Spirituality on campus

Continuing the series on what faith means to students, Varun Anand, a 3rd year medical student from

Before I came to university I have to admit I was not very religious and did not know much about Hinduism, except that we have many religious scriptures and are not allowed to eat beef. Although we are a Hindu family, we only celebrate the major festivals like Diwali (festival of light) and Holi (festival of colours), of which I knew little about. I was more interested in the fun aspect like lighting fireworks and throwing coloured powder! However, this changed almost immediately when I joined the University of Birmingham.

At the societies fair in the first week of university, I got talking to a few committee members of the Hindu Society and then a week later I went to their first event; a ‘Meet and Greet’. It was nice to meet people of a similar background and make new friends and it was then that I became a member of the Hindu Society.

It was not until the society’s Diwali show, ‘Ujala’, that I was able to become more interested in my religion and culture. The true significance of why we celebrated it was explained with a play followed by an interactive talk. Afterwards I commended the members of the committee on such a brilliant event. They told me that I should apply to be on the sub-committee if I wanted to help out. At first I was unsure of the responsibility so early on in my university life. However, they persuaded me and by November I gained the position of PR on the society’s sub-committee.

I enjoyed being on the committee as I got to know the other members quite well and played a part in organising and promoting the Hindu Society’s annual ball, ‘Roshni’, which was a good experience. However, the highlight was when the sub-committee was left in charge to organise a Holi event. At times it was stressful but in the end it was rewarding because the event was a huge success.

In second year I got introduced to another society called Krishna Consciousness Society (KcSoc) where every Tuesday evening a group of about 20 students got together and had informal spiritual discussions. The discussions were mainly based on the Bhagavad Gita, which is an important Hindu scripture. I enjoyed KcSoc as I learnt a lot more about the basics of spirituality and aspects of Hinduism and since then have been reading related books whenever I have had time.

In my second year, the new Hindu Society committee introduced a weekly worship known as ‘aarti’. I vaguely knew the words of the prayer as I had sung it before at various festivals. What I liked about this was that I could come here once a week in this spiritual environment and forget about the hustle and bustle of university life. Sometimes there were also talks on an aspect of Hinduism or a yoga class which I really enjoyed as I invariably learnt something new.

Last year my interest in my faith and religion took up about 2 evenings a week and hence played quite a significant role in my student life. Of course the main reason why I participated was to practice Hinduism and to learn more about it, but the events were also very sociable and a nice catch-up with people I wouldn’t otherwise see in lectures.

Later on in the year I joined the committee of National Hindu Students Forum (NHSF). I felt it would be a new challenge so I applied and got a role on the PR team. I believe that my involvement with NHSF has meant that I now have more knowledge about the Hindu faith. So when I come home and we celebrate certain Hindu festivals, I am more aware of why we are doing what we are. I look forward to being part of NHSF this year and I hope to carry on going to the discussions at KcSoc as well as the weekly Hindu Society aarti. Over the past 2 years I have definitely gained a greater understanding about my religion and culture and I hope this continues throughout my student life and beyond.

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Manchester united: "A minority of absolute idiots are trying to break us apart"

At the vigil, one man's T-shirt read: "The only thing that's allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry."

A day after one of the worst atrocities in the history of the city, Manchester's people were keen to show the world the resilience of the Mancunian spirit.

Dom's, an Italian restaurant, is in walking distance from Manchester Arena, where 22 people lost their lives to a suicide bomber the night before. On Tuesday, the staff were giving out free coffee, tea and pizza to anyone who needed it. On a table outside, there was a condolences book, and teary passersby left RIP messages to those who perished. Under a bright blue sky, the community seemed more united than ever, the goodwill pouring out of everyone I met. But the general mood was sombre. 

"We need to make space for healing and for building up our community again, and just getting people to feel comfortable in their own city," the Dean of Manchester, Rogers Govendor, told me.

The terrorist has been named as Salman Ramadan Abedi, a 22-year-old Mancunian of Libyan descent. But with a population of 600,000, Manchester is a cosmopolitan hub, and proud of it. Throughout the day I encountered people of all skin shades and religions. On one of the roads off Albert Square, a couple of Orthodox Jewish boys set up a little stand, where people could grab a bottle of water and, if they so desired, hold hands and pray.

On the night of the tragedy, Muslim and Sikh cab drivers turned off the meter and made their way to Manchester Arena to offer free rides to anyone - many of them injured - who trying to escape the mayhem and reach safety. "It's what we do around here," my taxi driver said with a thick Arabic accent.

The dissonance between the increasingly frantic debate on social media and what was discussed on the streets was stark. I spoke, on and off the record, with about two dozen residents, eavesdropped on a number of conversations, and not once did I hear anyone speaking out against the cultural melting pot that Manchester is today. If anything, people were more eager than ever to highlight it. 

"Manchester has always been hugely multicultural, and people always pull together at times of trouble and need," said Andrew Hicklin. "They are not going to change our society and who we are as people. We live free lives."

It was also a day where political divisions were put aside. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn agreed to suspend their campaigns. For the next few days there will be no Labour vs Tory, no Brexiteer vs Remainer, at least not in this part of the country. This city has closed ranks and nothing will be allowed to come between that cohesion.

"I don't demonise anyone," said Dennis Bolster, who stopped by to sign the condolences book outside Dom's. "I just know a small minority of absolute idiots, driven by whatever they think they are driven by, are the people who are trying to break us apart."

Later in the day, as people were getting off work, thousands flocked to Albert Square to show their respects to the victims. Members of the Sikh community entered the square carrying "I love MCR" signs. The crowd promptly applauded. A middle-aged man wore a T-shirt which said: "The only thing that's allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry." A moment of silent was observed. It was eerie, at times overwhelmingly sad. But it was also moving and inspiring.

Local poet Tony Walsh brought brief respite from the pain when he recited "This is the Place", his ode to the city and its people. The first verse went:

This is the place In the north-west of England. It’s ace, it’s the best

And the songs that we sing from the stands, from our bands

Set the whole planet shaking.

Our inventions are legends. There’s nowt we can’t make, and so we make brilliant music

We make brilliant bands

We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands

On stage, everyday political foes became temporary allies. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, home secretary Amber Rudd, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and house speaker John Bercow all brushed shoulders. Their message was clear: "we are Manchester too."

The vigil lasted a little over half an hour. On other occasions, a crowd this size in the centre of Manchester would give authorities reason for concern. But not this time. Everyone was in their best behaviour. Only a few were drinking. 

As Mancunians made their way home, I went over to a family that had been standing not far from me during the vigil. The two children, a boy and a girl, both not older than 10, were clutching their parents' hands the whole time. I asked dad if he will give them a few extra hugs and kisses as he tucks them in tonight. "Oh, absolutely," he said. "Some parents whose children went to the concert last night won't ever get to do that again. It's heartbreaking."

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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