Concerns of American Hindu Youth
A student gives her impressions of the Drishti Conference in Boston
BY SUCHARITA JAYANTI
AS COLLEGE STUDENTS AND YOUNG PROFESSIONALS, MANY OF us are in an awkward middle ground. Being over the age of 18, and some of us over 21, we are adults by law. Yet whenever anyone says that word, we still find ourselves looking around, trying to find the “real” adult. We are told frequently by parents, teachers and society that this is our age to find ourselves.
Throughout our 18-plus years, the world has given us glimpses of various paths to traverse, samples of what life has to offer us. Parents, grandparents and relatives have passed on traditions, culture and samskaras —all intertwined with their own hopes and dreams for who we will one day be. Teachers have taught us keys to unlocking intellectual secrets, work ethics that will keep us disciplined, and lessons on how to interact with our peers. Gurus have given us practical philosophies to guide us and a sense through which we can view and accept all the changes in the world. Friends have passed on lessons of empathy and care, and, of course, the latest trends. Society being amorphous, has given us an ever-changing, razor-thin line of what it currently considers acceptable behavior, with opinions on everything, including politics, morality, fashion, music and religion.
To find ourselves within all of this is to make choices. We simply cannot be everything that everyone wants us to be, so we must choose what matters to us. One choice we can make is to embrace our Hindu heritage. In this context, the Hindu Students Council (HSC) held a one-day conference, Drishti. This Sanskrit word roughly translates as “sight” or “wisdom,” and the conference attempted to help young Hindus identify a vision of what their Hindu identity could be, and how it could weigh into their lives alongside the complex set of expectations placed on them.
The conference started with a meditation and prayer session led by Shri Sanjay Saxena of the All World Gayatri Parivar. He took the time to explain to his young audience the meaning behind everything he was doing. This set the tone for a conference that was quintessentially Hindu, while still being accessible to those less familiar with the traditions. We then transitioned to a student panel with the topic “What is Hinduism?” Each of five panelists from various universities across the United States described what Hinduism meant to him or her. These statements were followed by group discussions of the topic at tables around the room. Like the answers and discussions of thousands of Hindu gurus over the millennia, the table discussions ranged from describing traditions and pujas, to talking about devotion, to focusing on an overarching philosophy of attaining a state of eternal happiness.
Following this was a panel and discussion about cultural appropriation. Ravi Jaishankar, president of HSC and an alumnus of Rutgers University, initiated the panel and explained that cultural appropriation occurs whenever there is an asymmetry of power between different cultures. This allows the dominant culture to exploit its influence in subversive ways, which ensure that the original source of a particular cultural practice is not authentically represented. Arnav Kejriwal, a graduate of Washington University of St. Louis, added, “The dominant culture takes the parts of the practice they find useful and removes those they find unsavory.” In the context of Hindu Dharma, the panel delved into Hindu practices such as yoga, whose Hindu roots and deeper meditative and metaphysical practices are often shorn away in an industry centered on postures and appearance. Other practices discussed included color runs (Holi-like events), kirtan and Indian devotional dances.
As Hindus growing up in the US, the topic of cultural appropriation is rather confusing. On the one hand, second-generation Indian Hindus are more sensitive than ever to the issue. Having grown up being made to feel like outsiders because of our culture, the sudden acceptance of bits and pieces of it as disjointed fads is strikingly offensive. On the other hand, that same feeling of being outsiders has instilled in many of us a strong desire to fit in; and the acceptance of any part of our culture frequently strikes us as a step in the right direction. Shyam Bhatt, a senior at Stony Brook University and the president of this HSC chapter, noted that it is our duty to inform less knowledgeable people that “this is my tradition and this is how we do it,” but not to impose “this is how you should do it.” Another point brought up was that we ourselves often try to combine our Indian and American identities in ways that can compromise the authenticity of our Hindu traditions.
Students at the conference remarked that the panel was particularly helpful in learning how to educate their campuses about cultural appropriation. For me, this conversation became a wonderful backdrop over which to hear our guest speaker, Rajiv Malhotra, talk about the contributions and effects of Hindu Dharma on American society. This talk reminded me of why I am involved in HSC. When we speak about issues of religion and culture, especially in the Hindu context, the focus is often on learning the epics or the philosophy. HSC covers these topics well through online webinars, camps, retreats and on-campus activities. However, as we pass through this crucial phase of becoming adults in a country where Hindu Dharma is a minority tradition, I think it’s equally necessary to discuss why it’s important to learn about our traditions in the first place, keeping Hinduism alive in all its glory. After all, that is what will truly motivate us to engage.