Sheetal Shah, 27, based in New York City, is the director of Development for the Hindu American Foundation, focused on fundraising and marketing. She was previously a corporate consultant and taught inner-city students for a year in Boston. She has a Masters in Development Management from the London School of Economics and a B.Sc in Computer Science from Georgia

Finding the Pride
Will my generation be fully absorbed in American culture and forget their Hindu identity?

By Sheetal Shah

In many respects, i am your average indian-american 20-something female. I enjoy Bollywood music and dance as much as hip hop and clubbing. I revel in Indian cuisine as much as I do in pizza. While I love visiting India, I am always relieved to return to the US. And I am Hindu. The fact that I am proud of being Hindu is what separates me, and only a handful of others like me, from most Indian Americans.

The Hindu and Indian identities have been intertwined to such an extent that few today make any reference to their Hindu identity. Most in my generation refer to themselves as desi or Indian. From personal experience, at first glance, it is nearly impossible for a Hindu Indian American to define where one identity stops and the second begins. But in writing this article, I realized that it is possible to find that fine line. Growing up in the US, where we are all able to form a strong American identity, it is important to understand that being Hindu and Indian is not the same. Yet so many Hindu Indian Americans today find the distinction inconsequential.

I generalize here, but Hindu Indian Americans seem to fall into one of three categories. First, there are those who are disconnected from being both Hindu and Indian. They have either never been taught or have resisted all efforts to learn an Indian language, enjoy the cuisine, or learn the philosophy of Hinduism. I will leave this group alone as the discourse concerning their “disconnectness” is a different topic altogether.

In stark contrast to the above group are those who embrace both identities. Not only does this group embrace its Indianness, they also have an understanding, appreciation and pride in being Hindu. They have studied Hindu philosophy, acknowledge its importance in the world today and are proud to share it with others. Unfortunately, few of my friends fall into this category.

The final group, which is my focus, are those Hindu Indian Americans who hide their Hindu identity but are proud to display their Indian identity. This group is not only inclusive of those Hindu Indian Americans who have been born and brought up in the US, but also those who are commonly called FOBs (“Fresh Off the Boat”—those who have just recently immigrated). Individuals in this group blast Bollywood music on their stereos, require a weekly quota of Indian food, and in college organize and attend Diwali shows which have lost any religious connotation. Diwali has just become an occasion to stage Bollywood style dances and throw massive after-parties.

While this third group has retained a sense of Indianness, they have resisted or suppressed their Hinduness. So I wonder, if you are Hindu and Indian, why is it ok to be Indian, but not Hindu?

A large reason is that those of my parent’s generation arrived from India with very little. They were forced to build a new life in a new country and many of them passed on to their children that which was easiest, the Indianness. Playing Bollywood videos and cooking Indian food is easier than explaining the underpinnings of Hindu philosophy. So, my generation grew up as Indian Americans.

In that transition, we lost the other half of our identity. Perhaps, many in my parents’ generation did not know Hinduism beyond the ritualistic aspects of puja and attending mandirs. And perhaps growing up in India, surrounded by millions of Hindus, they never needed to question the meaning of intricate rituals. But my generation does. And when we ask “Why?” and are met with ignorance, far from feeling pride in our religion, we shun it. We are embarrassed by it because it is different from our surroundings in America. So when we are asked about the “elephant-headed God,” instead of being able to explain the rich symbolism, we shrug it off and change the topic. We are embarrassed because we do not know. In response, we stick with what we do know–being Indian–and we hide our Hindu identity.

Ironically, it is only the Hindu identity that can last for generations. While my parents are staunchly Indian, my own attachment to India is less than my parents, and my children’s attachment to India will be even less. As the generations of Hindu Indian Americans progress, that Indian identity will continue to diminish until it disappears altogether. Just talk to the grandchildren of European immigrants who arrived in America much before Indians–they refer to themselves as Americans. My grandchildren will also be 100% American.

Hindu identity is based on a 5,000-year old philosophy of life that is universal. It is not based upon one’s birthplace. There is so much to be proud of. Hinduism uniquely teaches a tolerance and acceptance of multiple paths to God through one’s unique karma. It highlights the importance of performing one’s duty without attaching expectations to outcomes that cannot be controlled. It shows us that while we cannot control the world around us, we can control our senses, and thereby maintain internal calmness. Hinduism brings to the world the ability to control the mind, body, and soul through the practice of yoga. Of the world’s major religions, Hinduism is the only one whose explanations of the creation of today’s universe are largely compatible with modern day scientific thought. The list is endless. And yet so many Hindu Indian Americans are still not proud of their Hindu identity.

Fortunately, I have been raised to not only be proud of my Hindu American identity, but to ensure its survival. As the full-time Director of Development with the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a non-profit advocacy group, I have made a commitment to help build a national Hindu American voice by interacting with and educating leaders in public policy, media and academia, as well as the general public, about Hinduism and Hindu issues. I left a consulting career to work for HAF because Hindu Americans need a credible voice that is independent of an Indian identity; because without a united voice, our Hindu identity will be lost; and because I am proud to be a Hindu American.