Both-And: A Guide to Raising Interfaith Kids
In my last essay, I talked about marriage and how, when I think of marriage in the Hindu-American context, it is of interfaith marriage, and especially the future. Just as I am unable to stop at one essay on marriage, KJ Dell'Antonia wrote twice in the New York Times, first about what happens when a Hindu marries a Catholic and the second time about raising interfaith kids. The issues around parenting, raised in both her essays, are critical to why interfaith marriage has the potential to be very challenging for Hindu Americans. Rephrasing the Hindu in Dell'Antonia's story, "Only after one becomes a parent, does one's spiritual self matter to anyone else."
Most Hindus raised in America are the product of a spiritual tradition that is as much cultural as it is religious. Hinduism is largely linked to ethnic identity, and practices of different Hindu Americans take on the flavors of the specific sampradaya and regional background of the practitioners. Many of the immigrants who bring Hinduism alive in America do so without ever having lived as a minority and without having had to explain why they practice what they practice. As they parent, they often don't have the language or understanding necessary to explain to their Hindu American children what it means to be a Hindu, and it can be difficult to illustrate it through experience; a Bengali, a Telugu, a Marathi, a Gujarati (people from some of the different Indian language communities) will each celebrate festivals differently—and sometimes not celebrate the same holiday at all! It can be difficult to provide a shared experience amongst Hindu Americans, so that children can identify a specific activity with being Hindu.
I remember being in a prasad line one Sunday at our local temple, a time when we share a community meal after a religious event. A Board member and I got into a conversation about what makes someone Hindu. The discussion was difficult, and the question complex; in fact, Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst wrote a book that attempts to answer "Who is a Hindu?" In this book, titled Who Is a Hindu?: Hindu Revivalist Views of Animism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Other Offshoots of Hinduism, the author also compares Hinduism to monotheistic religions such as Christianity.
And perhaps that is where the story of the couple in Dell'Antonia's anecdote, and other interfaith couples like them, comes in. Hindus in India learn to be Hindu almost by osmosis, whereas Hindu Americans don't always have to answer what it means to be a Hindu until they teach their children about their faith and find ways to practice it. They live in a country where the educational system often portrays their beliefs unjustly, as exotic, and even with ridicule, making it difficult to recognize their tradition. It can even lead to a situation where children, possibly struggling with typical immigrant and cultural identity issues, refuse to identify as Hindu, with an outright rejection of the ancient faith of their ancestors.
Padma Kuppa is a writer, IT professional, community activist, wife, and mother working to build a more pluralistic society within a Hindu and interfaith framework. You can also read her blog A Balancing Act, at padmakuppa.blogspot.com. The views represented in this column are not a reflection of the views of any organization of which she is a part.