One of my New Year’s resolutions was to post a new interview once a month. Obviously…it is not going that well. I find that people are much more open about discussing religion in the South—it’s so deeply integrated into daily life that the topic comes up very organically. Now that I live in Denver, I find that religion—especially personal religious beliefs—is rarely brought up. I feel the same kind of nervousness asking someone if I can interview them that I imagine one feels when asking another person out on a date. Luckily, I have some great friends who have agreed to let me interview them!
Trishya is one of those wonderful friends. We met when she started working on my team—I’d been on the team for about six months, so I was basically an old-timer at that point. The first thing that struck me about Trishya was her wide bright smile. She’s deeply intelligent and dedicated to her work, and that is quickly apparent, but the thing I love most about her is the ease with which a smile breaks across her face. She finds joy in the smallest things—her positivity and effervescence brighten even my worst days. Encouragement comes naturally to her—if anyone is having a rough day, she knows exactly what to say to put the pep back in their step. And it’s not crafted—it’s genuine and comes straight from her heart. She makes me want to be the person she sees in me. I don’t believe it’s possible to not be delighted by her presence.
She’s also my yoga buddy—I wouldn’t go to yoga most days without her holding me accountable—so after one lovely Saturday morning yoga class, she agreed to sit down with me in a coffee shop so we could discuss religion. The discussion was fascinating and her philosophical depth is apparent—I could have asked many more questions, and I hope to in the future.
Without further ado, my first interview of 2016…Trishya!
Interview 11: Trishya
“I totally subscribe to the belief that your physical being is completely temporary, and the essence of who you are–which I don’t even think I’ve scraped the surface of–is eternal.”
Me: I’m going to start out by asking you to go through how you were raised and how that brought you to what you believe today.
Trishya: I was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. My entire family is from India, my parents moved to the United States in the early 80’s, they lived in Chicago for a while. I come from a huge extended family ….and so I grew up Hindu. And I think that’s such a strange word to me, because Hinduism—as I grew older, as I had more discussions about the religion and the faith and the philosophy with my friends—I came to realize, the “-ism” of Hinduism is a very Western concept. If you go to the middle of India, the backwaters of India, and you ask someone, “Do you practice Hinduism?”, they’ll be like, “What? What do you mean? What’s Hinduism?” Discovering that philosophy, discovering that faith and applying it to a different context than the context that my parents were raised in has been a huge road to self-discovery and understanding my identity as a Hindu Indian-American.
Me: Can you break down for me what that means—is it because in the US we’re so concerned with identity? Or is it that you have to define yourself as a Hindu here whereas everybody there is Hindu? What exactly do you mean?
Trishya: So I think the word Hinduism—just to give you some history on it—I think that word gained popularity in the early 1900s when the British Empire was full-fledged taking over India, and I think it was a way to take this aggregate of philosophies and faith that were seen across India and put it into an Abrahamic context. That means having a central text or making it monotheistic. The thing is, the aggregate of Hindu religions or faiths don’t really fit that mold. Yeah, we have the Bhagavad-Gita and we have the four Vedas, which are considered to be our central texts and scriptures. But some Hindus are monotheistic, some Hindus are polytheistic, some Hindus are atheistic, so it really depends on what you follow. I think in Hinduism there’s a difference between mythology—the stories you hear about Vishnu or about Shiva or about the Mahabharat, and the philosophy part that is tied into that mythology. Different people subscribe to different parts of that philosophy and that mythology and so that aggregate is what people have defined as Hinduism.
Me: That’s really interesting.
Trishya: (laughs) It’s really different!
Me: I think I have heard that before—that people in India tend to have their own household gods, or a town god or something—and so that’s interesting to see it that way. So for you specifically, what do you believe? What parts are you subscribing to?
Trishya: So let me take a step back. There are three main philosophies that Hindu Brahmins believe in. They’re called dvaitha—dvai means two in Sanskrit—so dvaitha means duality. That philosophy states that the greater truth and your soul—are the same thing. One of the words that we use in Sanskrit is Brahman—brahman is like saying “universe” and athman is like saying “soul”, so the universe and your soul are one and the same, so that’s dvaitha philosophy. And then there’s “advaitha” philosophy—“a” means “not”, so “not duality”—so that means that the universe and your soul are two completely separate things. And then there’s this other philosophy called “Vishista Advaitha”, so it’s kind of a spin on the advaitha, meaning that the athman, your soul, is part of the universe but the universe is not part of your soul. So it’s like saying, the truth of the universe is in this table but this table is not the truth, if that makes sense. My family subscribes to that latter philosophy—that your soul is part of the universe but the universe is not your soul. So that—in terms of religion—equates to Vaishnavism, which means those who believe in Vishnu to be their central god. And the thing is, there are so many different words for this celestial being, if you will. That means that I grew up listening to stories about the Mahabharat, which is the story of this eighteen-day war between these two families, and Vishnu, who was reincarnated as Krishna, was really central to that story. Another reincarnation of Vishnu was Rama, so the Ramayana—which I think is a really popular Hindu story, a lot of people know about it—there’s said to be ten to eleven different reincarnations of Vishnu, and it’s cool because all those reincarnations follow evolution of species, so the first reincarnation takes the form of a fish, and that second reincarnation was a boar, and the third reincarnation was this half-man, half-lion species—it may not make sense initially, but if you look at that progression, it’s so cool, because it shows the evolution of species and the evolution of man. Those are the stories that I grew up hearing and believing, and I think digging deeper into those philosophies—I wouldn’t say that it’s created a divide between me and my other Hindu friends, because I think that we’ve all grown together through these different philosophies whether or not we call ourselves Vaishnavas or Shaivas or whatever it is, so—yeah.
Me: That just prompted so many questions for me. First of all, you said, “Hindu Brahmins”—is that as in the caste? Does your caste determine what belief system you subscribe to?
Trishya: Definitely. The three philosophies that I just outlined are the three philosophies that a lot of Hindu Brahmins subscribe to, but then you have other castes that probably have similar philosophies; I haven’t really dug deeper into that. The thing is—I don’t like the idea of castes, I think that—at least in the United States you don’t feel that segregation but in India you totally do and it’s just—the way some people have interpreted it is, “Oh, Brahmins deserve all the education in the world, they’re entitled to that because they’re born into that,” but then someone from another caste can’t study that philosophy or they can’t acquire that knowledge. The ultimate thing in Hinduism—I don’t want to say atonement, but we call it moksha and I guess that’s like salvation? We do believe in the idea of reincarnation until you reach salvation. I don’t believe there is only one specific type of person who can achieve that, I think that’s absolute BS. It’s kind of cool, because historically, the type of philosophy that my family subscribes to, which is called Vishista Advaitha, the person who really solidified that philosophy—his name is Ramanuja—he said, “I don’t believe that only certain people can attain moksha”. The story goes, he wanted to be more inclusive than other spiritual leaders of his time so he stood up on top of the highest point of this temple in South India, and he said, “All you need to do is recite this prayer, and anyone can become worldly, anyone can become a greater part of this universe.” I think those philosophies are really divided based on caste, and that’s annoyed me for a really long time. But it is true that growing up here you don’t see the effects of that segregation as much as you do in India.
Me: We’re going to have to take that conversation offline because I’m going to want to talk about that more.
Trishya: And I’m probably going to get really angry.
Me: I wanted to ask next how you feel that your beliefs play into your everyday life?
Trishya: You know—I don’t think about it consciously every day. (laughs) I think the times when I really think about it the most is when I’m at home with my parents. My dad is doing this really cool thing where he’s actually studying the Vedas. The thing is, the Vedas aren’t a gigantic book—it’s not a dusty old book sitting in a crypt in India. The Veda is considered to be the universe—it’s the song of the universe, if you will. It was composed in this language called devanagari, which literally means “language of the gods”. My dad is learning to read that and recite it. I feel like I’m most connected to that philosophy when I go home and talk to my dad and really understand what it is that the Vedas say. You could think of it as a recipe for your life—like, how to live your life, and it’s not like a commandment kind of thing, it’s more like, what questions should you be asking yourself and how do you work through some of the challenges in life? How do you work through some of the toughest parts of life that you’re going to go through? So I feel like that’s when I really think about the philosophies, that’s when I really think, “How can I apply this to my everyday life?” And sometimes some of these concepts are just so abstract that you can’t—at least at this point in my life, I’m only 22—I can’t totally turn those philosophies into action. I think yoga is that actionable item for me. I think yoga is taking that philosophy and turning it into action for myself. That’s resulting in self-acceptance, it’s resulting in, you know, not judging yourself and just getting as much strength from your environment as you can, and putting that strength back out into the environment, and just being a good human. That’s how I practice Hinduism on a daily basis. I know yoga has been commercialized in the past thirty years but I just feel like what we do is really special and I feel that’s how I’ve been internalizing a lot of philosophical messages, lately.
Me: That’s another thing I want to talk to you about offline—whether or not you feel there are cultural appropriation aspects of yoga.
Trishya: We can talk about that online. I’m okay with that.
Me: Okay! You want to talk about it?
Trishya: Initially that used to bother me a little bit. One thing I search for in everything I do is authenticity, and that’s such a strange thing to search for because it’s like, what does authentic even mean? Is there a set definition? How do you search for that? Here I am thinking, okay, whatever yoga I do, it has to be to the T, what people practiced three thousand years ago and beyond, and it has to be exactly that way. It bothered me initially that there were people who weren’t raised in that practice that were teaching me that. It was like, this is weird! Who am I learning from right now? How am I going after this authenticity? But then I took a step back and I was like, you know what? It’s really freakin’ cool that someone who is not from India is adopting that culture and is saying, “This is a beautiful way of living, and I see so much value in yoga. I see so much value in the spirituality of it.” I was like, this is authentic. This is the authenticity that we can achieve here. When it comes to yoga, I feel like—however you internalize it, that’s your authenticity. However you choose to treat yoga—if it’s just a workout, then that’s totally cool, it’s authentic to you. But if you’re spiritual, if it’s your mind body and soul connection, that’s how it becomes authentic. Letting go of that preconceived notion of, it has to be to the T, what people practiced several thousands of years ago—that’s when I started embracing yoga in the States as not all that bad. The world is becoming so much smaller these days—you’re going to mold different practices to fit your life today. I’m sure several years ago, there were people saying, “What? This isn’t how we do this, why is the world changing it so much?” and I think that’s a struggle that humanity is constantly going to have, so seeking that internal authenticity is really what matters in the end.
Me: Good answer! Let me see how we are doing on time…oh, looks like we need to wrap it up. Okay, for my final question, I want to ask—what do you think happens to us when we die? Totally changing the subject! But what happens to us, our souls that are part of the universe?
Trishya: That’s a really good question. And I’ve actually given some thought to it. I live by myself, so I do a lot of thinking. I think in order to answer that, I have to start with birth. I totally subscribe to the belief that your physical being is completely temporary, and the essence of who you are—which I don’t even think I’ve scraped the surface of (laughs)– is eternal. I think that’s what remains even before birth and after death. Your athman joins the Brahman, if you will. Your soul joins the universe—it becomes part of that, in a different way. Different cultures think of death very differently—I feel like the common perception of death is very medical, it’s like—oh, we have to do everything we can to prevent death, death is not part of the equation for me. It’s very final. But death is almost like acceptance—it’s like, I have achieved everything I possibly could have for myself and for others around me, on this earth, and it’s time to start a new journey. I think what’s so mysterious and so intriguing about death is you can never know what comes after. That is a journey that is based on each individual—you can never know what it’s going to be, you can never know what it’s like afterwards until you get there. That’s actually something that gives a lot of people anxiety. It’s like, oh my gosh, I always have to be prepared, I have to know what’s coming next, I have to be ready for it, and that’s the beauty in death, not being prepared for it, but being able to accept it anyway. I think that’s a concept that can be applied to many different points in life, but yeah—my idea on death is that your soul is rejoining the universe, it’s a complete mystery and it’s not a stopping point. It’s a rebirth, you’re starting a new journey that you have no clue about.