visit.

He sits down with me on the bed and holds me gently on my back; I feel like I’m back on the playground swings and he’s going to push me and catch me. Under his comfort the floodgates are open: the demons came straight out of me this time. Pop, I don’t remember how to hope anymore. How do all these people have so much faith in the afterlife? Why isn’t anyone there for us? Do people really care about me? He senses the depth of the problem and he holds me a little tighter. Suddenly, we’re not in my grey prison anymore, we’re sitting on a park bench in the Dallas winter. The wind nips at my ears and gives a slant to the waterfall springing from my eyes.

My Pop speaks.

Son, there’s no proof I can give you that faith is rewarded in the afterlife. I just know we live a better life when we believe something.

There’s no explanation for why your hope for grandma wasn’t rewarded. I just know that we only get up each day because we continue to have hope.

There’s no way to tell you who truly cares about you and when. I just know you can never blame people, you can only set an example.

He pauses.

We’re transported back into my cell, sitting on the bed, but it doesn’t feel as bleak anymore. His words were churning in my head, then they went down and stopped my tears in their tracks, and continued down until they warmed my heart and made me feel full and gave strength to my legs and feeling to my feet. Then, he pulled something out of his pocket. He gave me an unbreakable nail; it was Faith. Out of the other pocket he pulled an iron hammer; it was Hope.

Pop said: When you’re ready. Your family will be there waiting to love you.

And then he got up, turned around, and walked out of the door. Loneliness and Doubt closed it again when he left. Then I got up, turned around and walked towards the other end of the grey stone wall. I put Faith up to the stone, I searched for a good spot and held it firm in place. I raised my Hope high, I felt my fingers grip the handle with purpose, and I struck hard.

Nothing.

I set Faith again, I raised my Hope and I struck even harder.

Crack. The wall was giving way. I struck and I struck and piece by piece the stone crumbled at my feet and I felt the stir of determination again. I pounded away, Hope and Faith becoming used to me and I to them again. When I was done I looked and saw a hole in the wall, the size of my face. The light of the colors that I missed danced through the gap in the grey stone into my cell, they painted the wall with small glimpses of Happiness: bright blues and fiery reds and playful yellows and greens. Content, and exhausted, I settled onto my bed, kept Faith and Hope under my pillow, and watched the colors dance as I went to sleep.

I’ve been here a while now, but I’m no longer waiting for my release. I’m going to break out soon enough.

Pesky Memories

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Do you ever have pesky memories? You know the ones I’m talking about.

The memories you try to keep in the maximum security prisons of your mind. The ones that come from experiences you don’t want to think about. Sometimes they slip past the guards, climb walls, dig tunnels, and get out right? Pesky memories – they’re annoying because they’re always trying to escape when your guard is down, when just for a second your mind wanders, it looks the other way. They slip out in the vulnerable moments: when you’re on a long drive through the countryside, or lying awake at night trying to fall asleep, or hugging someone for the 1,000th time who makes you feel safe. I get them when I’m on planes, when I’m left with nothing but music in my headphones and thoughts in my head. I can feel the locks turning in my mental prisons when we take off, the searchlight turning off in the prison yard, the excitement of all the escaped thoughts who want to run free. By the time we reach cruising altitude, my eyes are closed and the memories are wreaking havoc.

Maybe your pesky memories are like mine?

Maybe you remember the ones you’ve lost that left a mark on you. Do you think about having a cup of tea on the roof with your uncle, watching the sun set over grazing buffalo while he recounts his shipyard days? When I stand on my balcony now with chai, the memories make me wish he was still there to tell me stories. Surely, you think about playing video games and eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with your best friend, the one that was taken too early? I remember him when I watch a movie that he would like, when someone mispronounces my name in some way that would’ve made him laugh. Or,

Maybe you remember the land you left behind when you immigrated. Do you think about those moments at the train station, when you roll away from the longing faces who wonder when you’ll be back? They come to mind at the end of every Indian meal, every road with too much honking. You at least remember the nights spent next to your grandparents right, talking about their hopes and dreams for you? I think about those in the quiet moments after a shower when I wonder whether I’m a good person. Or,

Maybe you remember the relationships you left behind. Do you think about the first awkward kiss you had on campus? What about driving away from someone you love, struggling to see the steering wheel through your tears? Some nights when the apartment feels particularly lonely, and I’m staring at the microwave heat something, those memories get out. They always require 15 minutes of wrestling back into their prison cells so they don’t become overwhelming. 15 minutes of telling myself that things happen for a reason. Some memories don’t deserve the light of day. Or,

Maybe you remember all the instances of unrequited love. Do you remember when someone told you they couldn’t love you, but you couldn’t get the damn possibility out of your head? I bet it comes to mind when you hug that person a second too long or listen to just the right Ed Sheeran song. You probably have the pesky memories of all the times you could’ve told someone the way you felt? Maybe even after you said something it didn’t work out anyway. So then there’s just a lot of what ifs swirling around in your head along with the memories. And what ifs are tricky, because they’re hopeful and colorful and seemingly innocent but trust me they belong in your mental prisons too. Or,

Maybe you remember the times you could’ve been better. Do you think about the words you said that caused pain? I guess you wonder why you never called back that friend, the one you loved getting fro-yo with. I think about those words when I lay in the grass with my best friend and look at the clouds. I get those memories when I’m scrolling through my phonebook wondering why I haven’t talked to all these people in so long. Well,

Hopefully when you think about all of that, you realize those pesky memories were born from the moments that made you, like they made me. You know, it’s those moments that built your character, taught you to be better, love more openly, and thank more often. But the memories of those moments don’t allow you peace of mind. The memories are still of mistakes, lapses, sadness, and they belong in the prisons of your mind. It just takes an occasional prison break to remind you why those thoughts deserved a cell in the first place.

So, do you ever have pesky memories? You know the ones I’m talking about.

Little India

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If you’re driving through Irving, a nearby suburb of Dallas, TX, you might pass by a neighborhood park known as Thomas Jefferson Park. At first glance, it’s like any small park you might see in suburban America. A grassy field. A small pond with ducks running around. A basketball court. A couple of benches in the shade. When you take a closer look though, you’ll notice something slightly different about this park – every single person walking, playing, or sitting in the park is Indian. In fact, the locals don’t even know it as Thomas Jefferson Park. It’s known as Gandhi Park. And the cricket matches there are no joke.

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Told ya so.

When I moved to Dallas in 1998 with my parents, such a concentration of Indian people would not have been possible. I went to an elementary school where I was one of two Indian kids in my grade, my parents and I only went to Pasand or Tajmahal Imports for Indian food, and there was only one Hindu temple to attend. In 18 years, the population of Indians in Dallas has pretty much exploded. Indian children going to school in Dallas suburbs face no shortage of other Indians in their grade (some have up to >50% Indians in a grade!!). Irving practically has an Indian restaurant on every block, and I can’t even count the number of different Hindu temples my family has visited.

The growth in the Indian community in Dallas is undeniably impressive, especially in Irving. But has it all been good? What does it mean to be an Indian-American when it’s so easy to just be Indian?

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Seems like a conundrum worthy of Philosoraptor

 

There’s certainly some good to this growth. Immediately, new immigrants have access to a sense of community and familiarity, akin to what other immigrant communities have had for years. Namely, we have our own Indiatown now around Irving1, just like all the Chinatowns, Koreatowns, etc. (interestingly, Microsoft Word recognizes Chinatown and Koreatown as words, but Indiatown gets the red squiggly line). This sense of community means we begin to have a more noticeable presence in Dallas. And not least of all, it means we have plenty of good food options to choose from.

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ALL THE FOODS ARE HERE

 

 

But there are also some real drawbacks to the Indian population growth in Dallas. By bunching together in certain neighborhoods, we’re choosing to self-segregate. This belies the so-called “melting pot” that America is supposed to represent. And worse, it can create suspicion among others. It prevents Americans from learning about us. How many of the Trump supporters who’ve harangued Muslims over the past year have actually lived with regular, friendly Muslim neighbors? Self-segregation only reinforces the fact that we’re outsiders.

Also, part of living in America with a hyphenated identity is supposed to be the struggle with the hyphen. Is the hyphen long or short: Do my two identities have a large divide or could they coexist relatively easily? Is the hyphen weighted towards one side: If I had to choose just one, which one would it be? But many Indians around my age who move to Dallas now don’t have to face these same questions. You can ostensibly move here, work in the IT department of a company that is full of Indians, eat Indian food night and day, watch Indian entertainment, and in some cases not even have to speak much English.

If you tread that path, is there any point in moving here? (other than the dolla bills). Indians in Dallas need to be careful. We should certainly embrace our culture and the ease of finding each other in a place that is foreign to us in many ways. But if we don’t simultaneously embrace the learning opportunity of America, a land more heterogeneous than our own, we’re doing an injustice to ourselves. After all, immigration is one of the greatest learning experiences a person can have. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Gandhi Park, I’m just saying we should invite some non-Indians to come play cricket once in a while.

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Generic bro confused about how to play cricket

Note 1: Irving became a hotspot for Indian immigration due to a couple of reasons: A) Several companies located nearby had large IT needs in the 90’s and Indian immigrants to Dallas, who largely held technical degrees, were prime for filling those needs; B) Irving is centrally located in the greater DFW area and has relatively cheap rents with relatively great schools. It’s the practical Honda Accord of Dallas suburbs.