I am not entirely sure what it means to be a devout Hindu. What I do know is that I almost certainly am one. I’ve spent some of my past year reading the Gospel and the Quran but I’ve spent more of it reading Kalidas, Tulsidas, Bharavi and Valmiki. I often go to the Bengali Kali temple fifteen minutes north of my alma mater. I don’t speak Bengali so I don’t bother with the satsangs or pujas, but I go, and I listen for the voice of truth. One way I know I’m Hindu is that I don’t say “hail” when I praise; I say “jai”. I don’t think “God” when I pray; I think “Ma”.
The Sunday morning after Donald Trump’s election, I found myself sitting in a Quaker meetinghouse that I had been frequenting for about a year, also not far from my alma mater. It is an austere, small, lovely and unadorned building, so different from the grandeur and ostentation of Hindu temples all around New Jersey, and I sat listening for that same voice of truth. I sat, listening, surrounded by people who I knew shared my deepest convictions as a Hindu: That the human soul is inseparable from God, and that the travesties we inflict on those souls are impossible to explain if we take that divinity to heart. I knew they believed this, because they spent four hundred years believing in the West what my ancestors believed in the East, and now spend every day of their noble, imperfect lives trying to live up to those transcendent convictions.
“The listening is not so different. What is different is the hearing.”
The listening is not so different. What is different is the hearing. A Quaker meeting consists of an hour of silent meditation until someone feels moved to speak by whatever they hold sacred. The hour often passes in silence, but whether or not it does, it is an experience of profound vulnerability to trust other people to pierce that silence.
That particular Sunday, a couple roughly my age stood up and sang a hymn in trained but quavering voices.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
I lost it. I struggled to contain my tears and failed. In another context, those words would have sounded saccharine and trite, but during that hour they were what I needed to hear. “You are my countryman,” they said to me, “because my country is a world where you are allowed to exist and live and be whole.” It was a Gitanjali, a song-offering from soul to soul, and my heart received it immediately.
I left that meeting feeling healed in a way I didn’t think would be possible for months. Or years. Or another lifetime or two.
Two months pass. It’s time for the Women’s March. I spend a week wringing my hands, thinking how I’ve never been to a protest and would rather be fighting the indoor fight.
I don’t want to protest. I don’t want to put my body between the things I hold sacred and the people who threaten them. My mind wants me to stay home, binge watch and donate the price of my train ticket to the ACLU. My mind tells me another warm body won’t make much difference, and it’s probably right. But my heart knows that if I don’t show up for my country on that day, no other day will make me brave.
“But my heart knows that if I don’t show up for my country on that day, no other day will make me brave.”
One of the Quakers asks me over e-mail if I’d like to join him in New York City. I tell him I’m still on the fence, but I mention that it’ll be my first protest. Is there any way I should prepare?
Yes, he responds. Here’s how you should prepare. Reflect on the Biblical injunction Micah 6:8: “And what does the Lord require of thee? To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.”
These words are saccharine and trite again. But he knows I’m Hindu, has never tried to talk me out of it, and still did not hesitate to refer to his God as mine.
“You are my countryman,” he says to me without saying it, “because my country is a world where you can live, and exist, and be whole.”
It is enough to get me out the door and walk with my God.
Jai Ma. Jai Ma.
“I love and revere my Hindu roots. The Quakers at my meeting are aware of this…”
I love and revere my Hindu roots. The Quakers at my meeting are aware of this, and I’ve never once felt that they wanted to take those roots away from me. The Gospel they care to convert me to is the one I already accept: The one in which Ahimsa is the highest dharma, and which calls us to care for the least of our brethren.
Without the Quakers, my response to the election would have been the same. I would have gone to a place of worship to sit in expectant silence to listen for the voice of truth. But a lot of our religious communities in the diaspora, especially Hindu ones, are not equipped to step up to the challenge of progressive activism.
Diasporic Desis, I have a request for you. Maybe you already have the spiritual community you need to walk humbly with your God, and if you do, feel free to ignore this. But if you don’t, come find me here. My countrymen and women. Desis.
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Raj Kiran Gopal (@QuixoticGood) is a freelance writer, editor and graphic novelist from East Brunswick, NJ. He is an associate editor at Podcastle, a fantasy short fiction podcast in the Escape Artists podcast network.