Q: I just turned 19 last year and have been reading a lot about Sufism and Islam in college. I was raised a Hindu, and I learned about Indian culture and philosophy through my parents and at the temple. I find that Islamic philosophy is answering many questions for me and Sufi poetry speaks to my heart. My parents are angry and they feel that I am betraying my tradition and family. They tell me that if I cared about them, I would keep the family tradition and go to temple with them every week. I do love and respect them and my Hindu upbringing, but I also want the freedom to pursue my own spiritual interests. I feel very torn. Is there a way I can do this without creating such a reaction in them?
A: This is a difficult dilemma, especially for someone with a traditional South Asian and religious background. Although you are in America and 19, to your parents you are their young child from an Indian family. In traditional cultures, people’s religious affiliation and practices are a deep part of their heritage, identity, and way of relating. One’s entire thinking, living, and raising a family is influenced by religion. From this perspective, your religion isn’t a choice; it’s an innate part of your nature given to you by your parents. By your refusing to keep your inheritance, according to your parents, you are actually rejecting them. It is very personal.
You, on the other hand, are an American college student with a rich history in Indian culture, religion, and philosophy, wanting to check out another way of perceiving God, yourself, and the world. What’s so bad about that? It is interesting that you are embracing a religion that is feared and now being associated with terrorism. Are you making any kind of political statement? Your choosing a different religion may also be your way of making a bigger separation from your parents and claiming your independence. If that is so, talk to them about your desire or need to do so. This will also help you get clearer about how your relationship to your parents is changing.
They fear that your independence will create a greater gap between you and them. They will have less influence over you and the new choices you will make. What will they tell all your relatives if you refuse to go to temple and they all hear you reciting, “Allah O Akbar,” instead of “Sri Ram, Jai Ram.” To you they are all the names of God; to them you are now a different person: a Muslim.
You are doing a bold thing in exploring another tradition, especially Islam. Go slowly when it comes to sharing your point of view and practices. Be open to going to temple with them when you can and participate in the rituals at home. Ask them what their objections are to your interests and try to have a meaningful dialog. Speak about the similarities in traditions and how the differences are transforming you. This could lead to some lively discussions. If the conversations erupt into arguments and emotional outbursts, try to get to the deeper, personal issues being raised. If they stay present to your side of the story, they will be challenged to expand their thinking and beliefs to incorporate yours.
When a person acknowledges the benefits and drawbacks of their own and another’s viewpoint, they are no longer polarized into mine and yours, us and them, insider and outsider. When we have to embrace opposites within our own home, it requires a deeper level of psychological and spiritual commitment and integration. This is the beginning of a more integral consciousness.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (415) 205-4666. www.wholenesstherapy