My freshman year of college, I lived in the Honors Dorm and took several Honors classes. One such class was Honors Calc II, or, one of the worst mistakes I have ever made (okay, that’s a slight overstatement). While I was woefully unprepared for the class, I am still grateful that I took it, because it gave me some of the best friends that I had in college: my Breakfast Club. After class or recitation, a group of us of would head to the dining hall, grab some of the “food” that they served there and talk about whatever we wanted. It was more often than not an incredibly nerdy conversation, but come on, we were taking Honors Calc II at Georgia Tech, I don’t know what you expected. After that first semester, most of Breakfast Club disbanded, but Neiloy, our friend George, and I kept meeting for breakfast (along with various others) for the rest of college. Sometimes I would feel completely alone and down in the dumps, but with Breakfast Club I always managed to forget whatever was keeping me down and laugh until I cried. I knew I could always count on them.
Neiloy is one of the best people out there. He actually helped me move once–and you know you have a true friend if they help you move (seriously, I have no idea how we would have gotten my bed out of my apartment without him). He is probably one of the (if not the) smartest people I know, but he is not arrogant. He is kind and thoughtful and when he moved away for work, I missed him very much! A couple weeks ago I found out he was back in town temporarily for a project, so Breakfast Club reconvened–and I realized I had never known his religious beliefs, so I asked if I could interview him. Of course, being the kind of friend he is, Neiloy had been reading my blog, even though I didn’t know it–and he even had a bone to pick with something specific I had said, so he was reading closely (Neiloy disagrees with my assertion that Georgia Tech was intellectually un-stimulating, so now, public, you have another opinion). I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing him and found that, despite our differences in culture, I very much agree with much of his core belief system. I hope that y’all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed listening.
Interview 7: Neiloy
“We are all intertwined in a single divine nature.”
Me: So, Neiloy, first off, I’d like for you to actually tell me what you believe because I realized that I have no idea, and I’ve been friends with you for quite some time, so I’m kind of shocked we haven’t talked about this! If you wouldn’t mind, give me a basic description of your beliefs as they stand today.
Neiloy: Okay, so first I’m going to comment that it’s not exactly surprising that we haven’t talked about it actually. There are two things that kind of inform a lot of discussions about my beliefs. One is that when you’re talking about religion here, most conversations that I’ve been in, in the US, that talk about religion, you’re talking about Christianity; and if you’re not talking about Christianity you’re talking about Judaism; and if you’re not talking about Judaism you’re asking me why I don’t wear a turban; and then you get to talking about, for example, Hinduism, which is the belief system that I most closely subscribe to. The other thing that informs discussions about my beliefs is the way I was raised. I was born to two immigrant parents from India, where it’s difficult to separate religion from culture, which means that religion is just something that permeates. So as a result of that, when they came to the US and I was born and they raised me, one of the things that wasn’t really consciously on their mind was religion, so I grew up in not quite an agnostic household, but in a household where those questions just didn’t arise often. And when you’re three and four years old you’re not necessarily asking those big questions unless someone is telling you to. But yes, I subscribe to Hinduism.
Me: Thank you! I was wondering! [laughs] Since Hinduism, as you said, is so tied into culture, how would you describe what Hinduism is? I’ve heard lots of different descriptors, I know that there are lots of gods and I read the Bhagavad Gita—but that doesn’t mean I understood it!
Neiloy: That’s okay, that’s fine, it’s like any religious text.
Me: It was very confusing. There was a lot of…stuff. Anyway, for you, what role does Hinduism play in your life, and how would you describe your particular version of Hinduism?
Neiloy: One thing I have observed–addressing the first part of your question, which is looking how religion is tied to culture–it’s only relatively recently that we’ve begun to recognize the lacuna, the gap in our language regarding needing different words for those things. So typically, through history, if you’ve been part of the Christian belief system from the religion perspective, you’ve also inherited Christian tradition and culture. Same thing with Hinduism, same thing with Judaism, and obviously there are sub-branches to all of these, but the message still pertains. It’s very convenient for me that the word does capture my religious beliefs and my cultural heritage, where it might not be so for someone who might have come across Hinduism on their own but wasn’t raised in a Hindu household, or in an Indian household, I should say.
Me: Like Julia Roberts!
Neiloy: Yes! I guess…I am neither confirming nor denying Julia Roberts’s belief system, because I am not aware of it.
Me: She claims to be Hindu.
Neiloy: She claims to be Hindu. It sounds like you’re suspicious…but I guess that’s a different—when you interview Julia Roberts, I’d be interested to see the result.
Me: I’ll let you know.
Neiloy: [laughs] So for me, like I said, I was raised in a household where religious conversation just wasn’t a focus, it wasn’t a point towards which anyone strived, so I didn’t have a full understanding of the implications of other religions for the first few years of my life—like I said, when you’re three or four years old, you’re not asking unless anyone’s telling you to ask. It wasn’t until I was around maybe six that I started to develop an understanding of that, that different people have different belief systems and different cultural identities, and we aren’t all just born in America and there are other places in the world, you know, all that good stuff. And even then, the religious conversation still didn’t occur, but the cultural conversation became more apparent to me. I started to become more aware of the fact that some of the foods I ate were different, that when my parents occasionally slipped into a different language that that wasn’t the norm for everyone, things like that. So that continued for several years, and as I became more and more aware of it, I became more and more interested in developing that part of my identity, and coming to understand it better and understand its history better, which sort of peaked when I was around thirteen years old and I was very interested in inheriting my religious and cultural traditions. When I was thirteen, I went through a religious ceremony that my parents had at my request, they weren’t initially planning on doing it. It’s called an upanayanam, and it’s sort of an equivalent of a bar mitzvah in Jewish tradition. It’s coming to manhood, accepting responsibilities, accepting a certain religious identity in a very active role, and from there I started becoming even more invested in religious questions, because having grown up in the absence of those questions, I…saying I wanted to fill that void is a little bit dramatic [laughs] but it’s a part of myself that I wanted. So I began reading a lot more about—not at any extremely detailed level, I’m not religious scholar or anything—but reading more about the history and particularly the religious texts pertaining to different belief systems. And that’s something that I’ve continued to this day. Where I have a single label to identify myself both culturally and religiously, those two labels developed very differently: one of them naturally, just by being raised by the parents I had, and the other one much more consciously, wanting to forge that kind of identity.
Me: My next question for you is, what does being a Hindu entail when it comes to belief system? Obviously I’ve grown up in a very Christian culture, so I know what Christians believe, and I know what Muslims believe because my dad was raised Muslim, and I know what Jewish people believe because we were the only ones who voted for Al Gore when I was in the fifth grade, so we talked about our beliefs sometimes…but I really don’t have much of an understanding of what being Hindu means for your beliefs. Could you clear that up for me?
Neiloy: I hope I can clear that up for you, that’s kind of the point. [laughs]
Me: [laughs] That’s why I’m interviewing you!
Neiloy: So, a quick preface to this is I do not speak for Hinduism as a whole, there are different people who view Hinduism differently, so I’m going to give you my particular take on it. But first I feel like I need to define a couple of terms to set the scope. You’re familiar with the term “atheistic”, which I would define as “belief in the absence of a divine entity”. So atheists would not believe there is divinity. Then you’re familiar with the term “monotheism”, presumably, which is belief in a single divine entity that is separate from our selves. That last clause there is going to be important in a moment. You’re familiar in the term “polytheism” probably, which belief in multiple divine entities which are separate from our selves. And a lot of people view Hinduism through a polytheistic lens. So now here’s the term that pertains to me: it’s what’s called “pantheism”, which is belief in divinity, but not separate from our selves. So we are all intertwined in a single divine nature. That’s kind of the lens through which I view Hinduism, is that pantheistic lens, that interconnectedness.
Me: The way you said that most of us—outsiders, I guess—would view Hinduism as polytheistic, that’s what I’ve known about it so far. So when you say “pantheistic”, what is the separation between gods—are there gods for you, or is the divinity purely within our selves? Does that question make sense?
Neiloy: Yes, yes it does. In my belief system, of course we have mythology telling the stories of the interactions of gods, but something to note is: for one, the relationships between these gods, where many of them will be incarnations of each other or will have relationships with each other that are not very clearly defined. They’re not necessarily husband-wife, mother-child, father-child, allies—the relationships start to become quite vague as you delve further and further into the mythology. And so you start to a little bit of that pantheistic influence there, where all of divinity from that perspective is interconnected, but more than that I would say that those speak more to the cultural side of Hinduism, and from a strictly religious perspective I would say that, yes, divinity is something that interconnects through us all, that when I’m talking about meditation to appeal to some greater force, I’m not talking about a greater force that exists outside of you and me and everybody else around us, I’m talking about the force that does connect us. And not just people, I’m speaking just as well of, for example, the plants that surround us, the animals that surround us, everything that you see has some connection to that—I guess you could think of it as a network, but then I start having to draw flow diagrams, and that becomes a whole different conversation. [laughs]
Me: If you want to send me some diagrams, I’ll post them! [laughs] Thank you, that does clear it up for me. You mentioned the reincarnations of the gods. Do you believe in rebirth, in reincarnation?
Neiloy: So that’s a very pertinent question, I’m realizing that now—so my belief with regards to rebirth or reincarnation or whatever term you want to use is that there is a component of that divine energy that exists within each of us. And when we die, that divine energy is sort of returned to—you might consider it an overall source, from which new life is drawn. So I believe in rebirth in the sense that I feel that overall energy continues, it persists over time; not so much though—and this is a distinction that I should draw—not so much in the sense of my particular soul being reborn as a distinct entity throughout time. So not rebirth of an individual, but maintenance of a system.
Me: The way I understand what you’re saying is that we are all part of a whole, and when we die, we go back to being part of the whole?
Me: Okay. Alright! I like that! I guess a follow up question to that is my soul question that I ask everyone, but for you, is this divinity sort of a soul? What is your idea of what a soul is? Do we have souls or is it the divinity, or are they interconnected?
Neiloy: I would say that that’s a hard line to draw, I know I’ve been using the word “interconnected” quite a bit throughout this discussion… [laughs] I’m starting to influence your language! I am not able to articulate a distinction. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in one so much as it is to say that I have not delved that far on my own, to have developed an understanding. That being said, I do believe that something akin to a soul does exist. The best articulation I’ve heard of this is music, actually. There’s no biological incentive or advantage given to us for wanting to, for example, dance along with music, to feel it in us and be moved and lifted by it. There’s no biological imperative for that but it’s still something that we all seem to experience. That’s not to say that people who don’t like certain types of music don’t have a soul, I’m not going to make that argument at this particular time. But it is, to me, evidence that yes, there is something beyond the nuts and bolts of what we are.
Me: I have one final question for you: do you believe our divinity, or our soul, or however—this sort of nebulous entity—is at all affected by how we live our lives? Like if we are generally good, or we perform generally somewhat evil acts, is there a difference in what happens to us?
Neiloy: Again, I don’t believe that the question of individuals really comes into that. I do believe that there’s overall good or overall evil done within the system, but I would not extend that so far as to say that if I do good things, then good things will necessarily happen to me. I think, if I do good things, then the system as a whole benefits. And maybe I see the reflection of that and maybe I don’t. And we can see examples of that kind of thing throughout history, where people will do good and not necessarily reap the benefits, or people will do bad and not necessarily be punished; but you can see how the blessedness or the suffering extends from there to humanity as a whole, and that’s how I tend to think of it.