Isabel Powell (C‘24) is an undergraduate student studying biology of global health and justice and peace studies. Born in the United Kingdom and living in Miami, FL, she is currently studying abroad in New Delhi, India, with the SIT India: Public Health, Gender, and Community Action program. She is also traveling to Jamkhed, Goa, Dharamshala, Jaipur, and Thailand to learn about alternative systems of healthcare and explore the social determinants of health. Isabel is excited to learn how to cook delicious Indian food, drink tons of chai, and explore the beautiful countryside! She is part of the spring 2023 cohort of the Doyle Global Dialogue.
Growing up, religion was never a major part of my life. My mom calls us “Easter and Christmas Christians,” but I wouldn’t even go that far. The holidays were not religious in nature, nor did we attempt to celebrate them in that manner. Easter and Christmas were occasions when our family joined together, spent the morning frantically dashing around the kitchen to prepare an exorbitant amount of food, and then dressed up ever so slightly just to revert back to pajamas an hour later. Christmas meant snowflakes and hot chocolate, hiking out into the woods to painstakingly chop down a tree in the freezing cold, and reminiscing about the past noisily over James Bond or Star Wars movies.
As someone coming from a mostly atheist background, never having grown up attending religious services or feeling spiritually connected to a deity or broader force, it is difficult for me to conceptualize and understand the true role that religion may play in other people’s lives. Arriving in India, it quickly became clear that religion is a highly influential force, whether on the political stage, in community dynamics, or within families.
The streets of Delhi are lined with tucked-away temples and mosques, ceremonial music pouring out into the dense alleyways. Within my host family, Sikhism was a highly important and omnipresent aspect of life. The walls and countertops were adorned with discrete artifacts, while the television streamed chanting from the Golden Temple of Amritsar. To welcome us into her family, our host mother presented us each with kara, a simple iron bracelet that serves as a reminder for Sikhs not to commit sins. Each morning, our host mother rose before the sun, heading straight to temple, and she returned again most evenings. She kindly invited us to attend temple with her, including to the magnificent Gurudwara Bala Sahib, and we caught a brief glimpse into her devotion.
Outside of our host family, the presence of religion was everywhere. In McLeod Ganj, the home of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in the Himalayas, religion serves as a way to unite people to their homeland and culture. I witnessed firsthand the powerful and heartwarming devotion of the Tibetan people to the Dalai Lama. After news of allegations against the Dalai Lama broke in April, Tibetans swarmed the narrow streets to demonstrate their support. Posters covered shop windows; songs and candlelight filled the streets. As I was privileged enough to be welcomed to the Namgyal Monastery, all around me, hundreds of Tibetans and visiting Buddhists visited for a few seconds alone with His Holiness and the chance to receive a personal blessing. Some were brought to tears; others seemed elated. For each person, this was clearly a highly meaningful and personal experience. Politically, personally, and culturally, the Dalai Lama is central to the lives and identity of Tibetan people, both in and outside of India.
Although these experiences, both in the bustling streets of Delhi and the serene foothills of the Himalayas, were only brief, they helped expose me to the role of religion in the lives of millions. From daily devotions to entire community demonstrations, religion has the power to shape and guide entire societies. This power may be beautiful, teaching people to believe in the virtues of kindness and honesty, but can be distorted and warped to become something evil. In geopolitics, we focus almost exclusively on the harm that religion can cause. We fixate on the conflicts that drive people apart and the bloodshed that inevitably accompanies them. But rarely do we focus on the unique power of religion to heal and unify.
India has been home to both incredible division and incredible unity in religion. Following the Partition of India in 1947, the country experienced the largest migration in modern history on the basis of religious and cultural division. Yet India itself serves as a beautiful mosaic of religions and cultures, existing as the birthplace of various major religions. The dichotomous role of religion as both a force for unparalleled kindness and heart-wrenching evil around the world cannot be understated. Religion serves as a source of compassion, compassion which we so desperately need in order to begin to see past our differences and appreciate our shared humanity. Seeing its omnipresence and virtues all around me in India, I have no doubt that we underestimate, and perhaps even villainize, religion and its role in global dynamics.
For me, Christmases going forward may still mean gingerbread houses, twinkling lights, and decorating trees. However, hopefully, my time in India will serve as a reminder of what religion can actually mean to a community and the power it can wield.