Imagine my world for a minute. I am an American, born and raised in the Midwest, in the midst of the Bible belt. Christian churches were abundant, and I attended nearly every service. I grew up in the middle of everything wholesome that you associate with Americana—the national flag, American food, and American ideals that had seeped into families over generations. Growing up in Indianapolis, I did not know about India, other than its location. Maybe I colored it in with a red crayon for a geography class when we studied the map; I cannot recall. This world was an enigma to me through my childhood years until I met Meera.
At thirteen, Meera was the new student at my school. We hit it off immediately with our big glasses and even bigger hair. We joined every studious club we could find: Speech Team, Model United Nations, and Drama Club; we even ran our own political party the year of the presidential election. She was on the fast track to becoming a doctor, something she professed to know at a very young age. I was still searching for answers of what to do and where to go. Generally, she led and I followed behind the scenes. It suited our personalities well, and soon we became the best of friends.
Meera wanted so much to be a part of my world, just as much as I was enamored with everything in hers. Her family took me in as one of their own, and attempted to introduce to me all that was “Indian.” I attended parties, religious ceremonies, birthdays, and engagements.
Sometimes I would borrow clothes and jewelry, thus beginning my love affair with bangles. I caught glimpses of Bollywood movies, danced to the music, and smelled the spicy aromas from her mother’s kitchen while we studied together after school.
Glimpses of India from my high school years instilled within me the desire to find out more.
After graduation, Meera and I both went away to college and lost touch over time. I lost my “Indian” connection, but I would frequent the local Indian restaurant as often as possible. Yoga and other now mainstream ideas had not yet reached the Midwest. I wanted and needed more.
I took every religious and Asian class I could find during college, but nothing satiated my desire.Several years later, I found myself in San Francisco.
Once in the Bay Area, I immersed myself into everything and anything I could get my hands on related to India. I attended cooking classes, Hindi classes, and rented Bollywood movies from the local grocery store. Even the library had books and movies to borrow. I began to attend yoga classes regularly, and was introduced to meditation from there. Each step led me further down the path to discovering India, and the habits from my American upbringing seemed to fade away.
Meditation classes brought me to Mata Amritanandamayi’s ashram in Castro Valley, where I learned mantras and participated in more elaborate rituals and festivals. The calming effects of the mantras combined with meditation and yoga led me back to its sister study, ayurveda, and ultimately Hinduism. I began to study with David Frawley, another American who was years ahead of me but following a somewhat similar path.
I reflected on these events, as I got ready to celebrate Navratri, the festival of Ma Durga in October of last year. Apparently, there are just as many names for the festival as there are ways to celebrate. I researched the significance of the festival—who is Ma Durga, what is the significance of worshipping her with so much pomp and vigor; the questions raised in my mind were endless. One day, I was working in the Livermore temple when someone stopped and asked me whether the idols had been brought from Kolkata. I looked at him blankly, and realized that I had no idea. The rituals, the foods, the timings —everything had a significance that I did not fully grasp. Even after all these years, there was really so much left to learn.
Meera’s friendship opened a new world of discovery and I have never escaped my childhood aspirations to figure out India. Even as I have studied Hinduism, ayurveda, and yoga, I still feel at a loss. What defines Hinduism and India is a subject so vast that, I realize, I may spend a lifetime going after this knowledge and still find myself just as lost as when I started. One thing I do know—I will not stop this quest. Even though my mind is filled with endless questions, I am sure of one thing. God is the same everywhere and people choose to worship in their own style and in their own way. I have found the Hindu religion the most open and accepting of all, and many have opened their hearts, homes, and minds to help me in my journey. As I continue this journey, I fully realize that I cannot claim to be Indian or Hindu in name, but my heart surely is.
As I celebrated Navratri with the words Jaya Jagatambe he Ma Durga in my heart, I worshipped Durga as a form of the Mother of the Universe, Devi. Mahadevi, Shakti, Prakriti, Maya—there are indeed countless names and forms representative of the Divine Mother. I believe that we should nurture, adore, and praise Her for all that she is. Even as I celebrated a festival dedicated to the Divine Mother, I wondered about Meera’s mother who had started me on this journey. I only wished that Meera and her mother were with me as I celebrated.
Amy Bowles lives and works in the SF Bay Area in Financial Planning. In 2006 she received an Ayurvedic Health Educator certification from the American Institute of Vedic Studies.