Even as March dawned, the weather Gods of New York City were showing no signs of mercy. Indian women volunteers of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS, Mandir — a Gujarati religious organisation in Flushing — walked in on a Saturday morning, under multiple layers of trousers and overcoats, and proceeded directly to the changing rooms downstairs to slip into their thin chiffon saris and salwar-kameezes.
The women hadn’t exactly gathered to pray. They were getting ready for a conference organised on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
Though it seems to be just another traditional Hindu temple, BAPS encourages its followers to tie religious teachings to other relevant matters of personal life, believing broadly in spreading Hinduism as a way of being.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who founded the socio-spiritual association in the late 18th century, was a revolutionary for his time because he strongly discouraged casteism, a striking feature of Indian society prevalent to this day that discriminates and creates ranks on the basis of colour and occupation. He would often have his Muslim and Harijan followers visit him alongside his high-caste Hindu devotees.
In a community seen as based on unquestionable faith, BAPS encourages its followers to go beyond the verbatim interpretation of the religion.
Aditi Bhagat, 31, a medical student, was born into a family of conscientious BAPS followers. But they hadn’t always been that way. The Bhagats stood out in the small village of Derod near Surat, Gujarat that was populated with followers of Kabir, the Hindu poet and philosopher who shunned idol worship and formal rituals. The family was devoted to Ram and Krishna instead, the traditional Hindu Gods. Years later, in the mid 80s, when they had moved to Durban, South Africa, Bena, Aditi’s grandmother, happened to attend a BAPS sabha and realised how much more the ideals resonated with her. Unlike a regular Hindu temple, she wasn’t just being taught to have implicit faith in God. Through letters written to their gurus and sadhus, regular conversations with them, audio-visual and print publications, devotees like her were made to develop a sense of personal attachment with what they were embracing as religion.
Today, 30 years later, Bena’s granddaughter, Aditi lives and breathes the BAPS values, carrying the legacy forward in New York.
“Our gurus emphasise on the tagline ‘with knowledge and devotion,’ which for us, means understanding Hinduism and not just having blind faith in it,” Aditi said.
BAPS’ adoption of logic and universality is reflected in the stand the temple takes in the current debate between liberal and more traditional Hinduism, for instance, on an issue like homosexuality.
“No gay or lesbian organisation has ever approached us to collaborate with them. But as long as the activity is done in appropriate cultural settings, we wouldn’t mind,” said Priti Patel, 46, volunteer at the temple.
Just down the Flushing street from the BAPS temple is the Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam, the first and one of the best known traditional Hindu temples in all of North America. The temple believes in the universality of the Hindu religion too, and that all identities deserve goodness and respect. And yet, while Hinduism has no rigid doctrines against homosexuality, the temple says the religion doesn’t promote it officially.
“As a Hindu temple, it’s not something with which we would associate. Our priests would never perform same-sex marriages,” said Dr Uma Mysorekar, president of the temple.
As the two temples, a four-minute walk from each other, show, the divide among Hindus in the US mirrors the one back in India.
In the world’s biggest democracy that is made up of 78.35 per cent Hindus, 14.2 per cent Muslims, 2.3 per cent Christians, 1.9 per cent Sikhs, 0.8 per cent Buddhists and 0.4 per cent Jains, religion, for a long time, has faced serious definitional battles. Of what to be based and followed on — teachings in ancient scriptures or those of priests and authorities who interpret them, moral codes invented by a set of self-designated (and often politically-inclined) advocates who insist that these spill over into decisions of everyday and often private life or lastly, one’s personal beliefs.
Today, definitional battles across the country have moved on to other things. Regardless of which religion one may speak of, there is an increasingly dictatorial current to following it in daily life according to “norms” spelled out by political and religious authorities.
Suddenly, religion has gone beyond our family names and wedding plans. Newly-constructed religious ideals, from the necessity for a Hindu woman to bear four children to couples who are “seen together” on Valentine’s Day threatened by marriage to the idea that a woman should avoid “provocative” clothing in order to not “invite” sexual assault to not “compromising on moral values and traditions when it comes to issues like live-in relationships and homosexuality” are staring us in the face.
Born and raised in a Hindu family, I wasn’t conscious of these demands that my religion would make on me for a long time. At least, my parents never made it seem so. They never sat me down formally to explain what being a Hindu meant. I was never told what to wear or eat or drink or whom to go out with at which hour of the day. My family never saw these things as being part of religion, or at least “our” religion.
But despite that, I don’t think I lack a fair idea of either religious or social protocol or what might endanger my safety or dignity in my everyday life. For example, I make sure I touch my elders’ feet at social gatherings and wouldn’t visit a temple in a short skirt. That is just how I’ve been brought up. But at the same time, I wouldn’t think twice before fraternising with people of the opposite gender or going out after a certain hour if I feel the need to.
What kind of a Hindu does that make me?
Suddenly, I’m acutely aware of what a deviant I would be labelled as if I were even seen with a man on February 14. And God help me if I were caught doing so in a pair of shorts. Hinduism is often a strange, confusing ideal even though I’ve lived all my life as a Hindu.
On one hand are liberal Hindus, who seek a fair, open democracy and the right to free living and decision-making for all, including but not limited to Hindus. On the other, those who stand fiercely by the concrete morals spelled out by advocates of conservative, traditional Hinduism that they believe are truly Hindu.
And yet, one could be confused in such an environment about where to draw the line between remaining faithful to the religion and one’s lifestyle, choices and attitudes. The scene is not much different in the United States, with 2.2 million Hindus reported in North America alone according to a report by the Pew Research Center in 2010. Hindus in the country reflect the moral and intellectual divide that the religion currently faces in India.
“Young Hindus today aren’t really moving away from rituals but they definitely are connecting it to the deeper philosophy that is as intrinsic to Hinduism but is often overshadowed by rites and traditions,” said Sheetal Shah, senior director at the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group for Hindu-Americans in the US that had slammed India’s support for an anti-gay resolution in the United Nations. “Those who come to live in the West find themselves part of a minority. And when you need to explain your faith to other people, sometimes you start questioning it yourself as well.”
But as evident as this schism is, its proponents aren’t perfectly defined. Like in India, the Hindus in America seem conflicted in their ideas of progress, liberalism, tradition and religion.
Requests to Hindus in the US to speak about the meanings their religion may acquire away from home yielded varied responses. Some were aggressive, some dismissive, others both. I was fascinated by how many people didn’t want to discuss homosexuality within the Hindu realm at all.
A male immigrant analyst emailed, advising me to abandon the project altogether, saying I would only perpetuate the myth that ours was a “land of snake charmers,” refusing to discuss what stands he may have on LGBT Hindu groups or his personal interpretation of dharma.
Others hinted, not so subtly, that academics often have “vested interests” in writing about Indian religion. Spokespersons of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and the American branch of the Bharatiya Janata Party failed to respond despite repeated reminders and requests. Even some females took a conservative stand when it came to issues of women, who, incidentally, are revered within the religion.
“I think what you wear is a reflection of your personality. So there’s no harm in playing it safe. After all, rules exist for our benefit and safety,” said Lata Patel, 24, a volunteer and teacher at BAPS when I asked her for her opinion on the rules being spelled out in order to “protect and control” women in the country.
BAPS, despite its “logical” understanding of Hinduism, advocates abstinence from alcohol and non-vegetarian food. While I don’t drink myself, I don’t see why religion should dictate personal choices. Would lifestyle decisions change if we decide to convert tomorrow?
The temple also keeps spaces of worship separate for the two genders for them to not get “distracted.” In a religion built on duty and obligation towards the family, I have serious doubts about how many people come to a temple to pray, harbouring any such feelings towards the opposite gender. And while physical separation can only do so much, doesn’t the otherwise “liberal” temple also presume heterosexuality as a given for all its members here?
For every huge traditional temple that may keep its distance from uncommon, “non-mainstream” identities and practices, there are organisations in the US that want do their bit for just about anyone.
“It’s important to make sure young people do not get turned off by the opposite messages that are being given out in the name of Hinduism today,” said Sunita Vishwanath, who runs Sadhana, a coalition of progressive Hindus in New York. “Nobody needs to tell us who can or cannot be a Hindu. Hinduism for us is a liberal and progressive religious identity that helps us stand up for issues that matter to all people. Social justice is key.”
From urging Indian legislators to remove Section 377 (that makes homosexuality unconstitutional) to cleaning up beaches in Jamaica Bay to petitioning Penguin India to not to withdraw a controversial book but rather encourage dissent and debate, Sadhana has pushed the traditional Hindu community in the US to take a stand and not just for fellow Hindus.
Vishwanath fights a tough battle here. For some Hindus in the US, as is evident, it’s clearly ludicrous to believe Hinduism can be anything but what they deem conventional and hence, indisputably right. Manoj Padhi, a software professional settled in Dallas, for instance, feels homosexuality is against Hindu principles.
“Same sex marriage is disrespectful to the ancient history of Hinduism,” said Padhi. “Unnatural sex deviates from the sacred values of the religion. Today, a male wants to mate with another male. Tomorrow, he may want to mate with an animal. Where will this end?”
Padhi’s strong views are countered by other members of the community. For example, Deen Khandelwal, a retired research fellow from the aerospace industry said homosexuality is a non-issue from a Hindu perspective for him
“If you’re gay, it’s your choice. As long as you fulfill the duties you have towards your parents, home and government that the religion asks you to, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Speaking to these many Hindus over three months — priests, US residents by birth, immigrants and converts, I’ve realised their stands are not that simple. A lot of them do endorse practical application of the revered moral teachings that advocate goodness, freedom and respect for all.
Priti Patel, a staunch follower of the BAPS tradition in New York, said unhesitatingly, “Rules often tend to be politically driven,” when asked about the “norms” being advocated in the name of religion, especially for women in India. “Hinduism doesn’t tell you what to wear or do. Unless you’re in a temple and it would just be ridiculous to not cover up. It isn’t accurate for organisations to propagate these things in the name of religion.”
At the same time, there are several Hindus who, despite being away from the country, still feel strongly about conservative traditions. Reinforcing the fact that like the members of their community back home, they all simply interpret their religion their own way, irrespective of where they may be. And perhaps, that is something they demand respect for, because that is a decision they make for themselves to gain the best of both worlds, the material comforts of the West and the spiritual solace of the East.
“Your freedom shouldn’t clash with mine,” said Aditi Bhagat who refuses to drink, eat non-vegetarian food or comment on homosexuality. “I’m a practicing Hindu and this is my choice.”
Stands on religion, just like the understanding of it, can never be absolute. For Manoj Padhi, Hinduism is about reciting his mantras each morning before he touches a morsel of food and making sure horoscopes are matched before marriage is fixed. For Sunita Vishwanath, it is about engaging the volunteers of Sadhana in the community service that she associates with Hinduism. For people like Yagnaram Ramanuja Dasan and Amara Wilhelm, it is about the passion and resilience with which they run their Hindu LGBT groups.
The First World hasn’t changed the Hindu. Like those back home, they interpret their religion how they want to, or have been taught to, and fight for it constantly.
For Aditi Bhagat, who was born and raised in South Africa and now lives in the US, her religion helps her feel connected to her Hindu roots. People like her bring about the realisation that even as the world becomes smaller and cultures overlap, we carry our beliefs with us wherever we go. And if cultures transcend boundaries, so do the divides within them.
The Hindu in the US never was and never will be any different from the Hindu in India.
Aditi, who has never lived in India, has learned from her gurus that abstaining from alcohol or attending these weekly congregations where she interprets Hindu scriptures will keep her embedded to her roots, while recognising the inherent difference between herself and those around her in the multicultural American society she lives in.
I, having lived all my life in India, have never turned to religious scriptures or saints, relying instead on my own instincts and upbringing. Does that make either of us a lesser Hindu? No. It just brings us closer as two unique adherents of the same faith in a community dispersed widely across the globe but fiercely cognizant of its roots.