Fifteen years ago, I was a community activist who came into the space of actively engaging diversity and working for inclusion. I live in Troy, the city with diversity second only to Ann Arbor, in a region with more immigrants from India than from any other country. I realized that the impact of 9/11/2001 on our community — local, regional as well as national — would be far reaching, and began building more bridges of understanding across difference. I brought my whole self into these conversations: an Indian immigrant, a mother, an active volunteer in the schools and my local mandir, the Bharatiya Temple of Metropolitan Detroit. A few years later, I became an interfaith activist, because the religion I practice was used to exclude me from an annual City-sponsored National Day of Prayer event.
When I entered the interfaith scene, I had to identify myself as a Hindu and explain the basics. I was often discouraged because I needed to use the same structure as the Abrahamic faiths to explain Hinduism’s precepts and practices. I was further frustrated by having to defend stereotypes of Hindus and ignorance about cultural or social practices that do not necessarily shape our realities as members of the diaspora. Examples of challenges to meaningful dialogue:
- While working on an interfaith toolkit, I had to correct a phrase where the Abrahamic religions were referred to as the “three great monotheistic religions.” I began questioning: What makes actually makes a religion “great”? If one considers the sheer numbers, Hindus are third in line (to Muslims and Catholics). And if it’s monotheism that’s referenced – what’s so great about it?
- All inter-religious events involving prayer, usually ended with Amen (Amin) – and I would exchange a commiserating glance with a Buddhist or a Jain (if one was even present).
- Co-panelists often brought up Jesus as a common point of reference – He was a Jew, was the founding prophet of Christianity, and one of the many prophets in Islam. I was left with silence (or to speak of my interfaith experiences around Christmas).
Comparing notes with other Hindus around the country involved in interfaith, I found many had often left the interfaith table as the dialogue was unequal. It was easier to seek “Shanti” than to insert it into the “Shalom, Salaam, Peace” of what often seemed like an Abrahamic unity fest. I focused on working with individuals and organizations that looked beyond Interfaith 101, and sought relationships based on listening, and partnerships to work for the common good, by joining the Board of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. And I brought my energy into advocacy, by joining the Hindu American Foundation’s national leadership team.
The Foundation’s efforts focus on policy, education and community relations. HAF has been involved in education for over a decade, particularly in wanting Hinduism to be treated in the same way as other faiths, in textbooks and curriculum. I was inspired by the diverse religious and ethnic partnerships the founders had created in 2005, similar to the diverse coalition we have today. I benefited from the academic advice that was sought, appreciated their perspectives on education about Hinduism, and learned scholarly methods to self define. As a Board member, I have watched as Hindu American community groups, parents, and children gathered at the California Department of Education (CDE) in Sacramento on March 24, 2016, and was disappointed when the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) made recommendations on a history and social science framework. The recommendations from a small group of scholars, calling themselves the South Asian Faculty Group, caused concerns: both the scale and substance of these edits, as well as the Commission’s apparent privileging of the views of one group of scholars over others, are not accurate or fair. As HAF’s Director of Education Murali Balaji recently said, asking for “Equity in educational content is neither a privilege nor asking too much.” In fact, the Foundation’s #DontEraseIndia campaign stemmed from a need to have a fair and accurate depiction of history, culture and traditions of Indian and Hindu Americans who wear and bear the legacy of India’s civilizational history.
I often discuss the need to balance one’s Indian and Hindu heritage – even though our Indian and Hindu identities are inextricably linked. Whether it is in the context of interfaith dialogue or in education frameworks, the term “South Asian” is a means to exclude, to diminish, and to eventually erase my hyphenated Indian-American identity. The pan-South Asian identity does not erase a Muslim’s religious and cultural history, as it would a Hindu’s. Islamic cultural history is not linked to a single ancient civilization, the way that Hinduism is inextricably linked to ancient India.
While religious and national identities for minority religious groups in America like Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus are very important, interfaith dialogue is no longer meaningful if everyone is not given an equal seat at the table. Issues should not be politicized in the context of current day American or Indian politics, or privilege one marginalized group over another. The Foundation is an established civil and human rights organization, quoted by the U.S. Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) in its annual reports, spearheading and supporting religious freedom initiatives through the International Religious Freedom Roundtable in Washington, D.C. and with other interfaith organizations. Members of HAF – be it staff or Board members – have a commitment to ensuring that marginalized voices and underrepresented groups have opportunities to speak out and define their narrative. HAF’s commitment to an accurate and inclusive world history and California history in this frameworks revision process are done in order to promote pluralism – a critical concept for interfaith engagement. In an increasingly globalized society, to have genuine interfaith dialogue and to ensure cultural competence, we must educate students of all ages about the religions of the world in a fair and equitable manner.