I am proud of both my heritage and identity - as a Hindu and an Indian-American. Now a sophomore at Georgetown University, I am finding ways to express and explore what these parts of my identity really mean in my life. Not only am I a Board Member of my school’s Hindu Students Association, but I am actively participating in activities that connect me to my roots and connect my roots to others. For example, I am performing in Rangila, a South Asian dance showcase with 400+ performers Indian and non-Indian. At this age in my life, I am experiencing my culture in different ways and through different lenses. When I was younger being Indian and Hindu felt unchanging, almost static, as to who I was. As I have grown older, my acceptance and understanding of these parts of myself have been constantly changing because my understanding of myself is continually evolving. Nothing captivates this like the ever-changing meaning of Om in my life.
For as long as I can remember, I have been attending religious and cultural events with my family. As an elementary schooler, I had no complaints. I got to see and hang out with some of my best friends I didn’t get to see at school. I played in some of the most epic 2 hand touch football games and pick-up basketball games. Every now and then, I would perform in an Indian cultural function or sit quietly with my parents, recite Hindu bhajans (religious songs) and chant my Oms so I could head on back out and mess around with my friends. At that point in my life, Om meant nothing more to me than another symbol on a checkbox of things I had to do during family obligations. I never really thought of what Om meant, it was something in the background when I was focusing on where I’d rather be - which was with my friends. As an 8-year-old, that’s about all I could wrap my mind around.
As I got into my middle school days, I hit my point of teenage resistance. After seeing my older brother go through his own phase of being a “cool teenager”, I thought I wasn’t going to do the same things as he did. Looking back, I wasn’t as perfect as I thought. I started looking for ways to avoid the Indian and Hindu functions my parents were going to. I thought to myself “if I could just go to my friend’s house some other time”, that would be an easier way to still get what I felt was my priority. In my adolescence, I honestly felt these connections to my community were just a waste of time.
When I was in 10th grade, my brother started school at Oxford College of Emory University. One of the things he got involved in his first semester of school was his Hindu Students Association (HSA). He progressively got more involved in it to the point that he was on the organization’s Board and it was one of his most central extracurricular activities. He would come home in his HSA shirt with an Om symbol on it and talk about how much he was loving his time at school and in this association. After a few months of occasional witty comments calling my brother “Mr. Religion”, I finally got an explanation to his spike in cultural and religious interest. He explained to me that he doesn’t just use this as a platform to be religious. Being so far from home, he remembered how valuable our home and community was for him and wanted to have a community like that at school. I understood his statement and stopped teasing him “more or less”. Without realizing it, I started to look for that connection in my own life. I actively sought out to recapture what place Om really had in my life. I realized that for the previous 5 years, I never really thought of it. Suddenly I noticed how Om was all around me, not just on my brother’s shirt, but I saw my peers putting it on their Instagram bios or getting it tattooed on their arm. I felt like I had forgotten where I was from and was still searching for my connection. I began gaining interest in why I was actually at the events I went to with my parents and gaining a new sense of respect for them. It was exciting to flip this page and become more self-aware.
At Georgetown University, I have found a sense of community and family, not just in my Indian or Hindu activities but in general. I found new connections through my student clubs, my roommates, and the people I see often. I credit a lot of this to the values my parents and grandparents instilled in me throughout my life including the meaning of Om. The power of Om was always in my life, but I was finally in a place where I understood its importance to me.
Om keeps me centered when I have more going on in my life than I sometimes know how to manage. Om gives me moments of peace and relaxation when things aren’t going the way I planned. Om has become my inner feeling of comfort and home. I have gained more pride than ever in my heritage and, unlike in my youth, I see it as a central part of who I am. I know in 5 years I will probably look back at myself today and be shocked that I really thought I had a handle on what is going on. All I know is this: the power of Om gives me the ability to grow, the ability to connect, and the ability to find strength. As my life and identity evolve, Om is a force that I continue to find new ways to connect with.
Author: Viraj Paul