Putting Hinduism on the American cultural Map
“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Kipling, the champion of the all-conquering west. Actually, an inquiry into the history of ideas reveals that East and West mingled for centuries. Greek philosophy is indebted to Hindu philosophy. Christianity owes much to Hinduism and Buddhism, in particular its mystical and ascetic tendencies. The western science and philosophy grew up drawing the wisdom as well as the wealth of India. The wealth, wisdom and splendor of India dazzled the west for centuries.
During the 18th and 19th century Hindu thought influenced western intellectuals, German Romantics and American Transcendlists.
Today east and west interaction is no longer an academic exercise. It is a practical necessity.
HINDUISM IN AMERICA
In the past 150 years, Hindu philosophy has increasingly become integrated into American society. The fact is evident in American history. Hindu thought has been of special interest to many American intellectuals during the 19th century. The Theosophical Society of Blavatsky founded in 1875 was influenced by Hindu spiritualism and mysticism. Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavat Gita inspired the New Thought movement of Transcendalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Charles Filmore. Thoreau has written, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmological philosophy of the Bhagavat Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial”. In 1893, at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda affirmed the spiritual quest of the transcendlists and contributed significantly for the Hindu spiritual movements in the U.S. In 1894, Swami Vivekananda established the Vedanta Society in New York with a mission of spreading the tenets of Hindu philosophy in the U.S. During 19th century, Hindu philosophical concepts appealed to several American intellectuals and it contributed significantly to the development of transpersonal psychology, spiritualism and mysticism. During the last century several Hindu spiritual leaders such as Yogi Paramananda, Parbupad, Swami Sathicdanada, Swami Chinmayanda, Swami Rama, Pramukh Maharaj and Mata Amrathana Mai have spread the spiritual message of Hinduism and galvanized the American society.
In spite of intellectual interest on Hindu philosophy, Immigration law barred Hindu immigrants from the U.S during 18th and 19th century. By 1908, some Hindus and Sikhs have landed on the American west cost and worked in factories, farms, and railroad construction. These small number of early Indian immigrants faced violent racial attacks, social, economic and religious discrimination, cultural ridicule and hate crime. In 1917, 1924, 1927 and 1940, U.S Congress passed laws restricting Indian immigrants. In 1946, India was given an annual quota of 100 persons. In spite of anti Hindu violence and restrictions, between 1870-1965, a total of 16,013 Indians immigrated to the U.S. In 1965, the U.S passed the Hart-Celler Act abolishing nation-of-origin restrictions. In the first decade following the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, 96,735 Indians immigrated to the U.S. The second wave of Indian immigration was much different from the first. Today there are more than 2 million Hindus in the U.S. Hindus in the U.S work in most trades and professions. They are very well represented in small and middle-sized businesses, the computer industry, medicine, engineering, nursing, teaching and basic sciences. Hindu professionals are extremely successful. Our medium income is higher than that of the average American, according to the U.S. Census. Hindus have made valuable contributions in every major field of science and technology, human potential movements and promoted spiritual ideas. This has impacted American society in so many ways. Recently, America is witnessing influx of spiritual and philosophical ideas as well as practices derived directly from Hindu tradition. Hindus are a tiny minority surrounded by large non-Hindu cultures. But our influence in America far exceeds our number.
THE CHANGING CONTEXT
Our economic success alone does not guarantee the existence of Hindu community in the U.S. It needs in addition, some minimal cultural, religious identity and continuity. In the past few years, several surveys of young Hindus have shown an alarming lack of knowledge and interest in Hindu heritage. There is collective as well as individual assimilation in the form of secularization. Among secular Hindus, there is not even a moderate degree of religious observance or communal affiliation. And even a city with Hindu temples, they do not of itself ensure Hindu identity or ensure the continuity of Hindutva. Some Hindus are reluctant to identify them as Hindus. We are also living in a society of rapid social change, frequent mobility, radical life styles, rapid technological change, drug abuse, rock music, crime, violence, Christian fundamentalism, sexual promiscuity, and very many other social phenomenons, both large and insignificant. These widespread problems are robbing the family of its sense of permanence and its spiritual foundation. The circumstances in which the family finds itself today and the forces of disorganization undermine emotional security, personal fulfillment, and peace of mind. We are also living in a society where material success, and the accumulation of wealth receive great emphasis. There are several built-in pressures that make our survival even more difficult. Even the most casual observer of the American scene knows that the institution of the family is under ruthless attack. The impact of all of these pressures, cultural and contrived, lands hardest on our shoulders and fostering confusion and ambiguity concerning our role and status in this society.
HINDUTVA: THE SINGLE THREAD
In order to have a peaceful life, we have to embrace more firmly our collective commitment to preserve, protect and practice our religion. Such a commitment involves not only how we see ourselves, but also how others see us and how we react to their vision. While we need to theorize the Hindu identity to the challenges of living in a Christian society (one which is becoming increasingly fundamentalist), I urge Hindus to consider, at least, the Hindu identity as counter-normative to larger forces that devalues Hindu life. Hindus cannot afford any time outs in our ongoing efforts to maximize every available resource to proactively connect our people-to Hindu identity, to our common heritage, to an understanding of the responsibility each of us carry for the future of Hindus. Assimilation is not necessarily a worthwhile goal-and perhaps by itself may even be a shortsighted goal. Our collective is to help usher in establishing a Hindu identity. As Hindus, we must be proud to proclaim that we are not Christian or Muslim and are proud that we Hindus help alive alternative traditions and alternative narratives and practices to Christianity and Islam. Being a Hindu means being different and that difference is critical for preserving world spiritual culture.
BUILDING HINDU IDENTITY
I believe that Hinduism, rather than Christianity or Islam, could go a long way toward making our world a more peaceful and equitable place to live. For that we need to establish Hindu identity and unity. Hindu unity means that our capacity to create, spur changes, and cooperate in far greater than we can imagine. Hindu unity encourages interconnectedness, dialogue and shared concerns. Hindu unity broadens our consciousness, open new thought paths and enables us to identify and tackle common problems affecting Hindus. Our Hindu awareness dissolves the hard and fast worlds between us. Hindus around the world are in the midst of tremendous shifts in our consciousness, on the verge of a great leap forward unlike the world has ever seen. Hindus joined together can change America, and change the world. We need now to understand, participate, initiate, engage in dialogue and use our power to free our minds, hearts and souls from regionalism, linguistic differences, and pseudo secularism. It is time for us to assert our Hindu identity with proud and dignity. Hindu identity and unity will enable us to see the world with fresh eyes.
Understanding what it means to be a Hindu begins in our home. Our rituals teach important lessons about who we are. Our rituals and religious festivals teach us that we belong to a unique culture. And it contains spiritual narrative about what it means to be a Hindu. The ritual we practice, such as lightening a lamp connect us to specific meanings. Our religious customs and festivals also give us a touchstone for memory, a way to associate, over time with meanings, with our collective consciousness and their universal power. Our samskaras transfer the memory of who we are from one generation to the next. They give us specific cultural and religious meanings that form our identity in one way, and they give us universal, human activities that connect us to all Hindus. Establishing a Hindu identity is possible only when we practice our religion, art, music, rituals and festivals.
BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE
Hindu life in America can only have a future if it is rooted in Hindu religious tradition and if, it confronts its own special challenges including pseudo secularism, assimilation and inter religious marriage. It is hoped, in the near future a new generation of Hindus in America will emerge with an undamaged, uncomplicated sense of Hindu identity, spiritual power and moral grandeur. Remember that the single greatest influence on whether we will have Hindu grandchildren is religious observances in our home. This outweighs any other influence. There are problems in practicing our religion, in establishing a Hindu identity, but we must never internalize it and let it affect our Hindu identity and unity. Nothing is more practical than a commitment to our Hindu values and ideals. The best hope for our future is to commit ourselves with Hindutva from which a fresh understanding of our status in American society and our role in the scheme of things. Let us all work in uniform and establish our Hindu identity and unity. Let us use our synergy to produce the most effective representations of ourselves in the world. It has to be done. The rewards, however, can be enormous.
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