Fostering a Strong Hindu Identity Among Young American-Hindus

When I was about eleven years old, my parents already had a career picked out for me. Even though I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a pop singer, a teacher, a cook, or a combination of all three. My parents were not alone in their dreams for me.

Most parents have an idea, or at least some sort of rough sketch of how they want their children to approach education, what educational institutions would be most beneficial, and how to approach the job market and their overall careers. This assiduous guidance of the youth coupled with a generous dose of financial support, has indeed paid off.

According to a Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2012, 48% of Hindu-Americans had an income of over $100,000, and 70% earned at least $75,000. In absolute numbers, these figures are impressive.

But while Hindu-Americans have indubitably proven successful in their careers, they lack in one crucial area, and that is that Hindus have failed to foster a strong Hindu Identity in the younger generations of Hindu-Americans. I am writing this piece from personal experience. As a child, I had a strong foundation in Mantras and Hindu Dharma’s key concepts, but I was not able to link Hindu Dharma’s greatness without knowing its history, and its triumphs, as well as defeats.

The fact is that children of other faiths learn and memorize concepts about their faith at an early age, why can’t Hindus? For Hindu children, understanding the concept of OM or understanding how Hindu Dharma is the only religion that worships the feminine in the form of Shakti, or knowing all about Holi, should be as integral to their lives as knowing 2+2. Teaching Hindu Dharma along side math and science and other subjects should not prove to be a herculean task.

Another important thing to remember is that this is the United States of America, where religious freedom is enshrined in the Constitution. This is not Pakistan, Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia, where freedom and opportunities are reserved only for only a handful of the faithful.

Deities, Key Concepts, Festivals and Mantras

Hindu Dharma is replete with profound and philosophically sound concepts such as karma, moksha (liberation), ahimsa (non-violence) towards all living beings, and reincarnation. These concepts do not encourage blind belief, but rather encourages the devotee to follow an individual path to seek the truth.

Deities such as Saraswati Mata, Durga Mata, Lakshmi Mata, Bhagwan Rama, Bhagwan Krishna, Bhagwan Brahma, Bhagwan Vishnu, Bhagwan Shiva, and Bhagwan Ganesh, are very popular deities in Hindu Dharma. Festivals are centered around these deities, and praying to such deities will yield success in school, career, and in one’s life in general.

Hindu Dharma also has a plethora of colorful and inclusive festivals that are linked to seasonal change, movement of the sun and moon. Krishna’s activities also play a pivotal role in the bedrock of festivities. Festivals such as Holi, Deepavali, Navaratri, MahaShivaratri, Ganesh Chaturthi, Raksha Bandhan, and Makar Sankranti, among others, all have associated stories and explanations.

These deities and concepts should be explained through storytelling and if possible drawings. Festivals too must be explained to Hindu children through drawings and of course, through participation. Children should not merely be made to follow rituals, but must explained their significance, and where appropriate, allowed to partake in the festivities. As a child, I use to ask a lot of questions about rituals, and these questions should not be discouraged. They should be encouraged and explained to the best of the person’s knowledge.

Next, there are a variety of Hindu shlokas and mantras that are unique and significant when it comes to conducting ceremonies’, celebrating festivals, and are quite necessary in an individual’s daily life and routine. Mantras such as the Gayatri Mantra, Moola Mantra, and the MahaMrityunjay Mantra, are some of the popular ones. But there are other bhajans and mantras that should be learned as soon as possible by young Hindus.

Now, when should Hindu children imbibe this wonderful wisdom? As young as possible!  This is because the best time to learn and memorize anything is during early childhood. This will almost certainly ensure maximum retention as an adult. I learned the Gayatri Mantra when I was four years old, and it took me no time to memorize it. Although my capacity to comprehend complex topics has grown exponentially as an adult, it takes me much longer to retain long and complex mantras/bhajans. It was much easier to absorb this amazing wisdom as a child, rather than as an adult.

Hindu History and Identity

Adolescence is a time when we begin to learn who we are. It is a time of discovery. It is also the time when school history textbooks present a skewed and distorted version of Hindu Dharma. For Hindus, it is not only important to confront these erroneous notions depicted in textbooks at the State and local school district levels, but also to teach teenage children about Hindu history and influential Hindu figures.

It is all too easy for adolescent to get lost in the maze of forming friendships, the internet, questions about their bodies, and/or navigating high school and beyond. Often, along with the above mentioned challenges, Hindu children in western countries end up struggling with their Hindu identity as well. This could partly be because while Hindus encourage and push their children to accelerate in math, science, and other subject, a focus on fostering a strong Hindu identity is blissfully overlooked.

However, Hindus can ensure that the mantras, concepts and festivals that their children learned so keenly about, are now solidified by some good old history lessons. These history lessons will solidify a strong sense of self and link the concepts/mantras to forming a proud Hindu identity.

There is no dearth of great Hindu sages, philosophers, strategists, warriors and brilliant mathematicians to choose from to begin the history lesson. From Patañjali, to Agastya, to Gargi and Yajnavalkya, Chanakya, Brahmagupta and Adi Shankara, to Shivaji Maharaj and Maharana Pratap, to Swami Vivekananda and Swami Dayanand Saraswati, to Veer Savarkar, Hindu history is brimming with individuals who have contributed and fought to defend the integrity and dignity of Hindu Dharma and Hindus. Not only should young Hindus have a thorough understanding and pride in their history, but they should be made aware of current challenges that Hindu Dharma and Hindus are facing across the globe.

Moreover, adolescent Hindus should be taught how to confront anti-Hindu conceptions in their schools. Some of these include, but are not limited to:

  • Idol/Murti worship.
  • Hindu Swastika vs. Nazi Swastika.
  • Caste system.
  • Respecting cows.
  • Hindu Dharma – a polytheistic religion.

Now, some may contend that a child, especially an adolescent weighed down with the burdens of navigating through high school and dealing with his/her peers, need not be disturbed with such weighty issues. But understanding Hindu Dharma’s core principles, being aware of history, and forging an unapologetic Hindu identity, are things that Hindus must absolutely, without excuse, instill in their children.

When a structure, be it concrete or steel, has a strong foundation, the structure will not likely crumble. Similarly, Hindu children who have a strong foundation in Hindu Dharma, will not only retain the knowledge gained during childhood, but also be great ambassadors for Hindu Dharma in the future. They are not likely to do a Kal Penn (AKA Suresh Modi), and make staggering donations to Palestinian refugees, whilst ignoring the real plight of Hindus in Islamic countries.

The Need of the Hour

Our glorious civilization stretches back thousands of years. From Yoga to zero, ancient rishis meditated and produced wonderful ideas that the modern world cannot live without. The Hindu civilization faced internal challenges with aplomb and grace, and the external challenges were also dealt with strongly. But somewhere along the way, we have stagnated, and we must make our civilization the hub of strength, wisdom, and vibrancy it once was. One way in which this goal could begin to be realized is through fostering a strong Hindu identity in young Hindus, who are undoubtedly the future of Hindu Dharma.

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About the Author

Adity Sharma
Adity Sharma is a student at St. John's University School of Law in New York. She has previously written for India Facts, Vijayvaani, Chakranews and Beliefnet.