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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Eighth place (tie) — Persons of color essay contest: Anagha Sreevals

Breaking the chains of religious identity

FFRF awarded Anagha $500.

By Anagha Sreevals

Some of my earliest memories include praying with my parents at the temple. Even before I could talk, I was partaking in daily prayer and other rituals within Hinduism. My bedtime stories consisted of verses from the Vedas, a body of religious texts which date back to the origins of Hinduism. Although I didn’t really understand what religion was, I was very interested in it as a child. I saw

Anagha Sreevals

Hinduism as something connecting me with my parents more than a devotion to religious beings. I felt happiest when my parents commended me for reciting hymns from memory.

However, as I grew older, I started to resent parts of Hinduism that restricted my freedom of choice. As Hinduism is interwoven with Indian culture and customs, religious heritage proved to be crucial to one’s identity, especially ethnic identity. It was hard to separate religion with my culture — being Indian and being Hindu were basically the same thing. Being devout consisted of a duty to fulfill a predetermined role in society. Indian culture enforced a variety of gender roles and customs, especially when it came to arranged marriage.

My parents planned to marry me off when I was around 20 to a man I didn’t know. Before I had even started middle school, I realized that my life was set out for me already. If my parents wanted me to become a doctor, that’s what I would be. I would then go to college, get married immediately after, and have kids. If my husband was lenient enough, I could get a job. Although the situation isn’t so dire for everyone in India, just knowing my future was already planned was more than disheartening. I understood that religion could be a significant part of one’s life, but I didn’t want it to define mine.

After learning that Hinduism and Indian culture was controlling all aspects of my life, I grew to dislike both. I didn’t want my parents to choose everything for me, as my uncles and aunts had for my cousins. Through the years, I learned more about the world through my own eyes, instead of a religious and cultural lens. Cultural and religious experiences can be important in cultivating a more diverse understanding of the world, but in my case, I just wanted to learn about things my way.

After being exposed to different beliefs, I eventually took a liking to agnosticism. I’m not all-knowing, so I can’t certainly say whether there is a god or spiritual being, but whether there is or not, I didn’t want it to define my life or my choices. Soon after, I started studying everything I could, from economics to technology to sociology.

Eventually, I began college and chose my own career path. After finding agnosticism, I not only felt liberated from the chains of religion and my culture, I also felt empowered to live for myself — to think for myself.

In order to engage other students of color, secular groups need to be more present in communities. As I was growing up, I had no access to information about other religions or secularism until I had a computer. I had no one but my religious parents to ask these questions. However, they not only lacked the knowledge to teach me, but they also didn’t want me to stray from Hinduism. There has been much controversy that mainstream atheist or secular organizations that partake in the diversity “bandwagon” tend to exhibit tokenism. In these situations, these organizations are only showing a superficial interest in minorities, without ever regarding real minority issues. To more successfully engage students of color, secular organizations need to provide more easily accessible informational and financial resources. Secularism freed me, and with some help from the secular community, it can free others, too.

Anagha, 18, is from South Chesterfield, Va., and attends George Mason University, where she is studying global affairs/international development, with a minor in immigration studies. She has a specific interest in refugees and immigration in the Middle East. She volunteers with refugees, teaching English and providing help with employment.