Anjali Kumar – Author
A few years ago, I set out on a mission to find God.
Now, I’m going to tell you right upfront that I failed, which, as a lawyer, is a really hard thing for me to admit. But on that failed journey, a lot of what I found was enlightening. And one thing in particular gave me a lot of hope. It has to do with the magnitude and significance of our differences.
So, I was raised in America by Indian parents — culturally Hindu, but practicing a strict and relatively unknown religion outside of India called Jainism. To give you an idea of just how minority that makes me: people from India represent roughly one percent of the US population; Hindus, about 0.7 percent; Jains, at most 0.0046 percent. To put that in context: more people visit the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory each year than are followers of the Jain religion in America.
To add to my minority mix, my parents then decided, “What a great idea! Let’s send her to Catholic school” — where my sister and I were the only non-white, non-Catholic students in the entire school. At the Infant Jesus of Prague School in Flossmoor, Illinois — yes, that’s really what it was called — we were taught to believe that there is a single Supreme Being who is responsible for everything, the whole shebang, from the creation of the Universe to moral shepherding to eternal life.
But at home, I was being taught something entirely different. Followers of the Jain religion don’t believe in a single Supreme Being or even a team of Supreme Beings. Instead, we’re taught that God manifests as the perfection of each of us as individuals, and that we’re actually spending our entire lives striving to remove the bad karmas that stand in the way of us becoming our own godlike, perfect selves. On top of that, one of the core principles of Jainism is something called “non-absolutism.” Non-absolutists believe that no single person can hold ownership or knowledge of absolute truth, even when it comes to religious beliefs.
Good luck testing that concept out on the priests and nuns in your Catholic school. No wonder I was confused and hyperaware of how different I was from my peers. Cut to 20-something years later, and I found myself to be a highly spiritual person, but I was floundering. I was spiritually homeless. I came to learn that I was a “None,” which isn’t an acronym or a clever play on words, nor is it one of these.
It’s simply the painfully uninspired name given to everyone who checks off the box “none” when Pew Research asks them about their religious affiliation. Now, a couple of interesting things about Nones are: there are a lot of us, and we skew young In 2014, there were over 56 million religiously unaffiliated Nones in the United States. And Nones account for over one-third of adults between the ages of 18 to 33. But the most interesting thing to me about Nones is that we’re often spiritual.
In fact, 68 percent of us believe, with some degree of certainty, that there is a God. We’re just not sure who it is. So the first takeaway for me when I realized I was a None and had found that information out was that I wasn’t alone. I was finally part of a group in America that had a lot of members, which felt really reassuring.
But then the second, not-so-reassuring takeaway was that, oh, man, there are a lot of us. That can’t be good, because if a lot of highly spiritual people are currently godless, maybe finding God is not going to be as easy as I had originally hoped. So that is when I decided that on my spiritual journey, I was going to avoid the obvious places and skip the big-box religions altogether and instead venture out into the spiritual fringe of mediums and faith healers and godmen.
But remember, I’m a non-absolutist, which means I was pretty inclined to keep a fairly open mind, which turned out to be a good thing, because I went to a witch’s potluck dinner at the LGBT Center in New York City, where I befriended two witches; drank a five-gallon jerrican full of volcanic water with a shaman in Peru; got a hug from a saint in the convention center — she smelled really nice — chanted for hours in a smoke-filled, heat-infused sweat lodge on the beaches of Mexico; worked with a tequila-drinking medium to convene with the dead, who oddly included both my deceased mother-in-law and the deceased manager of the hip-hop group The Roots. Yeah, my mother-in-law told me she was really happy her son had chosen me for his wife Duh! But — Yeah.
But the manager of The Roots said that maybe I should cut back on all the pasta I was eating. I think we can all agree that it was lucky for my husband that it wasn’t his dead mother who suggested I lay off carbs. I also joined a laughing yoga group out of South Africa; witnessed a woman have a 45-minute orgasm — I am not making this up — as she tapped into the energy of the universe — I think I’m going to go back there — called God from a phone booth in the Nevada desert at Burning Man, wearing a unitard and ski goggles; and I had an old Indian guy lie on top of me, and no, he wasn’t my husband. This was a perfect stranger named Paramji, and he was chanting into my chakras as he tapped into the energy forces of the Universe to heal my “yoni,” which is a Sanskrit word for “vagina.” I was going to have a slide here, but a few people suggested that a slide of my yoni at TED — even TEDWomen — not the best idea.
Very early in my quest, I also went to see the Brazilian faith healer John of God at his compound down in Brazil. Now, John of God is considered a full-trance medium, which basically means he can talk to dead people. But in his case, he claims to channel a very specific group of dead saints and doctors in order to heal whatever’s wrong with you. And although John of God does not have a medical degree or even a high school diploma, he actually performs surgery — the real kind, with a scalpel, but no anesthesia. Yeah, I don’t know.
He also offers invisible surgery, where there is no cutting, and surrogate surgery, where he supposedly can treat somebody who is thousands of miles away by performing a procedure on a loved one. Now, when you go to visit John of God, there are all kinds of rules and regulations. It’s a whole complicated thing, but the bottom line is that you can visit John of God and present him with three things that you would like fixed, and he will set the dead saints and doctors to work on your behalf to get the job done.
Now, before you snicker, consider that, at least according to his website, over eight million people — including Oprah, the Goddess of Daytime TV — have gone to see John of God, and I was pre-wired to keep an open mind. But to be honest, the whole thing for me was kind of weird and inconclusive, and in the end, I flew home, even more confused than I already started out.
But that doesn’t mean I came home empty-handed. In the weeks leading up to my trip to Brazil, I mentioned my upcoming plans to some friends and to a couple of colleagues at Google, where I was a lawyer at the time. And I might have mentioned it to a couple more people because I’m chatty, including my neighbor, the guy who works at the local coffee shop I go to each morning, the checkout lady at Whole Foods and a stranger who sat next to me on the subway. I told each of them where I was going and why, and I offered to carry three wishes of theirs down to Brazil, explaining that anyone going to see John of God could act as a proxy for others and save them the trip. And to my surprise, my in-box overflowed.
Friends told friends who told friends, and those friends apparently told more friends, other strangers and the guys at their coffee shops, until it seemed that days before I left for Brazil that there was no one who did not have my email address. And at the time, all I could conclude was that I had offered too much to too many. But when I actually reread those messages a few years later, I noticed something completely different. Those emails actually shared three commonalities, the first of which was rather curious. Almost everyone sent me meticulous details about how they could be reached.