by Aditya Desai
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.