Tag Archives: Religion

To Feel Something, Deeply…

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a young woman who was doing research on Hindu/Christian couples for a paper she was working on at the Harvard Divinity School. She had found me through some of my blog postings on negotiating different religious territory for our wedding.

I admit that I am probably not the best “Christian” to interview for such a paper, for even though I was raised in a Catholic home, I don’t really consider myself very Christian. I was upfront about this in the interview, but the interviewer said that it was okay, that it was good to hear a diversity of opinions.

I always mean to write a more in-depth post about my own feelings on religion. I have touched on some here and there, but sometimes I’m afraid of offending more religious readers of this blog. I wouldn’t mean to as I actually find religion a fascinating topic, but sometimes I worry that professing no faith can seem insulting or sad to those that have deep faith.

Yet personally, I’ve never really felt any religious or spiritual stirrings. Perhaps not everyone is struck with a deep religious calling, but I haven’t even felt minor religious or spiritual murmurs. It’s not for a lack of wanting to, or having tried to seek such feelings out. There was a time when I really just wanted to “get” what other people seemed to, without having to try so hard. However it hasn’t happened, and on an intellectual level, at least with the Catholicism that I was raised with, Christianity just never made much sense to me.

So it felt kind of cathartic to talk to this woman about my religious feelings (or lack there of), and how it shaped our multicultural household. As we neared the end of our hour long conversation she asked me if I ever had something close to a spiritual feeling even if I wouldn’t necessarily label it such, and I had to admit there was at least one time.

It sounds like the biggest cliche in the book, but when I signed up to study in India I had been grappling with my complex religious feelings for years. Although the main purpose of my trip was to learn more about South Asia in general, I was hoping that perhaps something in this “spiritual land” (sorry, even I’m cringing as I write that) would speak to me, and that perhaps I’d finally find that missing religious link I’d been searching for.

I didn’t, I came back just as atheist as I was when I departed, but there was one experience that felt inspiring, that did churn something up in my chest.

I pulled out my India journal to see what I had written.

As our program director was a Tibetan monk, our India semester had a special focus on Buddhism, and in addition to learning about Hindu culture and traveling to places like Varanasi, we also traveled to Dharmsala (where the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama reside) and Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha supposedly sat underneath the bodhi tree and meditated until he gained enlightenment.

The town of Bodhgaya is off the regular tourist track, and although you do bump into western tourists, a lot of the visitors are Buddhist pilgrims from around the world, and particularly from Tibet. It wasn’t uncommon to see nomadic Tibetan pilgrims walking down the street looking like they had just stepped out of a National Geographic documentary on life in a yak caravan.

Bodhgaya itself is a bit of a dusty backwater with frequent power cuts, and not much traffic. Around the outskirts of town are various temples from different Buddhist nations, built to reflect each culture’s style and architecture: Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, etc.

At the center of town is the Mahabodhi Temple, which sits beside the spot where Buddha meditated. A bodhi tree is still in the spot, supposedly the sapling of a sapling of a sapling of the original tree. Around the temple and the tree is a path that pilgrims circumambulate night and day.

Mahabodhi Temple– “front”

Mahabodhi Temple and Bodi tree at night– “back” of temple

This is the passage from my journal:

Tenzin-ji [our program director] says, “You can sleep when you get back to the US” and I have tried to adopt this as my new motto…

For instance… our last morning in Bodhgaya a group of six of us woke up at five in the morning and walked to the Mahabodhi temple to circumambulate for two hours before our thirty minute meditation. We left in the darkness, as the town slept, yet found the temple bustling with activity as we walked around it with many Tibetan pilgrims. A chant was playing over the temple loud speakers, and we walked until the power went off… and then we walked in darkness, feeling our way along the path… until the power kicked back on and the sun slowly rose. The devotion of the pilgrims is awe inspiring… old and young alike were making slow prostrations around the temple… hours of bending up and down in prayer…

After being here and watching activites such as this, I feel like I could do something crazy and seemingly impossible. Like walk across the US, or do anything I set my mind to do. It would almost be a test of wills, just to see if I could do it. Nothing seems impossible anymore.

Your mind does funny things when you test it… like walking around a temple in a continuous circle at 5 in the morning for two hours. It starts to wander… and you think about life… I meditated on my feelings about religion, I thought about my family, and life after college. I tried to release some of the anger that I have kept bottled inside and tried to breath out my frustrations.

This has been good for me, healthy.

It’s easy to let life and routine get in the way of seeking out these really inspirational moments. I don’t know if I really felt something spiritual while walking around the temple, but I definitely felt something deeply that day, and it will be a moment I’ll never forget.

Someday I want to be in South Asia for Holi

I know that the festival of Holi happened a few weeks ago, and I meant to write a post like this at the time, but I was reminded of Holi last night while searching for photos on the internet and figured it was time.

As the title professes, one of these days I would really like to be in either India or Nepal for Holi. I understand and appreciate that there is a religious significance to the festival, so I don’t want to seem disrespectful or  flippant, but there is something that looks so amazingly fun about throwing handfuls of colored powder at each other, regardless of the reason.

I remember once in elementary school someone gave me the idea of putting a spoon or two of flour into an opened  napkin and tying the napkin shut with a piece of string to make a “flour bomb” that “exploded,” sending flour everywhere, when you threw it at someone/something. I made about a dozen, and my sister K and I threw them at each other in the back yard. We were covered in white powder at the end. It was extremely fun, and of course, silly, but I couldn’t replicate it because I got in trouble for wasting flour.

I imagine a full scale Holi is kind of like that, only the flour-like powder is dyed vibrant hues, and the world is covered in rainbows.

P says that in real life (well, in the kid version he remembers) playing Holi can also be kind of brutal. Teenage boys love targeting Western tourists (particularly females) and Holi colors don’t always come in fun handfuls of powder… sometimes they come in buckets of colored water or balloons. There was even a dangerous trend of more mischievous people throwing motor oil in Kathamandu, but I still  like to imagine crowds of happy, friendly people, shrieking in delight and playing tag with fist fulls of beautiful powder.

Actually, P has a “battle wound” from a Holi shenanigan in his youth. One year he was up on the roof of his house, leaning far over the ledge to hit a neighbor girl with a balloon filled with colored water. As he positioned himself for the sneak attack he let the balloon go, but lost his balance and fell off the roof with it! He cracked the side of his head on the path below and started bleeding. As luck would have it, the timing of his accident coincided with a city curfew, and his family couldn’t taken him to the hospital until the following morning. Several stitches later, he still has a bump on his noggin that you can see in the right light if you know where to look.

But I’m not deterred :)

We have played Holi a few times in Massachusetts, although of course a tamer version, at Holi potluck gatherings where fellow party goers gently wipe powder in a streak across each others faces. But much like smearing birthday cake on someone’s face, the real fun is getting a little crazy. I wouldn’t mind coming back from Holi looking like this:

Pictures are from The Telegraph and Boston.com.

Sometimes a Church Just Doesn’t Feel Right

Our wedding has made life interesting the past few months. Sometimes I feel like a lot of the preparation has been a giant negotiation. We want everyone to feel included, and we want to make sure we cover the important cultural aspects of each of our “traditions,” but we also want to be true to ourselves. Because of this, I feel it has made planning the American wedding (in particular) all the more… “challenging.”

I come from an Irish Catholic family (on both sides), and even though not every one of my relatives is “religious,” they still have church as an important part of their lives (Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, weddings and holidays, if not most Sundays).

On the other side I have really struggled with faith (a WHOLE separate and long blog post), and because of this, church has not been an important part of my life. So when it came time to choose where to get married, I was pretty adamant that I didn’t want to get married in a church by a Catholic priest. I have nothing against that choice for others, but it didn’t feel right for me.

This revelation, as one can imagine, was quite upsetting to some of my family members. At least on my father’s side I am the third eldest cousin and several years ago my eldest cousin decided not to get married in a church, and broke that barrier (while her younger sister did marry in the church), on my mother’s side, I think I’m probably the first one in generations (and generations) not to be married in a Catholic church by a Catholic priest.

I think my grandmother doesn’t get it. I think for her and some of my other relatives it is hard to image what a “white wedding” actually is (or means) without a church and a priest. I’m sure they blame my parents—thinking they “did” something to me to make me turn against my faith, or somehow “raised” me wrong (so I can understand the pressure/criticism they have been under/getting, because of my choices). However it has nothing to do with my parents—again religious musings surely deserve its own post—but ultimately I think my relatives probably felt betrayed.

Here I was, claiming that I wanted to make sure both of our cultures were represented—AND I was willing to get married in a Hindu temple by a Hindu priest (blasphemy!) BUT I was throwing one of my family’s main wedding traditions—Catholicism—out the window. In one phone conversation with my aunt, as I reassured her that we were still doing a lot of American traditions: white dress, wedding rings, vows, first dance, cake, wedding party, etc, she said “If you throw out the priest and church, everything else is just cosmetic.” Ouch.

So I feel I have had to tread carefully when deciding on what details are important to include in the American side of our ceremony/reception and what not to. What battles am I really ready to fight for, and what am I willing to concede because the biggest thing of all—not doing it in a church, was finally hard won (although I think my grandmother is worried about my soul and that I might be going to hell, and thus won’t see me in the afterlife).

And not to confuse the situation further, but the third side of this is that I feel I have little control of what happens in the Nepali wedding—sure there are details to iron out like what to serve at the reception, making playlists of music, organizing a program for those unfamiliar with Hindu weddings, but mostly I am just as much along for the ride as some of the guests. It’s really P and his family that have a say in the Nepali wedding—including what I wear that day, and what traditions are followed, so it makes me all the more adamant to make the American ceremony “my own” in terms of personality and flavor. So there is this constant delicate balance between what I truly would love to have and what others expect, and what is a reasonable compromise between the two.

Anyway, this has colored everything from creating invitations (and insisting that even though it was tradition to include an image of Ganesh on Nepali invites, it was probably more politically correct to omit that detail for now), to what I wear (no I cannot put henna on my hands, even  though I think it would be fun and beautiful–technically it isn’t a Nepali tradition anyway, but a newer trend influenced from India and Bollywood– but none-the-less, because it may, according to my mom, “ruin” the “white wedding” photos, I’m not allowed to do it), to ceremony details… and my next topic—to Ring or Not to Ring.

Dashain Articles

A few people (thanks AS and P) sent me articles today from the Nepali online journal Republica that I wanted to share:

The first is called “Nava Durga: Nine incarnations of the Mighty Devi Durga” and discusses the different incarnations of Durga (the power goddess) that are worshiped on different days of Dashain.

The second article was on Dashain tikkas and why some communities use red versus white or black.

(From the Republica article on Tikka): This picture illustrates to those who have never seen or participated in a Dashain tikka giving what it looks like. An older member of your family/community gives tikka and blessing to younger people. Note the jamara grass tucked behind the father's ear.

In the “white tikka” section of the article it discusses how different ethnic communities sometimes choose to use different colored tikkas to differentiate themselves and their practices, since historically red vermillion was not readily available outside of the KTM valley, and tikkas were created with butter (potentially influenced by Tibet), or curd and rice. Also the article gives the example of the Limbu people, whose participation in Dashain can only be traced back to Rana Bahadur Shah’s reign. This reminded me of a story that M-dai told me a while back.

M-dai is from the Sunwar ethnic group traditionally from the mountains in the Solokhumbu region of Nepal. Many of the mountain people were not traditionally (and many still are not) Hindu, but Buddhist or animist/shamanistic. When Nepal became unified under a king, and the country was declared a Hindu kingdom, advisors of the king were sent to the more remote areas of Nepal to enforce Hinduization. M-dai said his grandfather’s grandfathers used to have to show that they sacrificed a goat for Dashain to prove their participation in the Hindu festival and their adherence to the king. For some families celebration of this festival may have stuck, but not for all.

Which leads me into the final article: “Commentary: On Not Celebrating Dashain.” Even though to me Dashain feels more cultural than spiritual, it is important to remember that the festival– much like Christmas (regardless of how secular and commercial it might seem to some) in the US– is not celebrated by everyone. This article is from the perspective of a Nepali who is not Hindu, and thus doesn’t celebrate.

I hope you don’t mind all the posts on Dashain… it’s just on my brain as of late. Thought others might find these interesting….

Kumari and Indra Jatra

Yesterday was Indra Jatra. I know this only because I like to look at BBC’s “in pictures” each day and there was a photo from Kathmandu depicting the ceremony.

From BBC "In Pictures"

I don’t know much about Indra Jatra (so I’ll look up some information to share) but the festival caught my attention because I’ve been reading up on Kumari (or the “living goddesses” from Nepal). I find their stories fascinating and was thinking of writing about them for my writer’s group. Indra Jatra is one of the festivals that kumaris participate in.

Basically Kumari are little girls chosen from a specific Buddhist Newar ethnic group (Shakya) in Nepal who become the embodiment of the Hindu goddess Taleju (which is an avatar of power goddess Durga). Much like the Dalai Lama or Pachen Lama, the girls are a reincarnation of the goddess, and are chosen based on specific attributes such as “a neck like a conch shell,” “a body like a banyan tree”, “eyelashes like a cow,” “chest like a lion” and have to pass a test to prove that she is the goddess. Supposedly one such test comes during Dashain (coming in October), when the young goddess has to spend the night in a temple with 108 sacrificed goats and buffalos. Since Durga is strong and fearless, the Kumari candidate must also show no fear.

Various photos of Kumari in full regalia including headdress, full tikka, and naga (snake) necklace. Kumari are not allowed to touch the ground, so they are carried or ride in chariots when they have to go outside for religious functions

Girls are chosen very young (usually when they are only a few years old) and live out their childhood in a temple away from their families. They are worshiped and often sought for guidance, and I believe the Royal Kumari of Bhaktapur gives a tikka to the king of Nepal during Dashain as a blessing (at least, back when there was a king). Tradition holds that if a king does not receive tikka from the Kumari at this time, something horrible will happen. I remember reading somewhere (although now I can’t find the link) that supposedly when the former King Birendra went to take tikka from the Royal Kumari the Dashain before the Royal Massacre (June 2001), she cried (or something like that) which denotes a bad omen. Less than a year later ten members of the royal family including the King, Queen, two princes and the princess were dead.

The Kumari remains a goddess until her first menstruation, at which point the spirit of the goddess leaves her body to inhabit someone else, and she again becomes a mere mortal. Image the confusion for the poor child—having spent the formative years of her life worshiped and treated to every desire only to reach adolescence and be tossed back to her family (which at this point she hardly knows) and be treated like a regular person again.

BBC "In pictures" from today... girls dressed like Kumari dance in the street (although they are not real Kumari)

Another BBC "In Pictures"... a (real) Kumari peeks outside her temple window at the Indra Jatra festival

If you want to learn more about the Kumari I recommend watching the documentary “The Living Goddess” (watch trailer HERE), it is currently streaming on Netflix. Interestingly, when the documentary came out, the Kumari featured traveled to the US for the premiere, and she was temporarily “fired” from her role as Kumari because she became “unclean” from traveling abroad.  A purification ritual was performed before she could be reinstated.

So back to Indra Jatra—Indra is the god of rain and the festival is celebrated for eight days in the Kathmandu Valley mostly near Hanuman Dhoka. Classical dancers assemble in the square wearing different traditional masks and costumes to celebrate Indra’s visit. On the third day the Kumari is brought to the square in a chariot procession to watch over the ceremonies.

Pictures of Indra Jatra dancers

Happy Buddha Purnima

Today is a holiday celebrated by Buddhists around the world… Buddha’s birthday!

I didn’t realize it was today until I saw the “day in pictures” on the BBC website which had one photo commemorating Buddha’s birthday in Hong Kong. If I had known I would have asked P’s dad about it when we spoke the other night. Although P’s father’s family is more traditionally Hindu, P’s mom’s family is more traditionally Buddhist (but she celebrates both festivals… the line is blurred between Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal anyway), and I wonder if she is doing anything special for Buddha Purnima today.

Last time we were in Nepal she was telling me that she thinks deep down I’m Buddhist, in part,  because I am vegetarian. I’ve struggled a lot with religion in the past (that is a post in and of itself), and although I don’t really consider myself spiritually anything specific, my ideology is probably closest aligned to the general concepts of Buddhism. I feel like I could learn the most from its teachings and that its philosophies could best help lead me toward a positive and moral life, but in many ways I still shy away from religion in general. I digress…

Various countries around the world have their own celebratory way to commemorate Buddha’s birth. According to Wikipedia some people in Nepal celebrate by keeping a “gentle and serene fervor, keeping in mind the very nature of Buddhism.” Celebrants might dress in pure white, and avoid non-veg food. In addition kheer (sweet rice pudding) is eaten to “recall the story of Sujata, a maiden who, in Guatama Buddha’s life, offered him a bowl of milk porridge after he had given up the path of asceticism following six years of extreme austerity. This event was one major link in his enlightenment.” I don’t really need an excuse to eat kheer (mmmm, kheer), but perhaps this will inspire me to make some after work tonight.

Since Gautama was born in a city (Lumbini) that now lies in present day southern Nepal, I thought it would be important to take note of his special day.

I meant to post a link a while back to the streaming video of a great documentary on Buddha’s life that PBS aired a month or two ago. I never got the chance, and it looks like now they have taken down the streaming video… but if you want to read a little more about it you can check out the website HERE.

Beef… It’s What’s For Dinner…

Beef was a big part of my childhood. As I’ve mentioned before, we were a real “meat and potatoes” kind of family. Both of my parents worked, cooking in general wasn’t a big thing in our house (aside from my dad’s meat dishes, especially summer barbeques), and we ate stuff that was quick and easy. That included lots of beef dishes—meatloaf, hamburger (and Hamburger Helper), steak, roasts, tacos, meatballs, crockpot stew, and of course, corned beef. Hamburgers in particular were very common.


“Beef—It’s what’s for dinner” advertisement from 1992.

I was never a big fan (aside from corn beef. That was the one meat I did really like, I guess it was the inner Irish calling out), and I used to argue relentlessly about eating meat every night (or silently feed chunks to the dog under the table).

Life is really different now, and although I’m happily meat-free, our freezer is occasionally stocked with P’s meaty pleasures—chicken, pork, goat, fish, unusual game meat from my dad–but no beef. His mother is very religious (a combo of Buddhist and Hindu), and would never dream of bringing beef into her house. I’m sure she had nightmares that an American daughter-in-law would not only eat beef herself, but also corrupt her son and grandchildren into eating it. My veggie-ness helped win over her heart. She sees me as an ally in keeping P’s meat consumption down, and can rest assured there will be no unholy beef eating in her son’s home.

That doesn’t mean that every friend of ours who grew up in a Nepali Hindu household has a strict “no beef” philosophy. Our friend AD jokes, “Only Nepali cows are sacred, so an American cow is fine. I have no problems eating burgers in the US” while others seem less worried about breaking taboos and eating beef in general (if you aren’t particularly religious, then the taboo probably doesn’t mean that much anyway).

But sometimes you eat things you don’t intend to, without even realizing it, which reminds me of a funny story from last Thursday. I was driving south (to the Gori meetup) and of course dropped in for dinner at R and S’s house (plus they were babysitting my dog, who wasn’t feeling great. Thanks guys, you’re the best!). They made homemade pizza for a quick dinner so I could get back on the road, one veggie and one meat with pepperoni. There was a debate over whether pepperoni was beef or pork, and whether pepperonis in general are made from beef, pork or some combination of both.

During the discussion R stated, “I prefer not to eat beef, I really try not to…but sometimes it happens… For instance, I knew that cheeseburgers were beef… but I always thought that hamburgers were made from pork.”

“Why would you think that? The only difference is a piece of cheese.” I said.

“No… don’t you see… cheeseburger meant beef, but hamburger meant pork.”

“I still don’t get it, it’s just a  slice of cheese.”

“Cheeseburger and hamburger” she said, adding an extra emphasizes to the ham part, “People know that ‘burger’ means beef, so cheeseburger means made with beef, but why would you call a plain beef burger hamburger unless it was made with pork? Don’t they have chicken burgers made of chicken?” She rationalized.

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” I reflected.

“So I always assumed hamburger was pork, and one day I was sitting with my cousins talking about how I don’t eat beef, while eating a hamburger. They said, ‘R—you are eating beef right now!’ and I said, ‘But it isn’t a cheeseburger!’ and they had to explain! It took a while for me to believe them!”

Isn’t English fickle?

Oh… I had to add this… From a British comedy sketch on “what it means to be Hindu”–

“My son… you are indeed right… [Hinduism] is a very complex and intricate religion. There are many gods, there are many texts, but they all point to one universal principle… no beef” (ha ha ha).

Holi and Lent

Last night we celebrated a friend’s birthday and Holi in true Nepali fashion… with momos of course!

This is me during Holi two years ago...

In between wrapping the potato/tofu/cabbage (or chicken for the meat eaters) mixture into wanton wrappers and piling them up to be steamed, we would periodically try to smear bright pink colored powder across each other’s faces.

I have yet to be in South Asia during Holi, although someday I hope to. I know it is kind of crazy to go outside during that time… you have to prepare to be pummeled with colored dust, or in Nepal particularly, color-filled water balloons, but I think it would be great fun. I remember once as a little kid someone gave me the idea of making “flour bombs” where you fill a thin napkin with a spoon or two of flour and tie the napkin shut, so when thrown with force it “explodes” white flour everywhere. Holi is essentially the same idea (if you take away the religious aspect of it), and I could see my inner child running wild. We have celebrated a few times with our friends in New England, but the festivities are usually more subdued, since it is usually too cold to go crazy outside, and no one wants a chaotic colored mess to clean off their apartment floor.

Playing Holi in South Asia

The birthday aspect of the evening concluded with some cake, which brings me to the second topic of conversation… Lent.

My relationship with Christianity has been a long and rocky one. So I really wouldn’t classify myself as religious, or even spiritual, but there is one aspect of the Catholic calendar that I do try to adhere to since I find it a fulfilling endeavor—Lent. Generally speaking, Lent is a 40 day period of time in between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday where Catholics go through a period of fasting. I’ve really tried to do this in earnest each year (but not always successfully) because I think, devoid of its religious connotations, it is a nice anchor throughout the year, a time to abstain from something that you really enjoy or rely on. It helps me to practice self restraint and control, cleanses my system, and puts my needs and desires into perspective for the year.

For many years I’ve tried to focus my 40 day fast on sugary things. I’m a huge sweet tooth. I love chocolate (mmmm, Cadbury caramel Dairy Milk and this time of year… Cadbury cream eggs), and baked goods (pies, strudels, cookies), even sugar in my tea, or a soda at a restaurant for dinner. So cutting out the overtly sugary things in my diet (like all of the above, and including last night’s birthday cake) is really tough, and kicks my butt.

The first two weeks are usually the hardest. I gaze longingly at trays of cookies set out at university events, or mentally debate with myself about how bad it would be to just have a bite. I’ve been eating a lot of apples to help me through… and at the end of the 40 days it will feel really good to know that I didn’t give in to desire.

As a kid I tried to give up different things, like soda or television. I told P that this year we should try to give up eating out, but that would be really tough, because with our work schedules, and his exam studying (he passed! Hurray!), sometimes it’s just easy to grab some quick Chinese or burritos, but I’ll keep that one in mind for the future. Sugar seems to be a good one—a tough challenge, something I use as a crutch, and in giving it up I feel healthier at the end of it all, and it usually helps me decrease my overall sugar intake (after the previous few years fast I prefer less sugar in my tea, and sometimes forgo sugar for honey). Last year our friends R and S gave up rice. I commend them on that feat. I’m sure it equally kicked their butts.

So anyway, 13 days down… 27 more days to go.

Happy Saraswati Puja

P had an image of Saraswati linked to his Google-Chat today, and I wasn’t sure why. Then I noticed our friend had a “Happy Saraswati Puja!” up as her away message.

So, since I work at a university, and P and many of our friends are graduate students, I figured it would be nice to wish you all a Happy Saraswati Puja today.

Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of learning. So it seems appropriate. May she help you when you need inspiration to learn and finish your school work. If you are like me, you probably need this inspiration all the time to help you focus.

African Hare Krishna

What to write today? Perhaps a fun story? Here’s an “oldie” but a “goodie…”

First, a preface:

1) My dad had a good friend in high school who was very smart, had high ambitions, and never really thought about life not going his way. After graduating from college he applied for medical school, and for whatever reason, wasn’t accepted.

The friend was devastated. As a result he went on a cross-country road trip that ultimately led to him getting involved with some sort of “religious cult” out in California. He used to send all sorts of weird brainwashed-sounding letters back to my dad, and my dad’s friend’s family was really worried. Eventually they hired a private investigator to go out and bring the friend home—eventually kidnapping him from the supposed cult. However, when the family brought him back to New York, some of the cult members actually kidnapped him back, and it was a bit messy for a while. Eventually though, the friend got away and went on to lead a perfectly normal life (although he never did make it to medical school).

Anyway, I’d heard this story growing up and for some reason—maybe because I was interested in things my dad found unusual and didn’t understand—he always worried that I might end up like his friend if I wasn’t careful. Remember this, it’s important.

2) Prior to this story I’d known P about a year and a half. I hadn’t yet visited India or Nepal, and knew very little about Hinduism.

Okay, now fast-forward a few years to when I was in college. As I’ve alluded to before, my academic major allowed me to study abroad in France, Kenya and India. While I was in Kenya, P was able to finagle a research grant to join me in East Africa over the winter break to conduct comparative research on the environmental impacts of urbanization on rivers. The year before he had received a research grant to travel home to study the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, and he planned to compare this to the Nairobi River in Kenya as a thesis project.

Our university was quite small (everyone knew everyone else’s business), and apparently the faculty panel that reviewed the research requests had a discussion on whether or not it was ethical to fund P’s research since he was asking for money to travel to where his girlfriend was studying abroad. A close professor friend on the panel, who is probably more of a romantic than her feminist heart would admit, championed in our defense, “The research proposal is very strong in its own right… and who are we to stand in the way of true love?”

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

I was elated. I couldn’t wait until P arrived. For years it had been my dream to live and work in Africa, and after spending several months there, I was dying to share this new world with him. Over the Christmas holiday, when I knew Kenya was effectively shut down (at least for anything research or administratively oriented), I planned a whole trip for P and I “up-country” to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.

I had a few friends who had conducted their internship in the city, and they gave me a list of recommended things to see and do, including visiting an orphanage where one of them had worked. I found a small guest house near the orphanage, off the beaten path of the city, down a red dirt road along the water.

We arrived by overnight bus (riding through the Rift Valley on the local bus was brutal, the road was completely pockmarked and rutted from the rainy season) and took a local taxi to our guest house. After settling in we decided to check out the neighborhood and find the orphanage. On our walk we ran into some local Kenyan kids with long vertical Vishnu markings on their foreheads and shortly thereafter a passenger van drove by with Hare Krishna information written on the side paneling.

“We had a Hare Krishna temple near my high school,” P said when the van passed, “they had a van like that too, and we all used to say that they used the van to kidnap you.” P said this very deadpan, as if he was very serious. I only learned later he was joking.

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu orphanage, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu Hare Krishna program, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

I knew close to nothing about the Hare Krishna movement, in fact, the only thing that I had heard was that some people believe it is a type of cult. I know people make arguments that are both pro-Hare Krishna and anti-Hare Krishna, so I won’t take an official stance, but at the time the cult association was the only exposure to the organization I had known. This knowledge, coupled with P’s sarcastic comment, and the old story of my dad’s friend, had me a bit on edge about the Hare Krishnas.

As the week wore on, P and I had a great time. We spent Christmas eve and day volunteering at the orphanage, we went out on an early morning canoe ride in the lake and saw hippos up-close. We met with a friend’s brother in a tiny local (tasty) hole-in-the-wall fish place, and had dinner at his house with his whole family. It was fun.

P on a boda boda

P on a boda boda

Then the time came to return to Nairobi. We met some of the orphanage kids on the road to say good bye before trying to hitch a ride on a boda boda (bicycle taxi) back to town to catch the bus. The kids were trying to help us haggle but the boda boda drivers wouldn’t budge even though the kids and I knew we were being “grossly overcharged.” We were haggling over about 50 cents, but it was the principal of the thing, and eventually we decided to try our luck and started walking towards town. We were really early for the bus anyway, since we planned to find something to eat before heading out on the long journey back to Nairobi.

As we walked, the notorious Hare Krishna van (which we had passed on numerous occasions during the week) started rumbling down the dirt road. The kids started jumping and waving and one kid yelled, “You are lucky! The van will take you to the city for free!”

The van responded to the kids’ arm flailing and slowly pulled to the side of the road a few feet in front of us. There were two men and a woman sitting in the front, and they rolled down the passenger window, “need a lift?”

P, knowing my habit (challenge?) of traveling cheaply, figured this fit the mold… free trip to town, you can’t get more cheap than that… so he opened the van door and climbed in with a big grin on his face. My stomach sank; didn’t these people belong to a cult? What if something happens to us? Yet by this time everyone was looking at me, so I caved and stepped into the van.

Idi Amin famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

Idi Amin (depicted in the movie "The Last King of Scotland") famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

The driver of the van was Colombian and the two passengers were a married couple, the man was from Bolivia and the woman was a Ugandan of Indian descent whose family was thrown out of the country during the Idi Amin era. The couple explained that they had come to visit East Africa so the woman could “retrace her roots” and show her husband her home country. They were also using the trip as an opportunity to connected with Hare Krishna communities in the area.

The Hare Krishna crew seemed very interested in P, particularly after he mentioned he was from Kathmandu. The Colombian driver said he had worked at the Hare Krishna posting near P’s old high school, and the two bonded over shared geographical knowledge. As the van neared the bus depot the driver asked, “you must be hungry, have you eaten yet today?”

I was just about to say that we were fine when P spoke up, “no, actually we haven’t eaten yet. We were planning to find something while waiting for the bus.”

“We can’t have you travel hungry! Please, join us for breakfast!” the driver said.

“Yeah! Sure!” P said, the big grin popping back on his face. I’m sure he thought, more free stuff… alright!

The driver turned the van around and started driving out of the city. That’s when my panic level began to rise. I looked at P concerned, but he seemed oblivious, no doubt already thinking about food.

On the outskirts of the city the van approached a gated compound. A security guard let the van through, and we parked in the driveway of a large secluded mansion. I heard the front gate slam shut and my heart started racing. This is it! I thought, My dad was right… I’m never going to get out of this… I’m going to be brainwashed by a cult, and lost in Africa forever! I’ll never see my family again!

The Colombian driver rang the bell and a Kenyan maid opened the door, dressed in a sari. Although no more unusual than a white American in a sari, I’d never seen an African in a sari before, and it added to the mystic of the compound, and my mounting dread. They are all dressing alike… it must be a cult! The house was decorated with lots of South Asian iconography including large statues and carvings of gods and goddesses. Everything seemed very exotic and different, particularly from the largely Christian Kenyan culture I had been living in for the past several months. In my terrified mind it all added up, this had to be a cult.

The driver encouraged us to sit in a parlor area, and the maid was sent to get us some drinks. I frantically looked around the room assessing my surroundings and trying to make sense of it, looking for an escape route, trying to figure out what would be used to brainwash me.

A few minutes later, the maid brought in a tray of glasses filled with a thick looking green liquid. When I was handed a glass I quickly took a whiff, trying to detect if it was safe to drink. I was told it was some sort of wheat germ smoothie. Was this going to drug me? I watched as the others were served and the driver took a large gulp. P had a sip and he looked fine. I decided to just hold it and pretend to drink.

The driver and couple asked us many questions. What were we doing in Kenya? How long were we staying? What brought us to Kisumu? They continued to take an interest in P, especially when he talked about his research. I started making excuses about time, and catching the bus, but they courteously brushed aside my concerns.

Blowing the conch shell...

Blowing the conch shell...

Suddenly a conch shell horn sounded in another room and the the couple quickly stood up and walked towards the sound while the driver paused to invite us to worship with them.

Aha! This is how they will do it! They’ll brainwash us while “worshiping.” Now I’m done for! I wanted to grab P and run, but he didn’t seem concerned at all.

Life sized Radha and Krishna statues

An example of life sized Krishna and Radha statues

Dumbly, I followed and we turned a corner into a large room made up like a temple with two life-sized Krishna and Radha statues. The entire wall was meticulously decorated in fabric and flowers, and the statues sat on large wall-length altars. The gods were elaborately dressed in shiny clothes and garlanded with fresh flowers. I’d never in my life (up  to that point) seen anything like it. Already scared out of my mind, I thought for sure that this legitimized my fear.

Had I been to India before  this story took place, or visited a temple with P–even an American Hindu temple–or if I knew more about Hinduism at the time, I’m sure I would not have found the room so threatening. Yet all I could think of was my dad’s cult prediction.

The driver explained that Hare Krishnas worshiped through music and handed each of us a small musical instrument. I received a pair of wood blocks and P was given finger cymbals.

At this point I was shooting death glares at P, who seemed totally unaffected by the situation. The music started and he bobbed his head back and forth to the music, ting-tinging the little cymbals to the beat, happy as a clam.

How can he be so oblivious?? My mind screamed, trying to telepathically send him messages, P we need to get out of here NOW and save ourselves!!!

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle, a perfectly normal aspect of Hindu worship

Then the caretaker of the house, an Indian woman dressed in a starched cotton sari, entered the room with a shiny metallic platter carrying incense, a candle and other items for the aarti. During the music and chanting, she stood in front of the statues with the platter, rotating it in circles in front of the gods.

I was feeling queasy with fear and internally freaking out. I wasn’t sure what was going to brainwash me, but I was absolutely… absolutely… sure that it was going to happen. Would it be the music? The exotic smelling incense? The rhythmic chanting? Would I ever see the light of day again???

The music seemingly continued on forever. I kept making exaggerated gestures to check my watch to show how impatient I was to catch the bus while also trying to catch P’s attention, and hum something in my head to counteract the alleged brainwashing. Its hard to think of another time that I had ever been so scared.

Yet finally the music stopped, and miraculously I still had control over my own mind. I can’t help but admit that I was both very surprised, and extremely relieved. The driver asked if we enjoyed the worship and I began reiterating the fact that we had tickets for the bus and had to get going.

The Ugandan woman asked, “are the buses really on time here?” to which the driver answered, “never…” but I insisted, “the one time you count on their tardiness is the one time the bus is ready to go at the correct time… we really really need to get there.”

“But we can’t let you leave without breakfast!!” the driver insisted.

“No, trust me, we are fine. We really need to go. I’m not even hungry… P, are you hungry?” I said, hoping he would get the hint.

“Actually, I am still kind of hungry.” P said.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!

The Indian caretaker led us to her dining room, which had been laid out with a full Gujarati meal for breakfast. The driver insisted we sit. I sat down and started shoveling food into my mouth at a tremendous speed, insisting over and over, in-between bites and gulps for air, that we had to go, we had to make the bus, we were already late. I was hoping the more I insisted, and the faster I ate, the quicker we could get out of there.

Meanwhile, P was savoring the food. He looked utterly satisfied, “I haven’t eaten some of this stuff in years! Delicious!” he kept repeating, taking a second helping, and cleaning his plate.

“Please, we have to go!” I continued to beg.

“You can’t go without snacks for your journey” the Indian caretaker said, and asked the maid to go in the kitchen and pack some food.

“No really, its fine.” I pleaded.

“Its no trouble” the woman insisted.

Finally, FINALLY, the maid entered with our packed food, and the Colombian driver stood up to take us out the door. P thanked everyone and happily followed the driver, while I grumbled a quick thanks and scurried after them.

It’s hard to describe the relief I felt to walk through the front door, and feel the warm African sun on my face. To breathe in the earthy air of the garden, and to hear the birds chirping in the trees. When I went in that house, I never expected to exit, not like this.

We climbed into the van, and the driver turned the key. We started back towards the city while he continued to chat with P, “when you get back to Nairobi you should check out our temple there, it’s quite impressive!”

The van made it to the bus depot moments before our bus was ready to depart the station, and  P and I were the last two to scramble on-board. P waved goodbye, and we took our seats at the front. I watched the Colombian drive away, and when he was out of sight I turned to P and wacked him repeatedly on the shoulder…

“What… were… you… THINKING??!!??” I exploded, “You could have gotten us KILLED!!”

“What??” he looked at me completely bewildered, “what the heck are you talking about??”

Me: “Aren’t they a cult?”

P: “I don’t think so.”

Me: “Seriously?? What about all that, ‘oh there goes the kidnapping van’ stuff?”

P: “That was just a joke. Why are you freaking out?”

Me: “Because I have been scared out of my mind for the last hour and a half!” and I explained my dad’s cult story.

P looked at me for a moment and couldn’t help but let out a sympathetic laugh, “ohhhh… you must have been so scared in there… I had no idea!” Born and raised a Hindu, everything in the house seemed quite normal, or at least not scary. Then he opened up the snack bag, and pulled out the crunchy fried munchies they gave us, “alright! I haven’t had these since the last time I was home!”

So, the moral of the story is: my first interaction with a form of Hinduism thoroughly freaked me out. However, I’ve learned so much since then, and I think I would have handled the situation a lot better if it had happened today. Looking back, everyone was actually very nice, and I now find the story amusing and the situation comical since I know it has a happy ending.

Meanwhile… try to communicate with your partner better than just shooting him “death glares” from across the room… because maybe they can help explain the situation if they actually know what you are thinking.

And lastly, never listen to cult stories from your dad as a kid. It will scar you for life.