“Dhruva” by Asit Kumar Haldar, from Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists (1914)

Being Hindu American is a Journey, Not a Performance

Indu Viswanathan, Ed.D.
8 min readMar 20, 2024

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Last summer, I was invited to speak about what it means to be Hindu American to a group of lovely Hindu Americans in SoCal. Most of them were immigrants from India. Afterwards, one young father came up to me and asked me how I had turned out this way. I asked him what he meant by that, and he noted that while I grew up here, I espoused “traditional values, like our traditional dress.” I smiled, and told him that I don’t always wear a sari and described a little about how I was raised.

I think a lot about this — about heritage education in the Hindu American diaspora and how different things are now than when I was growing up.

I recently caught up with an old friend, after many years. We are both the children of Indian Hindu immigrants who grew up in the Tri-State area, albeit in very different communities, between the 70s and 90s. We both chose careers in K-12 education and are parents to third generation Hindu Americans — people who are raised by Hindus who grew up in the United States.

At one point during the course of our long lunch, we reflected on how a part of our childhood was this realization that our parents could not know the complex reality of our experiences. They could not know, meaning it wasn’t possible for them to really understand it because they didn’t have a context for understanding it; but also, that we didn’t want them to know, not out of secrecy or shame or some other malevolence, but because we wanted to protect their innocence. Even as adolescents, even during that hormonal firestorm that takes over the senses, even then, we were keenly aware that there was something innocent about our parents that was sacred to us. Even though they were brilliant, even though they had experienced poverty or loss or other difficult aspects of post-colonial Indian society that we could not comprehend, there was an innocence (not naivete, not ignorance) that they had retained. Or maybe it was precisely because they were hopeful and trusting, despite those experiences, that we felt compelled to protect them. Including from how others perceived them.

This is not to say I didn’t have real conversations with my parents. As I’ve shared before, I was blessed with Hindu parents who modeled self-discipline and reverence as self-liberation and honored inquiry and questions. (My dad was a scientist, after all!) There was no fear, no dogma, no philosophical lectures that were too far removed from our lived reality. Our Hindu American life was wonderful and wondrous, and my sister, Uma, and I were free to engage with it in our own natural way. Our Hindu Americanness was dynamic, not fixed. My parents recognized that they had chosen to live in the United States and there were wonderful things to discover about this country. And they also gave us experiences that deepened our love for our ancestral land. They neither pressured us to acculturate nor did they resist or deny our American or Western experiences. And from when I was a young girl, I would write letters to my parents expressing about my life what I couldn’t speak, and they would always honor my feelings, teaching me how to navigate life as someone who experienced it with deep emotion.

And still, for a long time, I felt like I was living in two worlds — the one inside my home (which was a portal to India and Hinduness) and the public world. I became so good at code switching between those worlds, that by the time I was in high school, I could code switch in the middle of a sentence or a thought.

It was only when I went to college, and my everyday lived experience of home and school integrated into one thing, that I had to figure out who I really was, and not just who I was in response to my environment. I was starting a new phase of self-discovery, of integrating myself, that would take me well beyond the four years of college. It would take me in so many different directions, towards and far away from what my parents could understand. At times, it would make me insufferable and sanctimonious and judgemental in that oh-so-special way that is developmentally appropriate for college undergrads.

And what I deeply appreciate — especially now, with my own children in college — is that my parents gave me the space to do that, to explore and discover, to be a jerk (not to them, but in general), without ever taking it personally or panicking. They respected that this was my journey, that I was going to be different from them, and that now that I was an adult, their role in my life had shifted. And in doing that, they kept our relationship relevant and vibrant. To this day, my parents are my best friends.

They kept me safe and brave.

As a parent of older teenagers, I can attest to how incredibly difficult this can be, but also to how vital this is for keeping our families and community intact.

What I see happening now, what I find to not only be distressing but actually unfathomable, is a trend of immigrant Hindu parents publicly outing and shaming their children for falling out of line, for being brainwashed by wokeism…for changing.

Listen, I am very aware of and have, myself, voiced legitimate criticisms of left wing authoritarianism and Hinduphobia. It is gnarly stuff, and can be very difficult to untangle with our children, who may come to us with supercharged energy around it. I get that, and I have compassion for it.

However, what I see is an incredibly reductive narrative, where wokeism is the enemy and parents are somehow the victims, absolved from self-reflection or being supportive of their children’s actual journeys, no matter how difficult or confusing it may be to them. We can all agree that bringing children into the world is a huge commitment and is far more challenging than any one can anticipate.

It is one thing to voice a concern as a parent and to seek community support in navigating all of this. But what I see happening is something entirely different. I see public shaming of young adult children for going through a very personal and difficult journey. I see Hindu parents who chose to move to America, maybe not anticipating how complex the reality would be, and accusing their children of being Hindu American, which can mean questioning everything.

I recognize that not all parents are like mine, nor should they be!, and that many Hindu immigrant parents felt they had to choose between full assimilation or a kind of ghettoized experience for their children. This is a false binary — it is not reality — yet it appears to be the prevailing narrative in the imagination of many Hindu immigrant parents. And there is a lot of judgment that flung in both directions. The “traditional” side may accuse the assimilation side of being disloyal or deracinated, while the assimilation side finds the “traditional” side to be out of touch with reality, believing that full assimilation is inevitable so why be in denial.

In between the rhetoric and assumptions of these extremes are the vast and diverse and dynamic realities of what it is really like to grow up Hindu in the United States. The beauty (and difficulty) is, no one’s experience can be generalized.

More importantly, no one’s experience is the full story. No one’s experience is a cautionary tale or a reliable formula for success. There are too many factors of context and circumstance and missing perspectives and self-denial and all the modulations of the mind that we do not know. However, it is reasonable to offer that if a community publicly shames and belittles young people as they are going through their journey of self-discovery, if they hold up a one-sided version of the childrens’ stories for public dissection without their consent, other young people are not likely to feel safe or welcome in the community at all. These community leaders are going to expedite the process of Hindu American children washing their hands of their parents entirely.

I don’t imagine that what I am saying is comfortable or even welcome by Hindu parents who are afraid that their children will be turned against them by America. Especially if you didn’t ask me for my opinion. Especially if you are bought into the fear mongering. If that is the case, please feel free to step away from this. This is not for you. Just note this: while I share my own journey publicly, if I think it will help people, I would never ever share my children’s, especially without their consent. That would be an incredible violation of their privacy and trust. It would permanently erode our relationship and I would not expect any young Hindu Americans to trust me or find me credible after that.

So this message is for the Hindus growing up here who might want to hear that a different possibility exists for being a “good Hindu American” and that some Hindu American parents have compassion for you and think it’s terrible that you’re being scapegoated and shamed publicly by reductive stories that are out of touch and lack vivekam:

I drank in college.

Didn’t affect my Hinduness.

I didn’t just party in college — I was president of my sorority.

Still had Hindu values.

I dated.

Still Hindu.

I am American.

Still Hindu.

I wear shorts in the hot NY summers and bikinis when I go on beach holidays.

Still Hindu.

I have an American accent.

Still a Hindu American parent with a TON of life experience. (PSA: Not every Hindu who has an American accent is younger than every Hindu who has an Indian accent.)

I attended American public schools.

Still Hindu.

I got degrees in the social sciences and humanities.

Still Hindu.

My preferred decorating style is midcentury modern and I love the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

Still Hindu.

My journey as a Hindu American is not at all what I imagined it would be. Never in a million years did I imagine I would be standing in the hot California sun in a purple sari and a ginormous matching bindi while a very sweet immigrant father asked how I remained so traditional.

I didn’t remain anything, except a seeker on the path to finding my true nature, my Self, with a measure of respect and connection to my parents (and eventually my Guru and sangha) that allowed me to be whoever I needed to be to keep seeking. Even if that meant questioning a lot of things and not seeking for long stretches.

There will be lots of people with lots of opinions questioning how Hindu you are and/or how committed you are to social justice, especially because of social media. And most of the time, those voices will appear to be in opposition. They will ask you to prove your loyalty to one side or the other. There are people who question those things about me, even now, people much younger than I am, based on nothing but their own paranoia and fear. That is what sells on social media. These are nothing but projections. Set them aside. You don’t have to perform anything for anyone. The questions inside you are what matter. Follow your own wonder.

Find your Self. There are members of the Hindu American community that are here for you, that will be here for you, with compassion and openness, even if you don’t want to be with us for now.

It is your journey.

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Indu Viswanathan, Ed.D.

Mother | Daughter | Immigration & Teacher Education | Dharma | Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu