Faith Finding Fulfillment Reflections

When Interfaith Means Double, Not Half

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My first time attempting Pesaha Appam and Pal

It’s been a festive few days for us.

As a Hindu Tam Brahm married to a Malayalee Catholic, it’s been a busy week, from Palm Sunday mass to Tamil Puthandu puja. This year was the first time I personally observed both of these, and that’s because I’m now working twice as hard to retain the culture and traditions that both of our parents have so diligently worked to preserve when they left behind everything they knew in India and took a chance coming to this country.

I’ve always felt a strong tie to my roots because over the last 30 years, my parents recreated here in the U.S. the cultural milieu they would have experienced back home, and I’m thankful they did. I enjoy participating in (most) of these traditions, and the love for the Indian arts — music and dance, which are considered offerings to Gods themselves—  they instilled in me have been one of the greatest gifts I’ve accepted. I know my in-laws have done the same for my husband and his brothers, and he feels the same way. So now, after having gotten married and knowing that my husband and I will have to split our time in passing on whatever we have grasped of each of our two traditions to the next generation, I’m making extra effort to observe the holidays from both sides, even if that means waking up at 6:30 this morning to attend Mass before my husband had to go to work, or scrambling Friday evening after my work to put together manga pachadi with whatever ingredients I could find to ensure an auspicious Puthandu celebration.

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Delicious Puthandu feast at our friends’ home: pongal, vazhakkai curry, kozhambu, and mango pachadi

The extra effort is necessary for three reasons:

One is that among my generation, there is less interest in following formal, organized religion, and increasingly people are identifying themselves as atheist. I can certainly understand and appreciate the reasons for why this is, and I have no problem with that: each person is entitled to believe or not believe as he or she chooses. However, since my husband and I have grown up in families where faith has played a huge, positive influence, I would love for my future kids to have some sense of faith if I can help it. I want to give them the opportunity to experience the same traditions that I did, feel a similar connection to a higher power and reap the benefits that religion has to offer. I recognize much of this is not in my control since each person has to make his/her own decisions about faith and spirituality, but if it worked the way my parents instilled these feelings in me, then maybe I can try a similar approach.

Two, as a woman, from what I have observed in Indian homes at least, we are keepers of culture and tradition and are responsible for passing it on. That’s not to say the men are not involved; from my experience, they are typically responsible for transmitting teachings from the scriptures and providing moral guidance. Yet for the day-to-day rituals and customs, it’s going to be my task to get the kids to church and initiate the pujas at home. Some might say these rituals are not actually meaningful, and I agree these activities themselves may not bear any significance. But they are important because they provide focus. I learned that from a swamiji who once visited our home in Gainesville. At the time, I was in high school— rebellious, cynical, and not happy about sitting through a spiritual discourse for an hour instead of being out with my friends. However, once he started talking I admired his modern and relatable approach and was glad I stuck around. His words made me reconsider what I had, until that point, thought were arbitrary rituals.

“Why do we do puja? Why do we say put the flower here, light the deepam like this, ring the bell? It’s not because it actually matters when or where you put the flower. It’s to give your hands something to do and to keep your mind on God. Otherwise, your mind would wander.” It’s probably also why I have now found yoga so helpful in finding peace and calmness in the middle of a stressful work week. There is so much to focus on during yoga– where you put your hands, the position of your feet, which muscles to tighten, and even the seemingly simple task of breathing— that it doesn’t leave space in your mind for much else.

Life gets busy, so even though the rituals don’t matter, they are tools to help us get focused. That’s where women, who get their husbands and kids involved in the rituals, play a pivotal role.

Finally, since we are an interfaith household, we have to work to impart not one but two traditions. This now means researching a little more so I can understand and explain the significance of some customs— previously not necessary— and observing some festivals even within my own religion that I previously would not have formally recognized.

But I don’t mind.

I said it at our betrothal and I’ll say it again: I consider having the strength of two faiths on our side a blessing itself. As Jis joked to me the other day, it also means, “we have something to celebrate year-round because there’s always something going on.”

So now, after having collected palm leaves at church last Sunday, doing puja for Puthandu on Friday, attending mass this morning and now headed to the Hindu temple to watch a classical dance performance, I wish you all a happy Easter.

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