Why I Separated My Indian Identity from My Hindu Identity

Why I Separated My Indian Identity from My Hindu Identity

January 26, 2021

The summer I turned 11, we moved from Wisconsin to Maryland and my father found religion.

Back in the Midwest, my father was a whiskey-drinking atheist and an unapologetic Anglophile. Our bookshelves burst with Wordsworth and Shakespeare; our CD player permanently rotated every album the Beatles ever made. If not for the framed kalamkari prints in our living room, a stranger alone in our house would never know we were Indian, let alone Hindu.

But on the East Coast, everything changed. My father reconnected with his friend from medical school, a fellow Tamil Brahmin who was religious—so religious, in fact, that he was a founding funder of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, now one of the largest Hindu temples in the country. I don’t know if it was the joyful shock of finding an Indian community, or some other inciting incident, but after years of treating Hinduism with condescension, my father suddenly became deeply and profoundly interested in God. And if my father was deeply interested in something, the rest of us had to be too.

My father started waking my brother and me up at 5:30 a.m. daily to meditate and chant slokas—Sanskrit Hindu prayers—which we learned on Friday evenings from a shirtless, hairy-chested uncle during a class held in a suburban basement. On Sundays, we went to the Chinmaya Mission, where we learned Sanskrit and attended a youth group class while my father listened to lectures for adults. A few weekends a month, we went to temple, where we prayed and volunteered: my father at the front desk, the rest of us in the kitchen.

I chafed against Hindu Brahminism’s patriarchy and the rules that were suddenly imposed on my existence.

There were parts of our new life that I appreciated, like learning how to meditate, which was a balm to my lifelong struggle with anxiety. Mostly, though, I chafed against Hindu Brahminism’s patriarchy and the rules that were suddenly imposed on my existence. I resented the fact that I had to wear baggy, scratchy salwar kameez to temple while my brother got to wear his usual Western clothes. I resented that I wasn’t allowed to go to temple when I had my period. I resented that in my religious classes, girls were told to be modest, while boys were allowed to be rude and loud and wild. By the time I was a senior in high school, I couldn’t wait to leave home—and all its accompanying restrictions—behind.

And yet, in college, in my 20s, and even in my early 30s, I clung to Hinduism with a ferocity that defied logic. Whenever I moved to a new apartment, I set up a small altar with black stone statues of Ganesha, Parvati, and Shiva. On Friday mornings, I woke up, washed my hair, sat in front of this altar, and prayed. Every few months, I took multiple buses and trains to Flushing to spend a few hours at the Ganesha temple there, sometimes spending longer on the train than at the temple. As I rode the subway in the same traditional clothes I cursed as a teen, exhausted and uncomfortable and irritated, I wondered why, exactly, I was doing this to myself, over and over again.

The truth was I didn’t love being Hindu. But I loved being Indian American. While I was secure in my American identity, the Indian part was more complicated. I couldn’t speak Tamil, my mother tongue, nor did I know how to cook more than a handful of traditional dishes. I preferred Western movies to Indian ones, and although I followed Indian politics, I lived too far away to be truly involved. Hinduism was my only connection to India. At temple, I knew the words to the prayers, I knew the rituals, I knew their meanings, and so, I kept practicing, even though the older I got, the less I believed.

Then, in my early 30s, my husband and I moved to India, and everything changed again. Because he and I came from high-caste, religious families, I expected that our time in India would be defined by Hindu rituals, ceremonies, and traditions. But instead of going to temples, I found myself attending literary events where poets code-switched between English, Tamil, Kannada, and Hindi. Instead of traveling to religious sites, I traveled to Delhi to join a general strike of early childhood educators, to Nagarhole to go bird-watching, to Chandigarh to curate a children’s literature festival, and to Sikkim to run writing workshops for Indigenous teachers and teens. When my husband and I socialized, we talked with our Indian friends about politics and pop culture, microbreweries and biryani, but we never talked about Hinduism. Why would we? Most of us weren’t religious, and half of us weren’t even Hindu. Hinduism defined my identity in the United States, but in India, it slowly faded away.

The truth was I didn’t love being Hindu. But I loved being Indian American.

My official break with Hinduism occurred during the adoption hearing that granted my husband and me custody of our daughter. That afternoon, our judge at the family court called us into his chamber to privately confirm that we were Brahmin. During our two-hour conversation, the judge told us that he, too, was Brahmin, and that he was pleased that a high caste family like ours was adopting a child like my daughter, whose features and history clearly marked her as indigenous, and therefore outside of the caste system. (This isn’t something I would ordinarily reveal about her, but my daughter’s features are so clear that in India, strangers routinely correctly discern her background without being told.)

Hearing his words, I truly understood the privilege Brahminism bestowed upon my family: Our caste made gatekeepers eager to work for us, made systems bend to our will. In contrast, my daughter comes from a caste that Brahmin patriarchy has robbed of financial resources and social capital for generations. Although I do not know my daughter’s first mother’s story, it is likely that her decision to make an adoption plan was intimately tied to her marginalization, and underlay the reasons why she may not have been prepared to keep my daughter safe. The common assumption that I would be a better mother to my daughter than her birth mother, simply based on our castes, combined with the realization that the structures that benefited me oppressed my daughter’s birth family, was the final blow to what little faith I had left.

Though the judge may have always been casteist, it is likely that India’s current administration empowered him to express his hate so unapologetically: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gained widespread popularity by weaponizing high-caste Hinduism against Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims. Modi believes that India, though founded as a secular country, should instead be considered a Hindu country. A key part of this stance is the conflation of Indian and Hindu identity.

Publicly, I decry this, but internally, I am ashamed. For decades, I conflated my Indian identity with my Hindu identity, unwittingly perpetuating the marginalization of Indians like my daughter and her birth family, and like my many non-Hindu Indian friends.

There are so many ways to be Indian without reinforcing the caste hierarchies that marginalize Dalits and Adivasis in India, in the States, and around the world.

Now, in the United States, I consider myself Indian but not Hindu. My choice was made easier knowing that, after six years in India, Hinduism was no longer necessary for me to connect with the country that I love. I am particularly aware of this as I raise my daughter. In our house, being Indian is about reading picture books about Dalit hero Bhimrao Ambedkar or written by Adivasi author Mamang Dai. It is about rapping in Tamil to The Casteless Collective, a hip-hop group famous for critiquing the inequity of the caste system. It is about comparing the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil to the paintings of Frida Kahlo, my daughter’s current obsession. If my daughter wants to light diyas on Diwali or throw color on Holi, she has that choice. But when she talks about her Indian identity, Hinduism is secondary, not central.

At a time when India’s right-wing politicians are trying to define India as a Hindu nation, and when America’s right-wing politicians are deeply invested in Islamophobia, it is more urgent than ever for members of the diaspora to separate our religious and ethnic identities. There are so many ways to be Indian without reinforcing the caste hierarchies that marginalize Dalits and Adivasis in India, in the States, and around the world. My family’s decision to separate our Hindu identity from our Indian identity doesn’t erase the generations of caste privilege that my husband and I have benefited from or the oppression that my daughter’s birth family faced for not identifying as Hindu or Brahmin. But it feels like a start—a start that I hope my fellow Indian Americans will consider as well.

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