Om Shanti
by Sima Patel

From the writer: I really cannot term myself a "writer" because I was just a student given an assignment to complete. Professor Love helped us brainstorm ideas and create an outline that would be most effective. From reading other pieces, I got an idea of how I would like to capture the reader from the onset. I wanted to take the reader back in time to my first experiences of India and show how they have influenced me.

From the teacher, Scott Love: The first major writing project for "Entering the Conversation: Analysis, Argument, and Academic Writing" (a Fall 2001 pilot WRT 105 class) asked students to closely analyze or interpret a "text" or "artifact" of significance to them as a new member of the Syracuse University community. As a freshman, adapting to the Syracuse University community during the tragic events of September 2001, Sima Patel’s essay beautifully conveys the deeper significance of a "simple silver necklace" given to her by her mother.

From the editor, Amy Dickinson: The overwhelming draw of this essay is not only its optimism but its openness to intense exploration. Patel’s analysis of an object, a pendant, leads her past personal history to larger examinations of society and of philosophies encompassed by her religion. It also seems particularly relevant—and something to keep in mind – right now, amid continued international tensions and the issuance of an ever-expanding, aggressive call to war from a presidential administration trumpeting increased militarism as the key to the future.

  Peace has a thousand meanings.

­ Mun, Bhagavad Gita

  It is a sunny, humid summer morning; the smell of manure wafts through the village. I am ten years old in Sejwar, India, my mother’s home. My mother is fasting this morning and decides to go to the village temple to pray. It is my first time to walk into an authentic Indian temple. We come to a small building, vibrantly colored in hues of red, green, orange, and yellow. The building is stunning, like most religious buildings in this part of the country. At the top of the building, gold steps lead into the sky. Before we enter, I notice a huge sign: a number three with a squiggly line on top. I ask my mother what the sign means because I have never seen anything like it. She does not answer right away; instead, she clasps her hands together, her eyes closed as she walks into the temple. After she finishes chanting her prayers, she explains what the religious symbol means: peace.

  From hearing her say the word Om Shanti, I quickly remember it. In our caste, whenever we meet or leave each other we use Om Shanti as a form of greeting. It is synonymous to the Christian "Amen." Religiously, Om Shanti is a mystical phrase or mantra from Sanskrit used by many Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. Om Shanti is regarded as the syllable of the supreme reality and is sometimes called "the mother of mantras." We use it at the beginning of prayers, mantras, and scriptures as a word of invocation and adoration. In Hinduism, its three Sanskrit meanings, transliterated a, u, and m, symbolize the triad of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer, or the three levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. In Buddhism, Om Shanti is often understood as symbolizing the true "empty" character of reality, as that truth has been communicated by various historical Buddhas, celestial Buddhas, and, directly, by the true character of reality itself. For Sikhs, Om Shanti is the most direct and concise divine Name.

  As my gaze wanders across the sculptures of our prophets and gods, all dressed in ornate clothes of luminous colors, my eyes come to rest on another red symbol. This emblem is the swastika. To this day, whenever I hear or see Om Shanti, I cannot help but think of Hitler. When my mother finishes her morning prayers, she explains to me what the swastika truly means. The swastika is the primary symbol of our prophet, Lord Ganesha. It thus is regarded as the interconnecting point between two realms of being: the mundane outer world of daily reality and the timeless inner realm of soul, myth, and magic. Lord Ganesha and the swastika represent a doorway through which devotees can enter the realm of the gods, or through which the gods can enter the world of man. The swastika is used by housewives to symbolically guard thresholds and doors, by priests to sanctify ceremonies and offerings, and by businessmen to bless the opening pages of their account books. No ceremony or sacrifice is considered complete without Lord Ganesha’s swastika, a symbol believed to ward off all types of misfortune. As my mother and I walk the winding path to our village, I ask her why Hitler would use a religious symbol. She instantly grows irritated and harshly says that Hitler used the swastika for inhumane purposes. The rest of the way home, we walk in silence.

  Before I left for college, my mother gave me a simple silver necklace with a small Om Shanti pendant strung on it. To me, this was the greatest gift she could give. I cannot imagine what others would think if my mother had given me a necklace with a swastika pendant. I wear this modest piece of jewelry as a means of reassurance. The necklace connects me to my family and my religion, a connection I do not get otherwise, being far from home. As humans, whenever our insecurities are exposed, we tend to hold people, objects of great importance, or religion closer to us. In light of the recent tragedies to befall New York City, I find I hold my necklace even closer; it provides me a sense of security. I believe, if I have my necklace on, nothing terrible will happen to anyone I love.

  When it comes to religion, my family is disciplined and strict. We pray together every morning and again before dinner. As Mother Theresa once said, "The family that prays together stays together." Being among a small minority in America, my family was not fortunate enough to have a place like Sunday school where we could learn about our religion. So my mother would gather all the children in the house to teach us about our religion and ancestry. She would explain the meaning behind the words we chanted everyday and how they came about. At times, when my mother would tell us to close our eyes and silently chant Om Shanti over and over again, my sisters and I would fall asleep or simply pretend to meditate. But it was an experience that brought us all together. My parents never attended my band concerts or basketball games; they taught me my religion. In that way, they showed and shared their love.

  Family is the most fundamental social group. I am fortunate to have an understanding family that promotes peace. Despite erosion of this institution, particularly here in America, I believe family remains the bedrock of society. If our family relationships are filled with conflict and struggle, we are unlikely to find inner peace or make any contribution towards establishing it in society. Traditional family relationships have two basic dimensions, the husband/wife relationship and the parent/child relationship; and, in both, tension and strife are becoming increasingly widespread. The basic point is that, in our quest for peace, we have to begin with our immediate family, because family is the experimental workshop in which we can learn the merits of understanding and love, compassion and coordination.

  Om Shanti holds a lot of history for my family, and for India as a whole. My family lives near the border to Pakistan, in the state of Gujarat. Not only do I have family in Gujarat, but I also have close family living in Kashmir, the northern part of India. Kashmir is known to house many Islamic people, and many Pakistani people think that Kashmir should be a part of Pakistan. My parents grew up in a time when India was becoming revolutionized. There were Indo-Paki raids in villages near the borders. My great-grandfather, a huge supporter of peace and Mahatma Gandhi, painted a red Om Shanti sign on the front and back doors to symbolize that we are peaceful and non-violent. My family believes the sign of peace, Om Shanti, kept my father’s house from being burnt down. This experience is a demonstration of how the simple meaning of Om Shanti can be understood by all. No matter where you come from in India, you believe in and represent this symbol.

  As I walked through Syracuse University’s quad on a Wednesday morning, I glanced at the jewelry my fellow classmates wore. More women wore jewelry than men. In Indian culture, women typically wear the most jewelry as well, which brings to mind an important point revolving around the status of women. Particularly in developing societies, this status is still far from satisfactory, and women tend to be relegated to an inferior position. In America and the general West, I sometimes get the impression that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction towards women, perhaps to compensate for past injustices. We need a harmonious balance between the two. In the Hindu tradition, we have the remarkable concept of the Ardhanarishwara — Lord Shiva as half male and half female. This creative fusion is ideally reflected on the social plane in the concept of the wife as ardhangini — equal sharer and partner in the adventure of life. Thus, neither the traditional Eastern custom of the woman walking three paces behind her husband, nor the curious Western practice of her walking three paces ahead, is satisfactory. Walking side by side is symbolically the ideal arrangement for peace.

  My necklace provides me with a sense of identity. The pendant reveals to others that I am an Indian girl, one who believes in Hinduism. I noticed the religious necklaces the other girls were wearing; some wore diamond, gold, silver, or sapphire crosses or stars. The necklace I wear has a shiny luster and is usually the first thing others see when looking at me. I wear my necklace self-effacingly as a testament to my connection with god, family, and the world. However, the religious necklaces others wore perfectly matched their day’s outfits. It seems as though, for some, religious belongings have transformed into material possessions. In the past few decades, cultural or religious beliefs have merged with commercialism. Many people walk around wearing t-shirts with the Om Shanti insignia or one of our gods printed on it; others wear t-shirts that read "Got Jesus". Musical icons of the twenty-first century often sport enormous crosses around their necks, adorned with diamonds, or fashion tattoo crosses. In the age of free market and globalization, it appears as though sacred values, ethics, and beliefs are being capitalized on.

  All religions preach peace; but, in fact, religion has been a major source of violent struggle through the centuries and remains so even today. Many atheists believe that if there were a god, the crusades or battles over religion would not have occurred. They believe that if there were a god, there would always be peace. However, what they seem to overlook is that god did not create religion; people did. The human race has created the violent conflict between religions. As people, we have segregated and classified other religions. Hinduism espouses tolerance of all religions; the Om Shanti sign is a testament to that belief. However, not all Hindus are at peace with other religions. For example, our religion promotes vegetarianism. Not all religions promote vegetarianism, and this can create friction and discrimination of ideas. Religion, supposedly a bearer of peace, has in fact created violence, the antithesis of peace.

  Before walking into an Indian temple there will always be an Om Shanti sign, accompanied by Sanskrit writing. The Sanskrit writing says that there are over four hundred meanings of Om Shanti. It really depends on how you define peace. My peace is defined through my religion, and that will be passed on to my children and, hopefully, to my grandchildren. Moments have come when one era draws to a close and another dawns, where we stand suspended between a collapsing past and an indeterminate future. Yet, whatever the circumstances, peace has prevailed through time, and it will go on to prevail in the future.

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