My maternal grandmother is the most religious person I know. During the weekends my sister and I spent at her house as children, we'd learn hymns and listen to stories of Krishna and Ganesha and Rama. Hinduism was all I knew, and every time we ran out of magical stories, there were always more waiting.
I loved the concept of God and the idea that someone was looking out for me, especially someone who felt so familiar from all the stories I adored. On nights before exams, I would nervously write letters to Lord Krishna on my palm. When I found out my cousin had to give his pet rabbits up, I furiously told every god I knew that I would stop praying if the rabbits left. I was allowed to stay up until 9:30 every night to watch Ramayana, a show based on one of the most important Hindu epics, and was in love with both the protagonists: Lord Ram and his wife Sita (yes, I am queer).
But there is a phase that almost every young Indian goes through today; it’s an after-effect of colonization, when we rush to reject everything Indian, labeling it all embarassing or irrational. At the age of 12, I refused to wear Indian clothes and bragged about how I never listened to Indian music. I dropped out of my Kathak classes and began to doubt the existence of God. I didn’t understand how people could spend their lives fighting for a god they'd never seen, how my Nani spent days fasting to please someone of whose existence she had no proof. Anything unscientific was irrational, and I was ashamed of believing it. It didn't just stop at that—I felt the need to openly defy anything I deemed irrational. When my grandmother reminded me of how I used to sing religious songs, I replied that I didn't want to anymore. During prayers, I sulked in a corner; during festivals, I refused to participate unless it was absolutely necessary.
It was in this phase of my life that the negative aspects of religion stood out to me the most. The loudness of Hinduism irked me, and the gods who had once seemed like friends were now mere concepts to challenge. Once upon a time, religion had been something that bound people together. Now, it felt like the very opposite: a cruel, dividing force. I saw this division in Hinduism, a religion associated with peace and mysticism that still follows the horrifying caste system. I saw it in honor killings, in the religion-based violence and incessant stereotyping that happen every day in India, alongside the hypocritical declaration of secularism. In the face of all this, after seeing firsthand the destruction that religion can create, it feels wrong to pray to any god. Yes, religion gives people a sense of community, the feeling of being a part of something bigger—but what if this community is doing more harm than good? What if it preaches love but practices the very opposite?
At 14, as we prepared for Diwali, I realized I couldn't take it anymore. I felt deceitful and insincere. I sobbed as I told my mother that I didn't believe in God. I expected understanding—we’d never been too religious, anyway—but her answer was more than just that. My mother told me that for her, praying had always just been another way for our family to spend time together. It all made sense, then: we didn't have to worry about an invisible being looking out for us when we just did it ourselves.
It seems there are no real answers to my questions, at least for now. Though I am skeptical of religion today, sometimes wanting to reject it for all its faults, we all change in ways we never expect. My disdain for everything Indian started to diminish a couple of years ago. I recognized that India made me into the person I am, that there’s so much beauty in our culture that I had tried to disregard. I suddenly realized how stunning ghagras are, and was okay with wearing a salwar kameez again. I began to notice the love that went into the celebration of every festival. I created a playlist on Spotify called Indian Bops, and sang along to each Hindi song like I was making up for lost time. With this, the sharp edges of my religious skepticism also became duller. I no longer scoffed at those who prayed. I could appreciate the good parts of religion just as I could criticize the bad ones. Maybe someday, I’ll be my Nani. Maybe someday, I’ll want to be a part of the same austere communities of which I was once so skeptical.
A few months ago, I suddenly felt the need to rewatch Ramayana, which led to long conversations with my Nani on the phone and equally passionate texts to my friends. More recently, my family brought a puppy home, and I sang her the songs I learned when I was a child; it doesn't seem to matter that they're religious.
Living in India, I know that religion is never going to be a subject that is out of sight or out of mind. It’s something that I’ll have to reflect on, continuously. I don't think I’ll ever place all my hopes in a god I can't be sure of. I'm still terrified by the idea of feeling anything like devotion every time I start another episode of Ramayana. But I want to give myself the chance to believe the stories I loved as a child. I want to believe in astrology and mythology. I want to take comfort in higher powers, in a world of gods and love, black and white, goodness and magic. Maybe, in the end, that’s all religion is about: beliefs so strong that you can use them to navigate reality. Maybe all I want to do is once again lose myself in the stories that my grandmother used to tell me.
Illustration by Sadewa Kristianto for Vice.