Undergraduate Odyssey: Searching for God at Brown

Christianity means that “you cannot like money” and that “your parents and the rest of your family are going to hell.” One of my best friends, a Southern Baptist trying to convert the world, informed me of these facts almost nine years ago. Kent’s statements made me angry and a bit incredulous, but they did propel me to investigate my own Hindu faith and to obtain my first copy of the Gita.

Although I was only 12 years old at the time, I had already developed a regular form of religious worship. I usually attended Sunday religious services (called pooja) with my parents in the homes of other Indian families. I also performed my nightly prayers in front of our miniature altar with extreme regularity. Even if I was half asleep, I always managed to spend a few minutes in prayer. Although these prayers consisted mainly of requests and broken promises (I always seemed to be trading good behavior for toys and other favors), my faith was a source of comfort for me. Prompted by Kent’s harsh words, I finally began looking for an intellectual foundation for my faith and started questioning my parents.

My attention was soon diverted by the excitement of entering high school and meeting new friends. Although Kent had made me feel slightly uncomfortable, the feeling was not enough to sustain an in-depth inquiry into religion. Much more interesting to me at the time was the attraction of money; I was soon spending most of my time working odd jobs and trying to plan schemes to start me on the road to wealth. Despite my youth, I managed to start a local computer newsletter, a candy retail business, and a mail order software company. I even lured Kent with promises of profits and excitement and made him a partner in many of the ventures. Some were more successful than others, but all were very time-consuming and fun. Elected “Most Likely To Succeed” by my high school peers, I envisioned the ideal life as one involving a successful career accompanied by a high salary. The loving and supportive family would be a nice extra touch.

Although Kent continued to claim that he would be happy living in a small house with a Christian wife, I dismissed such talk as self-deluding. It always seemed that people without money were the only ones claiming that being rich was a sin. I had yet to see a single rich person suddenly renounce his wealth to lead a happy life. My idol was my grandfather; as a child, I thought he was perfect. A successful banker, my grandfather was also a great athlete and loving man. He would always spoil me with the most expensive desserts and then would carry me on his back as he jogged. My grandfather never had any problems with having money, and neither did I.

My grandfather’s death was thus a very startling and sad event in my life. I had never lost anyone I loved before, and I was not quite sure how to react. I was even more confused by my mother’s feelings. Although she loved her father, she had never known him that well. In order to succeed in the banking business, he had to visit branches across the country and was seldom home. Although my mother was upset at the loss, she had much deeper feelings for her mother.

I was quite shocked to hear this about my dear grandfather from his own daughter. After seeing the bulk of his estate go to the government, I began to wonder what exactly my grandfather had accomplished in his life. Although he had shown me nothing but love and kindness, this was a side of the man that even his own children had rarely seen. His own family barely remembered him, and his hard-earned money ended up in the pockets of strangers. Shocked and scared that my own life would end in such obscurity, I began asking deep questions about the meaning of life and resumed my investigation into religion.

I still remember Christmas morning when Kent showed up at my doorstep. It was an annual custom for us to exchange gifts, and I was expecting the best. Given Kent’s good taste, I was hoping for a recent tape or a nice — meaning expensive — shirt. Probably as disappointed as any child who has received underwear for Christmas, I was dismayed to find that Kent had bought me a Bible. I suppressed my first instinct to throw away the book and remembered that it was a religious text. Even more importantly, Kent had appealed to my vanity and had my name inscribed on the cover. I could hardly discard any book with my own name on the front in gold lettering. Thus, I hid the Bible from my parents and never even opened it.

Instead, I turned to the Gita and other Vedic texts and renewed my interest in the Hindu faith. Although I found the stories fascinating and the writing magnificent, I was uncomfortable with the fact that Krishna convinced a reluctant Arjuna to enter a war to gain his rightful vengeance. My God had always been a God of love and peace, not an advocate of violence. Yet this feeling was not enough for me to accept or reject an entire faith. I wanted to examine Hinduism on its own merits and doctrines.

The main tenets of the Hindu faith appeared to rest on two basic beliefs. The first was that all souls must progressively earn their way into nirvana through good deeds. Since this is not usually accomplished in one lifetime, souls are given infinite chances and are continually reincarnated into different forms of life until they succeed. If one is born into miserable circumstances, this is probably due to the bad choices made during a previous life. Since the souls are not limited to human bodies, the very worst souls are incorporated into differing levels of animal life. The second basic tenet is that all religions are equally valid and are merely different paths to the same God.

Although I found the first tenet’s advocacy of infinite chances appealing, I could not accept the logical conclusions of the first teaching. The claim that a human soul may be reincarnated into any form of animal life necessarily leads to a vegetarian lifestyle to avoid murder. Although I was accustomed to a meatless diet, I could not imagine any way of life that did not involve killing insects and other smaller animals. I also wondered if animals had enough free will to make the necessary choices between good and evil; I had always believed they acted according to instinct. Was morality involved when a spider traps a fly? Were animals justified in killing other animals, or are all predators automatically condemned? Where did microscopic organisms fit into this view of the world? The only natural conclusion seemed to be the extreme asceticism of the Jain sect, which attempts to preserve all life. The sect advocates wearing minimal clothing and brushing the ground before one walks to avoid crushing small animals. This hardly seemed practical in the modern world and was certainly not practiced by many Hindus.

The second teaching that all religions lead to the same God was also quite appealing, but led to strange conclusions. If it was true that all religions are equally valid, then one lost the right to criticize any set of religious beliefs. This would include cults and other extreme groups. Assuming that two directly contradictory statements cannot simultaneously be true, this belief led to the conclusion that God is not concerned with having his followers believe in truth. It was sincerity, and not content, that mattered when worshipping God. Yet I had experienced a long-term and sincere prayer life and nonetheless felt a certain void in my religious faith. I was searching for an objective true faith that would lead me to God. However, I was beginning to doubt that this existed and may have been ready to accept some of the “philosophies,” if not religious beliefs, associated with Hinduism.

I might never have investigated further if it had not been for a high school dance. While I was waiting to dance with a girl I had admired for quite some time, another young lady approached me. I saw no harm in dancing while I was waiting for my dream date, and before I knew it we had danced a good part of the night away. Kathy and I finally left the dance and began looking for our friends. When we could not find anybody, we went to the top floor of the hotel where the dance was held. We alternately talked about serious issues and threw quarters (we ran out of pennies) into the fountain 25 stories below. Within an hour, I knew everything about her brothers, her Girl Scout troop, and her grandparents.

Somehow we began talking about our plans for the future. Since I attended a public high school filled with gifted students, I was not surprised to hear her dream of becoming a Supreme Court Justice. But I was astonished to hear that her only reason for this dream was so that she could stop the country from “killing babies.” While she could not reply to any one of my arguments for abortion, I could not help but be amazed by her genuine compassion and innocence. Although she did not have Kent’s logic and force, Kathy’s explanation of her Christian faith was filled with simplicity and love. She did not think God would punish my parents and others who did not know Christ, but was not exactly sure why not. Although I am hardly the type of person to make important decisions based on emotion alone, Kathy’s sincere convictions showed me an aspect of Christianity I had never encountered before.

I finally opened the Bible Kent had given me and started reading random pages. Starting from the beginning, I first encountered Old Testament stories. I recognized many from my childhood, such as the story of the Tower of Babel, and was surprised to find them in the Bible. I had always assumed they were from Aesop’s fables. Although entertained, I was hardly touched, and moved on to the New Testament. I cannot begin to describe the feelings I had when I first read some of the texts. The story about the rich man trying to enter heaven definitely struck home, and I saw myself in many of the parables. It was almost as if the New Testament had been written especially for me. Although I had prayed for many years, I cannot remember receiving any responses. For the first time in my life, I felt as if something was actually communicating with me. Still, I tried to remain skeptical and dismissed the feelings.

I was finally interested enough to attend a nondenominational church with Kent. During the entire sermon, I remained in awestruck silence. I was completely amazed by the service. Kent was very eager to talk with me as we left the church. He was very disappointed, though, and a little angry to learn that I had been overwhelmed by the preacher’s speaking style and had not heard a word he said. From his gestures to his loud voice, the preacher swept me away with his energy and force. But despite his excellent salesmanship, the preacher’s spiritual message left me unconvinced.

Disappointed at my first experience in a Christian church, I decided to try again and accompanied Kathy to a Catholic Mass. I have to admit that I was partly motivated by a desire to spend more time with her, but she promptly left me alone to go sing in the choir. I was very confused by the service and was always sitting when I should have been standing. None of the readings made any sense, and the priest was a much less animated speaker than the preacher. Before I knew it, some man was kissing the woman next to him in a “sign of peace.” I knew I was not about to let him kiss me and was relieved when he merely offered his hand. I had been very careful not to accept communion at either church or to participate actively in their prayers. I was still an observer, not a believer.

I read every book I could find on Christianity. I read apologetics, commentaries, and the entire Bible itself. I finally reached the conclusion that history could provide sufficient evidence to verify the claims that the Bible had remained unaltered throughout time and that circumstances surrounding Christ’s death led to the conversions of thousands. I read arguments concerning the integrity of the apostles, the reaction of the Roman leaders, and the passion of the early believers. Although I was beginning to believe that history did lend credence to the claims of Christianity, my perspective remained intellectual and not spiritual.

I had definitely come to a crossroads in my investigation of Christianity. The decision of whether to continue looking or to be satisfied with what I learned was made easier by a church musical featuring Kent that I attended.

In the middle of the performance, a short black and white film was shown. The movie was very crude and poorly made; its depiction of the crucifixion was much worse than many similar films, but something about the movie hit me very hard. For the first time, I actually began to imagine what it meant for the Son of God to be humiliated and even killed for my sake. Although the movie did not convince me anything was true, it did force me to wonder what if Kent and Kathy were right. I realized that if the Gospel stories were true, it was very arrogant of me to reject Christ. If Christ really was the Son of God, who was I to question Him about who received the gift of salvation? If Christ really was the Son of God, could any amount of money ever buy his favor?

A youth pastor then gave a short sermon describing what becoming a Christian involved. For the first time, I heard a very simple and straightforward message. Gone were the elaborate rituals and rules; instead, simple prayer and worship were offered. I immediately contacted Todd and he began to meet with me regularly to discuss Christ and the Scriptures. Christ was the only person who had ever confronted me with my shortcomings and still loved me! I had either faced people who praised me for my outer appearances or a Hindu faith that demanded I continue trying until I achieve perfection. Instead of me reaching up to God, God was reaching down to lift me up.

I was finally ready to make that leap of faith and excitedly asked Todd what I should do. His answer was simple and effective; I merely prayed and accepted Christ into my life. Two questions had been troubling and frustrating me; I had often prayed for the answers. I feared that I would spend my entire life searching for answers that did not exist. The first, “Who is God?”, had just been answered. The second, “How do I worship God?”, remained a mystery.

Although Todd had attempted to be objective, he could not help but agree with me when I denounced Catholicism for its rituals and traditions. Due to my parents disapproval of my new faith, I had no access to a church and thus took Scripture as the only source of faith. I became a strict fundamentalist/literalist and pondered such questions as if Christians, who were commanded not to judge others or sue their brothers, could serve in the legal profession. I spent an entire summer working with a Southern Baptist preacher and exchanged stories with him concerning the ignorance of the Catholics we had met. He had succeeded in converting his wife into a Baptist and was now working on her Catholic family. I read books, supposedly forbidden by the Catholic Church, that detailed the corruption and immorality of the Church. I soon armed myself with memorized Bible passages and began challenging Kathy and her faith.

Eventually, the same Bible that led me to condemn Catholicism also led me to question my new-found fundamentalism. The same Scriptures that warned me not to call others father, not to become legalistic, and not to worship man also spoke of authority granted by God, of eating the body of Christ, and of the healing powers of oil. I began wondering, if Catholicism was so obviously wrong, how did it persist as the only universal religion over such a long period of time? I also began wondering what had happened in the very first centuries after Christ’s death. My own readings of the Bible had led me to very different and often contradicting conclusions, depending on the day and my mood. I needed help interpreting the passages, and the confusing array of biblical commentaries were little help. I began envying Kathy for her innocent, although occasionally simplistic, faith.

I began approaching, more often challenging, Catholic laymen and clergy. I wanted answers to my scriptural objections to Catholicism; I figured either I should leave the meeting Catholic or they should leave the meeting Protestant. My first meeting turned out to be a disaster; the local Catholic youth coordinator insisted on hugging me instead of arguing with me. He would merely state his position and did not care if I was convinced or not. He answered my last question about who could become pope by warning me that I would probably never make it. He was a very frustrating man.

My second meeting, with Kathy’s mother, proved to be a little more fruitful. Herself a convert, she understood my perspective and lent me many relevant books. I read everything from catechisms to Catholic dictionaries, entry by entry. I consulted both secular and religious histories and talked to local priests. After talking with me, her mother secretly told Kathy that she doubted I would ever become Catholic.

She affected me more deeply than she thought. In addition to being touched by her genuine love and desire to share her faith, I was amazed to have actually met a Catholic who was informed and had answers to some of my questions. I was still unsure if Catholics practiced idolatry, if Mary should be revered, or if the Eucharist was merely a symbol. But I was forced to conclude that Christ and His earliest followers had appointed successors. Along with the Apostles, these earliest successors formed the earliest hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The beliefs that I objected to did indeed originate in the first and second centuries. Confused about the intended meanings of various biblical passages, I had turned to history and learned that the very first believers, those closest to the original authors, agreed with the answers given by the modern Catholic Church.

The more I studied, the less I could any longer claim an intellectual objection against Catholicism. I was beginning to believe that Christ’s authority could be found in the Catholic Church and that this claim was supported by Scripture and history, the same sources I used to verify Christianity. My previous belief that the Catholic Church had become corrupted through the ages no longer seemed credible in light of Christ’s promises to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church and the earliest believers’ faith in the papacy. I could not find a single credible Protestant leader, including Martin Luther, who claimed a direct message from God to start a new church. Without such a message, I was not ready to reject the Church established by Christ through Peter and the earliest Christians.

Nonetheless, I had yet to experience the spiritual aspects of Catholicism. When I finally entered college and was able to attend church freely for the first time, I was tempted to attend the Protestant services, but Kathy made me promise her that I would attend Mass at least once a week. I never did make it to the Protestant services. Because of the novelty of church and my enthusiasm, I arrived at Masses quite early. During the beginning of the semester, one of the priests approached me and asked me to help him set up the altar and to read at Mass. Although I declined and told him that I was not Catholic, he insisted. Just lighting the altar candle changed the way I approached Catholicism and its many rituals. For the first time, I understood the beauty and potential spirituality of all the traditions and details of Mass. I was so excited about participating in Mass that I could hardly wait to call Kathy. She had never been convinced by my attacks on her faith and was now good enough not to say “I told you so.”

I studied Catholicism for another year and was finally baptized into the Church. It had now been seven years since Kent first approached me with Christianity. I still thank him and Todd for sharing their faith with me; I still maintain the love of Scripture that they taught me. Although I once needed Todd’s straightforward fundamentalism, I have finally found the answer to my second question in the complicated truth of Catholicism.


  • Bobby Jindal

    Piyush "Bobby" Jindal (1971) is an American politician and the 55th and current Governor of Louisiana. In 2012, he was named chairman of the Republican Governors Association. At the time he wrote this article, he was a senior at Brown University.

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