Accepting an Inclusive Identity: On Being an Indian-American Hindu

Accepting an Inclusive Identity: On Being an Indian-American Hindu February 2, 2014

I am a product of two republics: born in India, raised in America, I typically celebrate my American national identity through holidays such as the Fourth of July because I am a naturalized US citizen. So I didn’t think to get involved when a celebration of India’s Republic Day here in Michigan included Miss America – even though I share her cultural and linguistic identity as a Telugu-speaking Indian-American. But I wondered what my friends of Indian origin do, and did a quick survey. About a third of them do nothing, a third of them do something through their religious organization, and another third participate or attend an event like the one with Nina Davuluri, sponsored by the Michigan chapter of the India League of America – a multi-ethnic, multi-religious group. Indian immigrants bring to America the diversity of their home country – something which is reflected in the American experience as well.

Being American often means a hyphenated identity – Italian-, Irish-, Indian-American, etc. Although one doesn’t say Christian American, I have been involved with organizations over the years that put a religious adjective alongside the national identifier: American Jewish Committee, Islamic Society of North America, Hindu American Foundation. I have mostly rejected the term “Indian” in favor of “Hindu” – India brings a mixed bag of memories, and it is easier to be an American Hindu without the baggage of India in the interfaith circles that I move in.

India is the land of my ancestors, where I was born, where I have spent about a quarter of my life, where I laid the foundation for my career in the automotive industry with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, where I learned the practical aspects of being Hindu among other Hindus in the land of its origins, amidst a sea of other religions, languages and ethnicities. But India is also the land which I left to discover who I am and where I fit in the world, where I go through so many challenges going back as a visitor. It is also the nation I relinquished when I took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. My critical eye finds many things Indian inadequate: proper political governance that one would expect of a secular democracy, an abiding respect for the inherent pluralism of Hinduism that has enabled India to serve as both a cradle and a haven for other religions.

India can be synonymous with Hindu, an association I have not always been comfortable with – after all, as an American, I believe in the separation of church and state. I find it strange that so many Indian organizations celebrate Diwali, Holi and other Hindu holy days. On the other hand, I have found that Indians and Indian-Americans alike can be averse to self-identifying as Hindu. And if “Hindu” is not a good word, Hindutva (meaning Hindu-ness) is given even worse connotations. Other traditions that have been birthed in India do what they can to distinguish their religion as distinct from Hinduism – refuting the roots of dharma that we share. The Muslims that Mahatma Gandhi wanted us to find brotherhood with, flock to their Abrahamic siblings, restricting interfaith dialogue to those of the Book, ignoring those of us who have other books or none at all. The shared culture and subcontinent are lost in the politics of a divide exemplified by the rival nations of India and Pakistan. And if that were not enough, groups like the Indian American Muslim Council, organize events around India’s Republic Day without a Hindu representative, while taking an anti-Hindu, anti-India stance in the public square.

But a few friends – proud Hindus of Indian origin – celebrate India’s Republic Day as part of their religious heritage. It is one such friend’s comments during my quick survey that reminded me this: India made my parents who they are, and my parents taught me what it is to be Hindu. India and Hinduism are so intertwined that I must reconsider the importance of celebrating India and in identifying as an Indian-American. Neither India nor Hinduism were terms in common parlance when our scriptures and rich spiritual heritage first started. Sanatana Dharma – Eternal Truth and the Hindu’s name for Hinduism– is rooted in the Vedas of what is now India (and parts of modern day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan). It has taught me to be inclusive, just, compassionate, not just for India, but for all of creation. I should be a more inclusive Hindu and be proud to also identify as an Indian-American!

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