It was my first interfaith meeting in college that sparked my passion for interfaith cooperation. At this meeting, we stood in two concentric circles and discussed our lives, interests, personal beliefs, and greater worldviews with strangers. My cultural identity as a Hindu American with agnostic views influenced my conversations in this setting. Even though I grew up in a smaller Midwestern town with limited religious diversity, it was not difficult for me to grasp the many perspectives I heard that day. Hinduism, itself, is composed of a variety of religious and philosophical beliefs, and one of the main tenets states that all paths can lead one to enlightenment; therefore, having these conversations about different religious worldviews seemed second nature to me.
Over the course of that event, every stranger quickly turned into a friendly face. It is incredible to see how quickly friendships are created when two people are encouraged to respectfully discuss their ideologically different beliefs and find common values. After this first interfaith experience, I went on lead several interfaith initiatives throughout the course of my undergraduate career. All of these individuals that I had the opportunity to work with would go on to become my closest friends, which only made my interfaith experience more meaningful. When the media would flood me with news on religious disputes across the world, it only motivated me further to advocate for interfaith cooperation.
One of my favorite traditions during college was attending my friends’ religious ceremonies and cultural festivals as a way to learn about their worldviews. I precisely recall participating in a fasting event put on by the Muslim student group on our campus. They encouraged all students to fast for the day, and then break their fast together at an evening event. Initially, I had not grasped the depth to fasting. I knew fasting allowed Muslims to control their physical appetites; however, I had learned how fasting can also be used to advocate for social justice. When Muslims fast, they experience the feelings of hunger and thirst. This increases sympathy towards those who do not have much to eat on a daily basis; therefore, the campus event collected money to be donated toward an international hunger relief organization. I appreciated how the spiritual act of fasting could be utilized to combat world hunger.
In addition to fasting, Ramadan fosters a sense of community. When Muslims are participating in Ramadan, they are observing this holiday with other Muslims across different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and other backgrounds. I appreciated that the Muslim student group also invited non-Muslims to participate in their religious holiday, because it gave us an accurate portrayal of what Ramadan looks like.
I recognize how important it is to accurately portray religious experiences to communities who may not be educated on religious diversity. Education is an essential tool in today’s multi-religious world. Many media sources spread inaccurate information regarding religion and other social concerns. With this perpetual cycle of misinformation, certain groups become stigmatized, tensions among cultural groups arise, and the health and well-being of these groups decline.
Due to these experiences with interfaith activism and my interest in promoting healthy societies, I am pursuing my graduate degree in public health at Yale University to study how the media and other sources of education can be leveraged to benefit the health and well-being of communities. By collaborating with media sources, I believe that communities, who lack access to formalized and accurate education, can be educated, and the health and well-being of individuals can also be positively impacted. Therefore, I am grateful for my college experiences with interfaith activism, which exposed me to multiple worldviews. It has opened my eyes to an underserved area of public health promotion, which can truly shape the health and well-being of cultural groups on a population level.
Suraj Arshanapally’s reflection comes to the Parliament of the World’s Religions as part of the 2017 Interfaith Ramadan series, empowering interfaith allies, Muslim and those of other spiritual and religious backgrounds from around the world, to share their stories of service, community and gratitude during the month of Ramadan. Please contact the Parliament at info@ParliamentOfReligions.org, or tag us at #RamadanPoWR to share your own story.
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