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Sunday, June 11, 2023

How I became a Hindu/Sanatani – Part 1

Mary Suresh Iyer,  a Christian by birth,  shares her personal journey of why she  embraced  Hindu Dharma and  is today a sanatani.  In a two-part series, the eloquent and elegant Mary Suresh Iyer also highlights the perils of Christian evangelism and the stranglehold it exerts on those in its fold

Mary Suresh Iyer is Human Resources professional with over 20 years of  experience in teaching in the US. Author of over seven  text books in Math, Chemistry and English,  she runs a coaching centre for college entrance exams, and  two non-denominational childcare centres in  Houston, Dallas, USA, where she currently lives. Mary is a member of Indian History Awareness and Research (IHAR) which contributes to developing data-based history narratives that  people  of Bharataiya origin can be proud of. Mary has recently re-built a Grama Devata temple in her ancestral village in Andhra Pradesh. This temple had been in ruins because of  lack of patronage by Hindu Dharma followers who got converted to Christianity in large numbers in the past 20 years.

Other interviews with Mary Suresh Iyer can be viewed here, here and here.

Q. You talk  a lot about your Sunday church experiences in your growing up years in a small town in Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh. How did this Sunday school theology impact and influence your beliefs as a practising Christian?   

A: The Sunday School attached to Christian churches, which all Christian children have to compulsorily attend,  is  a loose setting.  The people who  teach here are not qualified teachers of  Christian theology. They have no  formal training in theology  or skills of interpretation.  The Sunday school is basically a reflection of the wider Christian belief system such as idolatry (idol worship) is heretical (idols represent Satan). These seeds are planted early in impressionable minds of the children. Thus, this moulds the thinking patterns of Christian children from a very early age. There is no scrutiny or counter checks to what is being propagated or evaluating what is being taught.

Children at that age are most vulnerable. For example, if a Sunday school teacher  instructs the children, “Don’t have Hindu friends! Don’t eat prasdam! The Devil will  get you!”  How do the children operate in the world once they are out of the Sunday school?  Every Christian child (including me)  is subject to such injunctions.

However, the situation at home may be very different (where such injunctions were not followed) as was in our family who were Hindus who had converted to Christianity.  Thus, the setting was ripe for conflicts  because of what was peddled in the Sunday school, while the home was not yet completely Christianised.  So, what happens is that children think their mother is not good enough because  their role model is this idiot from the church whom the children want to please!

Mary Suresh Iyer (Source: YouTube)

Q. Your father, an engineer from a well to do Hindu family in Andhra, converted to Christianity. What do you think could have been the compulsions and how did his decision impact the immediate family and the  extended  family?    

A: My father‘s family was a wealthy land owning family in  Jaggaiapet town in Krishna district that borders present day Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The East coast of Andhra, notably Krishna, Prakasam and Guntur districts had come under the heavy influence of Christianity ever since the British period. For instance, Ongole was a bastion for the Baptist church. However, it did not percolate down as these districts were not a fertile belt.  On the contrary,  Christian missionaries infiltrated agriculturally productive areas. Hence these areas escaped the first wave of Christianity that came along with the British.

However, people who converted to Christianity in these regions began to get educated in their systems as school  teachers and Bible teachers.  Although these Christian converts were economically below families like ours, they certainly had considerable exposure to structured British education such as knowledge of English, knowledge of the Bible and whatever was considered “cool” in those days!

Hence when my father shifted to Hyderabad for his higher education, he found himself disadvantaged  vis a vis the other students, many of whom were Christians,  elitist  and from an urban background. To make matters worse, my father went through a  personal turmoil because his friend died of suicide.

Amidst such isolation and loneliness, he came under the influence of Christian missionaries who took him under their wings, and also inculcated him into paths that promised upward mobility such as knowledge of English and career prospects More importantly, they also offered a space when he felt he “belonged” in a city that was already alien and unfamiliar to him.  Soon, he was converted to Christianity; a brand of evangelical Christianity known as Layman’s Evangelical Fellowship. My grandparents had no clue as to what was happening.

Meanwhile, my father returned after completing his graduation and his initiation into evangelical Christianity was also complete.  He soon began to question several aspects of the family traditions and religion from an evangelical Christian perspective. My grandparents were overawed by their educated son who was also obedient and caring. I don’t think they were psychologically sophisticated to counter his religious arguments. Meanwhile my father also  landed a good job and was helpful in enabling the education of several of his relatives.

Since my father was  in a position  of  power to help people, they listened to  what he had to say about Christianity because they needed his support.  Thus, over time, he converted his entire immediate family. It was an  almost  unsaid  rule that if you needed his help, you also had to attend Church! Gradually, my grandparents too gave up their Hindu identity and converted to Christianity because my charismatic  father could manipulate them by refusing to participate in family functions such as the weddings of his siblings if Hindu traditions were being followed!  Gradually, my father became deeply entrenched in evangelical Christianity that also enveloped my mother, a Hindu, into its fold as she did not have the  support of the eco system in Hyderabad to pursue her path.

Besides, my father was a kind man who treated her well and was an excellent provider. What reason did she have to complain except his devotion to his religion?  Even if she were to tell her parents about  her husband’s insistence that she follow Christianity, the resistance  was normalised. I suppose the absence of resistance is so part of Hindu Dharma: How does it matter which path you follow?

Q. What was the Abrahamic  narrative being peddled  and how did it colour your attitudes towards non-Christians, especially , followers of Hindu dharma?    

A: Yes, it did influence me  and many others hugely! Every Sunday morning, we were brainwashed to regard Hindus as demons . However, until yesterday they were your  close friends and you did not regard them any differently! But after the’ teaching’, you  tended to view them differently! They are ‘different’ from you in a  bad way!  However, their attitude towards  us had not changed.

In Christianity, there are  certain value systems such as not lying or stealing.  These values are rooted in you from a very young age. It is not so much about not stealing or lying because it is the right thing to do, as it is about fear of punishment or landing and roasting  in hell!  So even as children, we had that moral superiority over others.  And if you see a non-Christian do such things, it becomes so convenient to hark back to the prophecy of the Sunday teacher who highlighted  the sins of commission of the  others!  So, you create this animosity in your own mind and you caricature the ‘others’ as defective  or moralistically flawed. This is a confirmation of the Sunday school framework.

Q. Ironically, you found solace and support in Savitha, your close friend  at college, who died tragically in an  accident. Can you tell us something about your deep and abiding friendship with Savitha and how after her death, you married her brother?  

A: Until Class 10, I never thought about the big picture. I never asked any big questions.  However, before my under graduation, I began to experience the first stirrings of disconnect. When you are  a part of an evangelical Christian church, it’s  just not about going to church every week!  You also start living in Christian bubbles or locality or areas that are  exclusively meant for Christian families.  In course of time, you are isolated from mainstream society and begin to lead a ghettoised life and lifestyle.

However, we were forced to vacate our house and the  unanticipated move  resulted in our moving to a locality that had several Hindu families as our  neighbours. I was 14 or 15 years old and found myself exposed to a Hindu eco system—slokas, pujas, bhajans, yoga, meditation… the ambience was so different! This was my first exposure to the subtle and finer aspects of Hindu Dharma. This world, which was completely  shunned and shut away from us, suddenly came alive for me, as for us even watching TV was banned at home!

I interacted with our Hindu neighbours. I listened to their stories from the Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata  and  absorbed like a sponge.  However, many of the Hindu families  shifted elsewhere and for a while I lost the connect. However, in my undergraduate course , I picked up from where I had left off! Savitha was my classmate and I began to explore Hindu Dharma issues with her. She was articulate and began to offer me rich and diverse perspectives on Hindu Dharma  that  I resonated with.

Savitha was a friend of the family and my parents were very fond of her. Whenever she came to stay with us, she would innocently ask my father, “Uncle! Why don’t you let Mary visit temples!?” My parents camouflaged their responses to her question and provided a ‘different’ version. This was in direct contrast to their warnings to me not to visit Hindu temples because  ‘they  are devils’!

Savitha was bold and even confronted the church pastor’s daughter who was in the same college about ‘brainwashing’ me against Hindus! Savitha was thus a voice board to my gnawing concerns about religion.  I also acquired the ability to see the different perspectives of Christianity and Hindu Dharma. In Christianity, notions of  right and wrong are  deeply ingrained in us. Whereas, Savitha helped me see that in Hindu Dharma, notions of right and wrong are conscious choices and circumstantial… there was no rule book  that warned  if you break the rules, you’d land in hell!

Our families were close. So, I knew  Suresh (whom I later married)  as Savitha’s brother.  There is an intellectual side of me that never found an opportunity  to express itself in the Christian circle I belonged. Intellectually  stimulating conversations were impossible in those spaces!

Savitha died tragically in an accident. When I came to condole Suresh,  something clicked. We were bonded by a common loss and six to seven months later, we were married.

(To be continued)

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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