I grew up around a large, vibrant desi community — with lots of poojas, potlucks, and pretty saris — and I’m so grateful to all the family and aunties and uncles and friends who taught me to love my culture. But the community that raised me wasn’t particularly diverse: it was very specifically Hindu and Indian-American. And for a long time, I didn’t really understand the difference between those two descriptors.
All of our family friends were both Hindu and of Indian origin. The Hindu temple we attended weekly arranged its largest annual program around India’s Republic Day. Before I got to college, I had never personally interacted with a Hindu whose family didn’t have ties to India, or an Indian who didn’t identify as Hindu. After seventeen years, I came out of that bubble — and only then did I really begin to understand my own identities.
Co-existing Identities vs. Conflating Identities
I can say confidently now that I am Indian-American, and when it comes to religion, I’m Hindu. But those two identities, while co-existing, are not the same. While I had always known this in theory, my social networks have only really expanded in the past few years to capture a diverse array of both identities. Plenty of Indian-Americans are not Hindu, and plenty of Hindu Americans do not trace their origins to India.
Recently, however, the two identities seem to be conflated again in the public arena — on purpose — under the pretense of improving education on Hinduism in the United States.
The California Department of Education is currently looking at a proposal that suggests changes to sixth and seventh grade textbooks regarding Hinduism. The edits, brought forth by South Asian studies faculty from universities across California, replace mentions of Hinduism in the Indus Valley civilization with the term “ancient Indian religion,” remove sentences about important Hindu sages, and in general alter much of the language describing the religion.
I hope this helps to clarify questions and rumors around the California textbook curriculum review process: https://t.co/N8vU4qvBK7
— Vivek (@vivekster) April 8, 2016
In response to some of these potentially objectionable changes, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) launched a social media campaign last week called #DontEraseIndia — claiming that if accepted, the proposal would fundamentally change the portrayal of India and Hinduism for children across the state.
With over one billion practitioners worldwide, Hinduism should not be portrayed incorrectly to middle school children. And to be fair, I completely understand the concerns that HAF has raised regarding the characterization of Hinduism itself. It’s important to get the facts right about a major religion, especially in the United States where it is practiced by a small but steadily growing minority.
Hinduism Transcends Modern Political Divisions
But Hinduism doesn’t belong to India, and it doesn’t make sense for a Hindu advocacy group like HAF to put their weight behind India as a country. Religion has always gone beyond modern political divisions. Hinduism itself is often traced back to the Indus Valley civilization of the third and second millennia BCE.
India is the country with the largest Hindu population in the world today; but archaeological remains of this civilization such as Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa are in fact located in modern-day Pakistan. Prior to partition in 1947, there was a wide distribution of Hindus across modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. And even before that, there were (and continue to be) significant Hindu populations in Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. In fact, Nepal is still home to the largest majority of Hindus in the world as a percentage of its total population.
A close look at the proposed changes reveals that the most prominent recurring edit in the textbooks is the replacement of “India” with “South Asia” as it pertains to the origins and spread of Hinduism. This makes sense to me, considering modern political boundaries and the distribution of Hindus in the region, but it’s the exact move that HAF claims is “erasing India.”
One young girl speaking out against the proposal worries, “India is such a big country and they’re just generalizing it to South Asia.”
But that’s just the problem. India is such a big country. Take a look at politics in South Asia. To the Western world, India is still seen as a developing country; but narrow the focus to just South Asia, and you’ll see India quickly emerge as the most developed, most wealthy, most powerful country in the region. In the media, India so often overshadows its other South Asian neighbors, only reinforcing the notion that India is South Asia and South Asia is India.
Moreover, India is a country of great religious diversity. The archaic term Hindustan makes no sense for a country with the third largest Muslim population and 20th largest Christian population in the world. Through its campaign, HAF is implying that India and Hinduism are the same entity; this both overlooks other countries with Hindu populations and undermines millions of minorities within India who do not practice Hinduism.
Throughout college and beyond, I’ve made friends that are Sri Lankan-American, Pakistani-American, Nepali-American, and Bangladeshi-American, in addition to the many friends who share my Indian-American background. And I’ve found that I have far more in common with them that I would have thought. We might share favorite holidays, favorite foods, or favorite Bollywood actors. One of the most conscious efforts I personally have made over the past few years is to stop using the word “Indian” in instances when I really mean “South Asian.”
Whether we’re talking about the region itself or the common experiences it represents, the term “South Asian” is far more inclusive and accurate. So why is HAF taking a step backwards?
South Asians & Shared Cultural Currency
There’s so much shared cultural currency throughout this region. So many South Asians can trace back their ancestry to the Indus Valley Civilization — yep, the same one in which Hinduism finds its origins — and the culture that has evolved in the millennia since then still bonds the region together. There is plenty of religious, linguistic, and regional diversity — but there is also so much in common. And although my roots may be in India, I have to remember that South Asia extends far beyond that one “big country.”
Because when I tell you that my food is Indian, my clothes are Indian, my whole culture is Indian, I am creating a distinction. I am telling you that there is something that belongs to my heritage, but it doesn’t belong to yours. And to many South Asians, who share so much culturally, this just isn’t true.
Yes, there is food that is specifically from India. Yes, there are clothes and movies and all kinds of artifacts that are specifically from India. But very often, when we refer to Indian people or Indian culture or Indian ideas at large, what we really mean is South Asian people and culture and ideas. When I write about the struggles I face with my complexion, or talk to my friends about the first-generation experience, I am often sharing stories that apply to not only Indian-Americans but to South Asian-Americans as a whole.
So when groups like HAF tell me that even my religion is Indian, they too are creating a distinction. Even as they say #DontEraseIndia, they are erasing the narratives of over 45 million Hindus in other South Asian countries, and many millions more throughout the South Asian diaspora.
Of course, Indian-Americans are still often misrepresented and misunderstood — but that is a struggle shared among all South Asian-Americans. In American media, South Asian-Americans are rarely depicted as something other than doctors, computer nerds, or cab drivers. Everyone from Coldplay to Kimmy Gibbler has commodified our shared culture. We almost never hear about South Asian countries apart from India. And even when we hear about India, it’s depicted as a land chock-full of gurus and yogis, a “spiritual” place where people go to “find themselves.”
— MTV (@MTV) March 3, 2016
The media has been conflating Hinduism with India as a whole for decades. And unintentionally, communities like the one I grew up around have conflated them as well. The last thing that the next generation of American children needs is for Hindu Americans themselves to be intentionally advocating for this conflation. Young people around the age of 12 and 13 do not need the wildly reductive perceptions around them to be reinforced in the classroom.
What they do need is a proper history lesson on the many countries that make up South Asia, and a factual representation of Hinduism that is dissociated from politics and geography. Conveying facts and accurately portraying cultural identities are not mutually exclusive goals. #DontEraseIndia, while justly pointing out problematic representations of Hinduism, still does more harm than good.
I identify as both Indian-American and Hindu American, and I am proud of these identities — but in some situations, they narrow the scope a bit too much. My experiences as an Indian-American might often be shared among many South Asian-Americans, and Hinduism (like all major religions) transcends political boundaries. Tracing my roots to India and to Hinduism are just a part of a cultural heritage that includes so much more for me. And in a world with more cultural exchange than ever before, we can’t afford to be too myopic.
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Hema Karunakaram is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she contributed to The Michigan Daily and Michigan in Color, its inclusive space by and for people of color. Her work has been featured in India Abroad. Hema lives in New York City, working in the healthcare technology industry by day and pursuing her love of Bharatanatyam after hours. In her free time, you can find her listening to ‘60s and ‘70s Hindi music.