Edit: Many months later, having learned more about Hinduism and the history of Hindu societies, I have found that my opinions have changed. I am working on updating this piece.
Religion and spirituality aren’t for everyone, and in fact, Hinduism acknowledges that. In the concept of the purusharthas (four goals of human life), half of them are non-religious; kama (pleasure) and artha (prosperity) are seen as valid goals of life. (Ancient India seemed to think so as well, producing texts like the Kama Sutra and Arthashastra.)
I have nothing against Hindus who examine their religion, decide for whatever reason that it’s not for them, and move on with their lives. What makes me sad is when second-gen Hindu kids leave their religion because they were never exposed to it in a way that allowed them to ask questions and receive substantive answers; because their parents made them come to temple but never explained what the rituals mean; because they never bothered to learn what their religion actually teaches. I see this happening with the majority of Hindu kids around my age.
I wish I could see a strong and progressive Hindu identity among second-generation American immigrant kids for the following reasons:
1) When I say a strong Hindu identity, I mean having confidence in the broad range of philosophy and teachings that Hinduism encompasses. There is so much wisdom to be found in the Upanishads, in the Mahabharata, in the Gita, in the Vedas, in the Yoga Sutras, etc. and I firmly believe that, like Swami Vivekananda says, “No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism.” I believe that Hinduism’s acknowledgement of many paths to one God, its celebration of one God in infinite forms and in all people, the artistic and literary masterpieces and traditions it has inspired, its sheer diversity, makes it worth looking into.
We Hindus do not merely tolerate, we unite ourselves with every religion, praying in the mosque of the Mohammedan, worshipping before the fire of the Zoroastrian, and kneeling to the cross of the Christian. We know that all religions alike, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, are but so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realise the Infinite. So we gather all these flowers, and, binding them together with the cord of love, make them into a wonderful bouquet of worship.
— Swami Vivekananda
Furthermore, Hinduism is not a dogmatic religion. There is no list of beliefs or practices that you have to fulfill in order to be Hindu; some Hindus eat meat, some don’t, some are polytheistic, some are agnostic, some are monotheistic, some worship Krishna and Ganesha, some worship Shiva, some celebrate Diwali, some celebrate Pongal, some celebrate Durga Puja, some meditate, some fast… according to our own scriptures, being Hindu can be whatever we want it to be.
I think of this as the ultimate freedom — our atma (divine soul) is within us, waiting for us to realize that it’s there, but we have the freedom to figure it out through any path: knowledge, devotion, service, music, art, meditation. That’s the beauty of our religion, and all it takes is the conscious decision to say, “Yes, I want to make this a priority in my life — finding God in whatever form I relate to most, through whatever path appeals to me the most.” So yeah, I would like to see my peers take ownership of and have pride in their spiritual heritage.
2) I also believe that Hindus shouldn’t merely have confidence in the teachings of their religion; they should manifest these teachings through progressive values, through a sense of social justice and empathy for others. It is so, so, so important for us to remember that Hinduism, like all religions, is man-made, and thus, like all religions, it is not perfect. The full Vivekananda quote I cited above actually says:
No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism.
I think this is especially important for Hindus in the diaspora to remember. It’s so easy to glorify Hindu philosophy in isolation while ignoring the real evils that Hinduism has inflicted on millions of people through the caste system, through patriarchy, and in the last century or so, through Hindu nationalism. It’s especially easy for us to ignore these evils, because most of us in the diaspora come from relatively privileged upper-caste backgrounds, but meanwhile Dalits and lower castes are barred from entering temples, Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, and minorities in India are facing an increasingly hostile political climate.
These are just a few examples; even here in the diaspora, we have to take a closer look at the taboos preventing women from participating in religious life during their periods, at the stories we tell our kids (and how we tell them — why are only demons shown to have dark skin in Amar Chitra Katha comics?), and at traditions like Karwa Chauth (a North Indian festival during which wives fast all day for the well-being of their husbands). We have to acknowledge the presence of American Hindu nationalist groups like the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, and those sympathetic to their cause.
I also believe that we have the tools within our religion to combat misogyny, casteism, homophobia, racism, shadeism, etc.
When Shiva is depicted as half-male, half-female in the form of Ardhanarishwara, and when ours is the only major world religion to worship God in female form, how can we justify misogyny?
When we believe that the same divinity, the same atma, is present in all beings, how can we justify the caste system or racism?
When we believe that all religions are paths to the same God, how can we justify Hindutva ideology and Hindu nationalism?
When Krishna’s name literally means “black” in Sanskrit, how can we prize fair skin above all else?
When we have countless stories about gods, goddesses, and heroes spanning the gender and sexuality spectrums, how can we justify homophobia and transmisogyny?
When Hinduism reveres all of nature as a manifestation of God, how can we justify the exploitation of our natural environment?
How can we claim that God is a priority in our lives if we passively sit back and allow suffering to go on around us?
I believe that Hinduism has a lot to offer to each of us individually, and that it also has a lot to offer to the world. I wish more Hindus my age felt that way too.