“American Hindu”

29 Jun

by Aditya Desai

Shiva Vishnu temple in Lanham, Maryland, photo by Docku, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

My weekly temple trip usually takes place around the time the youth group finishes its classes and prayers. I never cared to participate while growing up, partially not being too religious and partially considering it somehow “against” a typical American childhood.

One week, a mishmash circle of teens, aunties, uncles, and young adults were discussing the future of the temple’s youth group. A Mustachioed Uncle, leading the discussion, rolled out various ideas to get kids involved. One mother piped in and commented with some disappointment that the temple should try harder to instill Indian values in the kids to counter their American ones.

That’s when Mustachioed Uncle spoke up and said:

“We are not trying to raise our children to be Indians in America, but rather American Hindus.”

This brought a smile to my face. What a perfect term. Hinduism becomes a tricky minefield in terms of culture because it is so intertwined with what it means to be Indian (food products have images of Gods on the packaging, for crying out loud).

Every week, the kids at the temple are always decked out in Hollister and discussing the new Lil Wayne single. This is their life as youth in America. Can we consider it Indian? Hardly.

Can it still be part of Hinduism? Hmm…

Imagine the Indian-American children who absorb American culture and art through school and TV. Then, at temple, they are bombarded with imagery and mythology of the Hindu deities, half-human, half-beast, with multiple arms and wearing shiny gold. Well, it certainly has a startling effect on a kid.

I remember the awkwardness I had celebrating Christmas and Easter with the other kids in school, not having any idea who Jesus was at the time. How to compromise this rift?

“American Hindu” is a great way to put it. Hinduism is, as some believe, a way of life rather than a system of faith and theology. Values and teachings; dharma, karma, and ahimsa; even ayurvedic medicine—all are meant as life practices. One can still fully enjoy pizza, Beemers, and the latest episode of Jersey Shore and still be Hindu, just as others are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and so on, while still being American as well.

At the simplest level, concretely stating the two cultures in the phrase “American Hindu” can empower Indian-American kids to appreciate those plastic eggs and gingerbread houses while knowing they have something similar from their own background and heritage. Perhaps if I had understood that as a child, or the temple teachers could have grasped a similar concept, I might have joined the youth group.

It’s a way of thinking that, hopefully, many Indian Hindu families (and that disappointed mother) can adopt.


Posted by on June 29, 2010 in Culture, Identity, Social Life


6 responses to ““American Hindu”

  1. M Raghavan

    July 1, 2010 at 12:33 am

    Mr. Desai,

    My compliments; I think you have really hit the point home. Our community has been here in the US for nearly 2 generations, and in some places more. We have established ourselves here, raised families here, and have built beautiful places of worship here. Yet, we still call ourselves Indians.

    It is high time that we see as ourselves as contributors to this rich American fabric, and consider our religion to be one of many that is free to practice in the American soil.

  2. Siva

    July 8, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Dear Mr.Desai,
    I, for one, identify with the ‘Mustachioed Uncle’. The term ‘American Hindu’ and ‘Hindu American’ are used often these days and hopefully this will help the youth as they grow up
    to hold both ‘Hindu’ and ‘American’ terms and concepts dearly to their heart. We will bring it up in the meetings of the Hindu Temples and so they can use this terminology to help bind the children and youth to identify with both as they grow up here in USA.
    Thank You for the posting

  3. AC

    February 27, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks Aditya, I enjoyed reading this. Did “Mustachioed Uncle” eventually explain further why he was so uncomfortable with the idea of his children identifying as Indian-American?

    He seems to set up an opposition between Indian language, culture, history, food, and art on one side, and Hindu philosophy, cosmology, and practices on the other. Why can’t one enjoy both? Is there really no meaningful difference between the identities and life experiences of a white American Hindu convert vs. an Indian-American Hindu child of immigrants?

    (And would a Catholic immigrant from Mexico be having this same debate, trying to decide between wanting his children to be “Mexican-American” and “American Catholic”?)

  4. Aditya

    February 28, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    AC –
    The Uncle’s overall point was mainly to discuss with the parents how to instill virtues of Hinduism in a way so that the kids may grow up in American society without compromising those beliefs in a non-Hindu-centric culture. In other words, show that Hinduism isn’t in opposition to American culture, so that they don’t feel like they have to “sacrifice” religion as they grow up in this society.

    While of course I cannot speak for the Uncle, my impression was simply that, as a temple youth group, his primary concern was to teach the kids about Hinduism and not necessarily Indian culture (although they are linked).

  5. ritesh

    October 2, 2011 at 10:31 am

    I’m in such violent disagreement with this idea that it’s not even funny. The idea of defining one’s identity is best described by who else one finds natural, unforced, affinity with. And in that sense, I as an Indian-American Hindu am naturally more familiar to an Indian immigrant of Muslim, Christian or any other faith than I am to a Balinese Hindu or a Caucasian Hare Krishna devotee.

    Indian-ness completes the character of an Indian-American immigrant like nothing else can. Trying to ignore this fact is really akin to sacrificing your cultural identity.

    Just do a thought experiment: Is an American expat in Singapore more similar to another American Jew expat in S’pore, or to the Christian natives of the island nation? The answer is obvious. Our national-cultural identity defines us much more strongly than any religion ever can.

  6. Aditya

    October 3, 2011 at 12:23 pm


    First, to clarify, many of these kids were not immigrants, but born in America. The issue was not to “choose” one culture over the other, but rather find a way to negotiate both. It was an exercise in terminology, a way to bring together Hinduism and Americana, which both have characteristics and principles that often clash.

    It seems that you see the situation same as I — that our religious, national, and cultural identities are all distinct from one another.

    If these identities are indeed distinct, my point was to show that this Uncle’s philosophy was one that could unite them. Since it was, in fact a temple group, the emphasis was on religion, which feeds very much into the Indian identity.

    Of course it comes down to natural and unforced affinities (just as one may align themselves by sexual orientation or gender). My point was to show those affinities are compromised when cultures clash and proper guidance isn’t given to help negotiate them. In this way, they could feel close to both the religious and national/cultural aspects of their lives.

    Hope that elucidates the matter.



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