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On Raising Hindu Americans in Detroit, Michigan

Parenting the Second Generation

As a first generation American who grew up in India, it seems counter-intuitive, at first, to be writing about growing up Hindu in America. Reflecting on my experience as a parent raising two Hindu American teens, though, a 19-year old and a 13-year old, I feel emboldened to put ‘pen to paper’ and share my thoughts.

Interacting with Hindu kids growing up in America today, I find that they primarily identify as Americans. They share and cherish American core values and have American role models from various walks of life. Whether it is music, sport, or dance, mainstream American culture is a powerful glue that brings people together, breaking down the barriers that divide. Nonetheless, every individual wears secondary identities based on such criteria as gender, ethnicity, religion and race.

Hindu kids too have nagging questions about their roots, questions like: Who is a Hindu? and What is our identity?

Immigrants in a New Home

The Acharya family at a wedding.Most first-generation Indian Americans reach the shores of this bountiful country in pursuit of the great American Dream. Many have advanced degrees in fields such as computer science, medicine, and biotechnology and find their skills and experience much sought after in the techno-commercial marketplace here. I immigrated to America from India in 2002 as an information technology professional, and my family came shortly thereafter. The suburbs of Detroit, Michigan welcomed us with traditional Midwestern warmth. I felt at home the moment I arrived in this new land, surrounded by the majestic great lakes.

About 2.7 million Hindu Americans, mostly of South Asian descent, live in America today. Second-generation Hindu Americans, growing up in the late 90s and the early 2000s, found the overall environment encouraging, allowing them to pursue a career of choice as equals. This has been particularly true where the Hindu population is highly concentrated in socially diverse states such as California, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. The environment is not always welcoming, though. In some regions Hindu Americans feel that they are “polemically tolerated,” in others they are simply “accepted,” while in a city like Detroit the diversity they bring the community is “celebrated.”

Prior to the 90s, Hindu children growing up in America faced more of an identity crisis. Parents were busy adjusting to the new land, pursuing careers, and establishing themselves. The younger generation seldom had opportunities to learn about tradition, faith, and culture. However, as the community stabilized itself financially, the second generation started making its mark in everything from spelling bee contests to corporate boardrooms in Silicon Valley. This was a great leap from earlier media-driven stereotypes of taxi drivers and 7/11 shop owners. A new confidence about our future developed, and a yearning was born for ways to draw inspiration from our rich cultural past and establish a distinct Hindu American identity.

The Heart of the Matter

A major challenge faced by Hindu American parents is conveying the essence of Hinduism to their kids. For many in the West, especially those in the Abrahamic traditions, faith and worship are an integral part of religion. For them, “religion” includes an inherent emphasis on adhering to the belief systems proposed by the founders of their respective traditions. Regular community worship each week tends to be embraced.

Hindu American teenagers in Michigan prepare for a clean-up day.By contrast, Hinduism is an ancient pluralistic civilizational framework that is based on freedom of faith rather than faith itself. The uniqueness of the framework is that every individual has absolute liberty in choosing a path of worship and adopting or rejecting a belief system. Hindu civilization is held together by two profound philosophical concepts : Vasudeva Kutumbakam (the entire Universe is my family) and Sarva Panth Samabhava (equal respect for all faiths). Accordingly, Hindu civilization has played a motherly role in ensuring that various Dharmic faiths that emerged from the civilization flourished unhindered and co-existed with respect and admiration. For an adult it might not be difficult to grasp the subtle difference between a civilizational framework that nurtures freedom of faith versus a religion based on theology and community worship, but try explaining that to a nine-year-old!

As a Hindu parent, I have to create explanations my kids can understand. I tell them to think about Hinduism as a way of life where “everyone lives in a community with a common shared backyard. Within each household, members privately practice their faith of choice. And when they all come out, sharing their backyard, the boundaries are invisible and insignificant.” Clearly this is not a religion where adherents live in fenced houses in exclusive gated communities.

I came up with a simple poem to explain our identity:

All are equal and all are free, all are part of our family.
We care for the weak and share when we eat,
We fold our hands and greet when we meet...
Namaste! Namaste! Namaste!

When it is right, we have no fear,
To show our might, we never fight.
We talk of peace, we have no foes,
We are friends of trees and nature as a whole.

We share our joy and love every life,
Be it the soul of a man or a tiny mole.
Yoga for the body and Gita for the mind,
For Black, Brown, Yellow, White, every shade and kind.
Respect for age is never hard to find,
We are a people that only try to bind.

Reforging an Identity

Girls prepare an indoor decoration for Diwali. – Photo: WikipediaToday we see a conscious effort in the Hindu American community to get connected with its roots. From Yoga classes to Bollywood actors, from classical dancers to spiritual gurus, every sort of cultural ambassador is in demand. Socio-cultural organizations such as Balavihaar and Balagokulam have gained popularity in temples, and youngsters are actively attending South Asian culture and language classes. Organizations like Hindu Students Council and Hindu Yuva are mushrooming on college campuses, and Hindu American youth are connecting with their roots in a more confident and assertive manner.

In America as in India, Hindu festivals play an important role in propagating our key values – living in harmony with Mother Nature and living up to our roles and responsibilities towards family, society at large, and the whole human family. Important festivals are celebrated in America with vigor and traditional fashion. The most popular is Diwali, which hails the triumph of good over evil. In recent times Hindus have become actively engaged during Diwali in contributing to the wider community through service projects such as food drives for shelters and highway-cleanup projects.

Hindu American engagement in the interfaith community is also showing an increase. More and more Hindus feel the urge to demystify Hindu values and concepts to the world, promoting the importance of including the diverse voices of wisdom from Dharmic and indigenous sources in the ongoing story of religion in America.