Transition of Religious Identity

Robert in front of Ely Cathedral.

“Do you wanna go to St. John’s for lunch?” Fritz asked to join him while I was going to my office through the field of St. John’s. I had never been to the dining hall of St. John’s, although I have tried the dining hall of Churchill, Murray Edward’s, and Trinity. I accepted the offer to try something different.

Most of the time, I prefer vegetarian to non-vegetarian food. The dining hall ran out of vegetarian food and was preparing it. After waiting for about five minutes, I saw a young lady dressed in a black and white suit with burgers on a tray. I picked up a tray and once again looked at the menu. I did not notice that it was a fake-meat burger. It was interesting how a vegetarian burger could be a fake-meat burger. “Is it a vegetarian burger?” I just wanted to double-check that it was really vegetarian. She nodded with a faint grin. I added some fries, beans, and broccoli in my plates and followed Fritz to have the meal.

We sat by the River Cam enjoying the sunny afternoon and watched people punting. I was curious to taste the burger. In the first bite, I realized it tasted like meat. It definitely did not taste like pork or chicken. It smelled like beef, especially the smoked parts. I remembered the smell of beef from the Maseeh dining hall. I asked Fritz, and he confirmed that it was vegetarian. However, I could not finish my burger. I did not want to have meat that afternoon. Also, as I realized that I had never tried ham, I ate the sides only.

Although it wasn’t real ham, I felt bad about thinking of eating beef. The feeling did not last that long, but it made me question my beliefs and identity.

“Why don’t I eat beef?” 

I was raised in Hindu society. Hindu people in Nepal worship cows and consider eating cows a sin. Even in school, they taught us not to eat beef. They don’t slaughter cows in the market. With age, I leaned towards science, and religion was not the first thing that I thought about. However, I noticed that I had a subconscious belief to worship cows. In fact, I had never tried beef even after I left Nepal for MIT. The dining hall of MIT was the first but not the last place where I had a chance to eat beef, but I always avoided it.

As I was transitioning to become “sciencey,” I felt conflicted with my religious identity. I was resetting my boundaries that religion and societal values had defined in the past. For instance, I had stopped wearing butti, a necklace that has a small pouch filled with things believed to protect us from danger. I was open to thoughts that were not religiously valid. I started believing that people who eat beef don’t necessarily commit a sin. Nevertheless, it took me time to get comfortable with the idea that people can eat cows. And I have yet to try it. I am not sure if I ever will. The idea of worshiping cows I grew up with has risen a conflict in the process of redefining my delimiters.

I had never thought about my religious identity transition until that afternoon. I am glad I realized that my identity is evolving. At least now I can rethink eating beef. However, it is likely that I will turn into a pure vegetarian before I even try it.

“Don’t you eat beef?” Fritz asked as I was complaining to him that the burger tasted like meat.

“Nope.” I smiled and thanked him for his invitation. After lunch, I went to my office to do my research.

Robert Koirala is a member of the class of 2022 studying math and physics. This summer, he is doing a math research at Trinity College in the “other Cambridge” (United Kingdom).