by Peony Hirwani

Testimony: The Journey of Finding My Faith in The World’s Most Diverse Country

“Nam myoh renge koh. Nam myoh renge kyo. Nam myoh renge kyo.”

illustrated drop cap for the letter SSix years ago, on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday night, my dog began shaking out of control. He couldn’t stand upright, and his body became stiff and cold. I love my dog fiercely. I was heartbroken. I thought I had lost him. Looking for someone to console me, I texted a friend. They suggested that I recite a Buddhist chant. “Nam myoh renge koh,” I repeated, tears streaming down my face. “Nam myoh renge koh.” Fifteen minutes later, my dog woke up.

I grew up Hindu, in a family that follows the teachings of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, a spiritual organization that is committed to a cycle of internal development under the direction of an instructor called Baba Ji. Just like Christians visit church on Sundays, my family visits the dera — camp — to attend a Satsang — a spiritual disclosure — every Sunday. I grew up learning that my faith lies in the redundancy of the shabda — sound — or nam — name — of god. Every time I sat down to pray as a child, I closed my eyes, joined my hands, and pictured Baba Ji. It felt safe and serene. Just as flowers bloom during the springtime, my mind, body and soul used to blossom with gratitude, positivity, and growth during prayer.

Then, at 13, I went to boarding school. I lived with girls from all over India who had very different faiths and methods of praying. I had never before been exposed to other modes  of belief. This exposure to new ideas awakened a curiosity in me — and an uncertainty in the religion I had grown up following. I began exploring new faiths and ways of believing.

India is a nation where faith implies something else to everyone — for some, faith means following their religion, and for others, it means following a wise entity like Jay Shetty. To me, this is a gift. It is, however, damn difficult. 

In India, there is always someone watching what you do — someone minding your business. For instance, a colleague of mine lived in an all-Hindu colony where almost all households consisted of members of the same religion. Then a Muslim family moved in a few blocks away. Suddenly, everyone  began obsessing over the personal life of that family. India is a majority-Hindu country, and, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, has become increasingly hostile to those who practice Islam. There are laws in place that directly discriminate against Muslims. Just last year, there were riots in the capital city, where Hindu mobs viciously beat up Muslims. 

There is also a stigma around religious conversion. If I were to publicly spend a couple of months in a different faith environment, everyone in my community would begin discussing how I relinquished my family’s belief. .It will most likely welcome disgrace and shame and generate conversations about how I don’t respect my parents. People would begin questioning our family name. Finding my own faith isn’t an easy journey, even in a country as diverse and religious as India. 

The principle faith I still turn to is Radha Soami. When I close my eyes, I can still picture Baba Ji consoling me that everything will be OK. But now, that’s not all. I have come to believe that different circumstances call for different practices; different teachings from different faiths. As I grow up, I’m learning new things consistently. 

That said, I feel like I am one step closer to figuring out my true calling, even though there are still days when I couldn’t care less or believe in any path, master, or god. The more I read and speak about this subject, the more I find. I can say that I know one thing for sure: After years of spiritual exploration, it is easier for me to decide if something is right for me. I’m thankful that I have at least recognized the basic building blocks in sorting out where my certainty lies. During my teenage years at boarding school, while I was drafting a speech for an inter-house debate, I read a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Nothing makes more sense to me. I realize that wherever life takes me, and whatever situations I face, my faith — mine, not anyone else’s — will always guide me.