Interfaith Education: My Experience and Lessons Learned — Kasturi Thorat

While brainstorming ideas for my first blog post, I read a lot of former fellows’ blogs on how certain school experiences around religion were not pleasant. In my first blog post, I wanted to talk about my experience with interfaith education and shed light on how interfaith education is possible while being both fun and enriching.

I grew up in Nashik, India in a Hindu household. Growing up in a complex, multicultural nation, I was exposed to a plethora of faiths and related traditions. From grades three to ten I attended Wisdom High International School where interfaith education was a key part of our curricular and co-curricular activities. We celebrated the main festivals of major world religions like Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. A typical celebration day looked like this:  All students dressed up, usually in traditional attire. At the end of the school assembly, a student would explain the festival’s significance and how it is celebrated. During lunch or breakfast we got a dish or a snack associated with the festival. For example, for Eid celebrations we dressed up in traditional salwar kameez, listened to the story associated with it, and ate seviyan, a popular sweet eaten on Eid.

These experiences helped us to not only develop a sense of respect for other faiths, but also to learn to participate in other faith-related activities without it being controversial or politicised. In India, the most major religion is Hinduism, followed by Islam and Christianity. Our school curriculum was designed in a way that at a very early age we were introduced to these religions and some of their basic tenets. The stories we read in English and Hindi literature class had characters from different faiths coexisting harmoniously. Even at home, being respectful towards other faiths was taught to me indirectly. My neighbours back home are Christian so every Christmas they invite us over to decorate their tree and celebrate with them. We invite them over for Diwali and Ganesh Chaturthi where they actively partake by singing bhajans (songs praising Hindu deities) and performing some rituals. Being an active participant in other people’s traditions helped me develop an appreciation for diversity.

The coexistence of diverse faiths with mutual respect for each other had never been something I questioned until high school when I started learning more about religious conflicts. Moving to the US for college has made me question it even more so because the majority of adults here are private about their belief systems and less open to talking about it. This felt totally new for me, as my experience in India is that people regularly talk about religion. It was also disorienting: I felt disconnected and lost during my first semester of college because even people who practice religion don’t talk about it. Gradually, I found out ways to keep myself grounded in my faith while those around me seemed uninterested in those conversations.

Growing up, I did not understand the importance of the interfaith exposure I received from my schooling and family life. Today I value it more than ever, especially when I see hundreds being killed and thousands being discriminated against in the name of faith. If all schools in the world could do what my school did, incorporating interfaith programming into their curriculum, the world would be a slightly better place. However, simply promoting tolerance of other religions is not enough, as ‘tolerance’ comes from a place of dislike or compromise.  We ought to make people feel welcome, respected, and appreciated — not just that they are being tolerated. An environment of mutual respect and appreciation makes peaceful coexistence possible, a firm foundation for a successful society.

15 thoughts on “Interfaith Education: My Experience and Lessons Learned — Kasturi Thorat”

  1. Dear Kasturi very nice artical.it is so true that we should respect each other.As you know in my family myself n uncle Jones we both are from different faith but when we respect each other”s faith our family is beautiful n strong.You said correctly then only the world will be beautiful place. God bless

  2. Very well expressed. I think most of Indian schools and households respect other religions and probably that makes us live harmoniously (most of times except few unpleasant incidents) in such a diverse population.

  3. Hello Kasturi,

    This was such a great piece! I really enjoyed your insight on how interfaith education can be free from judgement. As a Hindu myself, raised in North America, I think my exposure to festivals and shared culture was lower. I believe that celebrating culture and traditions from others can be a very uniting experience and I am glad you focused on that. When reading about religious holiday exemptions this week for UW-Madison, I also found it interesting how many Indian schools balance days off for a majority of important Holidays for different religions. According to my parents, everyone would have school off for Eid, Diwali, and Christmas. However, with our academic calendar here, this does not seem to be possible. I believe this plays a part in some of the lack of acceptance felt by non-Christian students here.

  4. Kasturi,
    Really well written and interesting post. I found myself relating a lot when you expressed disbelief at how closed off people are about talking about religion in the United States. I’ve also unfortunately found this attitude permeating Judaism as well in the United States. People in Israel have no issue talking about and comparing/contrasting their own personal Jewish practices with others, it’s almost something ingrained into the religion. In the U.S. however, I’ve only found pockets of people who are willing to freely talk about their practice in everyday conversation. I wish I could have gone to a school like yours, where there were so many faiths discussed in such a free and respectful way.

  5. I think that your message of peaceful coexistence and very necessary in the United States. Growing up in a Lutheran School, I was extremely isolated from other religions and the people who practice them. I was taught that participating in their traditions was sacrilegious. It is wonderful to read that people from different religions can celebrate holidays together and everyone can find joy from them.

  6. Amazing job, Kasturi! I really love how you connect the experience of others tradition into being able to better understand diversity. Experiencing others traditions allows us to see and respect what is going on. I find it incredible that you’ve had such an interfaith experience and hope to learn a lot from you in these next few months. Thank you again for sharing.

  7. Such a wonderful post, Kasturi! Your last paragraph reminded me of the mantra that my Unitarian Universalist church repeats at the beginning of every worship service: “whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey, we celebrate your presence among us.” My parents would always emphasize the importance of that wording to my sisters and I – “celebrating” instead of “tolerating.” Like you said, it so important that that sentiment is applied to religious diversity. It was so cool to read about your positive interfaith experiences!

  8. Kasturi,
    It’s so heartwarming to hear about all the genuine connections and exposures that you had with those in your diverse faith community growing up! I definitely wish that would be emulated around the world because, as you said, I really do think the first step to solving conflict is to understand one another in multiple ways. I really resonate with your point on ‘tolerance’, I’ve never thought of that term in a negative light, but you make a really good point of raising the standard on how we meet diversity in broader society, no one should be just ‘tolerated’ but like you said welcomed and respected. I loved reading your post!

  9. Hi Kasturi,
    Amazing blog post! It’s so wonderful to hear about the positive interfaith experience you had at your school back in India! In my elementary/middle school, there were a few opportunities for me to spread awareness about my faith to my fellow classmates, but I didn’t truly value these experiences until I went to high school, where religion was almost never discussed (only in the World Religions unit in AP World History). If there were more opportunities for dialogue and positive interfaith experiences in our schools and communities, I don’t think there would be as many misconceptions and misunderstandings about certain faiths. I’m looking forward to more conversations this year about how we can possibly improve interfaith dialogue on our campus and our own communities!

  10. Kasturi,

    It is really interesting to hear about your interfaith experience growing up and how different that is to your experience in the US. I know in my household and in the area of Wisconsin I am from, one of the main subjects we are not supposed to ask other people about is their religion. Until recently, this has always been a private subject matter for me. I think your interfaith experiences growing up are incredibly valuable and beneficial. Great post!

  11. Kasturi,

    I thought your remarks on religious tolerance as an especially poor goal for us to work towards were very true. I’ve written about the same topic before, and I thought your choice to display the inherent hostility present in the definition of tolerance was a great choice. Religious tolerance is a fragile state that is easily pushed to resentment. Just as you stated, it’s more important that we work towards curiosity and appreciation for other faiths as these attitudes are more likely to break down misunderstandings and cultural differences that may otherwise divide people of differing faiths.

  12. Great blog post! Without having experienced interfaith education curriculum growing up, I would have to agree with you that it should be implemented. Also, it makes me so happy you have had these experiences with appreciating other faiths’ traditions and beliefs!

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