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Ahimsa, karma and justice: how religious values shape students’ lives

Illustrated by Yifei Zhang

By Ivanka Perez     11/12/19 9:38pm

If you search the word “church” on Google Maps, the results show at least 40 churches of various denominations within two miles of Rice. Coming from California, Snigdha Banda says she wasn’t used to seeing so many churches. 

“I think organized religion wasn’t something I was really exposed to,” Banda, a Wiess College senior, said. “[The churches made me] realize it’s a big part of the South and the geography here.”

Emma Siegel, a rabbi’s daughter from Chicago, says the large presence of Christian churches in Texas was a shock for her too. 

“I was taught in Jewish settings for my whole life, a lot of my perspectives are based [on] that experience,” Siegel, a Martel College junior, said. “So I think that coming to a school in Texas where you drive in and you see these huge churches, it was definitely an adjustment for me.”

When Ariana Engles came to Rice, she hadn’t expected the students to be involved in religious activities.

“As a prospective student, I had a host who told me … Rice [isn’t] religious,” Engles, a Lovett College senior, said. “I came to Rice and I was actually very surprised. I felt like there were a lot more people of faith here — and of every faith.”

Engles grew up Catholic, but found herself beginning to doubt her faith in high school. To figure out what her beliefs were, she began tagging along with her friends to their various religious activities — having weekly Shabbat dinners, going to Hindu temples and celebrating Muslim holidays.

“It was, for me, a very eye-opening experience into what other people felt,” Engles said. “There are so many beautiful faiths … and I have a great amount of respect for each and every single one.”

Given the presence of large-scale events like Evening of Elegance and the Christian group that hosts it, Chi Alpha, Christianity may seem to some like a dominant religion on campus. Banda says that after beginning to doubt her Hindu faith in high school, the presence of Christianity at Rice helped her learn about a faith she wasn’t familiar with. She began sitting in on a Bible study hosted by Michael McDowell, attended by Christians and non-Christians, which taught her about the similarities and differences between Hinduism and Christianity. One difference she noticed was how Hindus and Christians view the decision-making process. Based on her understanding, Christians often left the results up to God.

“For me, the options that I encounter in my life are in my control. Both good and bad options, the weight of that is on me, you know, and so I have to create the doors for myself and I have to walk through them,” Banda said. 

Saad Ehsan, a Baker College senior, says that his Muslim faith also teaches him to leave the results of his choices up to God.

“As a Muslim, part of my belief is that I am supposed to do my due diligence in whatever work that I do, but ultimately, [the] results are up to God,” Ehsan said. “I shouldn’t and I can’t really stress about something that happened to me if I put in the work, because that’s not in my control.”

One similarity that Banda noticed between Hinduism and Christianity is a shared emphasis on justice.

“I think in Hinduism, the one value that was very central to me was justice … this idea of karma and reincarnation,” Banda said.

Elizabeth Jowers, who is involved in Chi Alpha and Bible studies on campus, says justice is one of the main values she takes away from her Christian faith.

“I think that in order for us to be the kind of people that we’re supposed to be in the world, we have to have a robust conception of justice,” Jowers said. “That’s something that I see Jesus doing in his life — he really embodies this idea that the people who are on the outskirts of society or the fringes of society, people who have been pushed down and silenced, are worthy.”

Of all the teachings in Judaism, Siegel says she relates most to the emphasis on social justice. 

“I don’t really know necessarily if I believe in God, but Judaism places a lot of social justice values at their core and faith through action,” Siegel said. “I think that, for me, that’s sort of where I connect [to my faith].”

Banda says religions explore the different reasons why a person should act morally.

“I think Hinduism helped me understand that being a good person matters for the sake of being a good person,” Banda said. “[Especially] the idea of selflessness, doing good for other people.”

There was one other non-Christian student in Banda’s Bible study — Raj Dalal, one of a handful of Jains at Rice. 

According to Dalal, one major difference between religions is how they hold people accountable or encourage people to be kind.

“I think the way that these religions account for things may differ, but a lot of the values are similar and a lot of them kind of converge upon how you can be a good person and be a contributor to your larger community,” Dalal, a Wiess senior, said. “I think the accounting system in Jainism is karma, whereas the accounting system in Christianity or maybe another religion is a God looking down on you.”

Dalal estimates that there are only about four practicing Jains at Rice, and a few others who were born into the religion but are less involved. He says being part of a religious minority has posed challenges for him.

“We’re like a minority religion amongst minority religions,” Dalal said. “Growing up, I didn’t really know any Jains and I don’t think it was until high school, when I started actively seeking out the religion to learn more about it, that I found a community of Jains.”

Since discovering a community of Jains in Houston, Dalal has found that he relates to them in many ways. Ahimsa, the Jain value of nonviolence and respecting all forms of life, is one value Dalal says he has noticed in many of his Jain friends. 

“It’s hard to pinpoint what exact values, but I just genuinely found them to be people that understood me and I felt like I understood them,” Dalal said.

Dalal says the connection is about more than simply religion — it spans culture as well. 

“I think some of the values like ahimsa is instilled in a lot of [Jains] — like a lot of them are vegetarian,” Dalal said. “I think a lot of it is also just the infusion of Indian culture and growing up as an Indian, that we relate to.” 

For Bilal Rehman, culture is the most relatable aspect of his Muslim faith.

“I’ve come to see Islam more as a vehicle for my cultural kind of background and traditions, and less as a set of deeply held beliefs about how the world was created,” Rehman, a Duncan College senior, said.

To Rehman, being part of a religious minority in the United States means that he encounters many people who don’t fully understand his faith. 

“Growing up … other people were talking about Christmas or whatever holiday,” Rehman said. “For me it was always things like Ramadan, Eid [al-Fitr], and other Muslim holidays — those were always the things that I was looking forward to.”

When Ehsan encounters people unfamiliar with the core tenets of his Muslim faith, he says he often compares the values to those of Judaism and Christianity.

“They’re very similar religions, like [they] stem from the same background, so it’s a useful and important comparison to make,” Ehsan said.

Ehsan says he values his faith because it provides him with moral directions, guiding him in making certain decisions. According to Ehsan, one of the main attributes he has developed from practicing Islam is self-discipline.

“As a student, a college student, always getting up [before sunrise] to pray and then doing whatever I need to … I think that’s instilled in me a certain self-discipline that carries with me throughout my life,” Ehsan said.

Despite differences between Christianity and Islam, Jowers and Rehman both say they have faced similar faith challenges, specifically trying to reconcile certain views of life with their faith backgrounds. 

“I think [Muslims] have to ask questions about human rights, generally, like things like gay marriage [and] the treatment of women,” Rehman said.

Jowers says that although she struggled with certain interpretations of Christian Scriptures, since coming to Rice she has discovered a community of Christians who interpret Scripture the same way she does.

“I was raised in a tradition that doesn’t have female pastors, doesn’t support egalitarian views of marriage, but rather a complementarian view in which a wife has a sphere and a husband has a sphere,” Jowers said. “I don’t have that reading of Scripture anymore.”

Ultimately, Dalal says attending a Christian Bible study taught him that most religions have a similar end goal: treating others well.

“I think at the end of the day, a lot of religions just want you to be kind to others,” Dalal said. 

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