Letting go of holding my peace: Sarab Sodhi

Below are two of the seven essays awarded “honorable mentions.” Winners of the College essay contest were announced in October.

Sarab received a $200 scholarship for his honorable mention essay, plus a $50 “bonus” contributed by Dean and Dorea Schramm

A quotation I like: “All philosophy is questions that cannot be answered, while religion is only answers that may not be questioned.” As a philosophy student, I find that amusing and mirroring my own experiences.

Some 30 generations ago, one of my ancestors, fed up with Hinduism’s failings, decided to reform it into a new and “better” religion: Sikhism. He fed into the masses’ discontent with the immovable caste system, which condemned people to the strata of society they were born into, the archaic rituals and rites and the blatant hypocrisy of the priests. Some interpretations of Sikhism’s origins suggest it’s more of a philosophy than a religion. But over the centuries, it changed and is vastly different today.

Though I was insulated from religion by my nonreligious mother, I was exposed to it somewhat. At a gathering of my extended family when I was 10, I watched the ceremony and asked my uncle what was happening. He explained that the priest was “waking up” the book (the Guru Granth Sahib) for the morning, then he put the book on his head to prevent it from being polluted when it touched the ground while changing the sheets upon which it lay, and so forth.

Now I was beyond confused. I asked him why a book would need to be awakened and why the Earth would pollute it? He glared at me. I leaned over another relative to ask my grandmother, who snapped at me to be quiet. I held my peace. Later, in private, I asked her why she was acting like I did something wrong. She said I had disrespected God. In utter confusion, I said I was just talking about the book! That earned me a slap across the face with the words, “That is God!”

My maternal grandfather was more of a debater than a dictator. He laughed when I asked about “waking up” a book and said that every religion contains more dogma and less philosophy as time goes by. He had me read the Old and New Testaments and English translations of the Koran, Bhagavad Gita and Guru Granth Sahib. As I studied them, they fascinated me, as if they were Harry Potter books or The Lord of the Rings. I wondered if a child were to read The Lord of the Rings without any idea of the truth or the fiction behind it, would he or she begin to believe it were true?

Unlike the faithful, I used the “holy” books to learn from the mistakes and triumphs of people from ages past rather than the “true” word of a supernatural being. After I finished reading all of these texts, my grandfather asked me what I had learned. I didn’t know what to say. I finally mumbled something about them teaching me ethics. He smiled and spoke about how the Guru Granth Sahib gave the exact way one should live their life and what code to live by. I didn’t quite agree, but again, I held my peace.

I held my peace all those years because I didn’t have the answer, but I searched for answers in the vast literature of the world. I read books spanning disciplines, from Ayn Rand to Harold Lamb, a biographer of Genghis Kahn. I found a glimpse of my answer in existentialists like Nietzsche, where I found portions of what I believed. I realized it meant that God could not exist.

This connection became much clearer when I chanced upon the works of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others. One day, my grandfather happened to see Dawkins’ The God Delusion on my bedside. He said nothing but smiled sadly.

Three years ago, I came to the U.S. for college. As my mother, sister and I were being dropped off by a cab driver, he asked if he could talk to us about Jesus Christ. I didn’t hold my peace. I told him, very politely, that I didn’t think it was appropriate. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I’d thought I’d left the crusading missionaries back home.

In college I was incapable of holding my peace. Anyone who broached religion got a lot more than they bargained for with me, especially after I added philosophy to my major and began Descartes, Aristotle, Plato, Nietzsche, Mill and Sartre.

I confess that I don’t know for what purpose we exist (or if purpose exists), what good and evil are, what truth is, why people are happy, etc. Nor do I claim that my answers and reasons are right for everyone. They’re right for me, here and now. I choose to live my life the best way I see fit.

Though I have been dragged often to the waters of religion, I refuse to drink like the rest of the herd.

Sarab Sodhi, a native of India, is a senior at Albright College in Reading, Pa., where he’s majoring in biochemistry and philosophy. He recently applied to medical school.

Freedom From Religion Foundation