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The Idea of a Constructed Hindu Identity

posted by sheetal

The following piece was written by my friend Raman Khanna, who is also a member of the Hindu American Foundation’s Executive Council.

“Hinduism was invented recently.”

“The word Hindu is problematic.”

“It’s not accurate to speak of Hinduism, only Hinduisms.”

More than a decade has passed since I majored in religion as an undergraduate, but these phrases, conventional wisdom then, remain conventional wisdom today. When I was on a Hinduism panel in November with two professors of South Asian studies, the issue of the “construction of a Hindu identity in the United States” came up again in a question from an audience member. Conventional wisdom, often wrong, may seem merely annoying, but in this case is frequently deployed to declare Hindu identity somehow flawed and illegitimate. As a proud Hindu-American, though, I see the issue quite differently through the prism of both comparative study and common sense.

First, the reality is that all identities are “constructed.” The very term “America” derives from that of an Italian explorer whose name was Latinized and placed on a popular map. Moreover, the idea of “America” has encompassed, since its inception, more than mere hoary notions of democratic representation, but also massive land grabs from indigenous people and the enslavement of an entire race. Yet the “American” identity is one of the strongest in existence in the hearts of its proudest adherents, of which I consider myself one.

Second, this “construction” of identity is a feature, not a bug, of the human experience and a key means for achieving security and survival. The American Revolution consisted of Northern industrialists and Southern slaveholding landowners making common cause against the British. Despite this devil’s bargain that perpetuated oppression, birthed civil war, and papered over still extant political fissures, the resulting “American” polity became, and has remained, one of the most impregnable in the world.

Third, identities exist or persist only as and when they speak to larger realities. Despite the real differences that led to a bloody civil war and persist in racial and regional divisions, America’s genesis was based on a very real commitment to republican representation and progressive enfranchisement that have served as a common touchstone and inspired not just its citizens, but the world.

Finally, construction is not a one-time process, but rather an ongoing one. What it meant to be American in the 1700s, before our nation existed, to the 1950s, when an entire race was disenfranchised, is quite different from today, and will be different again in 2043 when whites are a plurality rather than an absolute majority of the U.S. population.

“Hindu” is different, of course, from “America;” layers of this identity extend thousands of years into the past rather than hundreds — from the Vedic people and their intricate, elaborate hymns to the tribal cultures they encountered and with whom they fused along the way. But if one assumes that the Hindu identity was first constructed at some point in the past, “Hinduism” is quite similar to America. The identification of rarified Gods of preservation, dissolution, and energy onto local village deities was a source of unity and defense for both the individual tribes and their urban descendants, and ultimately a wellspring from which Lokamanya Tilak and later Mahatma Gandhi could launch their respective attempts to unite India against the British. What it means to be Hindu has likewise changed with Puranic Hinduism, with Bhakti, with the Vedantic revivals and reinterpretations of the last 200 years, and with a rich diaspora and, increasingly, Hindus of non-Indian extraction (such as the first Hindu elected to the House of Representatives).

Beyond these high level overviews, let me end on a more personal anecdote. When my mother, a proud Punjabi, felt a calling to teach her children and her community’s children about the crown jewels of our traditions–from the Bhagavad Gita to Yoga to Vedic chanting and to major religious holidays — she didn’t just turn to other Punjabis or even North Indians in our community. She turned instead to Hindus she had known at temple, at the various Diwali functions the community had put on, and social functions in our sleepy Ohio town. The response was overwhelming from Hindus of all language and community groups represented in my small town. Whether they celebrated Pongal or Holi, identified with Shankara or Satya Sai Baba, or drew strength from the Ramcharitmanas or the Kamban Ramayana, they saw the fundamental value of the enterprise and came together around it. The entire process of creating this Hindu school can indeed be called “constructed”, but there was clearly already a foundation for it. And as Hindus came and went over the years, the influence of each changed in slight ways which components of Hindu school were or were not emphasized.

So, my advice to students and academics alike is this: don’t sweat the “constructed” part of identity, in the case of Hinduism or otherwise. All identities are constructed, whether in the modern day or in the distant past. This is perfectly natural and indeed essential to survival, and identities will only persist if they respect underlying realities. And identities can, should, and do transform over time. The Hindu identity, like the American one, is no different, and there is no reason to be either suspicious or ashamed of this.



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