This is an introduction post.
I studied religion, broadly understood. Unlike most of my cohort at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, I did not study a specific religion but many religions at a time. When I started my graduate studies, I expressed my interests to study “more than one religion” to my adviser. I argued that my intuition says my religion is many religions. The adviser responded with a gentle rebuke and noted that I need to choose one, for how could one person be many things at the same time. I settled with two “religions”, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Today, when I have to, I identify as a Hindu-Buddhist. I practice both Hinduism and Buddhism as it is practiced by many in Nepal. And no! It is not a practice of two religions, Hinduism and Buddhism; instead, it is a practice that holds up multiplicity at its core: the elements of “Hinduism”, “Buddhism” and other local beliefs. And these beliefs exist as one in an organic way. Religious scholars joke: when you ask a Nepali “Are you a Hindu or a Buddhist?” They respond, “Yes”. Inherently, many Nepalese believe that they are one with many at the same time. I am a Nepali, and I am a Hindu-Buddhist plus more.
When you associate yourself with seemingly more than one religious tradition, people become skeptical of your religion and religious identity. Within the University of Chicago’s academic environment, such claims of multiplicity may be considered inauthentic, perhaps even intellectually non-cogent. As a result, I often find myself explaining my religious identity, deeply rooted as it is in a multitude of experiences with more than one religious and spiritual tradition. These interactions, although sometimes tedious, do not go in vain but provide me with significant clues regarding a culture that propels these questions towards people like me—multi-religious/spiritual. Consequently, and more importantly, these questions also launch me into an introspective search —who am I?
I was raised in a household that celebrated both Hinduism and Buddhism, and there were no distinctions between them in our daily practice. Every morning, my mother would pray for prosperity to Shiva, while chanting Buddhist mantras to center herself for the day. The sight of Siddhartha Gautama’s statue in a meditative mudra alongside a statue of ferocious Kali surrounded by human skulls is a common view in Nepal’s temple. And I remember celebrating Lhosar with as much glee as Tihar (Nepali equivalent of Diwali). Perhaps, my mother was trying to confuse me with her religious mumbo-jumbo; or perhaps, it is just the way religion/spirituality is practiced in Nepal, everyday! Sarcasm aside, for many Nepalese, religion/spirituality is a way of living; it is a way of being. It is a not a categorical identity.
My resistance to categorical identification does raise serious concerns for many academics and practitioners. It can undermine the exceptionally complex, distinct schools of thought central to Buddhism and Hinduism. And the identity of a multi-religious, Hindu-Buddhist may appear offensive to billions of Hindus and Buddhists globally. Then, there is the western audience that includes people like my adviser for whom being multi-religious is not always easy to fathom. Western audience needs to know your religion, whereas Nepali focus is on being aware of one’s religion. This is due to the tension between “knowledge” and “awareness”, a can of worm that should be left alone for future posts to open and engage.
Plainly speaking, my multi-religious identity, like for many Christians, Jews and Muslims globally, comes from my upbringing. I was raised to be such, and I did not choose my religion. I was born into it. If I were born in the US, I might have been a Christian. So, it is appropriate that my spiritual practice draw from more than one traditions. What I do chose is how I make sense of these values. And once again, I am a Hindu-Buddhist with multiplicity at its core, and I refuse to be boxed into a preconceived box. I just want to be. This does not make me a subscriber of a weird spiritual fantasy, an indulgent of neo-spiritual consumerism, or a believer of an intellectually non-cogent value system; to me, the multi-religious identity gives me an opportunity to embrace a beautiful, seemingly incomprehensible plurality of this human world in a practice or a community. It uplifts the possibility for various communities to find fertile grounds to engage, interact, and grow with each other. It showcases a garden containing plants of different species with blossoming flowers of many colors that need no longer to be imagined, for it is and can be today’s reality.
It is within this one, seemingly multi-religious background, I thrive in my current profession as a hospital chaplain. As a chaplain, I regularly encounter people with seemingly non-cogent, conflictive, and complex value systems. I regularly meet Christians utilizing Buddhist meditation to cope with their psychological distress, Jewish reciting Hebrew prayers to cope with their illness even though they do not believe in God, Atheists who pray for their loved one’s comfort during a death and so on. And in the midst of these encounters and people, I find opportunities to stand as a Hindu Buddhist chaplain and accept their multiply religious/spiritual practice and value systems. So, why put that barrier of being just one, when we can can be more.
In future posts, I will continue to develop and provide concrete contexts to various matters I have raised above. For now, the interaction between Gandhi and Swami Anand can provide an additional context:
Swami Anand asked Gandhi as he was preparing to write his autobiography in South Africa, “What will you write? Supposing you reject tomorrow the things you hold as principles today, or supposing you revise in the future your plans of today, is it not like that men who shape their conduct on the authority of your word, spoken or written, may be misled?” Gandhi replied, “This is not a biography. I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth…” (Gandhi 2012)
Sunil K Yadav
Graduate Alum, the University of Chicago Divinity School
Chaplain Resident, Rush University Medical Center