The following is a transcript of the That’s So Hindu podcast episodes 95 and 96 “Hindu by Heart: Coerced into Islam, seeking freedom”. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, removing normal interjections of speech and repetitions. Bold text is interviewer Indu Viswanathan. Regular text is interviewee Keshav.
I am honored to be here today with Keshav of a 19 year old who recently made the bold and thoughtful decision to share his story with the world. We’re going to be using the name Keshav today, and it’s a pseudonym to to protect his identity. So welcome Keshav. I’m really happy to be speaking here with you today. Can you describe your early experiences with Hinduism and your family’s religious practices?
Growing up in a very devout Hindu family, I remember going to mandir every Sunday. And part of going there, I was taught a lot of things from an early childhood, just the basic fundamental principles of Hinduism. Growing up, I felt like, it was more of me following what my parents did [than] what my peers did. So I never really understood Hinduism; I never really grasped Hinduism from a young age. It was just more so of me following what the people around me were doing. And I think growing up in a very religious environment that I was in, I remember doing puja every morning. And I wouldn’t necessarily know why I was doing particular things. But I would just know that my parents were doing it, so I would do it as well. And that was really, what kind of kept me in line with my religious practices, and what really kept me in line with my faith. It was a big part of me growing up in a household where we really put we really put an emphasis on having faith and being religious.
When you were growing up, did you have a strong sense that your culture and religious identity was Hindu or Hindu American, like you strongly identified with that?
Yes, from a very young age, I strongly identified as a Hindu because that’s what I was. I was brought up in a Hindu household, and […] we really have a deep spiritual connection with the Hindu faith. So from a very young age, I was taught to identify as a proud and devout Hindu and make sure that I’m not ashamed to tell everybody around me that I was a practicing Hindu. So that was something that was already embedded in my mind.
And did you do that? Did you talk about being Hindu with your peers who maybe weren’t Hindu?
Yes, very young age. I had a lot of friends who were Christian; I had a lot of friends who were Muslim; and I told them, I’m a practicing Hindu. This is what we believe. And this is what we do.
I don’t know if you remember this, but when you were younger, when you were talking to your friends about those things, what kind of things did you say to them? How did you describe what Hinduism meant to you or what it meant to be?
So obviously, not knowing the purpose of why we do things played a big part in why I didn’t really understand my religion as much as I thought I did. So whenever I had to explain what I did in my faith to other people, they wouldn’t really understand because I would give them a broad description of what we do, rather than telling them why we did the things that we did. So I think that was a big part in my struggles, and my continued struggle to really, really understand the point of a religion — not only Hinduism, but the role that religion plays in my life. And so I think growing up, I didn’t really understand why we did things. I didn’t really understand why we did particular things, especially in my sampradaya. So explaining it to people was kind of difficult because they would ask why we did the things that we did and I wouldn’t be able to explain that to them because I was never really thought about why we did things.
When you came across, you know, these moments, for instance, when you were trying to explain something and realize that you couldn’t? Did you find yourself going to your parents or other people in your community in your center then and asking them questions about why.
Back then I wouldn’t really do that. Nowadays I do. I asked a lot of questions. And as I continue to seek for the truth, I realized that asking questions is very important. And that’s something that I never did in the past, which is a decision that I regret.
Could you share the moment or maybe it’s an event or a bunch of events that started to change your perspective on your faith and identity?
There was a chain of events that really started to change the way that I thought about Hinduism. I think one important aspect of that was the people that I’m around, my immediate friend group, the majority of that being Muslim. They would tell me what they do in their faith and what they do in their religion. And they would send me videos of certain scholars in their religion, talking about Islam, in comparison with other religions, on Abrahamic faiths, and also Hinduism. And so they would try to explain to me the fundamental principles of Islam. And they would compare those principles with that of Hinduism. And they would try to kind of embed in my mind that Hinduism didn’t make didn’t really make any sense and its theology and in its philosophy. And as I started listening to them more and I started digging a little deeper into Islam […] that’s what what really sparked a lot of questions in my mind. Some questions would be: In Islam, they only worship one God, but in Hinduism, it feels like we’re worshipping many gods. And to me, it didn’t sound logical in my mind. […] And it sparked a doubt in my mind about whether I’ve really been following something that was fundamentally wrong. And whether I had to convert, or whether I had to really get back on the right path. I felt as if my faith or my religion was not the religion that I should be following. So when I looked into Islam, everything made sense to me, because they made it sound so coherent and so logical — where I thought that this is the religion that I should be following. Because to me, it sounds right. In my mind, it sounds right. To be honest, I don’t think it sounded right from my heart, because I never had a spiritual connection, even when I did accept Islam. But my mind was telling me that, oh, this sounds right, this sounds right. Like, this is probably the religion that you should be following, ideally. And so, as I kept asking more and more and more questions, it all made sense to me. So I was like, rather than really taking my time, and trying to understand Islam, a little more than I did, I felt like, I felt as if I […] kind of rushed into establishing a connection with the religion, because a lot of the lot of the Muslims told me that, you know, I was on the wrong path — I had to get myself on the right path before it was too late for me. So I think that was a big part of why I kind of forced myself to detach myself from Hinduism, [from] the connection that I had left with my sampradaya and with Hinduism. I felt as if I had to detach myself completely. And that’s what I was also being told, if I wanted to become a devout Muslim, I had to completely detach myself from Hinduism and detach myself with everything that was related to Hinduism.
Wow, that’s really powerful. I can almost feel like this pressure that you were feeling that this was urgent, like the sense of urgency that you need to do this and that, you know, if you don’t do it, there are consequences for you. I don’t know if you remember but what started your friends to like what what instigated them to start sharing these videos with you? What was the opening? That they felt like they could be sharing these videos or this information with you?
The way that this all really started was me talking about religion. And, over the coming years, I felt like I was getting a little bit less religious than I was in the future. And part of me was, questioning things, questioning rituals, and traditions and Hinduism. So the topic of religion sparked something completely different. Me talking about why, I’m not really a religious person; I’m not really in line with my faith. And I felt as if they took that as something that they could start with, and something that they could use, to really kind of take advantage of me because they knew that I wasn’t really big on my faith. So I felt like that was one starting point that they saw. And for them to really try to embed this idea in my mind that I was following the wrong faith. So part of what really sparked this was me communicating with them about the fact that I wasn’t really in line with my faith; and that’s what they really took advantage of. So, they started sending me…it started very, very, very low. It was more so explaining the theology and philosophy of Islam. And then, you know, telling me to read the Quran. And then sending me videos — eventually comparative religion analysis videos. […] Having watched these videos, that’s really what strike even more questions in my mind. And I would go back and I would ask them questions about Islam after having watched these videos, because I couldn’t fully understand what was actually being said. They would tell me, you know, this is what we believe in Islam. And they would kind of tell me what they believe in Islam; and they would come tell me what we believe in Hinduism. And they would say, how could this make sense compared to what we believe. It’s kind of like, at times, they would kind of make a mockery out of Hinduism. They would kind of make a mockery out of the entire faith. It was explained to me why Islam is a logical religion on a larger scale. They will talk about how Islam is the one and only religion that’s going to exist for generations and generations and generations after time. And they will tell me why me being a Hindu would practically do anything for me, because Hinduism […] was a very contradicting religion. And there was no way for me to really be a devout Hindu — for me to really follow my faith. […] Having listened to all of this, it kind of sparked a big doubt in my mind about whether I was following, you know, a legitimate religion. And so that’s really what you know, that’s really what caused everything.
Would you say, it’s fair to say that you had, you were expressing these doubts you had about your own religiosity as a Hindu thinking that you were sharing with friends who would receive that would sort of sincerely and maybe help you navigate it? Were you taken aback when you experienced them? Taking advantage of your vulnerability or your sharing of your vulnerability? Did that surprise, you?
To be honest, it kind of baffled me; I wasn’t really taken aback. Nor was I really surprised, because in my mind […] I was kind of thinking about it. From my mind, I was trying to try to connect the dots together; rather than really thinking about it from my heart, which, you know, which I still regret. And so, I thought, you know, maybe they’re trying to put me on the right track; they genuinely care about me; they’re my friends. So maybe they’re trying to really enact some meaningful change in my life. Maybe they see me struggling mentally. And you know, they want to do something for me; they want to put something in my life that could really help me. And so I, at the time, I was not taken aback, or surprised by the things that they were telling me.
And these were friends from school from social media. How did you know these folks?
Yeah, so some friends from school and some friends that I had on social media. Some mutual friends as well.
Okay, and these are people that you had spent some time these are not new people in your life. These are people that you would you interacted with for for some time.
Do you remember if there were any specific practices that you didn’t understand in Hinduism that made you question?
Yes, there were a lot of practices. But [there were] some in particular that sparked a really big doubts in my mind: one being idol worship. I didn’t understand why people shouldn’t worship these. It never really made sense to me growing up. I realized that as a child, I never questioned these practices. But as I grew up, more and more, I was really like, why are we worshipping these? Because, it didn’t sound it didn’t sound right to me, nor did that sound logical to me. And so, obviously having questioned idol worship, I looked at it from the Islamic perspective. And I was like, the way that these guys pray, they don’t pray to idols. This looks more right; this sounds more right. And so, that’s a question that was embedded in my mind.
Another question that was on my mind, and still is on my mind, to the question of Hinduism’s philosophy and theology, which is, whether we are a monotheistic religion, whether we are a polytheistic religion, or whether we are a henotheistic religion. And this is obviously still a debate among many Hindus. But for me a monotheistic religion sounded ideal to me. Because, for me, I’ve never questioned the idea of believing in a higher power in a God. And I always knew that there was something, there is some creator in the universe. Even when I had kind of stepped away from my religious practices as a Hindu, I always believed in the existence of God. And so, in Hinduism, the perception of God and the idea of God, what we believe, who we believe God is… it kind of confused me. Because Hinduism, in practice, it looks like we are a polytheistic religion because we worship many deities, many devas, many goddesses. And that never made sense to me. For me, I thought, we should only worship one. But who is that one God, because many sampradaya believe that one god, that one Lord, is different. Some people believe it’s Krishna, and some people believe it’s Vishnu. Some people believe it’s Ganesh and Hanuman, etc, etc, etc. So, for me, it never made sense, right? In Islam, they worship only one. And, you know, they have a fundamental concept in Islam, where they are a strictly monotheistic religion. So that that sounded right. To me, it made sense. And so having compared the practices in Hinduism to those practices in Islam, Islam just made a lot more sense to me, in my mind. And part of that was also, you know, people telling me how Islam is strictly a monotheistic religion. I was like, alright, this sounds right to me, because it makes sense in my head. And that’s really what pushed me a step further.
So it sounds like your friends, were really picking up on what what you were doubtful about. And they, they gave you exactly the type of information that, you know, would would make Islam seem like a good way forward for you in terms of religion that, that they know exactly where to meet you? How to Answer your doubts. And I think it’s really powerful and interesting that you keep referencing this sort of divide between your what was happening in your intellect or your mind and that but your heart, maybe was saying something else, too. Do you remember what your heart was saying during this time?
I have a very strong spiritual connection with Hinduism. Part of that was me being part of a sampradaya. And I have a very strong connection with my deceased guru, who passed away a couple of years ago. For me it was all about kind of holding that connection. And when I was being told that I had to completely detach myself and completely get rid of these connections […] it didn’t sound right. In my mind, it sounded right. It sounded like, you know, a practical thing to do when trying to connect myself with another religion, but my heart was telling me a completely different thing. So, obviously, having this connection, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to let go of this connection, regardless of the circumstance. So part of me really questioned what I was getting myself into. And part of me really questioned that the things that I was being told, but I felt like as if I felt like as if I was pushing away these questions, and I was trying to force myself into, into kind of establishing this mentality, this ideal mentality He didn’t really want to have in the first place.
So your friends are, you know, pressuring you to convert, how old? Are you at this time when all this is happening?
Okay, so not that long ago, couple years ago.
Hardly a year ago.
Wow. And so they’re, they’re pressuring you to convert? What else is happening in your life at that time? You were still in high school? You were a senior in high school?
Yes, I was a senior in high school. And I was also kind of going through a very bad phase in my life. So I was looking for guidance. And that’s, you know, that’s part of what really pushed me forward. And me forcing myself to take steps that I thought I wasn’t ready to take at that time.
So you’re going through this hard time and obviously, you know, turn to your friends. Was there anyone in the Hindu part of your life, whether it was your parents or siblings or family members, or just anyone know, you’re part of Assam, for that part of the Sangha? Is there anyone that you were turning to for advice from the Hindu perspective, about navigating this difficult time in your life?
Not really, because to be completely honest, I didn’t know any Hindus outside of my sampradaya. And so I wasn’t really able to establish a social connection with a lot of other Hindus around me. […] We had a large amount of Hindus that went to my high school, but they weren’t really in line with their faith. A lot of them weren’t really that religious. They weren’t really devout Hindus per se. And so it was, you know, I couldn’t really have a conversation with anybody. […] Whereas a lot of Muslims that I grew up with that were around me, they were very intact with their faith. They were very religious. It was easy to have a conversation with them about, about religion as a whole.
So now you you made the decision to convert, can you walk us through that process? What did what what was involved? What rituals or actions were involved? In your conversion?
Basically, it’s important to note that I went, one of my friends invited me to a mosque. It was during prayer time. And he invited me to the mosque, in the evening. I went there with the intention of not converting because I was not ready to take that big step. I’d taken many steps forward, but I was not ready to take such a big step. And so I told him beforehand, hey, I’m not ready to convert. I’ve already changed my religion. Just leave it as it may be. And when I went to the mosque, he showed me around. The social environment was very nice at the mosque. But as I went into the prayer room, I saw the imams and a few people from the Muslim community, they were sitting there, and they were ready to take my shahada. And the shahada is basically a ritual, a few words, Arabic words, that you say. And that’s basically what makes you a Muslim when you recite those words. So I see all of them sitting there in a little circle, and two or three people standing behind me by the exit. And I’m kind of standing there in the middle ivery awkward. It’s just a very awkward, you know, place for me to be in. And I’m confused. I was like, hey, like, you know, why are you guys all like, you know, like, sitting here like this? And they were like, we’re ready to take your shahada. And I was like, I’m not ready to take my shahada. Who told you that I was ready to take my shahada? And my friend, you know, he walks up and he’s like, you know, take your shahada; I think it’s time for you to take a shahada. And I was like, I told you, I’m already taking my shahada. The one imam speaks up and he’s like, if you don’t take your shahada now — they use the word shaytan [for Satan] — shaytan is going to stop you. And I was very confused. As I think of it, and I keep pleading, and I was like, I’m not ready take my shahada, please give me more time. I appreciate you guys being so excited to welcome me you know, into your community, but I’m not ready. Please give me some more time. This is a big step I have to take in my life and I just need more time to think about it. And they kept pleading and pleading, pleading saying […] it’s now or never. And so without even really thinking, I was like, alright, you know what, I’m just gonna go ahead and take this step big step in my life. Because […] maybe they’re right. If I don’t do it now, it’s never going to happen. Maybe this is the change I need in my life. So let me just do it now and really see how Islam changes my life. And so I just had the shahada, and they welcomed me, they give me hugs. And, they were asking me a little bit about me my name, where I come from, what religion I was part of before. And one dark realization that I came to, after I took my shahada, was that they were going around, telling everybody that I was once a Hindu. And at the time, I thought, you know, maybe it was just an introductory remark, maybe they’re trying to, you know, tell people about, like, you know, who I am and where I come from, but I realized that they were going around, saying that we have a Hindu convert. And they kept going around telling everybody that, oh, look, a Hindu just converted. And people come up to me, and they start trying to meet me. They asked me, hey, is it true that you’re really a Hindu convert? And I was like, yeah, it is. But at at the same time, something deep down was telling me that this wasn’t what I wanted to people to know about me. And so, I come to this realization that I was sort of being paraded around as the Hindu convert, some sort of object that they were using, to really, kind of I’m taking advantage. I realized that I think I was being taken advantage of. This realization has kind of sparked a really, a really dark, really dark thought in my mind. And it still kind of bothers me to this day: the way that they saw me and the way that they perceive me.
So you’re 18 at this time?
No, I was 19.
You’re 19. So it’s just very recently. And, you know, it’s, it’s painful even just to hear his description of you being paraded around I can’t imagine what it felt like for you, especially because it sounds like you were somewhat coerced or ambushed into converting before you were you were ready. No, there’s a lot of pressure that was put on you. Did anyone know, outside of the group of friends that took you? Did anyone know that you were going to be visiting the mosque that evening?
No, I was scared to tell a lot of people that I knew. I kept that a secret from people around me. And I didn’t want anybody knowing, you know, that I was going to a mosque.
What were you scared of? What what did you think would happen if they found out?
I didn’t want to be labeled, you know. Maybe my parents finding out. That’s really what scared me the most. So I kind of kept a close lid on it. Even if I was just visiting, you know, even if I did just go with the intention of just visiting.
So you go there not anticipating that you’re going to convert during this visit, and all of a sudden, you have you. You’ve taken this oath or this vow. How did you feel?
It didn’t feel right. And I realized this, it didn’t, it didn’t feel right. At the moment, it felt as if I just taken a big step in my life. But I realized that it didn’t feel right. My heart was telling me something completely different than what my mind was telling me. It did not feel right. It took it felt like as if I if I was forced to take a big step in my life that I was not ready to take.
END EPISODE 95
I started coming to the realization that maybe I need more time, and not necessarily for me to revert back to Hinduism from or for me to become a Hindu again. But for me to really embark on a journey. And obviously, it’s going to be a long and treacherous journey full of ups and downs, because I’m seeking for the truth. But I knew that I had taken a little arm I taken a step that I was already taking my life. And I felt, you know, I kind of felt like, you know, taken aback from this decision. So after having had that conversation with him, it kind of opened my eyes.
What were some of the things he shared with you? What were some of these perspectives about Hinduism that were novel to you?
He talked a lot about Sanatana Dharma. And about how a lot of misconceptions a lot of stereotypes about Hinduism, idol worship, the worshipping of many gods and goddesses. And he offered a unique perspective to me. And that unique perspective, it kind of it sounded, it sounded like something that made sense. And it sounded like something, it sounds like your perspective that I was really introduced to. And after telling me everything about Sanatana Dharma, I felt as if I had learned so much just off merely having a conversation with him, more than I had learned my entire life, about a faith that I’ve been following for almost my entire life. I felt as if I had learned more, in a two hour conversation with somebody than I had learned about Hinduism for my entire life. And so this is really what opened my eyes, getting these unique perspectives getting, getting these perspectives that I’ve never really been introduced to. It really opened my mind. And it really sparked a doubt in my mind, a genuine doubt about me, taking a step in my life that I was not ready to, that I was not ready to take. And coming to the conversation that we had about Islam, I had realized that I didn’t really know anything about Islam. Besides the bigoted things that are said about other religions, I was never really fully introduced to Islam. And so that’s, that’s a big part of what opened my eyes.
This person that you were speaking to on Instagram, they’re closer in age to you than your parents.Yes, yes. And are they a part of your sampradaya? Are they come from a different one?
No, they come from a different sampradaya. It was somebody who was really big on […] a belief system that I was never really introduced you. And it was somebody who kind of had a different perspective about Hinduism, a perspective that I was never introduced to, a perspective that I never thought even existed.
Had you had the opportunity growing up to interact with youth or young adults from the other center that is in Hinduism, or was your experience mainly within your own?
So I’m having grown up in a sampradaya — we have a lot of following, especially here in the US — I did interact a lot with the youth. I went to national conventions […] I had a lot of people I interacted with, and I kind of felt as if I felt later on in my life. But I kind of felt as if we were following something that we didn’t really know anything about. It kind of felt like we were blindly following something, blindly doing a practice that we didn’t really know anything about.
But these were all youth within the same sampradaya. You weren’t going to sort of inter sampradaya youth conventions or anything. This was still within the same within the same lineage.
So this was really a very novel experience for you. You were interacting with someone who was coming with a completely different experience and understanding of Hinduism itself. And having this interaction. You know, it sounds like it was it was it changed your trajectory quite a bit.
Yes, it did.
So since that interaction, and you started to really think, you know, had I had you prematurely made this decision, you weren’t ready, you didn’t really know about Islam, outside of the videos that were sort of bigoted and misrepresenting other traditions. What happens next?
I’m talking to this person more and more; and I got on the phone with this person. And I asked him to teach me more, and to give me to give me more perspectives about Hinduism that I was ever introduced to. And to having learned all of this, I asked him about his experiences with Islam […] and he told me his experiences with Islam. And he was going through the exact same thing that I went through, and I’m in the exact same thing that I’m still going through. And that’s really what kind of changed my frame of mind even more. Because he was being told the same things. He had the same questions in his mind. He had the same doubts. He was going through an exact similar phase I was. And so I kind of thought, you know, maybe this person was somebody that could give me some guidance. So having talked to them even more and more and more, I felt as if I had to take a step back, and rethink my decisions and rethink what steps I’m going to take, what what steps I’m going to take next. And so, I kind of felt as this was kind of a message for me to take a step back, reflect on the choices I was choosing to make, and kind of think about it practically in the way that it was going to affect my life for the long run.
What, if anything, did you communicate about this to your friends and to your, to the Muslim community that you are part of?
I told them, honestly, and in the nicest way possible. Hey, look, I appreciate everything that you guys have done for me the resources that you’ve given me, but I feel like I need to take a step back. And I need to really rethink my decisions, because I don’t think I was ever ready for things to be except in my life.
And what was the response to that?
I’m being brainwashed. I’m being misled by somebody who wants to destroy my connection with with Islam and destroy my grip with Islam, and the way that I was finding the truth. I was told that the person I was talking to was another form of Shaitan in my life of trying to stop me.
And what did you say to that?
I didn’t really have a reaction. I didn’t know how to react. I just said, you know, the reason is this person opened my eyes, but he’s not fully, you know, the reason why I’m choosing is a step back. I’m choosing to take a step back because my heart is telling me that I need to reflect on a decision that I was forced to take. And so while you may say that this person is misleading me, I actually think it’s you that’s misleading me; it’s you guys who are misleading me.
How was that received? When you you said that back to them?
They told me that I was being ridiculous. They were calling me crazy. And they were calling me psychotic. They were saying that I can’t make a decision. They were saying that I was you know that I changed my mind too quickly. And they were saying that, you know, I’m, I’m being easily persuaded. I’m being easy. I’m being brainwashed and that I need to I need to open my eyes and not be oblivious to my circumstances. And I’m, you know, my reality.
And these are, these are your friends, right? These are not just people you have met? These are people that are your friends?
What were you feeling in this moment? Stressed out? Really depressed?
I can imagine it was really disorienting. It sounds like a real roller coaster for you. And you were continuing to speak with this, this Hindu person that you had met on Instagram?
Yes, it was.
And did you talk to anyone else at this point? Would you start sharing what you were going through with anyone else?
So this guy had a community of Instagram followers. Some of them were on my social media, communicated to like, you know, a couple, a few of them were really close to the person I was talking to. Not necessarily telling them the full severity of my situation, but more so giving them a perspective, about, my perspective on the way that I saw Hinduism. And it was the community trying to really give me another perspective about him, about Hinduism, not really telling them things about what I was going through personally. But I’m just kind of, you know, trying to enlighten me with another perspective about Hinduism that would, you know, kind of helped me as I navigate forward in my life.
Now, if I understand correctly, the catalyst for all of this was you feeling compelled to sort of, say Hinduphobic things on social media in order to prove your, your allegiance to Islam? What were some of the things that you found yourself saying or being asked to say about Hinduism or India or anything really, in order to prove that allegiance?
Yeah, so um, Hinduphobic rhetoric, you know, the basic things historically, the common Hindu stereotypes, worshipping cow, worshipping idols, making a mockery out of those practices. About India, I felt I felt as if I had to develop a different political perspective. I was told that I had to denounce my opinions that I had about politics in India. I had to change my opinions I had about politics in India. I’m not going to get into the full gist of it. But from a broader perspective, I felt as if I had to kind of denounce India. And this wasn’t something that I was told; I felt like it was more of an indirect message that was being sent. I had to completely denounce any connection or any kind of any kind…my heritage with my motherland. I was told that […] I could never never call India my motherland, because Muslims are being oppressed in India. All of these things are happening in India, unjust practices, unjust things being surfaced online, just decisions being taken by the governments. And Islamophobic rhetoric growing in India, with the government, you know, actively engaging with Hindu nationalist organizations, who are spewing even more Islamophobia through the media in India. I was told that I had to develop … I had to have anti-India sentiments to really stand up for my fellow Muslims, who I was told were being oppressed, back in my motherland. And so I felt as if I had to change my entire perspective and develop this narrative in my mind about about me not really being affiliated with India, not being affiliated with people in India. And, you know, kind of kind of going online and spewing anti-India sentiment, for me to stand up for my fellow Muslims and stand up for the Islamic community.
Just for clarity, did you believe that there was this growing Islamophobic sentiment and policy in India or was this part of what you were told to believe?
This was really part of what I was told to believe. I don’t think I really believed it because I’m obviously having;…going to India, tak[ing] a lot of trips to India. I know a lot of people live in India. A lot of Muslims who live in India, family friends. I personally, never saw [it]. I’m not saying that Islamophobia doesn’t exist in India, but I didn’t think it exists on such a large scale that I was being told it does exist. But I was kind of forcing myself to believe these things. So I could kind of please, the people that were around me, telling me to believe these things.
And looking back on that now, how does that sit with you?
It does not sit well. And it kind of it kind of feels like I was kind of forced to completely erase my identity.
Having gone through that, do you feel like you still have access to that identity?
I mean, to your your Indian identity… Do you feel like that, that’s, you know, you went online, you said these things, because you felt compelled to do it. And now you’re taking this moment to really reflect and think and think for yourself, rather than just go along with what you’re being told to think. Do you think that it’s possible for you to sort of regain those connections and ties and links? Or were they never gone at all? Were you just performing this sort of separation…
I kind of felt as if I was just performing an act. At the same time. I don’t think I can ever go back to the, to the genuine happiness that I had as a child. Even if I didn’t understand the purpose of why I was doing things I remember, as a kid growing up in a spiritual, spiritually religious environment. That was, you know, part of me being genuinely happy. I don’t think I can ever go back to that, you know, the state that I was in before.
Well, this is the mother and me saying this, there’s a long road ahead of you. So never is a pretty final word. But I understand what you’re saying about how you feel right now. And I’m sorry, that’s, that’s a very painful thing to feel. What were some of the other you talked about? The ways in which your friends were now talking down to you and dismissing you? And it sounds like they were gaslighting you Did anything else happen as a result of you saying you wanted to take this space? And to think and reflect? Do they take any other actions?
Yeah, I got a lot of hate on social media. A lot of people messaging me, calling me calling me things. A lot of people experience hate. So a lot of people saying that, you know, a lot of people saying that, you know, I was an embarrassment to the Muslim community. I was weak for leaving my faith, that I was weak for being brainwashed. I was weak for decisions for taking a step back. I got a lot of people telling me that, you know, I was welcomed. They welcomed me with open arms, and I betrayed them. And there were other people who were telling me that, you know, I’m an embarrassment for them. And, you know, I you know, that there’s no you know, I have no purpose in my life.
But do you think that means that you have no purpose in your life? What were they trying to communicate to you?
I felt as if they were telling me that, you know, me choosing to me choosing to leave Islam. I was kind of putting aside the only purpose that they thought I had in my life. But they were telling me that you know, you were so easily you are so easily persuaded to leave Islam, as dumb as you are for doing that. You have no purpose in your life.
So, you went from feeling like you had finally found a community that was reaching out to you and embracing you and including you in a way that you hadn’t felt before. You know, when you first converted, they welcomed you in so many ways, and all of a sudden, it was sort of turned on its head. I mean, it’s kind of an obvious question, but I have to ask how, how did that feel?
It kind of it kind of brought me down even more. Um, And I felt, I felt very, I felt very, I felt very upset. And I felt like this phase of my life was going to be endless. And I even started doubting, you know, the purpose I had loved in my life?
I’m, I’m so sorry, you felt that way? And did you? Did you share what you were feeling with anyone? Have you shared? You know, you’re sharing with me now, but either with this new friend that you found on Instagram or the community that you brought with him? Did you share this? Have you shared this with anyone?
Yeah, I shared this with the person that I started talking to. And that’s really what drew me closer to this person.
Yeah, well, I’m I’m really glad that you found someone to confide in. That’s it’s really important that you that anyone who’s going through this doesn’t doesn’t feel alone. That kind of isolation can be so debilitating. Other than this types of messages that you were getting, you know that your life had no meaning that you had betrayed them, that, you know, all of these things. Were there any other consequences for you taking the stance?
It got worse and worse, gradually over a period of time. I ended up getting death threats. People telling me to go kill myself, but people saying that I’m going to burn in the hellfire. People are telling me that I’m going to regret the decision that I chose to make.
And where you’re receiving these messages on social media on and anyone you knew what was anyone you knew, like that you actually knew in real life? Were your friends saying these things? Okay, so these were just social media? I mean, not just but these were on social media. You’re getting these messages? Yes. And did you tell your friends, your Muslim friends that you were receiving death threats?
I did tell them. And the response that I got was that I made a decision to leave Islam. And it was a very bad decision that I chose to make. And the people who were sending me death threats. They were doing it understandably so.
So zero support from your friends.
And are you still interacting with these folks?
Are you still receiving death threats?
And are you safe? Do you feel safe?
Given the fact that you’ve received death threats, that your own friends are not supporting you. And they’re saying essentially, that you deserve to receive death threats, if it’s a consequence of your own actions. You’ve taken a big risk to speak out publicly about this. Why did you choose to speak about this publicly?
I was never planning on speaking about this publicly. But I have an obligation to protect people who are going, who are down the same road as I am. And I want to make sure that very few people become the victims of what I went through. And I want to do whatever I can to make sure that when people really, when people really, when people think you know, really read my story. I want to make sure that my story can really impact people’s lives. So they don’t end up becoming the victims or they don’t end up going through what I went through. Because the state that I was in, the state that I’m still in, I don’t want anybody to go through that. Because it’s a very dark place to be in. It’s it’s mentally degrading. And it’s just a place that nobody wants to be in in their lives. And I want to make sure I have an obligation to make and I feel like I have an obligation to make sure that nobody has to go through what I’m going through right now. So me coming out with my story in a way. It’s just me kind of, you know, me, fulfilling my obligation to really protect whoever I can protect by sharing my story anonymously. So anybody who’s in the same circumstances as me, anybody who’s going through, you know, something similar, something as similar as I’m going through. And as I went through, I want to make sure that they understand, you know, the consequences that their actions can have.
What would you tell someone, a young person, let’s say, a 16, or 17, or 18 year old, who’s has similar questions or concerns or skepticism around Hinduism, and they’re vulnerable to these influences? What advice would you give them?
Your questions are 100% genuine. The fact that you are raising these questions in the first place, shows that you are seeking for the truth and the mere fact that you are seeking for the truth, very few people are actually bothered about finding the truth. So you already taken a step forward, when you ask these questions. So you should feel proud of yourself for even having the courage to ask these questions in the first place. So I think anybody’s going through what I went through, should not take big steps. […] They should not feel coerced, nor should they feel forced to take certain steps in their lives. And part of really ensuring that you don’t take steps you don’t take those kinds of steps in your life, is to make sure that you have a good circle, the people that you’re around, or, you know, kind of encouraging you to think for yourself. And so part of it is, you know, having a good social circle, having friends that are encouraging you to think for yourself and having friends who encourage you to, you know, really think from your heart. So I think that’s something that’s really, really, really important for someone who’s, you know, in, in a circumstance that I’m in. I think that’s a really, really important thing for somebody to have a good social circle. And, you know, to really take it one step at a time. And eventually, your questions will be answered. But it’s important that you embark on your own journey. Everybody goes through ups and downs, everyone’s journey, it goes in different directions. But as long as you’re following your heart, it’s going to be alright for you.
It’s really beautiful. What message would you convey to Hindu American parents?
The first thing that I’m going to say, and I think this is very important, growing up, you shouldn’t make your kids feel uncomfortable with talking to you about anything. And that could be asking questions, as basic as asking questions about Hinduism, to even talking about things that you’re going through in your life. Make your kids feel comfortable. So they feel like they grow up, you know, around, obviously, around parents who have the best interests for their children. Um, and I think that Hindu American parents should really know, whenever you tell your kids to perform practices, make sure you convey to them why they’re performing these practices, why you perform these practices and why you want them to perform those practices. Convey the purposes of these practices. Don’t just get them to blindly follow something or blindly do something.
And what if the parents don’t know?
I think it’s important for Hindu American parents understand. Because we are growing up in North America […] we are a minority. Hindus only make up for 1% of the US population. So a lot of the times in modern day society we hear a lot of stereotypes about Hinduism. We hear a lot of misconceptions about Hinduism. People are fed with misinformation. Your child will likely be fed with misinformation. So, unless you […] teach your child you know about the most basic pillars of Hinduism, Hindu culture, Hindu identity, your child is going to be fed with misinformation and more than likely, he or she will not know how to react to the information that he or she is being fed. And that just leads to a whole chain of events. So I think it’s important for parents to really understand that you need to explain to your child coherently. And you need to really explain to your child why you do certain things that you do, and why it’s important, why why religion plays an important role in your life, and why, you know, why you perform certain rituals and certain practices that you perform on a daily basis. And, you know, obviously, Hinduism on a larger scale is a very complex religion. It’s a very diverse religion, people believe in different things. But it’s important that you teach your child the basic foundational pillars of Hinduism, so they understand they at least have, they at least know where they come from. And they at least understand what Hinduism is all about, even if they may have a different set of beliefs. Because obviously, Hinduism has many sampradaya, as Hinduism has many different philosophies and principles, and people follow different things, it’s important that your child has a general understanding of Hinduism and the Hindu faith. So they don’t completely lose grip of their identity. And they understand how to react when they’re fed myths and misinformation they can actually think for themselves.