Seventh place: Students of color essay contest — Praneel Bonthala

Praneel Bonthala

FFRF awarded Praneel $750.

By Praneel Bonthala

I grew up on a bronze chariot, watching Krishna and Arjuna rush into battle against the Kauravas. I gazed upon the ape warrior, Hanuman, as he pushed the Himalayas to Sri Lanka. I shuddered upon the mention of Bakasura, the insatiable demon that devoured the people of Ekachakra.

Even my name — in Sanskrit — means Lord Shiva.

The epics of Hinduism have been a cornerstone of my childhood. I consumed the legends of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, memorizing mantras and prayers. Spending parts of my youth living in Southern India, I was surrounded by devout Hindus, all expecting me to pour milk over Shiva’s linga (or light sandalwood) during Puja. And, so, it became difficult for me to detach myself from a religion my entire family was devoted to. 

All my life, religion has been something told to me, but never explained. It has been something expected of me, but not something I was meant to understand. Religion nurtured me when I was a baby, alongside food and drink. It grew to loom over me every day of my life.

All I had, however, were stories of gods and warriors performing supernatural feats, accomplishments one would never believe. I had songs praising the raw power and beauty of these beings I would never lay eyes upon. I had texts like the Bhagavad Gita that told me how to live my life. I had a moral compass constructed out of scattered religious lessons and tales instead of my own humanity.

So, I made the decision to turn away from religion. It grew into a crutch for me, preventing me from truly understanding what was happening around me. I grew tired of participating in rituals and pujas I didn’t understand. I couldn’t accept that the Goddess Saraswati was responsible for my success in school and that kneeling in front of Ganesha would bring me eternal prosperity. I felt that my existence didn’t belong to me — it belonged to supernatural beings that I would never even have the opportunity to meet.

Tearing myself away from something that had been an integral part of my life wasn’t easy. I was scared. I couldn’t muster the courage to tell my parents, so I continued to accompany them on their weekly temple excursions once we moved to California.

Nevertheless, I felt that I had more control over my own life. I grew to become more confident, finding myself more freely expressing my atheism. I finally began to dedicate myself to other pursuits: Science Olympiad, public speaking and tennis. Religion no longer governed what I chose to do. I didn’t spend hours reciting mantras or sitting in front of an idol. I began building my own understanding of the world, not an idealistic one constructed by religion. I became more motivated in school — simply praying to a goddess every day wasn’t going to guarantee an “A” on the next exam. By detaching myself from religion, I grew closer to both myself and the world around me.

There is, however, an assumption that lies within the secular community. The assumption that every brown person must be Muslim or Hindu, or that every Latinx is a devout Catholic. To foster a secular environment that welcomes people of color, it becomes necessary to crush these stereotypes and expectations — anyone can choose to express any religion, or lack of one, they wish. 

Freedom of expression is something that should be encouraged and cherished by any community, not just the secular one. It’s a necessary tool to encourage people of color to become involved. Then maybe others like me can push their boundaries to discover even more about the world.

Praneel, 18, attends the University of California- Los Angeles, and hopes to pursue medical school and work in immunology or global health.