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Why Hindu Americans Should Care about Advocacy

by Sheetal Shah

The Importance of the Hindu Narrative

About seven years ago, I found myself in the rather awkward situation of having to describe advocacy to my Hindu friends. I had just left a consulting job to join the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) as a fulltime staff member. Speaking with Jewish or Christian friends was easy: they generally nodded their heads in understanding when I explained that HAF is an advocacy group for the Hindu American community. But the response from most of my Hindu friends was a blank stare. And my attempts to explain the breadth of HAF’s advocacy efforts – from education and curriculum reform to media outreach to human rights – barely did anything to alleviate their confusion.

Eleven years since the inception of HAF, we still find ourselves needing to explain to Hindu Americans of all ages why our community needs to advocate for itself. Overall, the Hindu American community has largely been successful – both academically and financially. We’ve assimilated well. Our temples have flourished across the country. And unlike the Sikh and Muslim American communities, we haven’t faced a severe backlash in post-9/11 America, though we have had instances of bullying, discrimination, and hate crimes. In the wake of such success and assimilation, it is not difficult to understand why so many of my friends don’t grasp the need and importance of HAF’s work.

But the need absolutely exists, because the narrative surrounding Hinduism exerts a subtle but potent form of damage on the Hindu American psyche. And we start imbibing it very early on.

Sheetal Shah’s blog on belief.netWhen public school textbooks depict Hindus as cow and monkey worshippers embedded in a heinously rigid caste system, a distinctly condescending narrative is created. When my 7th grade social studies teacher singled me out and, much to the amusement of my classmates, asked, “Have your parents arranged your marriage already?” – an experience not unique to me – that disdainful narrative is reinforced. In fact, California state law requires textbook publishers to include the hotly contested Aryan Invasion theory and caste system in their sections on Hinduism. Instead of presenting the pluralistic philosophy of Hinduism, which gave birth to universally beneficial practices like yoga and meditation, our classrooms have succumbed to a narrative that equates cultural practices and evils with Hinduism.

Yet, it’s not fair to place the blame squarely on teachers or textbook publishers. Our nation’s overworked and underpaid public school teachers present their students with the material that is provided to them. Most do not have the bandwidth to research the accuracy of the content in textbooks. So, year after year, they perpetuate a distinctly incorrect and biased narrative of Hinduism; one that shapes the perception that hundreds of thousands of Americans have about Hinduism, because most do not study about Hinduism after high school. And when they receive additional exposure to Hinduism, it is likely in the form of media – movies, newspapers, TV – which also tends to paint an exotic, atypical picture.

Who then can Hindu parents blame when their child comes home ashamed to be associated with a religion that worships weird Gods with animal heads and multiple arms?

The Hindu American Foundation’s introduction to Hinduism and the Foundation.

Perhaps, it is time we look at ourselves and examine our complacency in allowing Hinduism to be so greatly misrepresented. For too long, the narrative about Hinduism has been written by those outside the tradition. And while outside perspectives can and do add great value to the dialog, they can also do great damage when a complex philosophical tradition that encompasses six different schools of thought is reduced to caste, cows, and karma. It makes Hindus ashamed and apologetic of our faith. And it does a disservice to non-Hindus, who are robbed of a chance of gaining a real understanding of a faith to which nearly one fifth of the planet adheres. In the process of succeeding in and assimilating to the West, Hindus have lost control of explaining and defining who we are and what we believe.

Thus, the onus falls on us as Hindu Americans to ensure that our faith and tradition is accurately and fairly represented, be it in the classroom or in the New York Times or on Capitol Hill. It requires building relationships with school boards and textbook publishers, providing free Hinduism 101 training to public school teachers, engaging journalists and reporters, creating our own content on the blogosphere, reaching out to congressmen and their staff, organizing events on the Hill, and so much more. This is the type of advocacy work the Hindu American community must undertake if we want to restructure the narrative. And this is the advocacy work that we at HAF do every day.