Laptop? Check. Bedding? Check. Notebooks? Check. It’s that time of the year again: back to college. Whether you’re a freshman or a senior, everyone is preparing their lists and starting university, although it may look different for those of us who are studying remotely this Fall. Nevertheless, the fall semester is approaching and sooner or later we all will return to campus physically. But amid all this packing and preparing did we forget something? Did we forget to take our Hindu identity with us?
Exploring your religious identity on campus begins in student organizations or clubs. You would be hard-pressed to find a university in the U.S. that doesn’t have a club for Christian students, Muslim students, or Jewish students. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a Hindu club at your university you may not be lucky enough to have one and if you do, it may be weak and unpopular. It seems that students of other faiths have strong student support for their clubs which are well-funded and have academic departments to support them. However, many universities don’t even have a club for Hindus and many that do are not adequately supported by the students, academic departments, or the greater community. So if you like me, wanted to join a Hindu club as a Freshman but realized that your campus didn’t have one — tough luck. But don’t worry in this case. Chances are, your campus will have a vibrant, popular South Asian organization.
As a freshman, I went to my university South Asian group’s Diwali celebration. At first, the idea seemed alright. Sure, it wasn’t a Hindu organization but at least I could celebrate my first Diwali away from home with other students. Maybe my college didn’t really need a Hindu organization after all. As I walked to the event, my naïve eagerness for fellowship and celebration slowly died down. Loud Bollywood music bombarded my ears. With dismay, I stared at the marshmallow skewered on a stick that a club officer handed me in greeting. Confused at this alien experience of my first Diwali away from home, I stammered an excuse saying that I didn’t want one because I was vegetarian. “Oh, you’re vegetarian? No problem, here, try roasting this Oreo instead.” I wish I could tell you that I had the courage to tell him that the real reason I didn’t want this marshmallow was that I didn’t appreciate this secularization of Diwali. Instead, under the influence of the pressure to conform, I ate a ladoo, halfheartedly swirled a firecracker in the air, and headed back to my room to FaceTime my parents to participate in their Diwali puja.
But what’s wrong with that you ask? Marshmallows and Bollywood music certainly aren’t something to get this worked over, right? These college kids are just trying to celebrate Diwali in a fun way, fusing American and Indian traditions. Wrong. Stripping Diwali of all its spiritual significance and replacing it with these was insulting as a practicing Hindu, especially when this was the only choice for students to celebrate Diwali on campus. Furthermore, no other religion represented in the South Asian group had its festivals celebrated and then denuded in this manner. The truth is, these organizations grow in prominence on campuses by celebrating popular Hindu festivals like Diwali, Garba, and Holi, stripping them of all religious ties, and ultimately preventing Hindu student organizations from thriving. Why are Hindus the only major religious group who are likely to not have an organization to represent them on campus? Why are Hindu Americans the ones who have their festivals taken, secularized, and made a joke of?
It’s not just your festival they’re taking — they’re stripping your very identity bit by bit. On a macro-level, take a look at organizations like Sadhana, Holi Against Hindutva, South Asian Solidarity Initiative, Equality Labs, and others. Smothering authentic celebration of Hindu festivals seems innocent compared to the missions of these organizations. On the surface, they claim to be progressive South Asian and Hindu organizations but in reality, they pander to an explicitly anti-Hindu agenda. Woke Hindus may not buy into these organizations and secularized festivals, but obviously many people do and a portion of them are Middle Hindus. However, with the proper approach they can be helped to see these organizations for what they are and learn to explore their Hindu identity in an authentic way on campus.
So what can you as a university student do about this? You can tackle this problem by starting small. This semester, if you find that your university offers both types of clubs, lean toward joining the unabashedly Hindu organization. And if your university doesn’t have a Hindu organization, think of starting one. Do some asking around, garner the support of a faculty sponsor and a few students, and take a look at your school’s club formation procedure. I know this option can seem difficult but in my experience, it can be done although it may take many false starts and months, if not years of work to get a solid foundation for a Hindu club. Even though it seems like we’re alone and outnumbered, it takes only one person to initiate change on your campus, and that person is you.
Everyday Ways to Embrace your Identity
Not everyone can start a Hindu club or attend one at the moment and these are only a small fraction of our lives. But we can start embracing our Hindu identity in daily life without fear of losing our American identity. Let’s start with our daily interactions with people from university. How many times have you avoided a conversation with your peers that heads toward your religion? How many times do you brush over parts of your life like upcoming festivals or visits to the temple in conversation with non-Hindu friends? I admit I have. No one wants to be judged as a religious fanatic and be the odd one out in the crowd. But if your Hindu identity is a big part of your life, why do you need to hide it from friends? As long as we are being open and accepting of others why can’t we share our religious identity with dignity and without compunction?
Perhaps we feel this way due to the fear of being misunderstood by others. Maybe you fear that someone won’t be your friend because she has strange ideas about Hinduism. In that case, if you don’t speak to her and share your identity with her will she ever change her misguided notions? In reality, most misunderstanding is due to bad communication and the way Hindus are portrayed in the media, which can be ameliorated by open dialogue and broadening the discourse.
Whether or not you choose to bring your Ganesha murti to your dorm room, or talk about your religious life with friends, know that this option is open to you and that there are others like you on campuses across America. It only takes some networking with like-minded students and Middle Hindus, choosing the right student organizations to support, and overcoming hesitation to accept your Hindu identity. While you prepare and start the new school year, let’s also choose to start this semester by being proud of our identity as Hindu Americans.