1st place: People of color essay contest — Nidhi J. Nair
Freedom from Hinduism: A personal journey
FFRF awarded Nidhi $3,500.
By Nidhi J. Nair
My great-grandmother used to tell me stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana every night before bed. I would curl up at her feet and swat away the mosquitos that would plague us in the sweltering Indian heat. She would drink her tea and raise a wrinkled, trembling finger before enthralling me with stories of brave heroes, epic wars, beautiful heroines and wily gods.
Her stories made me feel proud to be a Hindu and an Indian. Even at a young age, I sensed the rich tapestry of culture and history that thrived in these tales, narrated through centuries by people who understood the enduring humanity of anger, passion, betrayal, lust and pride. I carried this appreciation for my religion throughout my childhood.
However, I experienced a paradigm shift in my thinking when my parents decided to move from Mumbai to a small town in South India called Kochi. They enrolled me in an orthodox Hindu school (Chinmaya Vidyalaya School), where I faced forced indoctrination of Hindu values. After enduring weekly Bhagavad Gita classes, where we spent many exhausting hours analyzing the ancient poem and long prayer sessions that consisted of angry mass chanting, I started feeling stifled and constrained at school.
Hinduism became more than the glorious and imaginative epic stories I heard from my grandmother. In my mind, Hinduism became the malignant force that restricted me from going to the temple when I was menstruating, and the justification for the sexist beliefs that gave my male classmates wonderful academic opportunities when I was equally talented. It became the religion that reinforced Indian patriarchy, which viewed me as the property of men, and the impetus for the pervasive caste system and mass communal violence. As I watched poor people get lynched by fanatical Hindus for selling cows and young Hindu-Muslim couples get brutally murdered for falling in love, it became clear to me that my religion was unscientific, monolithic and cruel.
In response to my views, my father always told me that Hinduism was not a static religion, and that each generation had to reinterpret its core values to suit their era. He told me stories of how Hinduism “liberated” women and how the “divine” female body was venerated. However, in my teenage years, stories of Hindu greatness no longer made a positive impact on me. I grew more and more intellectually curious and increasingly skeptical of traditional Hindu values, and whenever I thought of the religion I was born into, I could only see the hate crimes, violence and nationalism it spawned.
Slowly, I began to disaffiliate from Hinduism. My personal identity morphed to include my atheism, and I stopped labeling myself as a Hindu. I started falling in love with data science, and I inculcated a passion for reason and logic. I started seeing the value of having a scientific temper, and, as my worldview expanded, I felt released from the shackles of tribalistic religious emotion. When I moved to the United States to study economics and statistics at the University of Connecticut, I felt like a new person, unbound by any religious or ideological constraints. For the first time in my life, I felt truly free.
Today, I am grateful for my divorce from Hinduism, because it forced me to undergo a journey of self-discovery that helped me become the woman I am today — independent and strong, fearless and free.
Nidhi, 19, is an international student from India studying economics and statistics at the University of Connecticut. Nidhi conducts a weekly radio show, “Content is King,” at WHUS Radio and contributes to the Daily Campus.