by Jahnabi Barooah
I came to Orientation at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) not knowing exactly what to expect. I had spent the previous summer studying Latin through the Summer Language Program (SLP) at HDS. While that program certainly prepared me for the intellectual rigor of HDS, there were few students around during the summer and it was difficult to gauge what life at HDS would be like. I knew that my classmates would be smart people with really interesting stories. I knew that they would come from a wide variety of religious and spiritual perspectives. I expected to be intellectually challenged, both inside and outside the classroom. I was less certain and even a little nervous about other things: How would faith and intellect intersect? Would I find other Hindus? [Before accepting the offer from HDS, I inquired about Hindus, and I was told that the number fluctuated, but that currently there were no Hindus.] What kind of spiritual resources would I find for a person like myself, someone at the periphery of multiple traditions? Does pluralism mean holding hands, singing “Kumbaya” and agreeing about everything, or would it leave room for respectful, but robust disagreement on important issues? Would there be room for orthodox religiosity? And most importantly, would I find vulnerability, or rather, would it be a safe space for me to be vulnerable?
I prepared myself for HDS, and for being a religious person at Harvard more broadly, by talking to several alumni and reading as much as I could on the subject. I heard many kinds of stories from the younger alumni I spoke to but there were some common threads. [Coincidentally, none of the people I spoke to were Protestants. One was a convert from Christianity to Hinduism, another from the Catholic Church to the Episcopal Church, yet another from the Catholic Church to Buddhism to the Episcopal Church. Another was an atheist who converted to Islam. The fifth person, who hadn’t undergone any religious conversion, was a Sikh!] I was warned that, for all the emphasis on religious diversity, there would be a Protestant bias, that HDS, and Harvard generally, is a Protestant institution. I was cautioned that, as a desi, I might be called upon to speak for many Indic religious and spiritual traditions regardless of my familiarity with them. A white Hindu I spoke to was particularly upset that when he and his Tamil Christian friend were in the classroom, his friend, because she was brown-skinned, was regularly called upon to explain the nuances of the differences between the Hindu and Buddhist positions on various topics. I was also warned that the students in the M.T.S — the program I am in — are more like people on a two-year job interview (read: always out to impress everyone).
Columbia University J-school Professor Ari Goldman’s acclaimed book “The Search for God at Harvard” about his year at HDS studying world religions while he was a religion reporter for The New York Times, did little to assuage some of my nervousness about the religious climate at HDS. Written from the perspective of an Orthodox Jew, the book describes the richness of the religious and spiritual tapestry at HDS, but appears to lament something else that is lost in the diversity: religious orthodoxy. One image in particular stuck with me. One would find Christian students sitting in meditation at Andover Chapel, but one would almost never find a Christian kneeling in prayer, Goldman wrote. All this is to say that when I arrived at HDS two days ago, I was really looking forward to meeting my future classmates and friends, engaging in spirited conversations, but I was nervous about a few things as well.
It is difficult to put into words everything that I have gone through, and everything that I have felt in the past two days. After a few rounds of awkward introductions and ice breakers, the barriers have already have started falling apart. There is real vulnerability at HDS, and I could not be grateful for this. We don’t even know each other that well yet, but yesterday a second-year student in the M.Div program shared that the pain of her intimate brush with death when she lost her six-year-old daughter to cancer. Still others have shared their own fears and anxieties about studying and living faith at HDS. It was a relief to hear that I was not the only one secretly worrying about several things. Yesterday, I was asked to summarize what I have learned about life at HDS so far. I shared that it is not only acceptable, but that it is really important to be who I am. I feel so richly blessed that only two days in, I feel welcome at HDS exactly as I, and I look forward to growing and learning with this community of scholars and practitioners.