The tangerine sun shone bright that evening, as beads of sweat streamed down my back. It was week two of our Global Initiative trip here in India, and the only thing left for this rather torrid day was a cultural visit to a Hindu Temple — Kapaleeshwarar Temple, in Mylapore. I’ll be frank: In this group of eager, curious people, I did not share that particular sentiment. I was not a follower; I had been to enough temples in my life. My back had a growing dull pain, and I just wanted to lie down. Alas, it wasn’t up to me, so into the temple I went. I entered through the large Dravidian-style gate — a gopuram in the Tamil tongue — and I did my trained bow of respect. As I stood there, staring into familiar, unblinking eyes, I felt an urge concerning something I thought I had misplaced and lost a long while back. The sun grew warmer, the noise denser and all I wanted to do was pray.
Every childhood morning, I woke up to the sounds of my father praying and the scent of incense sticks that oddly always smelled slightly differently than they had the previous day. I’d end the day silently reciting chants, completely unaware of the Vedic phrases I was speaking, simply aware that I felt better saying them. My parents took me and my younger brother to many temples, often against our admittedly childish wills. This was one of those instances where I did not take kindly to parents’ blatant veto power over their children. True, most temples were the awe-inspiring, chaotic sanctuaries for the tired and the devout, but I wasn’t that kind of tired and I certainly wasn’t devout. But I went because I was told, and I believed because I was told.
Before long, the nightly recitations stopped. Schoolwork became increasingly difficult; I had to think about college and what I should and wanted to study. More important things started coming up and I didn’t have the enough hours or mental stamina to consider religion. The sanctuary had gotten a little too chaotic. Losing this part of my routine wasn’t intentional or rebellious, but rather more unspectacular. As I got exposed to different personal hypotheses and was in my journey to find what was worth holding onto, faith seemed a tad too weighty. It was one of my extrinsic properties that didn’t make the cut.
This is what makes that humid, humid evening in Chennai feel so dissonant. That urge seemed so unreal, so much so that I had no semblance of an idea of how to deal with it.
Could it have been guilt? I don’t think so. I didn’t feel an intense constraint because of my religion. Yes, my parents might have forced me to participate, but never to think like them. I think they did this because it was our heritage — it was tradition. They did it because their parents did it and because they always did it and because they chose to do it. Moreover, I think that they wanted their eldest to at least be aware of this culture, that they believed it was an utter shame to have a child grow up and be unappreciative and unknowing of a tradition larger and more wondrous than any one of us could imagine.
But truthfully, I think the reason I encountered that urge to pray was dependent on that particular situation. It was a hectic few weeks, there were no familiar faces around, I was getting no sleep and my body ached all the time. In this sea of vulnerability, prayer seemed like a solace. It was safe and familiar, like nothing bad would ever happen to me here. I remember holding out my strained arm so that I could touch the ceremonial fire that was being passed around. I felt a warmth that I had long forgotten, a warmth of rare reassurance. A feeling that I was all right and that everything was going to be OK.
So did I rediscover God? No, I don’t think I ever really believed in the first place. Fine, then did I find God? Not really. I still don’t believe religion is my personal calling. But I think, at the time, I needed help, and prayer was the answer. So now would I at least pray every night? Probably not, but I’m not going to outright deny it as a possibility. Perhaps of more overall importance, is the fact that I believe I found myself, or at least a part I had buried. I found the little, chubby boy who had once prayed before bed. It was a singular moment of a vague, yet resolute sense of being connected to the person I once was.
Thus, in a final consideration, does this mean something? The answer is what it was always going to be: not necessarily. I doubt I will now live a life dedicated to serving or searching for something higher and unseen. As it happens, this was not some life-altering moment of significance. I did not find some shiny, new personal truth, rather, I was simply reminded of an old one. And, sometimes, that’s just what we need.
Bharat Nair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.