PRIYA KHANNA grew up a Hindu, in an army family who followed the Arya Samaji faith. This is an account of her experiments in attempting to unearth the true meaning of spirituality

As I have grown older, I have become more comfortable in practising my version of Hinduism. I remember a time when I was 16 years old and would often feel very lost and alone in my faith. I didn’t know how to worship and what to feel. I knew we were supposed to go to temples, but that seemed like an empty ritual. I wanted to find something more meaningful than that. 

Growing up in cosmopolitan India as an army brat, I studied in the best convent schools in Pune and Delhi. I remember feeling very devout in those days, whether during morning assembly when we sang different hymns at Pune’s St Mary’s, or when we passed up and down the corridor outside the nuns’ wing breathing in the delicious spicy fragrance wafting from their kitchen in Delhi’s Loreto Convent, or even when we learnt to celebrate Christmas with full fervour in both schools. For a time, I even toyed with the idea of becoming a nun and asked all kinds of probing questions about their life from the school’s nuns whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Priya Khanna

But as I grew older, I started questioning religion, faith, and life — their significance and greater meaning. I wanted someone to explain faith to me and I would deeply envy people who belonged to an organised religion. They were clear about what they needed to do in worship and knew how to go about it.

Belonging to the Arya Samaj sect of Hinduism, we don’t believe in idol worship. Typically, Arya Samaj believers perform havans as a form of worship, recite the Gayatri mantra and listen to spiritual discourse. Such an abstract form of worship left a youthful me feeling adrift in a spiritual sea, where everyone else appeared to be firmly anchored in their faith. 

However, I didn’t feel confident enough to take my questions of faith to a Hindu priest or pandit. Believing the image of the shloka-reciting Brahmin as commonly portrayed in Hindi films, I didn’t feel that it was the kind of spirituality I was looking for. I even spoke to the priest at a school church, yet didn’t find any answers. 

So, I carried on with the practice of living like a Hindu, recited the Gayatri mantra and living in a pre-Google and smartphone era, reading whatever I could find — books, newspaper articles and so on. Back then, information wasn’t easily available at the tap of a button.

I covered my head in temples and in Gurdwaras, closed my eyes in prayer in churches and even bowed my head whenever I passed a Muslim shrine or mosque. I fasted for 16 Mondays and worshipped Lord Shiva, I visited the Gurdwara for 40 consecutive days and listened to the Gurbani. I even fasted and prayed to Vaishno Devi for many Fridays, doing my best to follow the external forms of my faith to discover the spirituality within. 

Gradually, I learnt to appreciate the fluidity and freedom of Hinduism, the lack of diktat and community pressure felt by cosmopolitan Hindus. In my search for my true faith, I felt myself gravitating towards one Hindu God and then another, invoking the names of multiple Hindu Gods and Godesses in the same prayer every day. I soon discovered that I could pray to and worship any Hindu deity that I wanted. I understood that each deity represented a different aspect of the same God, as eventually all Gods are but different faces of the Brahman, the one true consciousness. So, I felt that I could pray to the form of the deity that resonated best with my needs at any given moment. 

It all came together for me one day, when I was meeting with a client in the US. During an informal moment, she asked me what it was like to be a Hindu. I felt my ideas coalesce as I tried to put into words for her, the immense freedom we had to worship a God of our choice, from the pantheon of over 33 crore Gods and Godesses we had. I told her that there was no restriction on how often, in what manner, and when we chose to worship.

Yes, it might be laid out in our sacred texts about how to worship, perform rituals, how to fast and when. But all that is a way of life for us and often done without conscious thought. I always bathe before I worship; I follow a vegetarian diet on certain days of the week and during certain periods like Navaratri; I instinctively know how to circumambulate around the deity in a temple; how to cover my head and remove my footwear; and what to do with the holy water offered by the pandit, and so on…. 

But these are merely external trappings meant to prepare the mind for a deeper awareness of its spirituality. No matter how well you perform the rituals of faith and worship, you will find inner peace and contentment only when you feel the divine spark present within yourself, as true spirituality resides only within each one of us and not in an external form.

After so many years, as I still continue to search for true spirituality, I have realised the importance of mantra-chanting in calming and focussing the mind. I have understood that these external rituals help us to go deeper within. Meanwhile, the search for a spiritual Guru who will guide me on a higher path, continues. 

An offspring of two fauji doctors, Priya Khanna is now a full-time, stay-at-home fauji wife and mother to a teen terror and a gorgeous golden cocker spaniel. When she’s not reading, Priya Khanna is likely bingeing on a crime series on Netflix and reminiscing about the time when she was jetting all over the world for her work as an instructional designer with a Gurgaon MNC.