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Hindu Heritage and Liberation

Several questions were recently posed to Co-Counselors of Hindu heritage on the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of South, Central, and West Asian-heritage people. Here are three people’s responses:

What is your earliest memory connected to being Hindu heritage or to Hinduism? I have a memory of being three years old in India during Diwali (an important Hindu festival, celebrated in the autumn). I remember touching candle wax and being scared that it hurt but also fascinated by how it molded quickly to my finger.

What’s been good about having Hindu heritage? My first thought is having access to lots of gods. I think that’s pretty cool.1 Images of divinity in female form could be considered feminist. There are also some concepts that seem connected to liberation, such as God being in everything, animate and inanimate. My sense is that this came from Indigenous and pagan cultures that got assimilated into what is now known as Hinduism.

What’s been challenging? Hindu nationalism. Even the term “Hindu liberation” feels dangerous. Proudly and publicly claiming being Hindu is easily co-opted into a larger landscape of perpetuating the oppression of Muslims, Dalits,2 women, Sikhs (members of the Sikh religion), Jains (members of the Jain religion), poor and working-class people, and other constituency groups, and promoting a destructive nationalism. It’s challenging to stay and fight there, to claim my relationship more publicly to Hinduism in a way that supports the liberation of all peoples.

What are key aspects of your life story as a Hindu? I grew up in a practicing Hindu family in Iowa, USA. It was one of the most important ways I connected to other South Asian families in a majority-white town. It acted as a contradiction to the racism. During discussions of the Gita (a sacred Hindu text) at poojas (times of worship), adults were more open to listening to youth, a contradiction to young people’s oppression. I understood Hinduism to be inclusive. Our tiny South Asian community was diverse in ethnicity and religion, and many of us were close with each other and in each other’s lives in big ways.

What thoughts do you have about your liberation as a Hindu-heritage person and about Hindu liberation in general? This is nascent work. I wonder about the role of USers in Hindu liberation and where our USer oppressor material3 will show up and need to be directly challenged. (I think about this also because my main language is English.) There is information I want and don’t yet have. I also have chronic material of not feeling good enough, and I don’t want that to be isolating or get in the way of moving forward.

Hindu liberation seems similar to Jewish liberation in regard to a diaspora and the middle-agent role. Growing up, I was targeted by racism in a majority-Christian nation; being Hindu meant being a minority in an oppressed role. However, within India Hinduism has been appropriated by the state in oppressive ways; it is an oppressor identity.

I think my experience in the United States of facing racism and “religionism” allows me some room to think differently and with more clarity in certain ways. I notice this particularly with my family in India.

What is your earliest memory connected to being Hindu heritage or to Hinduism? I remember celebrating the Goddess Saraswati4 pooja (prayer ritual) at my home in Kolkata (India). I was five or six. I remember placing my schoolbooks and musical instruments at the feet of the goddess with the idea of getting “good grades” in school. I also remember closing my eyes and trying to experience bhakti (love or devotion) for the goddess, and looking forward to the feast after the pooja ceremony.

What’s been good about having Hindu heritage? Celebrating Hindu festivals gave me opportunities to connect with friends, relatives, and neighbors. I grew up to be tolerant and inclusive of all religions. I practice meditation following a Buddhist tradition. Many wonderful Buddhist principles originated from Hinduism.

What has been challenging? I was born into a Brahmin caste (said with a laugh, since Brahminism is basically a form of hierarchical racism), and I’ve enjoyed and always felt disturbed by my caste privilege. Once there was a shortage of priests (who officiate poojas) in my neighborhood. A neighbor lady asked if I could do the worshipping, since I’d had my sacred thread ceremony (Brahmin boys are initiated to become priests, although no one necessarily has to pursue it). I was shocked to see this neighbor lady, who was my mom’s age, touching my feet after the pooja and giving me money and clothes because I was a Brahmin.

What are key aspects of your life story as a Hindu? I grew up “Hindu light.” My parents were spiritual but never put pressure on me to follow the strict religious rules. Though I did not develop a ritualistic Hindu life, I still love the smell of incense, the chants, and sitting down with others in a temple. But growing up Hindu, a majority religion in India, did not help me understand the struggles of minority religious groups.

What thoughts do you have about your liberation as a Hindu-heritage person and about Hindu liberation in general? We need to separate the teachings from the authoritarian and patriarchic patterns that have confused Hindus and non-Hindus. We must deconstruct the caste system, created with the collusion of priests and royal families to perpetuate inequality, and challenge the distresses that run deep, from priests to devotees. We also need to challenge some Westerners who participate in Hindu religion, like by singing kirtans (devotional songs) or unthinkingly getting hooked to other Hindu rituals while remaining comfortable with racism and privilege patterns.

It’s been great to read people’s answers to these questions. I hope to hear more!

What is your earliest memory connected to being Hindu heritage or to Hinduism? I’m not sure if it’s the earliest, but I remember my mom praying in front of the small puja mandir (altar where one prays) in her bedroom. I also remember going to the mandir (temple) and playing outside with my cousins because I couldn’t understand what the priests were saying.

What’s been good about having Hindu heritage? I love that the divine is feminine. I love that the religion is a philosophy, a way of life.

What has been challenging? So much. The early stories I learned were steeped in sexism, especially the versions of the Ramayana (a Sanskrit epic poem) in which Sita had to walk on coals to prove her purity after she had been kidnapped by a demon. So much rape in the culture. I’m also angry about how oppressive Hindus have been and continue to be in India. It feels connected to being Gujarati,5 with Modi,6 and his Hindu fundamentalist agenda rooted in anti-Muslim ideology, in power. It’s hard to hear the views of my extended family in India, who support Modi. My caste is Varnya, and my partner is Brahmin. It’s interesting and at times challenging to see how casteism shows up in our family dynamics.

What are key aspects of your life story as a Hindu? Such an interesting question. When I was little, I went to “Sunday school” in the home of the Hindu family across the street. It was early on Sundays, and eventually I stopped going. I remember asking my parents questions, and they didn’t know the answers. That left me wanting a “guru,” someone who could answer the questions. Eventually I lost my curiosity. When I read things later, especially when I found the Amar Chitra Katha comic books,7 I got more interested in learning the stories. But again I soon found the male domination a “turn off.” For me, it’s the cultural connection—Prasad,8 Aarti,9 and the music that brought family and friends together. I feel disconnected from the religion, and it’s hard to find good things to say about it.

What thoughts do you have about your liberation as a Hindu-heritage person and about Hindu liberation in general? I love that we are doing this work in RC. I think much of who I am connects to my relationship to and experiences with Hinduism. It’s been hard to discharge certain things when my Co-Counselors know little about Hinduism. I suspect that many of my patterns stem from being Hindu, so this work we are beginning to do in RC is very important. I do cringe at the words “Hindu liberation”—it feels oppressive and yucky.10 

Amisha Patel,

Chicago, Illinois, USA

(Present Time 183, April 2016)

1 “Cool” means great.
2 Dalits is the self-chosen political name of people historically and currently oppressed and excluded by the caste system in India.
3 “Material” means distress.
4 Chattopadhyay is a Brahmin last name in Bengal. During the British colonial occupation of India, Chattopadhyay was anglicized to Chatterjee.
5 The Hindu goddess of learning and arts
6 From Gujarat, a state in Western India
7 Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, who is of Gujarati origin
8 An iconic series of comics that focus on various Hindu stories
9 Prasad is food, often nuts and fruits, that has been blessed.
10 Aarti is a Hindu prayer ritual involving song, in which light (from wicks dipped in purified butter) is offered to a deity.
11 “Yucky” means disgusting.

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00