In a world where being Hindu is seen as antithetical to being enlightened, progressive, and modern; where being Hindu is equated with Hindutva, it is not easy addressing the Hindu-American identity.
Born and brought up in America, I didn’t think of myself as Hindu for a long time. Whatever religious or spiritual tendencies I had during my childhood and early teenage years were aligned more with Christian thought than Hindu ideas. That may sound strange, but given my circumstances of being an Indian-American born Hindu, it was not really so surprising.Most of my childhood friends were Christian, and I was interested in visiting their churches, where I was always welcomed with warmth and openness. I enjoyed learning about the religion, from discussions with friends, from various attempts at reading the eloquent and inspiring language of the Bible, from the televised biographies of J.C. My family celebrates with relish the material and spiritual aspects of Christmas, and though we never worshipped Christ per se, I still feel closer to God during the holidays. There is a subtle but powerful Christian ethos that pervades America, and to this day, it draws rather than alienates me.And so it was that when I first turned to God at the tender age of twelve, when I first tried to answer the burgeoning questions of the meaning of existence and the presence of the supernatural, my understanding was filtered through the framework of the Christianity that had seeped into me from my surroundings.
After all, I was vastly ignorant about Hinduism. While my parents held onto their faith, they refrained from imposing it on my brother or me. Certainly, a few times a year, we would troop over to faraway suburban high schools for Durga Puja and the like, but those celebrations had more to do with the socializing of the Chicago Bengali community, with eating and complaining about the poor quality of catered Indian food (while children like me demanded and received pizza), than it did with devotion to the goddess. We visited the local temples once in a blue moon and bowed down to deities whose names and religious significance I rarely knew.
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. I was familiar with comic books on various avatars of Vishnu but approached them as myths rather than parables of spiritual and philosophical truths.
So it was only natural that when I tried to make sense of my grandfather’s death, to understand, for the first time, who or what God was (if at all S/He existed), that my conceptions were of the Holy Trinity, of an eternal heaven and hell, of one life to live.
As it happened, there remained lingering questions in my untutored mind that were not satisfactorily answered by my limited, simplistic, and unrepresentative understanding of Christianity, or to be more precise, this vaguely Christian spirituality I had embraced. One day, my parents described to me the concept of reincarnation. The fascination and curiosity it sparked led me to clamor for further explanation, which led to a summarization of the doctrine of karma. I was hooked.
It was the first step in a process that has led me through the writings of Swami Vivekananda, the tales of Krishna, the televised serializations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that I watched on video with English subtitles, flirtations with hatha yoga and meditation, daily prayer (when I’m really good!), and much more. I began to see myself as a Hindu, because I began to understand the world through Hindu eyes, through the perspectives of karma, reincarnation, dharma, the various paths of yoga leading to moksha, and the adage that the truth is one and sages call it by different names.
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. My mother worried over a college application essay where I called myself a devout Hindu. She was afraid that this particular college with a strong Jesuit tradition would not approve. The college did reject me, though I’m sure it had more to do with my class rank and less than stellar grades than my religious affiliation. But it was a fear that afflicted me nevertheless. I did not want to be associated with the negative stereotypes of Hinduism, or to be considered a Hindu fanatic, since Hindutva was becoming synonymous with Hindu in the parlance of academia and popular media.
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 façade 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.
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. They tend to be hostile to the idea of Hindu student groups or Hindu identity-formation in the U.S. While a consciously Hindu identity may antagonize and alienate minorities in India, the same dangers are not present here. It is rather ridiculous to imagine that the fascist environment these scholars accuse a Hindu identity of fostering in India will be replicated in America, where Hindus are a political and religious minority. In fact, the development of a Hindu-American community could be a counterweight to the extremist politics, or “Yankee Hindutva,” that many of these scholars condemn.
Another source of frustration has been the nominally Hindu-American groups I sometimes joined. I say nominally Hindu-American because these groups tend to focus more on Indian politics than American issues. Involvement with these groups led me to feel more Indian but usually less Hindu. While I do feel that American Hindus should take an interest in some of these Indian issues as they have global ramifications, these issues should be secondary to American concerns. 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. Unfortunately, today, such a community and unified voice do not exist, though one may soon emerge.
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.
Can we develop a community and forge an identity that brings American Hindus together, bridging geographical, political, and class divisions, and represent our concerns and needs as adherents to a religion that has no institutional or centralized structure, that is more a collection of faiths than an overarching system of beliefs, with a name given by foreigners as a geopolitical designation rather than a spiritual one, a Hinduism that has yet to be satisfactorily defined?
I think we have to at least try. I think we have to try, because we have more to gain than we may have to lose, because though it may be a dangerous path to go down, it still presents less dangers than the other paths before us, because Hinduism has a lot to offer us, and we, as Hindus in a global village reinterpreting, readapting, and reforming our faith, have a lot to offer it.
When I urge the adoption of a Hindu identity for self-designated Hindus living in America, I am not advocating for the expression of Hindu pride or for the simple labeling of oneself as Hindu. Identity is something richer and more nuanced than a fixed label with static meaning and content. It is a process of engagement, of self-searching, of questioning and viewing through a particular lens or perspective. Just as there is no monolithic thing as an Indian-American, there is no monolithic Hindu-American. This process of identity formation is the continuous asking of what does it mean to be Hindu? How am I Hindu and how am I not? It is the process of questioning that is important, not the answer that is rarely, if ever, found.
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.
To learn about Hinduism in America, on the other hand, one has to be particularly proactive and wade through often inaccurate and biased scholarly work before arriving at balanced and authoritative texts. Temple priests are often so removed from the realities of the American experience that they end up turning off curious visitors rather than presenting the tenets of the faith in an accessible and attractive manner. Add to this the negative stereotypes prevalent about the religion and its poor representation within popular culture and the general media, and it is not at all surprising that the Hindu-American identity if present at all is weak.
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.
A Hindu-American identity may lead to more engagement with the spiritual aspects of Hinduism, and I think that could be a good thing. Religion and spirituality do not always go hand in hand, but I do believe that religion can often serve as a path leading to spirituality. If I were born a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist, chances are that I would be as devout a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist as I am a Hindu. Though the religions may differ vastly in their tenets, I think each of them would have helped me become more spiritual as Hinduism has. Through Hinduism’s development of the sciences of yoga and meditation, and the vast stores of wisdom and profound thought revealed in its scriptures, the tradition offers those who seek to understand it one possible avenue towards enlightenment and spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
Even discounting the spiritual value of Hinduism, greater awareness of the religion within the Hindu-American community is critical for its development in the intellectual and political realms. Misrepresentation of Hinduism occurs to a depressingly large extent within popular media and culture today. Local bookstores carry more texts on the sexual aspects of Tantra and Hare Krishna cults than they do on the Upanishads or the epics. Understanding of Hinduism in the U.S. today is filtered through the portrayal of Apu on “The Simpsons” or a few glossy pages from textbooks exoticizing many aspects of the faith. More is known in mainstream American society about caste, dowry, and cow worship than is known about the underlying philosophical concepts of Hinduism.
We cannot blame others for our own failings. The reason why Hindus are so poorly represented in campuses, in the media, and in society is because we do not demand or provide anything better. If academics perceive greater demand for balanced and thoughtful scholarship on Hinduism, the supply of such scholarship will increase. Unless Hindus take up the responsibility of learning about their religious background, characterizations of the religion as one primarily concerned with caste hierarchy, subordination of women, primitive rituals, and myths fraught with Freudian sexual undertones, will self-perpetuate. Of course, freedom of thought and expression should be encouraged in academia, but more conscious reflection on the part of Hindus and non-Hindus alike about the religion may augment the diversity of ideas reflected in American scholarship on Hinduism. Unless Hindus begin to think of themselves as Hindu, there will be little community momentum for creating a stronger, more balanced Hindu presence in academia, campuses, the media, and society at large.
Furthermore, a better understanding of Hinduism can generate knowledge valuable to American society and the world in general. Consider how the renewed interest in yoga (as yoga is understood in America today) has contributed to the wellbeing of many Hindus and non-Hindus alike. Consider current research demonstrating the benefits of regular meditation to mental and physical health. Consider the growing adoption of a holistic approach to medicine as embodied in Ayurvedic science.
Precisely because Hinduism has no internal institutional structure, it is susceptible to politicized and contested definition. Hinduism is being defined today by many thinkers hailing from the fringe extremes of the ideological spectrum, particularly in the arena of Indian politics, leading to increasingly polarized and untenable conceptualizations of the faith. Much as a moderate Muslim majority is needed to win the ideological war against terrorism, a moderate Hindu majority is needed as a counterpoint to the battle between the extreme versions of Hinduism being peddled today. A strong and growing Hindu-American community can help bring the debate over defining and portraying Hinduism to the center.
I want a world where I can be a proud Hindu without the term connoting visions of religious fanaticism or Hindutva nationalism. I want a world where Hindus take up the battle against today’s social ills, such as the current caste system and patriarchal notions, recognizing that true Hinduism abhors such bigotry. I want a world where my daughter can write proudly that she’s a Hindu in a college application without fearing she’ll be rejected for it.
But this world will never come to be unless there’s a revival of awareness about Hinduism among both Hindus and non-Hindus. This world will not come to be unless Hindus take the initiative of learning about their faith and proactively engage with and reform the practice of our religion. As American Hindus, we have the resources and influence to play a central role in the evolution of Hinduism in its cultural, spiritual, intellectual, and political dimensions.
Some may say that I am trying to publicize and politicize what should remain personal and sacred, that I am too self-consciously Hindu, that I am trying a little too hard, that I want it a bit too badly. Perhaps they are right; perhaps I am insecure about being Hindu, defensive about it, protective of my religious identity. But in a world where being Hindu is seen as antithetical to being enlightened, progressive, and modern; where being Hindu is equated with Hindutva; where to really learn about the religion I had to unlearn everything I was taught about it in school; where Hindus know less about their own religion than they do about others; where those who most strenuously proclaim themselves as Hindu are often the least Hindu of all; where Hinduism has become separated from humanism; what other choice do I have?
Aditi Banerjee is currently a student at Yale Law School. Along with her interests in international law and foreign policy, she is also drawn to issues related to Hinduism and the Indian diaspora.