The Critical Search for Identity
Two essays on what it means to be a Hindu and an American
The Hindu American Foundation conducted its annual essay contest in which young writers were asked how the following quote by Swami Vivekananda inspired them to be Hindu American advocates: “The intensest love that humanity has ever known has come from religion, and the most diabolical hatred that humanity has known has also come from religion. Nothing makes us so cruel as religion, and nothing makes us so tender as religion.” To see other winning essays visit their website at bit.ly/hafessays
MATA, PITA, GURU AND DEVAM ARE THE FOUR WORDS THAT MY GURUJI RAISED ME WITH. Always respecting my mother, father, teacher and God is a belief that has been inculcated in me from a young age. From going to Balavihar classes on Sunday to shloka classes on Wednesday, Hinduism has been with me every step of the way. My guruji would always end the class with, “Be proud of who you are; be proud to be a Hindu.” Growing up in a strong Christian city where there are churches every half mile, I am often faced with difficult situations that only my faith has helped to overcome. From my classmates demeaning my fourth grade Kathak dance at our school’s talent show to the look of disgust when I tell them that I do not eat beef—a staple food eaten by most Texans—I have become stronger as a Hindu throughout each and every obstacle.
I have seen throughout my lifetime how religion has changed people, broken friendships and ultimately made others feel insecure of their lifestyle. My childhood friends whom I used to see at shloka class now call themselves atheists in an attempt to fit in at our high school. When I inquired about the reason for such a drastic conversion, they said they could not take the isolation anymore. At that moment, I realized I have been blessed with a rare and accepting group of friends who have never imposed their faith on me. They have come to the temple with me for celebrations such as Holi and Diwali and constantly want to know more about Saraswati, Ganesha and the other Gods that they see at my house. Because of my friends, for these past few years I have been oblivious to the outside world where many people are not so accepting of other religions.
On December 14, 2012, we organized an Indian day at school. Hindi music played through the intercom, people of different races wore kurtis and churidars borrowed from their Indian friends, and after school we had samosas and chaat for those who participated. This was a proud day for many of us Hindus, because we were able to show our culture to others in our school.
Religion should not be something that separates people but rather something that inspires others, different and alike, to come together and learn more about each other. In the twelve grade levels of school there are two grades, sixth and tenth, where we learn about the main world religions. I noticed that both times we spent a week on Christianity, four days on Islam, three days on Judaism and Buddhism, and only one day on Hinduism. On that one day of Hinduism, we watched a 50-minute video that focused only on the caste system. While watching that video, I realized that this is where people base their views of Hinduism, in an obsolete caste system that is denounced by most Hindus. With such inadequate and biased knowledge, when my classmates even confuse Hinduism and Islam, I cannot blame them.
After watching the video again in tenth grade, I talked to my teacher about spending another day learning about the real aspects of Hinduism that are still in practice today. To my surprise, she assigned a project to all of the students the following day which focused on India’s many ancient discoveries. I was able to pick and present both the inner and outer discoveries made by Hindus. I was able to tell my classmates how the concepts of karma and dharma are essential to Hinduism as well as the ideas behind reincarnation and moksha.
Hinduism impacts the everyday choices we make in life through verses in the Vedas. Sayings like those found in the Taittiriya Upanishad, Yajur Veda, such as “Satyam vada,” meaning “speak the truth,” and “Athithi devo bhava,” meaning “let your guests receive from you hospitality like a God,” are beliefs that Hindus follow daily.
After reading Swami Vivekananda’s quote, I have been inspired to initiate more Indian days and other events to spread the knowledge about true Hinduism. By dancing at events for the past few years such as the Brazos Valley World Fest and CRY India (Child Rights and You), I have been able to share with the community my culture and religion. Now as I go into my junior year at school, I wake up every morning, get dressed, and just before I leave my house I put vibhuti on my forehead and go to school. Initially people would tell me I had “white stuff” on my forehead, but after explaining to them that I am fully aware of it and that it is part of my religion, the questions eventually stopped.
As I grow up, my friends will change, my schools will change and my future may change; however, my religion will never change. I will always be able to say, “I am proud to be a Hindu.”
ANTARA DATTAGUPTA, 17, is a junior at A&M Consolidated High School in College Station, Texas. Raised under the teachings of her Guruji, Anu Shamugam, she is a proud supporter of HAF
A BOUT A YEAR AGO, I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO EXPERIENCE Swami Vivekananda’s words in a very personal way. I spent a portion of my summer traveling to communities across the East Coast, interviewing recently settled Bhutanese refugees from Nepal. I wished to better understand the role of religion in the resettlement of Hindu refugees. At the time, I also began to reexamine my own views of religious tolerance and pluralism. For the first time, I understood the importance of being a Hindu American advocate.
I went to the homes of dozens of Bhutanese families, asking them to open up to me about their life experiences. These families were forced to flee their birth country of Bhutan due to religious and ethnic persecution in the early 1990s. They lived in Nepal’s refugee camps, many for more than 20 years, before the United States government (and other countries) granted them citizenship and a chance for a new life. They endured this suffering largely to preserve their religious freedom and maintain pride in their identity. Yet now, after moving to America, some have given up their Hindu practices or even converted to other religions. This was shocking to me. I needed to understand the cause of this conversion.
A 27-year-old I spoke with in Massachusetts shed some light on this issue. He explained, “Some of the churches, but not all, provide old furniture and clothing for the new arrivals, and it is helpful. People go to the church just to get the furniture and whatever they need, but they do not think about conversion. But, after some time, the people at the church indirectly convert the Bhutanese people.”
This is exactly the tension that Swami Vivekananda describes—the power of religion to simultaneously be a remarkably helpful and equally destructive force. In this instance, the church community is doing good by providing necessities to the Bhutanese and helping them to acclimate to their new environment. At the same time, however, their actions could also be seen as coercive and unethical because the group may have ulterior motives for providing help.
My immediate reaction was to feel angry towards these outside groups for targeting vulnerable Hindus. Soon, however, I realized I needed to take a closer look at my own actions and those of our community. Was there more we could have done to prevent it?
The underlying beauty and purity of Hinduism comes from teachings such as Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, “We are all one family,” and Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti, “Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” We are incredibly lucky to be part of a faith that is so fundamentally accepting and progressive. Yet, in practice, religious tolerance and pluralism can only thrive when complemented by strong faith and advocacy. What do I mean by that? It is certainly against our Hindu principles to coerce others and provide assistance conditional on religious affiliation; and this is honestly one of the reasons I am most proud to be a Hindu. But it is also against our faith to be passive and not advocate or intervene when it is required. The general absence of our community in the resettlement of Hindu Bhutanese refugees in America is an illustration of this reality.
After learning of the hardships facing Hindu Bhutanese in my local community, I was inspired to make a difference, but I was not sure how to begin. I took small steps on my own. I educated students and faculty at my university about the issue, and I volunteered with a group of Bhutanese youth to teach SAT classes, create a library of study materials and organize college tours in Boston. Yet in the large scheme of things, I did not address the root cause of the problem.
When you see injustice against members of the Hindu community, whom do you turn to for help? What do you do to stop it from happening? These were the questions I grappled with, and I quickly realized that most Hindu Americans, including myself, do not know how to answer these questions. As a community, we often fail to collectively organize and advocate for our beliefs.
By forming a stronger coalition of Hindu American advocates and by supporting groups like the Hindu American Foundation, we will have the power to do so much more. We could lobby local lawmakers to provide stricter oversight over conversion in government-funded resettlement agencies. We could pressure local school boards to teach Hinduism more comprehensively, rather than just focusing on cows and the caste system. And looking back, we could have shown much more solidarity with the victims of the 2012 Sikh Gurudwara shooting in Wisconsin.
Advocacy is the main avenue through which we can play a bigger hand in shaping the broader society we live in. Throughout the United States, there are countless religious groups that spend significant time and money to ensure that their opinions and values are heard. While we can never forget to be respectful of all those around us, we must also learn to speak up and ensure that our Hindu American voice is not forgotten. We cannot allow our open-mindedness and tolerance to be confused for ambivalence or a lack of steadfast faith in our Hindu principles.
SADHNA GUPTA, 22, is a business consultant at Corporate Executive Board in Washington DC. Having graduated from Duke University in May, 2013, with degrees in public policy, global health and economics, she plans to become a community organizer and development practitioner.