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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Hindu-American Identity

There's not too much new in my world to talk about. I continue to go to work, school, dance class and try to keep up with all my hobbies.

I'm taking a new class on Civil Right and Civil Liberties and it should be very interesting and give me some things to talk about once we get into Freedom of Religion issues! That stuff is near and dear to my heart. The thing I love most about America is that the government and religion are separate. Being allowed to practice my religion in the way that I see fit is my most precious freedom.

Since I don't have too much to say, I thought I would send you around to some other places for some interesting reading.

This article, The Hyphenated Hindus, was published in 2006, but it is really interesting and well done, and definitely still applicable. It is about creating the Hindu identity in America. I got it from Hindu Mommy's blog, but I don't know if it was originally published elsewhere.

Ms. Bannerjee writes "There is a subtle but powerful Christian ethos that pervades America, and to this day, it draws rather than alienates me." For me, it is alienating. It didn't used to be, but as I said in the comments recently, I have run completely out of patience with Christianity.

And she speaks to how children learn Hinduism in school: "In school, when there was a conscious effort of being multicultural, we spent perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes discussing world religions, wherein Hinduism was quickly depicted as a religion of hundreds of gods, many of whom had animal features, as an ancient faith ridden with social ills like caste and sati." Notice that it is fifteen to twenty minutes for all the world religions together, not for each one! That's how it was in my school too. One paragraph in the textbook on Hinduism, one on Buddhism, one on Zen, and that's it.

And speaking of the image of Hinduism:
"Though I saw myself as a Hindu, for a long time, I did not call myself one. Frankly, it just didn’t sound good. Being Christian conjured connotations of compassion and charity. Being Muslim meant in my mind being of strong faith, the fastest growing faith, a religion that though one of the world’s youngest, had in its history been one of power, empire, and global dominance. Being Buddhist evoked images of meditation and the esoteric realms of philosophy and enlightenment. But being Hindu – being Hindu suggested idolatry, a chaotic collection of myths; it stood for caste and sati, for the subordination of Sita and all the women who followed her, for Brahmanic oppression and backwardness. These were not trivial concerns. Public perceptions, grossly generalized or misconstrued though they may be, matter...

Moreover, I did not want to call myself Hindu because there were no others around me proclaiming themselves as Hindu either. There were no chaplains representing the Hindu faith in the universities I attended. Though there were student associations for most other religions, hardly any existed for Hindus. When I tried to start one up, I faced suspicion that it was a fa├žade for Sangh politics. There has been an emphasized divorce between religion and cultural identity when it comes to South Asian student groups. This is acceptable when people of other faiths have Muslim or Christian student associations to nurture their religious needs, but Hindus often have no such outlets."

Creation of a Hindu identity in America, the real crux of the article:
"Not only is there a paucity of classes dealing with Hinduism at the college level, but the attitudes of South Asian professors are sometimes problematic. It seems that a number of these professors are so embedded in Indian or South Asian politics that they do not distinguish, as they should, between the pursuit of a Hindu identity in India and the creation of one in America...As the generations pass, the links with India will prove more and more tenuous, while the links with Hinduism will hopefully remain as strong if not stronger. Furthermore, there are many Hindus of non-Indian descent who also seek a Hindu community to which they can belong, in which they have a voice...These are some of the frustrations that I and others like me have faced and continue to face as Hindus in America. The Hindu-American community needs to take responsibility for the fate of our religion in our country. It is only through our efforts that the opportunities and resources can be provided for interested individuals to engage with Hinduism in its spiritual, philosophical, intellectual, and cultural dimensions. The first step in paving this path, I believe, is the conscious formation of a Hindu-American community and identity."

(Emphasis added)
The atmosphere around us affects our religious practices:
"One of the difficulties of engaging with Hinduism in America is that we live in a predominantly non-Hindu setting. It is easier to practice Hinduism in India, where the culture and the religion have become so intertwined, where Dussehra merits a holiday, where interpretations of the epics have been shown on wildly popular TV serials, where grandparents share the stories of the Puranas with children, where the resources for learning about the religion are more readily available than they are here. There is a subtle yet powerful Hindu ethos in India that is absent in America. Immersion in the ethos of Hinduism, of course, does not a Hindu make, but it does facilitate engagement with the religious aspects of the tradition if one so chooses...The result is that very few Hindus in America think of themselves as being Hindu. One may very well ask, so what? Why does this matter? Why is it something we should, as a community, expend energy and resources in trying to change?

Some fear that adopting a Hindu-American identity would threaten an Indian-American identity or a South-Asian-American one. That fear reflects a misunderstanding of the interplay between identities. Identities do not have to compete with each other. Wouldn’t it actually be better to separate being Indian from being Hindu rather than conflating the two as some try to do? Cannot an Indian-American Muslim have two identities, one as an Indian-American and one as a Muslim-American? Indeed, I know of many Indian-American Muslims who are equally active in South Asian groups as they are in Muslim organizations. One identity does not have to supercede or substitute for another."
(Emphasis added)

Thanks so much to Ms. Bannerjee for expressing these ideas so well.

Someone on Ravelry also posted an article about a Black Jewish community that explores issues of ethnicity and religion and conversion.

I've discovered some more interesting posts on other people's blogs about the issues we look at here, so I'll be gathering those to share with you soon.


  1. That's a great article, and it sums up the issue of the future of Hinduism in America, which is, ultimately, in the hands of American Hindus, be they South Asian or Western.

    I've begun to think that what is needed in order for Western Hindus to contribute fully to the future of Hinduism in America is a Western Hindu organization. Such an association of non-South Asian Hindus could provide community support and a community voice for Western Hindus. It could make our presence known to South Asian-American Hindus and, I would hope, help us integrate into the larger Hindu-American community.

  2. I think CS is thinking along the same lines too. Maybe we should try setting up some meet-up groups in different parts of the country and see if we can come together and unify a bit...

  3. some one needs to write a better school book.

    i think without a community it is hard to maintain the culture or practice the religion.

    but doesn't such community exist in US? may be centered around the temples?

    though i guess temples would be relatively rare in US.

    - basu

  4. Aamba, that's exactly what I think. I imagine folks like us hit the web looking for such resources because there's really nowhere else to look. A web presence would be a good idea.

    There's the passive database option, where members would post their profile to a database and could search through the profiles to find folks in their area.

    Then there's the more organized option where groups would establish under a central organization's banner. The central organization would keep a list of area groups and their facilitators - just someone to receive emails for the group and be a contact for new members.

    It will take a lot of time to find people, but I think this blog would be a great place to start organizing.

    Also, a forum or email list for folks around the country to keep in contact and discuss issues.

  5. I just have to contribute my two cents here, and say to Art, yes, I think we do need something for people like us, who are western, who embrace Hinduism, and who have felt the sting of being told no, not for you.

    Yes, this is for us. No, we may not have been born and raised with it. And no, our spiritual compasses may point to other places, but we have found Hinduism in the marketplace of ideas, and we like what we found, so here we are, like settlers in a new land, and who decide maybe we want to pull in the wagons while we learn more about where we are, what it means, and how to stay safe.

    Maybe it starts with a web presence. Maybe it starts with reading groups at the Barnes & Noble or at a Starbucks or someone's home. Maybe we look to integrate with the larger, Indian, Hindu American community, or maybe we remain our own distinct community, with our own distinct practices and gravitational pull toward sacred sites here. There is no right or wrong answer. It's for us to create.

    Yes, Art, this blog would be an ideal place to form something for Western Hindus, because we feel safe and supported here, we can all relate to the stares and comments and patronizing lectures we tend to get. This is a good, safe place. Thanks, Aamba, for that.