Faith and deliberation

A Hindu family finds Georgia fertile ground for spiritual growth / Paige P. Parvin 96G

When the Mruthinti family visited their many relatives in India a few years ago, Shyamala Mruthinti, the mother of three daughters, wanted her children to appear appropriate and respectful of her homeland. She insisted that they pack only traditional Indian clothes, the tunic-like dresses worn over loose pants.

“I said, ‘No Western clothing,’ ” she recalls, sitting on her living-room couch in Augusta one summer Saturday afternoon. “You will take only punjabi dresses.”

When they arrived, her three pretty, stylish teenage daughters—all Emory students—were more than a little put out to find their Indian-born cousins wearing low-slung jeans and fitted T-shirts, the type of clothing you’d find at Lenox Mall.

The scene might have been a little embarrassing for Harshita Mruthinti 04C 11PhD, Navyata 06C 07MPH, and Namrata 08C, but it also was somewhat typical of their upbringing. Their parents, who immigrated to the United States in 1986 with their two older daughters—their third was born here—are deeply committed to raising their children in the Hindu tradition. Surrounded by McDonald’s restaurants and Baptist churches in south Georgia, they are obliged to approach their faith in a more thoughtful, deliberate way than their family in India because it is not part of the cultural fabric here; they must create their practices themselves. The concentrated effort the Mruthintis have made to incorporate their Hindu spirituality into their lives, they say, has served to strengthen their faith, both individually and as a family.

Mruthinti family
The Mruthinti family found that by learning and practicing the Hindu faith together, they built a strong foundation for their three daughters, all of whom continued to explore the religion at Emory. From left: Shyamala, Swamy, Harshita, Namrata, and Navyata.

“Back in India, you grow up with religion as part of life,” Shyamala says. “People say they actually become more religious here because they have to make such a special effort.”

Both Swamy and Shyamala Mruthinti have PhDs from Indian universities, Swamy in biochemistry and Shyamala in immunology. Swamy is a professor at West Georgia College, while Shyamala is researching Alzheimer’s disease at the Medical College of Georgia. After twenty years in the U.S., they still recall the dramatic culture shock they felt when they first came. The language, clothing styles, social norms, and particularly American food all were challenging to get used to; but they did find a supportive community in Augusta’s Hindu Temple, where they have been “active since day one,” Swamy says.

With a membership of more than five hundred, the temple serves as a central force for the Mruthintis, the place where they celebrate Hindu festivals and holidays. The three daughters attended Balshela, the children’s program, and once a month the entire community gathers for a service.

In India, Hindu traditions are so much a part of day-to-day social life that the Mruthintis’ cousins do not visit non-Hindu homes. It’s the philosophical foundation for the way they cook, dance, socialize, and observe milestones. By contrast, Navyata was the only Indian and Hindu student in her class at her Augusta high school.

“The way I practice my religion is very different from the way my cousins practice,” Navyata says. “We are more focused on the philosophy and the spiritual part than the rituals. My cousins know how to conduct prayer services and all the rituals, but they do it without thought. When my Christian friends ask, ‘Why are you doing that?’ it makes me actually think about it.”

Navyata’s parents acknowledge that some “watering down” of the religious experience is bound to take place, but they have tried to preserve the authenticity and cultivate their children’s natural curiosity about Hinduism.

“The children had a lot of questions when they were growing up, just as I asked my mother a lot of questions,” Shyamala says. “We took responsibility for imparting the knowledge and making them comfortable with their religion. They were interested in learning. They have not blind faith, but knowledge.”

Hinduism is considered to be the world’s oldest religion and the third largest, with more than a billion followers, some 890 million in India. The faith places responsibility on the individual to seek a personal connection with God, or Brahman, the cosmic spirit and infinite principle worshiped in many different forms. Each morning, says Shyamala, the Mruthintis get up, shower, and then go into a special prayer room, a puja room. The tiny room (a former closet) is crowded with pictures, statues of the deities, and colorful pillows. Before praying, they raise a lighted oil lamp to the deity, symbolic of knowledge and purity. In the evenings, they offer food to God before eating.

When the family began visiting colleges, says Swamy, they paid close attention to the indicators of diversity at each school and were impressed with Emory’s religious-life programs.

“We felt that we would be comfortable with Emory,” he says. “But I was amazed at the way they actually kept up with their spiritual life. I talk to my friends about their kids at college, and the tendency is not to do that. I was pleasantly surprised that the campus life actually encouraged religious practice.”

All three Mruthinti daughters belonged to the Hindu Students Council (HSC), a group devoted to the exploration and practice of Hinduism, which lent structure to their religious experience. They learned about differences in Hindu customs and how to find common ground with other Hindu students. Although the focus of the organization is on education more than practice, Navyata says she was surprised by how much she learned and was able to incorporate some practices like those she was accustomed to at home.

“The question when you go away to college is, do you practice religion like when you are at home with your parents? Do you practice only at temple? Or can you incorporate it into everyday life? The texts are in a foreign language, and it’s intimidating to a lot of kids. The HSC is mostly social and cultural, and when we have services, we’re not sure whether it’s completely traditional or authentic. But it has allowed me to learn a lot more about Hinduism.”

Navyata and Harshita also served on the board of the Inter-Religious Council, which exposed them to many other faiths. Navyata particularly remembers an organized discussion between Hindu and Muslim women.

“Having the opportunity to communicate with Muslim students and hear their opinions was incredible for me,” she says. “If you ever wanted to learn more about another faith, the environment is such that you can ask anything. I thought it might be uncomfortable, but you get over it.”

Her dad adds, “This kind of dialogue would not easily happen in India. But when you come here, the differences we have been fighting about look pretty silly.”

This summer, Harshita spent eight weeks in India, learning the language and studying Indian classical dance. She is earning her PhD in religion at Emory with a focus on the divine feminine in Hinduism. Navyata has started the master’s program at the Rollins School of Public Health, while Namrata, a junior this year, is majoring in visual arts and art history.

“I like that they can choose their path of interest here,” says Shyamala. “In India this is dictated mainly by parents and economics. They would have become doctors or engineers.”

“I was looking for three doctors,” their father adds, laughing, with obvious pride. “But our children are broadening our outlook as well.”



 © 2006 Emory University