Sad reality and bitter truths of Hindus in America

Vamsee Juluri
Vamsee JuluriAug 28, 2015 | 14:58

Sad reality and bitter truths of Hindus in America

Whatever extreme imagination the 2011 census might inspire in ideologues in India, reports about Indians in America only seem to affirm the idea of an endlessly cheerful Indian American Dream. Hindu Americans in particular have acquired a reputation as a wealthy community. News reports in India and abroad admiringly note statistics about the community’s income and education, as well as individual success stories like those of Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai. Hinduism, some journalists say, is the wealthiest religion in America.

Regardless of the merits of such claims, and the emotional and political debates that invariably follow, it must be said that for a community that has hardly been there for half a century, there is a well-deserved sense of pride about having navigated the best of both cultures. The community succeeds in the modern, secular world of science, engineering, academia and business, and also remains steeped in religiosity.

The temples of Hindu America have become a living and thriving symbol of the community’s aspirations. The recently inaugurated Karya Siddhi Hanuman temple in Dallas, for example, looms over the landscape of suburbia like a determined giant, a dream come true in this case not for some wealthy magnate but for a retired Telugu professor of sociology from a historically black college driven by love for guru, gods, and people.

Hinduism is alive and well in America, for sure, and so is Hindu American pride. Second generation Hindu Americans and more recent arrivals are both engaged actively now with questions of political and cultural representation. Racist stories about India in American newspapers and appropriations of Hinduism by America’s booming and sometimes disdainfully materialistic yoga culture are contested. Academia has been a growing concern, with the community waking up to the fact that it has very little representation in Hindu studies.

As someone who has been writing about some of these issues for several years now, I can say that the energy is palpable, the purpose becoming increasingly more lucid and beyond reproach, but as far as results go, there is not much to show, as of now at least. For a storied immigrant community, Hindu America is still incredibly voiceless in America. To recall one simple example, the California textbooks haven’t changed one bit after nearly a decade of struggle. One might even ask, given how egregiously Hinduphobic the lessons were, why did several class years of students and parents quietly go through school without challenging them before 2005? What does it say about us as a community that produces CEOs and millionaires but not enough of a truth-claim to replace lies with facts?

I am not without sympathy for the argument that this sorry situation is the result of historically hostile forces to Hinduism and Hindus having infiltrated seamlessly into the supposedly liberal, progressive, anti-racist quarters of academia in the US and in India. That is indeed the source of the problem, and the solution, which is still nowhere in sight, is ultimately one of decolonization and renewal. Yet, there is a problem in the community too, a problem in its perception of itself and the world, that needs to be addressed as part of the decolonization process too – and that is its attitude towards wealth.

What does Hindu America want from its success? Is it a material legacy that it wishes to leave for its children and grandchildren, or can there be something more? Is there a Hindu civilisational view of wealth, work, and the economy today that can be more meaningful than the simplistic capitalistic clichés of the day (which have replaced the even more depressing socialistic parables of an earlier generation)?

The challenge here is as much an intellectual one as a cultural and spiritual one. Hindu America has to sort out the question of what exactly Hinduism means for it. For one thing, one has to ask if everyone who is Hindu and living in America even feels strongly about being Hindu. The culture of Silicon Valley, for example, is perhaps far more secular-liberal and indifferent to the passionate calls for Hindu awakening one sees in other parts of the country like Texas. There might be many more demographic variations along class and generational lines too. For one thing, it seems to me that much of the temple building activity is coming from recent migrants from India rather than second-generation Hindu Americans.

Religiosity, and culture, both have deeper survival implications for the transplanted and the newly mobile perhaps, than those who already have a certain amount of rootedness in a place. I am also not sure whether the philanthropy of the new start up success stories extends to Hinduism as such, or whether it prefers to operate through more secular ideas of service. In other words, it also remains to be seen if those who have been tremendously successful in America feel a sense of debt to the culture and traditions that have made them who they are.

While no one can dictate how Hindu Americans ought to feel about Hinduism, it is definitely important for the community to step up the conversation on how Hindu Americans, and Hindus, more generally, could be thinking about global issues today such as nature, the environment, work, family, and money. In the absence of such a debate, it has become easy for the apparent success of Hindu Americans to be turned into a symbol for various political interests. The strongest point on which Hinduphobia exists today in academia, media, and activist circles after all has to do with the alleged elitism of Hindus in general and Hindu Americans in particular. If you are wealthy, successful, and seemingly accepted, then what ground do you have to complain about racism or misrepresentation?

The community, it seems, is somewhat confused on this issue. For many, even talking about issues of race and misrepresentation seems inappropriate, a rude disturbance to the myth of acceptance. This attitude, though slightly in decline now from what I can see, celebrates any kind of recognition by America as a sign of having arrived. An American professor wrote a big book of Hinduism? Why, we must be great, if someone were to write a book on us! This viewpoint rarely considers the possibility that the big book might be totally false, malicious, and even have existential repercussions one day. For others, who are well outside the older generation's just-adjust Hinduism model, there are no illusions about Hinduphobia where it exists. But they lack the intellectual and cultural resources to fight it in the manner that it ought to be dealt with, and approach an intellectual problem with a commercial if not mercenary mindset.

There is a lot of bluster and noise about funding Hinduism chairs, Hindu TV channels and the like, but in the end there is neither professionalism nor vision in making things like this happen. In the end, we are once again where we started, good with individual success at best, and nowhere in terms of a serious community presence in the cultural and intellectual space.

This is a problem that has often been noticed. I have heard people wonder why students from India come all the way to America at great expense to be taught most likely at least in part by Indian-origin professors. I have heard people wonder why every major hospital in America has Indian doctors, and yet there is no major Indian owned, run or inspired health care institution on such a scale here. There is so much air traffic between the US and India each year, and yet most of us travel on non-Indian airlines because there are very few options from India. There’s something similar to this happening with Hinduism in America too.

Either directly or indirectly, it seems to produce individuals who can function in an existing economic system productively, but not quite the vision to stop and say, maybe this whole thing in which we are caught up needs to change. Our sense of "dharma", it seems, is humbly subservient to the logic of "artha" as defined by others. For the two to be equal again will need more than individual success stories. It will need a widespread recognition that regardless of whether one believes in one’s civilisational value or not, there is an obligation one has to the social investment made in the past that has produced our talents and opportunities in the present.

How many generations of austere and simple living, mental application, concentration, study and the like have come before us to make us a culture that is so much at ease in today’s knowledge economy? And yet, we forget that it’s not just our individual effort and individual success that the world is all about.

I will consider Hindu America truly wealthy when it puts everything it has into something more than ephemeral self-congratulatory branding. It will be wealthy when it can offer, with all the weight of its intellect, dreams, and history, a civilisational vision not just for itself but for the world again.

Last updated: August 31, 2015 | 13:47
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