Hindu Identity Formation

published on July 17, 2009

(Summary of  speech at the KHNA conference held at Los Angeles from July 10-13)

The Changing Context

We are living in a postindustrial world, a new society characterized by different problems and needs than those in the past. The complexity of technological advancement has the potential to increase our alienation by decreasing connectedness between people and our community.  The rapid development in information technology has created a strange paradox. While pursuing a vision of progress and development in the human condition, modern technology has led to increasing dehumanization and alienation. We are faced with terrorism, crime, violence, substance addiction, alcoholism, global warming and healthcare crisis. These threatening issues have become more intractable with the Cartesian-Newtonian reductionist paradigm.  Modern disciplines studying the human phenomena have tended to reduce the psyche to a complex mechanical reflexes and interacting neurological forces. As a result our ancient wisdom has been reduced into knowledge and knowledge into information and information into data. And data is used to manipulate human beings.

In this context what is the responsibility of Hindus living in the post industrial society?  In this ever changing information society virtual reality has become reality, transient-throw away values has become virtues. There is no place for Dharma, spirituality and human development. Spirituality is seen as a sign of primitive superstition, intellectual and emotional immaturity.
In this context, the only way Hindus can minimize the psycho-social problems in this ever changing society is to develop a comprehensive and systemic perspective based on our Sanathan Dharma. We, Hindus are living in a society that has changed from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy. Recent success in information technology has its roots in our sacred Vedas and Sanskrit and its cultural affection towards knowledge.
What is now required for Hindus is to establish a Hindu identity and realize their inherent strength and potential to grow in a knowledge economy. Hindu cultural forces have a chance to grow on their own and get organized to transform knowledge based societies.


Hinduism is unique. And Hindus have distinctive cultural roots, identity, belief system and values. A component of Hindu identity includes a sense of personal continuity and uniqueness from other people. To be successful, we need to carve out a potential identity based on our sacred Dharma. Hindus acquire a social identity based on their membership in various groups-familial, linguistic, regional, ethnic, and occupational and others. These identities, in addition to satisfying the need for affiliation help Hindus define themselves in the eyes of both others and themselves.

According to our Purusharathas, identity formation from birth through adulthood is very important for a successful living. A variety of changes that affect one’s work, status, or interpersonal relationships can bring a crisis that forces one to redefine oneself in terms of values, priorities, and chosen activities or lifestyle. In general, Hindus face predictable or unpredictable crisis in this country that can challenge their conception of themselves and result either in personal growth or stagnation.

We have seen Hindus in America identifying themselves as Tamils, Telugus, Nair, Ezhavas, and Guajarati, Marathas, Punjabis and Brahmins. Why can’t they identify themselves as Hindus? Compared to other ethnic immigrant groups, Hindus have significant history, culture and sacred tradition. Hindu culture and identity are interrelated. People who identify themselves as Hindus can negotiate life passages in this increasingly individualistic, complex and chaotic world.

Hindu identity is the subjective state of perceiving oneself as a Hindu and as relating to being Hindu. Hindu identity, by this definition does not depend on whether or not a person is regarded as a Hindu by others, or by an external set of religious, legal or sociological norms. Accordingly Hindu identity can be cultural in nature. Hindu identity can involve ties to the Hindu community. Hindu identity may be religious, secular and people who are atheists can have Hindu identity.

For countless American Hindus, Hindu identity is shaped by linguistic, and caste model as well as living as a minority group struggling to protect its heritage against assimilation.  To preserve, practice and protect our sacred, eternal Hindu Dharma, we need to continue our Hindu identity. To establish Hindu identity, we need to practice our Hindu rituals and Samskaras. Yet the reality for many today is that they do not practice our rituals or insist on practicing our rituals with our children.

Economically and socially successful Hindus are part of this pluralistic society in which the primary factor determining religious identity is individual choice. We need a new, more helpful descriptive model that recognizes the vital role that personal decision play in Hindu-American identity construction.

First, Hindu identity is made up of choices. We pick, consciously, or otherwise, from a set of identity menu that offer us options for behaviors that we understand as Hindu because we see them as Hindu things to do or as done in Hindu way. At the cutting edge of cultural change, the menu expands increasingly listing behaviors that belonging to others. Increasingly, Hindus are selecting non-Hindu menu such as birth day party at a hotel, eating non-vegetarian food at the birth day party, burning candles instead of traditional lamp etc.

Second, identifying ourselves as Hindu does not necessarily say anything about how we express that identity. From a purely descriptive standpoint, it is essentially a choice of self-identifying that makes as Hindu, even when it is not clear how that identity expressed or conveyed.

Third, Hindu identity has become increasingly fluid. It is linked to personal choice.  Life cycle changes, professional affiliation, caste identity and linguistic affiliation also affect our Hindu identity formation.

Fourth, most contemporary American Hindus are suspicious of our traditional experts and rarely consult Swanijis or pundits in choosing how to be a Hind. Many resist any pressure to affiliate with Hindu organizations or institutions. If and when few chose to affiliate, it generally is not because they feel duty bound but because doing so meets their needs.
Hindu identity implies on the one hand alignment, a shared belonging with members of other Hindus. Alignment may be based on a perception of similarity or a feeling of interdependence. Confusion often exists how the Hindu group should be defined and what their relation is to other Hindus whom they see as dissimilar from themselves in so many respects. At present, Hindus from different states of India, Hindus from the Caribbean, Hindus from Fiji, and Hindus from Pakistan seldom associate even though there is a common thread. A feeling of interdependence shall be invoked to have a common Hindu identity among all Hindus. The feeling of interdependence, of a common fate, represents the widest minimal basis, the common denominator of Hindu identity.

Hindus need to enhance Hindu identity, given the realities of today. Anyone who identifies as Hindu today only needs to go back three or four generation to find Hindu culture and traditions. There is an unbroken chain of Hindu living that goes back more than five thousand years. Hindus who are trapped in Islamic countries have lost to the Hindu community. Hindus without Hindu community and Hindu culture cannot last more than a couple of generations.  Unless Hindu Diaspora returns to living Hindu way, the children of unobservant Hindus will get lost.

A family of unobservant Hindu will lose one or the other-either Hinduness, or the unobservance. We cannot have both. The importance of Hindu continuity is no secret, it’s obvious. Living-breathing Hindutva produces living-breathing Hindus. It is time for Hindus to do for our children what our grandparents did for us. We need to be a living example of what it means to live a vibrant Hindu life. It is time for Hindus to get self-organized on a larger scale with unity of purpose and strength. The current world scene requires Hindus to be assertive and proclaim as proud Hindus. Once Hindus are united, the cultural strength will emerge as a strong force in world affairs.

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