As one of five Bahá’¡ believers at Cal Poly (out of a total of 15 in the community), Marjan Albert must act as her own source of support. A native of South Africa who moved to Los Angeles County (which has a high population of Bahá’¡ believers) as a young teen, her faith has been a constant influence in her life.
“Like any religion it’s a crutch to help you up. So every time I’ve been down, whether it’s for personal reasons, because of school, or because of my state of being, religion has been there to help me up,” Albert said.
The microbiology senior was raised Bahá’¡ and at the age of 15 signed a declaration of her faith. Recently, she was elected to the Local Spiritual Assembly for the faith (a sort of governing body that oversees the local community of Bahá’¡ believers). They assess “where we are lacking and what to do to support others,” she said.
Perhaps one of the most controversial and progressive religions of our time, the Bahá’¡ faith, based on the teachings of its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, proclaims the existence of one God and the idea that all religions are spiritually united through him.
“It’s like going from first grade to second grade,” Albert explained. “It’s a whole snowballing effect – you’re just building on concepts that you already know.”
According to Bahá’u’lláh, “These Messengers of the Lord of creation have, one and all, directed their peoples to turn unto the same direction.”
The community of Bahá’¡ believers in San Luis Obispo meet every few weeks in members’ homes for feasts, prayers and socializing, said Craig Nelson, the director of the Cal Poly fund and advancement services, Because of the small number of Bahá’¡ believers at Cal Poly, there is no longer a club on campus, forcing believers to draw their support solely from the community at large.
In many ways similar (yet also completely separate) from Hinduism, Buddhism with its stress on suffering and the breaking of this cycle, as set forth in the Four Nobel Truths and the Eightfold Path, is a “religion” of eliminating suffering and ultimately reaching nirvana.
It is faith, but not in what most people label as “faith,” said history junior Victor Gebhardt.
“My faith is that my positive causes are linked to positive effects,” he said.
“It is both very positive and very self-empowering. It’s all about empowering yourself and making positive change in the world. The idea that I can do this and that world peace is available with one-on-one connections (is what appealed to me),” said Gebhardt, who practices in the Nichiren-Shoshu sect (also known as the Lotus-Sutra school).
For Gebhardt, Buddhism has essentially affected his life in two ways: First, it has taught him to live in the present and ask, “What can I do right now? What action can I take right now?” Secondly, it has helped with warding off depression. “Buddhism has provided me with a tool set through which I can battle negativity in the moment and not overindulge in pessimism,” he said.
On campus, finding a practicing Buddhist is a scarcity.
Six years ago, students approached Andrew Schaffner, a statistics professor and Karma-Kagyu practitioner, with the idea of starting a Dharma club on campus. But without enough charter members, the club never came to fruition – though that could all change if students were to initiate the club, he said. But students, like all Buddhists, “would have to reach this point on their own,” and approach Schaffner once again.
“I’ve always hoped that there would be students inclined to this,” he said. Shaffner explained that the club would be a place in which more experienced practitioners could act as mentor-like figures for newbies while providing its members – Buddhists from all traditions, and those merely looking into the belief system – time for mediation and a place of tranquility.
For some, the question is not which deity to believe in, but whether or not to believe in one (or more) at all. Agnosticism (literally “without knowledge,” or unknowable) is the concept that the truth-value of a particular theological view is unknown.
“I would label myself an agnostic not because I don’t believe in a god, but because I don’t know what I believe in,” said Leah Combs, an English junior. ” I feel like it’s unfair to label myself as a part of a religion, whatever that religion may be, if I don’t really believe what it’s all about.”
For others like Servesh Deswal, a construction management senior – a self-described “not a full believer of Hinduism, but more of an agnostic,” who practices certain aspects of the faith, such as vegetarianism and daily prayers – religion plays more of a cultural role than a religious one.
“I didn’t have a choice (growing up),” Deswal said. “There might be something out there, but he hasn’t really shown himself. That’s how my friends were, so I kind of went along with it.”
Questions concerning the role and origin of authority and morality are some issues agnostics are skeptical towards.
“I think that for a lot of people, spirituality is finding out what’s right and what’s wrong, how to live that out, and why to believe it,” Combs said. “For me, I think I have an internal sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.
“I need to decide how to live my life. I may make some wrong decisions, but I learn from them. It’s really important for myself to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong on my own.”
On the other end are those who take the opposite approach by denying that a God or gods exist at all.
By its very definition, atheism is the absence of belief in deities. From skeptics who have questioned and denied claims of the supernatural for its lack of empirical evidence to many forms of Buddhism (at least from an outsider’s perspective), atheism runs the gamut.
“I agree with many of the morals (that religions teach) – I’m not going to go out and kill someone. But I can’t grasp that some higher power exists,” said Arturo Salazar, a computer engineering junior.
Baptized and raised as a Catholic, Salazar was exposed to a belief system he claims he never believed in the first place. But as he grew older, he came to the realization that he did not believe in the things he was told and, because of this, they should be abandoned.
“I’m not restricted to a certain belief or religion. Sometimes there are gray areas in life,” he said. “This belief system makes me feel like I have more control over my life. I don’t have to do all the nitty-gritty things, the details, that religion requires.”
Three pictures hang in Suneeti Chauhan’s room: one of Lord Krishna, the god of love; one of Lord Ganesh, the “elephant god,” who aids in removing all obstacles, especially at “the start of anything good” (new jobs, big vacations, etc); and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. Every so often the business senior will light incense, play village songs, and pray to these gods “at (her) leisure.”
More of a personal religion than anything else (especially in San Luis Obispo where the nearest temple is hours away), Hinduism, considered by many to be the world’s oldest religion and its third largest, is comprised of a diversity of beliefs and traditions.
It is “a title that the white man gave us,” as construction management senior Servesh Deswal said, to apply to literally thousands of different religious groups that have existed in India since B.C.E. 1,500. Despite the often subtle differences among Indian religions, four prominent themes exist: the idea of dharma (in essence, how one leads one’s life or ethics), samara (rebirth), karma (one’s actions), and moksha (liberation from the cycle of samsara).
Because of this, Hinduism is deemed to be both a henotheistic and a polytheistic religion, depending on the believer.
For biology junior Raghu Rayadurg, there is one god who manifests itself in different forms.
“It’s not praying to multiple gods, but like praying for multiple forms of god. In that way it’s polytheistic,” he said.
Chauhan adheres to the same belief. For her, Hinduism is a monotheistic religion. Ultimately, she said, at the end there had to be some starting point (i.e. one god). But, really, all it comes down to is faith, she said.
“I like it because it’s so open. There’s no one way you have to believe in it.”
Though there is no official Hindu club on campus, many Hindu students are a part of the Indian Student Association. For the most part, however, Hinduism, at least at Cal Poly, seems to be more of a personal endeavor.
“My religion tells me how to live a good life, how to help others, and how to be a good person all around,” Chauhan said. “It teaches me to be more free – it keeps me from being in a box where I go around and judge others.”