Interfaith Connections is a column for teens to dialogue about how their faith or wisdom tradition influences their view of life’s big questions. In each issue, three teens from different backgrounds respond to a question posed by the Editorial Board, based on the theme. This quarter the Ed Board asks:
How has your concept of God developed? Is it still based on the tradition you were raised in or is it changing?
Nimai Agarwal responds.
I was born into a spiritual family. My parents practiced Vaishnavism, a monotheistic sect of Hinduism based on worship of Krishna, the Supreme. As a result, I’ve grown up immersed in this rich and ancient tradition.
I have woken up every morning to the sound of ringing bells and fragrant billows of incense. I’ve learned how to sing Sanskrit prayers to Krishna, a Sanskrit name for “God,” and I love it. They’re fun to sing, have beautiful meanings, and allow me to express myself. Over these years, I’ve learned a lot about the philosophy of Vaishnavism by reading and studying books like the Bhagavad-Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, and Sri Isopanishad. At the age of eight I started listening to lectures about the Ramayana and Krishna. I enjoyed them tremendously and was enthralled by the beauty and humanity in these ancient tales about God. Soon I was listening for hours upon end, finding a deep sense of peace and relaxation in them. It is something I still love doing. In conjunction with my readings of Vedic books and conversations with my parents, these lectures became my primary source of spiritual knowledge and inspiration.
Even though I was immersed in learning so much about God, at some level I felt disconnected from my tradition. Reflecting back I realize I never had to search for God myself as this knowledge was handed to me. My knowledge of God remained very theoretical. My view of God was very specific, but it was merely an idea for me. It didn’t seem real. For a long time God stayed this way for me — an ideal person and no more.
This semester I’ve started taking classes at Friends Meeting School, a local Quaker school. This is my first year in high school or any kind of school. I was homeschooled until now. It’s also my first time stepping out of the sheltered environment that homeschooling offered me. I’m having a lot of fun. I’m studying Physics in school and love it. Gravity fascinates me very much — the fact that planets are revolving around each other and that all objects in this world attract each other? Pretty mind-blowing stuff.
Seeing science explain things in such a logical manner has made me want to explore the things I’d learned about God in a similar way. It makes me question what I already know. My scriptures told me that God made the planets revolve around each other but science tells me that gravity is the source. I debate between the two. Science shows me a perfect machine and nothing more. But could the source of gravity be God? I realize that that the logic of God’s existence is indisputable. Being born into a religious family has many advantages, but I’ve never been challenged to think about the existence of God. I have always taken it for granted.
Thinking about these topics has not only strengthened my faith in God, but has also helped me find connections between science and religion, whose seeming opposition was an obstacle to my spirituality. Science could explain to me how some of the things worked the way they did. But why? I look to my scriptures for that and feel that the two, science and religion, come together in a cohesive harmony.
My art teacher always tells me that taking a step back and looking at a painting with fresh eyes leads to amazing revelations. I started an online course offered by Stanford this year called “Textual Analysis and Argumentation.” I studied several American writings from colonial times, many of which had dominant spiritual themes. It was a beautiful experience to see the world through the eyes of different faiths. I read writings such as Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Not only is this course helping me become a better writer, it is helping me look at my faith through a different lens. It is like looking at a painting with a fresh vision and seeing nuances I’d never noticed before. I was reading “A Model of Christian Charity,” a Puritan sermon from the 17th century by John Winthrop, and he talks about loving and respecting fellow humans and Christians. In his writing he uses a striking example; he describes how the mouth does the work to nourish the rest of the body but, in the act of giving, the mouth itself is nourished. In fact, the mouth gets the greatest pleasure. Similarly, in giving we gain the greatest gratification. This example reminded me of something similar I had read in the Srimad Bhagavatam, bringing out a deeper meaning in that familiar text. This revisiting and re-exploring of old concepts, through new eyes, has helped me go deeper into my understanding.
As I grow and learn about other faiths and fields of knowledge, I’m learning to reflect and rationalize everything I know. Challenging my faith with science is helping it become stronger and I can see my view of God change from something dry and conceptual, to something real and personal. I used to view God as being mechanical, cold, and oblivious to emotions; but now I see God as being a person with feelings — a person who wants to know and love us. God has always been described as a person in Vaishnavism, but when I read his wondrous activities, it felt like a fantasy novel. Revisiting those stories with logic has made them come alive and I’ve realized their reality and immensity. As a result, my attraction for him as a person has increased. The widening of my horizons, and learning about things that may seem separate from religion, is helping me develop a deeper understanding of my faith and knowledge of God.