The hardened sugar candies I was given as a gift by the Hijra
This past week has been chock full of experiences which range from the spiritual to the mundane. Between receiving gifts from the guru I spoke of in my previous post, helping my new bhan (sister) study for her midterms, and watching the streets fill with water as monsoon season continues in full force, I didn't have much time to stop and think over everything that had happened, but as I sat in a bank looking at the people around me, I realized that in the US we don't have religious freedom at all, we have religious tolerance.
Last time I wrote about the Hijra who gave me her blessing and a gift, all I could think of was the regret I felt for letting myself get in the way of the experience. As time has progressed, I have found more meaning in the visit, and I thought the experience was worth a revisit.
The family I am staying with is Sikh, and I am Christian. None of us believed in the gods the Hijra was calling on, nor were we convinced that she was a guru for the sole reason that she was also a Hijra, but we were all able to receive her gift and her wisdom. Auntie Ji respected this individual and regardless their differing faiths, she was open to hear what the Hijra had to say. I, admittedly, was nervous at first, religion is seen as a private and individual thing in the US and even though I had been to the holy places of various religions, I had never received anything from a teacher of another faith.
Originally, I held on to this second hesitation and was even unsure if eating the (sugar things) she gave me was some form of sacrilege. But after mulling over what the Hijra told me (through a rough translation from Auntie Ji) and thinking about the woman's status in the hindu faith, I realized that despite our differing faiths, she is still a wise person. She is a guru in her faith for a reason, and her gift was a way of sending me on my own journey. My internal struggle was strike one against religious freedom in the US, but I didn't know it yet.
The stealthy strike two arrived as I was falling asleep quizzing my bhan on the different sects of Buddhism. Social Sciences (a combination of history, geography, and religious and political studies) was her fourth midterm and her brain was chock full of everything she had been cramming in it the last couple days. As we finished off the last couple questions, my sleepy brain realized that I had never learned about religions in school.
Religion wasn't completely excluded of course, but it was always ancillary to the main lesson. We never explored the beliefs of Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism. We merely mentioned that a given event in history occurred as a result of a certain widely held belief. In education, everyone accepted that people could believe what they wanted and that we shouldn't discuss it or assess the truth claims of those beliefs.
At this point I was too tired to make the connection between my experience with the Hijra and the taboo of religion in the US, but as I watched the home team strike out a third time, my eyes popped open and my heart fell. I was in a bank sitting beside Auntie Ji and I saw that around 50% of the men were wearing turbans, and several women were covering their hair as well.
Far from the way we hide our faith as a private matter in the US, the people around me were wearing their faiths on their sleeves, clearly distinguishing themselves from one another. And - wouldn't you know - we and the Hindu woman behind us had a lovely conversation with the Muslim bank teller!
This is when I finally realized the difference between the United States' religious tolerance and India's religious freedom. In the US, religion is like sex, something that happens between consenting adults - in private. Everyone knows that both of those things happen, but no one brings it up, it makes the conversation awkward.
In India, however, people embody their beliefs. Their clothes proclaim their religion, and they greet people in accordance with their religious identity (sat sri akal for Sikhs, namaste for Hindu's, etc). If someone is uncomfortable with their beliefs that then that is the other person's problem. I am not saying that people in India are necessarily more pious than people in the US, but the social structure as well as the law states that they are free to express their religious opinions.
The Hijra's gift reminded me that someone doesn't have to be Christian to have and give wisdom. Studying with my bhan showed me how the US education system was scared of putting religions to the test. And seeing the true freedom and expression of religion in India helped me realize that we're not free to express our religion in the US, the majority of the population is instead encouraged to remain in the closet about their faith.
Elianna DeSota is a young teacher who is obsessed with deep diving into new cultures and ideas. Right now she is on a journey to discover more about India and herself before jumping into the next chapter of her life.