The busy laughter of energy-filled third-graders cushioned the small corner of the cafeteria where I was sitting with my friends.

“She is going to hell. She’s not a Christian.”

The peanut butter sandwich-no longer appetizing- dropped, my head snapped to the side, and my voice asked the only thing I could think to say.

“What?”

I didn’t think I was that different from anyone else. Sure, my brown skin never really faced the dangers of sunburns, and my black hair almost singed in the Texas heat. My identity found a haven in Hinduism instead of the ideology of Baptist Christianity, but I didn’t think these were reasons to be discriminated against. And yet, acknowledging me and dismissing my existence was a clique of blonde, blue-eyed normals; this powerful group of eight-year-olds was at the top of an unestablished hierarchy.

“Don’t be mad at us. The Bible says so.”

Time stopped in that moment. Shock stopped the flow of my words. My mind buzzed. All I could hear was incessant ringing. From their looks of horror, I realized that the girls didn’t mean for me to hear their ugly whispers. But I had.

The people in whom I’d cautiously placed my trust and hopes gravitated towards the “familiar”, and grew ignorant to my pleas for acceptance. My unwavering, unadulterated, child-like mind couldn’t process what I’d just heard. Blinking back tears, I swallowed my anger.

I wish I could tell you that everything was eventually resolved, that room at the table was made for me. But I can’t. As I reflect on this story among others, I’m pulled back to my Hindu roots. The practice of ​ahimsa​ and its lessons of doing no harm to all living beings and practicing a life of compassion and respect to others encaptured my thoughts. Standing on the crossroads of possible actions, I weighed the possible consequences. If my words would negatively impact or harm another, then maybe they should not be said at all. Rather, my words should open up a dialogue toward understanding.

Not only has ​ahimsa​ kept me from actions that would bring disruption to the peace of my tormentors, but it has also brought peace to my inner self. Engaging in my initial response of shock and anger would produce only greater anxiety and feelings of unsettlement. The teachings of ahimsa contribute greatly to how I choose to express myself and react to obstacles that may hinder my progress towards my goals. This moral and spiritual code defines my attitude of respect towards all people and beings, regardless of their backgrounds or religious texts. I am a firm believer of “Vasudeva Kutumbakam” which in Sanskrit means, “All of Humanity is one Family”.

At this realization, strength surged through my mind, but this strength cost me my innocence. No longer would I live obliviously, but as an individual who has experienced ignorance and uses it as an opportunity to grow myself as a self-advocate and to help grow others towards greater cultural and religious understanding and knowledge. While I took a step away from naiveté, I took a step toward understanding. I embraced my identity, or what drove me apart from the social norms of small-town Texas. As much I may not want to acknowledge it, being bullied helped empower me to discover my unwavering strength. While I wouldn’t have chosen this particular method of learning the value of ​ahimsa​, it allowed me to heal.

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