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The challenges before Hindu Americans

The challenges before Hindu Americans

Author: Ramesh Rao
Date: October 20, 2004
Publication: India Post
URL: http://www.indiapost.com/members/story.php?story_id=3874

The word "Hindu" has become a term of contention if not abuse, and  while a variety of enemies proclaim that they are not against Hinduism but against Hindutva, or Hindu fundamentalists, or against the RSS or BJP, we need to be careful at taking them at face value. For what is being attacked is Hinduism as a way of life, and Hindus as a political and social force.

Unfortunately, many modern day Hindus are not aware about these battles, and sometimes even less aware of their own way of life. It is therefore important to teach Hinduism to Hindus, so that they become more effective political and social actors.

Nature of Hinduism

According to experts, Hinduism had originally a geographic significance - the faith of the people of "Indus-land". Indigenous names for Hinduism are "Sanatana Dharma" and "Vaidika Dharma". Veda means "God knowledge", and this knowledge does not owe its origin to any historical personage or prophet. Though the Vedas are considered an authority, Hinduism is not a dogmatic or authoritarian religion. Philosophy, in the West, arises out of intellectual curiosity, but in the East, philosophy has always been regarded as a way of life, and an avenue for spiritual realization. Philosophy, in India, is the pathway to religion.

Hinduism admits that there is a soul of goodness in things evil. Transcendence of evil is the end. All Hindu sects emphasize the need for ethical life as an indispensable condition of spiritual realization. Right speech, right thought, and right action are insisted upon by every school of Hindu thought. Conduct counts more than creed. Thus Hinduism, both philosophy and religion, is not so much a way of thought as much as a way of life.

The greatest feature of Hinduism is its "catholicity". It allows the widest freedom in matters of faith and worship.

The Vedas constitute the primary source of Hinduism. One of the fundamental beliefs of Hinduism is that there is one all-pervading and all-transcending Spirit that is the source of all beings - God (Ishvara) or Absolute (Brahman). The universe rises from, remains in, and returns to God. This God is all - masculine, feminine, young, old, facing in all directions, has taken all the forms that we see. This conception of the Godhead has led to the Hindu doctrine of incarnation (avatara). God is not a detached spectator of the world-process. He guides it, participates in it, but is not defiled by it.

Hinduism, along with Jainism and Buddhism, lays great stress on non-violence (ahimsa). God is all. Joy is not in hoarding but in giving. Attachment to the finite and the perishable is evil, and is the cause of sorrow. Renunciation of attachment is the highest good.

Now that I have summarized what I believe is the fundamental thrust and shape of Hinduism, let me talk about the challenges Hindu Americans face, and the opportunities they have.

About Challenges

* Hindu Americans are divided and identify themselves according to linguistic and caste groups.

* Hindu American concerns and challenges need to be identified in terms of their socio-economic backgrounds.

* There are generational and ideological differences among Hindu Americans.

* There is no clear understanding of the fundamental principles of Hindu philosophy and way of life.

* There is a divide between those who identify themselves as "secularists" first and as Hindus second.

* Hindu Americans are still a new and small minority.

* The carryover of social, cultural, and familial practices from India and the clash of those practices with the reality of mainstream America can and has led to a variety of interpersonal, family, and social conflicts.

* Inability to discuss interpersonal problems and family issues has led to generational conflicts about sex, drugs, marriage, dating, food, choice of careers, etc.

* Hindus have been called "anarchic individualists" and as such we see the constant splintering of Hindu groups, most often than not due to personality conflicts and agendas rather than on philosophical or ideological matters.

* Inability to focus on specifics, importance to symbolism rather than substance, lack of conflict management and public speaking skills have marred many Hindu American efforts.

* India beset with a variety of problems - poverty, overpopulation, security threats, illiteracy and poor education, malnutrition, poor infrastructure, lack of medical facilities, regional/religious/caste divisions - and these problems/ challenges color our response to challenges we face in the US.

About Opportunities

* Hindu Americans are a fairly wealthy group, with still untapped resources.

* We are a well-educated group with English language skills.

* We have quite a large number of professional people with great managerial, scientific, and technical skills.

* We have a great culture -- meditation, yoga, ayurveda, and vegetarianism - which is in major demand in mainstream America.

* Ours is not a proselytizing religion, despite the Hare Krishna movement or the Art of Living clubs!

* We do not have a rigid hierarchy/structure in the community and so there is the possibility of putting plans into action quickly (it can have the opposite effect too.)

* Second generation Hindu Americans are hungry for knowledge/information on India, and in turn these youngsters are comfortable with and confident in dealing with mainstream America.

* We have a large group of academics. Those in the technical, business, and professional fields are inclined to favor Hindu-American efforts. We need to watch out for those in the social science and humanities areas who tend to hog more media space and who are critical of Hindus and Hindu practices.

Academic exercises have their place, but we should realize that neither should we be bamboozled by them, or resort to them without specific need.

(The above is paraphrased from a speech delivered at the Hindu Ideological Empowerment Symposium 2004, held at Nashville, Tennessee on September 18 2004. Ramesh N. Rao is professor of communication at Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri.)

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