India is the birthplace of four major religions: Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Despite the separation of Pakistan from India to form a Muslim nation, India still has a sizable Muslim community. Colonization brought Christian missionaries that established several different sects throughout the nation. Being one of the most diverse countries, there are many different sects of each religion and unique practices. With magnificent religious ceremonies, elaborate places of worship, and countless religious festivals, religion plays a big part in day to day life in India.
Seeing how important religion is to Indian culture, I can’t help but reflect on my own faith. I grew up in a religious family. I grew up in a Pentecostal church but lived in a very Catholic neighborhood, so I have always practiced a hybrid of the two. I went to church every Sunday, Tuesday, Friday, and sometimes Saturdays. I sang in the choir, and was an usher, as well as a youth Bible study teacher. My church family and religious community are still a major part of my life today. When I went to college, I didn’t attend as many services as I did growing up and was not active in any religious groups or church because I wanted my beliefs to be my own and not just what an institution teaches. Although I still hold many of the beliefs regarding faith and morality with which I was raised, my faith has evolved. I no longer consider myself a religious person, but rather a spiritual one.
In coming to India, I found myself immersed in so many new religions to which I had never been exposed. I visited temples from as long ago as the 7th century. I heard epics about gods and the stories of prophets. I read texts written by monks seeking Enlightenment. I was blessed by priests and even an elephant! In all my travels to religious sites in India, I always found myself connecting with churches the most. I began to see how much differently Christianity was adopted in India in comparison to my own cultures. What I found surprising was how the imagery in the church did not really match up with where they were located. All of the paintings of religious figures were all of extremely fair skinned individuals with blue eyes and all the people in the background looked similar. Unlike countries like Mexico, where the Lady of Guadalupe is depicted as an Indigenous woman with brown skin and dark hair, there was no direct association of Indian people in any of the imagery. I did find it fascinating how elements of Hindu temple architecture were replicated in Christian churches. With saints painted in the same electric pink and vibrant greens as the gods in temples, I began to see India’s own flair on Christianity.
For some students studying abroad, their faith has brought a new facet into their experiences. Forrest, a second-year student at American University, had no trouble finding a local Christian community to connect with. While on a mission trip last summer, his fiancée met someone with connections to Manipal, India who got Forrest connected with a local church. He said, “When you are abroad, you realize the unity that is in the body of believers.” As a Christian, he feels that he has learned so much from being able to love and celebrate his religion in a place where it is not a prominent religion. His time abroad has allowed him to set apart more time for worship as well as engage with a group of like-minded people that have openly embraced him. Uma, also a second-year student at American University, had an awakening experience. She identifies as a Hindu but did not grow up in a very religious household. While she was taught the various principles and stories by her parents, religion never was a pressing force in her life. Coming to India for the first time in over ten years, Uma found herself getting a new perspective on her faith. From the numerous temples to the learning about the different sects, her experience has allowed her to explore how she identifies within her faith. She said, “I was confronted by many new aspects of religion that have allowed me to open my eyes to new philosophies and gain a better understanding of the Hindu community I grew up around.”
Studying abroad allows for the exploration of so many aspects of your identity. Your faith is something that is constantly evolving and studying abroad can put it all into perspective! My time in India has shown me how much religion ties into the culture as well as gave me the opportunity to reevaluate my own faith.
Guadalupe Mabry is a Public Health and Biology student at American University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Global and Public Health program in Manipal, India in fall 2018. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study program.