It’s not necessary for devout Hindus to tolerate the secularized activities of “South Asian” college organizations—here’s my solution
By Anu Singh, Texas
Laptop? check. bedding? check. notebooks? Check. It’s that time of the year again: back to college. Freshman and senior alike, everyone is preparing their lists and starting university, although it may look different for those of us who are studying remotely this fall. Nevertheless, sooner or later we all will return to campus physically. But amid all this packing and preparing are we forgetting something? Did we forget to take our Hindu identity with us?
Exploring your religious identity on campus typically begins in student organizations or clubs. You would be hard-pressed to find a university in the US that doesn’t have a student club for Christians, Muslims or Jews. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a Hindu club at your university, you may not be lucky enough to find one and, if you do, it may be ineffective and unpopular. Students of most other faiths have strong student and faculty support for their clubs. However, many universities don’t even have a club for Hindus and those that do are not adequately supported by the students, academic departments or the greater community. So if you, like me, wanted to join a Hindu club as a freshman but realized that your campus doesn’t have one—tough luck.
But don’t worry, chances are your campus will have a vibrant, popular “South Asian” organization. As a freshman, I went to my university South Asian group’s Diwali celebration. At first, the idea seemed OK. Sure, it wasn’t a “Hindu” organization, but at least I could celebrate my first Diwali away from home with other students. I even thought maybe my college didn’t really need a Hindu organization after all. As I walked to the event, my naive eagerness for fellowship and celebration slowly died down. Loud Bollywood music bombarded my ears. With dismay, I stared at the marshmallow skewered on a stick that a club officer handed me in greeting. Confused at this alien experience of my first Diwali away from home, I stammered an excuse saying that I didn’t want one because I was vegetarian. “Oh, you’re vegetarian? No problem, here, try roasting this Oreo instead.” I wish I could say that I had the courage to tell him that the real reason I didn’t want a marshmallow was that I didn’t appreciate this secularization of Diwali. Instead, under the influence of the pressure to conform, I ate an offered ladoo, halfheartedly swirled a firecracker in the air, and headed back to my room to FaceTime my parents and join their Diwali puja.
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Marshmallows and Bollywood music certainly aren’t something to get this worked up about, right? These college kids are just trying to celebrate Diwali in a fun way, fusing American and Indian traditions!
Wrong. Stripping Diwali of its spiritual significance and changing it in this way was insulting to me as a practicing Hindu, especially since this was the only choice for students to celebrate Diwali on campus. Furthermore, no other religion represented in the South Asian group had its festivals celebrated and then denuded in this manner. The truth is, these organizations gain prominence on campuses by celebrating popular Hindu events such as Diwali, Garba and Holi, divesting them of all religious ties, and ultimately preventing Hindu student organizations from thriving. Why are Hindus the only major religious group who are unlikely to have an organization representing them on campus? Why are Hindu Americans the ones who have their festivals taken, secularized and made a joke of? It’s not just your festival they’re taking—they’re stripping your very identity, bit by bit.
As a university student, what can you do about this? I suggest you tackle this problem by starting small. This semester, if you find that your university offers both types of clubs, join and support the unabashedly Hindu organization. And if your university doesn’t have a Hindu organization, consider starting one.
If you choose to found a Hindu organization, it is important to gain concrete support from a faculty sponsor. Most universities have Hindu professors, and it is not necessary to have a faculty from the religious department to sponsor your club. You can network with local Hindu organizations to find potential faculty sponsors. Then investigate your school’s registration procedure for clubs—which usually involves training sessions, finding club officers and creating a constitution. If creating a club from scratch seems daunting, then consider starting a local chapter of an existing national club such as Hindu YUVA or Hindu Students Council.
After you have registered your club, begin publicizing your events campus-wide and create social media accounts. If your school has other Indian organizations or interfaith clubs, you can collaborate with them for events to gain a broader audience. Celebrating popular festivals like Diwali or Holi, along with holding dedicated discussions on Hindu topics is a good combination to amass more members while retaining authenticity.
Starting a Hindu club may be difficult, but it can be done. Even though we may feel alone and outnumbered, it takes only one person to initiate change on your campus, and that person is you. Whether or not you choose to bring your Ganesha murti to your dorm room, or talk about your religious life with friends, know that this option is open to you and there are others like you on campuses across America. It only takes networking with like-minded students, choosing the right student organizations to support, and overcoming hesitation to embrace your Hindu identity. While we prepare and start the new school year, let’s also choose to start this semester by being proud Hindu Americans.
Anu Singh, 22, is recent graduate from Rice University now pursuing medicine. She is involved in Hindu YUVA and is a contributor to the website The American Hindu. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.