5th place (tie): People of color essay contest — Krunal Sampath
Infinite thread of human ingenuity, morality
FFRF awarded Krunal $1,500.
By Krunal Sampath
A quick glance confirmed my parents had left. I swiftly removed my poonal — a supposedly sacred loop of thread across my body — and ripped it apart into frayed ends. Pressed into my sore palms were two red imprints, marks of my dissatisfaction.
It was therapeutic — perhaps a bit rebellious. However, years ago, I would have been repulsed by such an act. After all, I was a Brahmin, bound to protect our ancient religious customs. As my grandfather had instilled in me, we were the best of all the castes.
So, why did I reject this mindset? Partially, because of the irksome rituals, I suppose. But beyond my impatience, the true horrors of Hinduism that pushed me away were hidden from my view in America.
My skepticism started with a simple question: “Why are we innately better?” I crept above muddied walls, overlooking a societal structure that upheld my inherited ivory tower. The entanglement of Hinduism and India — a so-called “secular nation” — had caused massive rifts among the population.
Casteism was pervasive, even tarnishing art forms. Indian classical music, which I sang and adored for its melodic complexity, had been sealed off from certain groups who were deemed unworthy from a religious perspective. I placed hope in progressive movements that have attempted to raise awareness for women’s issues and LGBTQ+ rights. Unfortunately, the de facto stigma against them continues to sting like a gaping wound.
The acknowledgement of injustice morphed into guilt. I was shaken by a sense of religious dissonance: Music is a universal language, medicine is a means for compassion, and education is a path to opportunity — but only if the gods approved of you.
My personal beliefs no longer align with the religious ideas I was carefully brought up with, manifesting in my severance from Hinduism. Antithetically, this originally theistic quest brought me closer to logical and scientific reasoning. Although I was no longer restricted by religion, its problems were still deeply ingrained in society. I had to act.
Instead of abandoning my culture, I fought for inclusive, secular reform. I supported efforts to incorporate marginalized voices in art, like the collaboration between the Jogappas — a group of transgender artists — and T.M. Krishna, a musician focused on disrupting the status quo.
I also saw a disparity in global health, driven by centuries of persistent hierarchies that tightly controlled education. Galvanized by my research, I launched an initiative to help support this basic right through building awareness of waterborne disease.
Yet there is more work to be done. Behind nearly every religious establishment’s peaceful facade, I uncovered sheer intolerance to new ideas and nonbelievers. Scientific disinformation — a manipulative aversion to objective truth — has fueled efforts to contain followers despite clear evidence. Particularly during this pandemic, I have been working to understand the mechanisms that lead to dangerous over-trust in religious figures.
I found that their insatiable thirst for power feeds on a fear of the unknown. Sadly, many minority groups worldwide lack the informational resources and support structure necessary to break free. I, too, felt alienated at times from the conversation. Contrary to the predatory nature of religious indoctrination, the secular community has an ability to bolster equality and equity that will spark individualistic discovery. We can highlight our stories as beacons of hope for others.
My journey to secularism has fundamentally changed my life. I appreciate cultures for their symbolic beauty rather than exclusionary undertones. I adhere to a belief in rigorous scientific proof rather than empty mandates. I now accept the infinite thread of human ingenuity and morality that can connect us all.
Krunal, 18, attends the University of California at Berkeley, studying bioengineering and anthropology. “In high school, I led several research projects, including a low-cost system to detect waterborne parasites,” Krunal writes. “My work has inspired me to start awareness initiatives to educate others about critical global health and environmental issues.”