An informal survey revealed much about what my fellow Hindu kids are experiencing as they mature as one among many minorities in a diverse land
By Sanjeevani Dedge, 13, California
How do hindu children practice their faith in America? What support do they get? What challenges do they face? How do they go about dealing with them? These are some of the questions that have always intrigued me as a growing Hindu American myself.
Wondering how to find the answers, I realized I could do a study along the lines of the surveys of the youth of India, Nepal and Mauritius that have appeared in recent issues of Hinduism Today. There’s a big difference between those surveys and mine, however: age. While their definition of “youth” began in the 20s and cut off somewhere around 35, mine was 10 to 18, the American definition.
I created a questionnaire in discussion with friends and family and drawing on my own understanding of topics that relate to Hindu Americans. I set up the survey in Google Forms and made sure it was simple to fill out and not too long. The survey included multi-choice questions on topics such as language, traditions, food, yoga and praying habits. It also asked questions which required written answers, such as “Has anybody made a rude comments about Hinduism to you; if so, how did you react?” Or “To you, what is the best thing about Hinduism?”
The survey received responses from Maryland, California, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois and Arizona. Thirty-nine respondents provided a fascinating journey into the young Hindu American mind. Let’s walk through it!
Influence of Language: Twenty-eight of the respondents speak their mother tongue at home, including Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Punjabi, Marathi, Pahadi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Tulu, Saurashtra, Hindi and Urdu. Since all also speak English, this means that 28 of 39 are bilingual. Brain science studies have showed that a multilingual brain develops more densely, enhancing problem solving, cognitive and diverse thinking skills. How amazing is that?
Practicing Yoga: Twenty-eight practice yoga at home, more than I had expected. Of those, all said they do it for physical benefits, and about half said they practice it for mental and spiritual benefit as well.
Food Habits: All of the participants’ families cook Indian food at home at least once a day, and 30 of them more than once a day. It is encouraging that the respondents eat Indian food so often, because Indian food has been well established for centuries and is very healthy and balanced.
Religious Influence: There were multiple influences in each child’s growth as a Hindu, starting with the parents of 37 respondents. It goes without saying that leading by example is best, right from attending puja to wearing a bindi and Indian clothes.
It was more unexpected to find that 30 of those surveyed said their grandparents had a direct influence on them. Most grandparents visit the US only once in a few years and then only for a few months; and we kids visit the grandparents in India also only once in a few years, and also only a few months. Yet, they still have such a strong impact on us.
Pro-Tip: Parents, try to bring grandparents to the US more often!
Twenty-six said they were influenced by Hindu religious movies. This was more than various cultural classes which stood at 22, or books such as the Amar Chitra Katha series which were at 21. This data point needs a closer look. The influence of Indian media is impressive, given the fact that the kids mainly watch mainstream American movies.
Pro-Tip: I personally see a huge opportunity for media movies or animations created specifically to serve Hindu American children and contribute to their development.
Five of those surveyed said they were influenced towards Hinduism by doing pilgrimage with their parents.
Pro-Tip: Hey kids! When you are in India insist that your parents visit places of pilgrimage such as Varanasi and Mathura. Even local pilgrimages when visiting your ancestral home can be great learning opportunities.
Only five said they learned about Hinduism on their own. That shows hand-holding is very important.
Wearing Indian Clothes: All of the respondents have worn Indian clothes. Six said they wear Indian clothes at least once a week and nine said they wear them at least once a month. Most said they only wear Indian clothes in conjunction with festivals. When they wear Indian clothes outside of Indian places, such as at school, most got positive or neutral responses. For example, Aanchal Kale wrote, “I get comments like, ‘Wow, what a beautiful dress, where did you get it?’ ”
Knowledge of Hindu Literature: The diversity of responses to this question not only provided a peek into the books kids enjoy, but also added to my own reading list.
The Ramayana and Mahabharata were the best known, with nearly all of the kids familiar with both. The works of modern saints such as Swami Vivekananda were inspiring to 24 of the participants. Twenty- five knew of the Pancha Tantra stories and the Vedas. Books on historical figures such as Shivaji Maharaj are a source of inspiration for 16. Lesser- known literature included the Natyashastras on dance and theater, the Puranas, the songs of saints such as Kabir, and Tamil literature such as Tirumurai.
Religiousness Compared to Parents: Twenty-three respondents feel they are as religious as their parents, while 16 said they are not as religious. No one said they are more religious than their parents, which I didn’t find surprising.
Home Shrines: While all respondents say they have a home shrine of some kind, only 24 pray daily at home. Seven pray at least once a week, and five at least once a month. These responses were similar to those about how often they visited the temple. Seven go once a week, 9 once a month, 21 only for festivals, and 6 rarely.
Cultural Activities: As someone passionate about karate and bharata natyam, and trying to balance time myself, I have been interested in knowing what cultural activities appeal to kids my age. The responses were diverse.
Classical singing, including Carnatic and Hindustani, was the most popular activity, attended by 17 out of the 39 respondents. Second was language classes of Hindi, Sanskrit, Kannada or Tamil, attended by nine. Seven practice classical dances such as bharata natyam and kathak. Five attend cultural weekly programs such as balagokulam, dharma classes or Bhagavad Gita chanting. Three play instruments, such as the bansuri flute. One respondent is not attending any cultural classes.
Interestingly, only one person goes to yoga class. It likely means that many kids are learning yoga from their parents or in other ways, since in a previous question we learned that 28 are practicing it.
Rudeness Due to Faith: With the question of experiencing rudeness due to being Hindu, 12 respondents confirmed that they have indeed faced it. The intensity varied from blunt insults (“bindis look like blood”) to misinformed attacks on the religion right in the classroom: “My 5th-grade history teacher spent a long time berating Hindu practices, without giving any context. As I was in 5th grade, I ended up getting very angry and mad at him, but he simply wouldn’t listen and sent me to the principal’s office.”
Neelakshi Iyer reported this attempt at conversion: “Mom once invited our Christian neighbors for Navaratri and our neighbor told her that these Gods aren’t God, only Jesus is.” Meenakshi Iyer got one along similar lines: “Someone told me Hindus don’t believe in evolution and our Gods aren’t real Gods. At first, I tried to explain the concept to her but she didn’t listen, so I ignored her and walked away from the conversation.”
Hindu Activities at School: The response I got to this question surprised me: 23 respondents have conducted some sort of Hindu activities at school. Of those, nine said they gave a Diwali presentation and an equal number did a yoga demonstration, usually Surya Namaskar. For example, Spoorti recounted, “In elementary school, my family and I conducted a Diwali art project, and also taught my classmates about Diwali. We have taught the Surya Namaskar in my sister’s class, and the teacher really liked it.”
How to Be a Better Hindu: Responses to this question fell into two approaches: 1) follow traditions and practices and 2) learn about Hinduism, including educating others. One respondent felt they should focus more during the monthly full-moon havana, while another said they should pray daily and go to the temple more.
One seeks to “be educated about my culture and able to clear up misconceptions that people have.” And another: “I think I should educate myself on the past—Hindu philosophy, mythology, and other ideas and things that derived from Hinduism.”
Although most of the responses fit under those two categories, some respondents had rather different thoughts: “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a ‘good Hindu.’ Everyone practices in a way that is right for them.”
Applying Dharma in Daily Life: When it came to practice, most responses emphasized either being respectful to all or participating in puja and prayer.
By far at the top was being respectful and responsible towards others. This included not only elders and humans but also animals and plants. The feeling came out from 16 respondents in many beautiful ways. Typical responses were, “accepting everyone for who they are, and by respecting life around me,” “don’t take life of an innocent animal,” “protect nature and Mother Earth” and “I do not take the life of an animal just so I can fill my stomach.”
Several responses related directly to karma. One said, “I try to help my parents and my brother out when I can, to get positive karma. I don’t cheat in school, to prevent negative karma.” Another answered, “Follow dharma as daughter, sister, student.”
Acceptance of human beings irrespective of differences is a direct way the kids apply Hinduism’s teachings. As one put it, “Respect others, respect everyone, even those with differences.” And another, “by accepting everyone for who they are, and by respecting life around me.”
Respecting elders has been an ancient tradition, and several called it out as way to apply dharma in daily life, for example, “Ask elders for blessings” and “treat elders with respect; touch their feet.”
Puja or prayer was important to 16. One said, “I do pujas with my family, especially during major festivals.” Another said, “I seek Ganesha’s blessings every time we buy or start something new.”
The Best Thing about Dharma: The spirit of this question was for respondents to express the one thing they like the most about their faith. To me, it was among the most revealing questions. Thirteen respondents talked about Hinduism’s flexibility. One, Yagnee Makwana, wrote, “I think one of the best things about Hinduism is that it is open. There is no rule that you have to be Hindu to follow certain things in Hinduism, or to do things that are in Hindu culture. Hinduism is accepting of all religions, races, genders, sexualities and more.” Sowmya Venkatesh stated, “Hinduism is the epitome of cultural refinement and wisdom.”
While this survey serves as an baseline to peek into the young Hindu-American mind, there are opportunities to reach a wider group in future studies. The group in this first study all had a shrine at home, which means we were reaching fairly religious families. In the future, I’d like to collect random samples such as asking Hindus I see in front of grocery stores.
I would love to get insights on their media habits that help them shape them as Hindus. Yes, over half said they were influenced by movies, but I’d like to know more—the language, period and themes of the movies. I also want to try to conduct this survey in India to compare the results, and see how living in a different country can affect one’s upbringing as a Hindu child.
The responses to my survey were vibrant and true to the principle of “Unity in Diversity” that is common in India. The survey responses reflected diverse viewpoints, yet, at the same time, there were common patterns. I got introduced to so much with this small survey—about kids’ practices, families, inspirations. The opportunities that this survey discovered can bind us further together, as young Hindu minds are fascinating!