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Two Paths, One Journey

Hamsika Chandrasekar

On most mornings, I wake to the loud buzz of my alarm clock, the soft stirrings of my roommates, and the bright sunlight pouring through my window. Lazily, I open a single eye, turn off my alarm, and try without success to go back to sleep. Over sixteen hundred miles away, my parents too are rising from their beds. My mother immediately looks at her palms and recites the morning shloka Karaagre Vasathe, dedicating the first few moments of her day to God. Meanwhile, my father stands up to do the Soorya Namaskar, meditating as he cycles through the various poses. Though both my parents and I are Hindus, it is clear from just the first ten minutes of each day that our Hindu identities are unique and that we practice our shared religion in different ways.
Perhaps the past can explain why this is so. My mother grew up in a close-knit village, where family meant more than just her parents and five elder brothers. Each morning, her own mother would get up early, sweep the front foyer, and draw a kolam, or sand drawing made with rice powder, on the smooth, stone surface. She would then light lamps and present the food she made to God and to any crows that wandered nearby. My mother would pray each morning before she went to school and claim blessings from her parents, especially before exams. Each night, she fell asleep to stories about Rama’s valor, Krishna’s mischief, and Hanuman’s loyalty, and whenever she got a day off from school, she visited the temple nearby, watched poojas, and sang bhajans. As she herself puts it, “It was all just a part of life.”
My father had a similar experience. He awoke each morning to the sound of his dad chanting shlokas, and he participated in daily poojas and bhajans alongside his brothers and sisters. From the age of eight onwards, my father performed the sandhyaa-vandanam three times a day: once each in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. Every now and then, special storytellers would visit the city temple and preserve the tradition of kathaa-kaalakshepa, weaving tales using a brilliant mixture of song and dance. My father states, “I just went and listened to them. I felt like I was missing out if I didn’t go every day.” Even when these traveling tale-bearers were not around, my dad would go to the temple several times a week, to pray and offer his salutations to the Gods that gave him food, shelter, family, and good health.
Today, both my parents devote most of their weekends to learning Sanskrit, studying the Bhagavad Gita, and teaching youngsters about Hinduism. They work closely with an organization called AIM for Seva, founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati and committed to the idea of service. This past year, my parents were involved in the implementation of a program entitled Shanti, a production that transcended racial and cultural barriers in a whirlwind of music and dance. Through this event, they helped to raise thousands of dollars for AIM for Seva and to create a greater awareness of Hinduism in the Houston community. Furthermore, both my parents have taught in the Vedic Heritage Program sponsored by Pearland’s Sri Meenakshi Temple, educating kids about values, the Mahabharata, and the Gita, among other topics. Even on a day-to-day basis, their Hindu identities shine through: my mother wears the traditional dot on her forehead every day, regardless of whether she’s going to the temple or to the bank. My father sends me e-mails with links to Hindu websites and pamphlets on Hinduism that have been compiled by kids much younger than I. When something goes wrong, both my parents tackle the problem with patience, placing integrity and morals above all else. As a result, I have grown up in an environment that makes it easy for me to imbibe the richness of Indian culture and to be proud of my Hindu heritage.
I do, however, live my Hindu identity in a very different way. Having learned both Bharatnaatyam and Carnatic vocal music for over ten years, I connect with much of Hindu lore through the medium of song and dance. Draupadi’s pain, Arjuna’s struggle, Ravana’s anger, and Krishna’s wisdom are all concepts I understand through hand gestures, footwork, facial expressions, and lyrics. Any time I learn a new keertanam, my music teacher goes through every single line with me, explaining the meaning of each good-naturedly. Consequently, when I sing, I try to portray the emotion inherent in the song, whether it is about Yashoda’s love for Krishna or Thyagaraja’s allegiance to Rama. Though I am almost twenty, I still delight in reading Amar Chitra Katha comics, many of which depict age-old stories from Hindu literature. As a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I have found a great group of friends, who share my Hindu background; with them, I have continued to keep my appreciation of Indian culture and faith in Hinduism alive. Furthermore, an on-campus group called the Hindu Students Council organizes colorful celebrations of Hindu festivals throughout the school year, as well as poojas performed by experienced priests. These events are highly attended – and not just by Hindu students like myself! More and more, I have come to realize that non-Indians appreciate Hinduism, and each time my fellow classmates marvel at my ghagra choli or at my elaborate dance costume, it is a pleasure for me to explain to them my Hindu beliefs.
It is true that my parents’ Hindu identities vary from my own: they spend hours studying the Gita and working hard to learn Sanskrit, while I practice Carnatic music and perform Bharatnaatyam, taking part in various Indian events at MIT. Still, Hinduism is a constant part of all our lives, and I believe our differences only lend to the beauty of this religion: anyone can practice Hinduism, anywhere, and in any way they want.

Hamsika's Biography

Hamsika is a 19-year-old female currently residing in Sugar Land, Texas. Her hobbies include Indian classical dance, Carnatic music, reading, writing, and drawing. She is a rising sophomore at MIT, pursuing a major in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a minor in Chemistry, with hopes of going on to medical school and/or working in the field of Global Health.

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