Identities in a Multicultural World
In a world where ever larger populations are on the move from country to country identity becomes a very complex issue. Just fifty years ago it would have been unthinkable for people to be born in a small village in Europe and live in a large and fast changing metropolis like Bangalore, Bhaarat or the vice versa. In the present era this is commonplace, facilitated by easier and faster means of communication, travel, as well as global job opportunities. So the issue of identity is a crisis for all that live away from countries of origin; it seems in a different way the off springs of the uprooted (many willingly) have identity issues too, which varies by ethnic groups.
It is well known that when moving, we take not only a few bags of things with us but also many habits, in fact this is how humans cross-fertilize cultures. Identities are tied to these habits that seem to form rather early in our lives and become ingrained; in one form or another these stay with us - all through the complicated journey of our existence on Earth. That must be the reason why Mom’s food is the best tasting! Another significant add- on to this learning in early years is our religious ideas and concepts of Bhagavaan (God). These then become our core values forming our identities; when threatened cause great disturbances to both the individual and to the world at large. In fact, two most sustaining habits from our beginnings seem to be food and God!
In the USA I have seen each religious identity become less tolerant, moving towards fundamentalism as opposed to India where each group moves towards less staunchness and more acceptance. I attribute this to a feeling of threat that comes from being in the presence of a strongly converting religion here in the West. Hindu Dharma on the other hand, has attempted to accommodate all traditions and thus is less threatening.
A Hindu-American living in North America, at first thinks that blending in a land of immigrants should be easy, especially one that also claims to be secular. Very soon though, one finds this to be not at all the case. Secularism to most Hindus means to be able to practice the religion of ones choice –often the one we were born into. We have no single Hindu authority controlling our religious life; nor are we told to accept anything unless it makes sense to us. In other words we are used to great freedom in the area of our relationship with our Maker, which is not the case for the people of aggressive traditions. So a world of religious fatvaas, ex-communications and a host of other restrictions shock us. At the same time it creates a sense of awe towards the Hindu Tradition, which is so very open. Some of us feel very privileged to be born into such a system, where restrictions are social not religious! We just are not used to constant interference into our spiritual lives, nor are we used to seeing people denigrating other religions in the most uncivilized way. This is something Hindus rarely do and have very little tolerance for. Hearing highly ignorant, hurting and downright impolite comments about Hindu Dharma has made our Hindu identity become stronger, especially for those of us living abroad.
I have often wondered how our adopted country the USA will handle the future of a multicultural nation? Will we assimilate the non - European, non- White, legal immigrants and their USA born children, belonging to various traditions - wisely into the larger main stream? The present majority is Euro-centric in nature and the question of white superiority remains in the minds of some, though less obviously than before. On this process of assimilation depends the future of USA. Without creating a sense of security for the minorities we also will become a battleground like the Middle East and other parts where differences have not been harmonized well. Naturally, my mind thinks about Bhaarat, the other country and society I know equally well; how India has kept her even more diverse people together-- even during times of unbelievable stress seems marvelous. We here must learn or eventually suffer greatly.
My observations of the past thirty-seven years, is that in the USA this attempt at harmonizing will be more challenging. Where as in India, the Vedic Snaatan Hindu Dharma is itself an accommodating tradition; the religion of the majority in the USA belongs to the aggressive system -- making conflict resolution far more difficult. Now the conflict with Islam is on the rise making it even more complex.
Samuel P. Huntington in his book, The Clash of Civilizations writes about conflicts of the two religions of expansion:
“The causes of this ongoing patters of conflict lie not in transitory phenomena such as twelfth-century Christian passion or twentieth-century Muslim fundamentalism. They flow from the nature of the two religions and the civilizations based on them”.
Further he says, “ From its origins Islam expanded by conquest and when the opportunity existed Christianity did also. The parallel concepts of “jihad” and “crusade” not only resemble each other but distinguish these two faiths from other major world religions. Islam and Christianity, along with Judaism, also have teleological views of history in contrast to the cyclical or static views prevalent in other civilizations”.
Faced and threatened by such unaccommodating religious systems, plus the usual adjustment problems the first generation immigrant faces living in a different society -- the Hindu-American identity is trying to become stronger. Aggression begets fear, which leads to insecurity and a strong desire to protect. These repeated assaults by evangelical groups with in the USA and by missionaries in Bhaarat (reasons for insurgencies in many areas) has done much to offend the Hindu psyche. Hence, the tradition of accommodation among the Hindus is weakening both outside and inside Bhaarat. There is, however, a very positive effect too – the desire to learn about the tradition of birth by the young and the old. This is particularly good for Hindu Dharma as we are a teaching tradition with a great regard for debate on ontological (nature of being) issues.
Even so, the Hindus everywhere are faced with a great dilemma. First and foremost, we have been brought up to respect other faiths and see them as equal in importance to the respective communities. We like several other traditions, are not a proselytizing religion. We also tend to confuse Dharma with Religion, which is incorrect. Only the faiths born on Bhaarat Bhoomi are Dharma based, the others have no word equivalent to Dharma. So we must correct our understanding through study and then refer to the traditions of the world appropriately. We are the Dharmas of Bhaarat (namely Sanaatan Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Bhouddha) and they - Religions born on the soil of the Middle East. The confusion about the terminology stems from ignorance of Hindus about their own tradition. This - the greatest learning tradition in Human History, was forced to stop the teaching for nearly Eight Hundred years! How else would those who wanted control of lands and riches belonging to others achieve their motives of domination? Fortunately, this Spiritual tradition has been maintained well through immense sacrifice by those who understood its value and now is reemerging to ennoble the human mind, once again.
In the United States of America until the last couple of years, India was usually mentioned only for bride burnings, holy cows and Caste system. Mid- nineties saw people of Indian origins flooding the Information Technology revolution in Silicon Valley first, and then other parts of the world. This and the new booming economy of Bhaarat have changed this attitude somewhat. Largely though, neglect of India and its great contributions to the world as well as to the North American life continue. The ridicule of Hindu Dharma now is coming out of even prestigious institutions like Harvard and University of Chicago. The term South Asian is part of this move by the conservatives who fear the Hindus most as they are loosing their “Flock” to the simple and benefiting Aarsha Vidya (of the seers and sages) of Yoga, Meditation, classical dance and music.
India is the country of greatest influences on almost all major nations of the world-- with out colonizing – this bothers many a Westerner to no end. To any keen observer of the Western world, who also is well versed in the Hindu Tradition, these influences are obviously taking hold of people’s imaginations here as of now. Regrettably, the attitudes of plunder and possess, which has prevailed in these societies, rather than learn and share continues to exists. However, ordinary folk are willing to explore anything and everything and in time noble ideas will come to hold their own. An obstacle to be overcome is that-Hindu Dharma is seen as having ethnic connections to India only, so people that follow its teachings distance themselves from it outwardly. Little is known about the influence of India all over what is referred to as South Asia by a culture that stops at Rome and Greece as its roots --- but there way a vibrant world, perhaps much nicer to live in before the advent of religions of war!
The Hindu identity is unique because the Dharma is based on a non-commercial Spirituality, having concepts of Karma to make an individual responsible, not fatalistic –the foundations of Hindu Samskriti are strong and designed to perpetuate unity and harmony with in societies. Hindu identity is a privilege that stabilizes us through the worst of times and we must claim it. South Asian we may be for those that do not want to give us credit for our immense contributions since ancient times. In bringing up children outside India, the best thing to do is to give them a strong Hindu value system, a sense of family and wisdom to handle situations by having a Prasaad Buddhi that stays balanced no matter what life brings. The achievements of the Bhaaratiya Diaspora owe much to these ingrained qualities that have stayed with immigrants and so far with the children. I pray that it will hold for many generations to come and also impact the adopted land and its other citizens positively. Bringing up children in the present day USA is super difficult as most families are not structured for stability –a much needed attribute for healthy humanity! Our children are bright because of a value system that teaches but accommodates. Bhaarat is stable, giving sanctuary to displaced and persecuted people from all over because of a Hindu identity not simply South Asian. In Bhaarat a Jaagriti has begun and our Spiritual Heritage will help all Human kind as it always has been doing.