- Can anyone force many diverse groups not born in India to affiliate with Indianness? Or, can anyone force someone to choose only one identity?
Depending on my mood, when I hear the question, “Who Am I,” I either recall an impromptu and hilarious monologue of the character “Ben Sobel” by Billy Crystal in the movie “Analyze This” or reflect on a profound age-old question in Sanskrit, Koham or कोऽहं, literally meaning “who am I.” In his famous Bhaj Govindam, Adi Shankaracharya referred to this ancient question.
Well, in our day-to-day life, we are not Ben Sobel and undoubtedly not profound thinkers like Adi Shankaracharya. From driver’s ID, and passports to professional, social, and family life, we are busy living many identities. These are all visible identities, not like social media ones – anonymous and misleading. But apart from these official identities, with or without choice, we carry several identities based on birth, race, region, language, religion, etc.
In 2020, when the then-democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his running mate, the U.S.-based Indian community and Indians in India were thrilled. VP Harris, as we know, is of Indian origin from her mother’s side and Caribbean heritage from her father’s side. But while publicly speaking during her acceptance speech, she also showed her another identity – the Tamil language-speaking person. All her identities were and are honest, and I am sure, valuable for her.
It was the Christmas holiday time. One of my friends invited me to his place for a holiday party. My friend’s home was decorated with lots of lighting in the front yard and a well-decorated and fully lit Christmas tree in his living room. Some of our common acquaintances and friends joined the party. One of them was the non-Indian origin and Christian by faith, who curiously asked my friend and his wife how they kept a decorated Christmas tree. My friend responded by saying that just enjoying Christmas time. Instantly, the follow-up question/comment came from the earlier friend, “But don’t you celebrate Diwali?” Needless to say, my friend was Indian and Hindu. Although he was genuinely enjoying the holiday season in his own way, it was surprising to someone who was non-Indian and non-Hindu. In my American friend’s frame of reference, this Indian friend’s identity was Hindu.
When I was relatively new in this country, I was not aware of each and every practice of different faiths. But like any other Indian, I knew to respect all religions and not remain exclusive while interacting. With this background, I had to once attend a funeral mass of my American colleague’s father. It was in a church, and the ceremony was according to Catholic practice. I was trying to be observant and respectful to following others. Later there was a time to pay the final respect to the parted soul. At that time, another American Catholic colleague tried to educate me. She advised me not to take a piece of bread and wine offered by the priest at that time. There was no way to discuss it, and I found following that disrespectful and against the Indian teaching. So I followed my instinct, paid the final respect to the parted soul, and accepted the bread and wine offered by the Catholic priest.
Unfortunately, after a few months, we had to attend another funeral mass for another colleague’s family member. The same colleague who tried to educate me was with me. Before entering the church, she again advised me not to take the bread and wine that priest would offer after the ceremony. I said to her, “I don’t mind…,” and before I completed my sentence, she interrupted and said, “you don’t mind, but they do!” It was sort of surprising to me. I asked why so despite showing respect for their faith. She said because I was not Catholic. Then I realized that even other Americans, who were not Catholic but of other denominations or religions, were also not accepting bread and wine. At that time, everyone had the identity of either Catholic or non-Catholic.
Many examples and experiences prove only one thing: each individual carries knowingly/unknowingly more than one identity and shows in public who s/he is based on the situation.
The current public discussion about what should be the identity, Hindu American or Indian American, is shallow at best. But in fact, it raises some other issues. People demanding such a monotonous identity effectively put many types of Hindus in one basket of Indian Americans. This includes the first-generation immigrant Hindu Indians. It also consists of second/third generation Americans of Hindu Indian origin. Even further, several generations old Caribbean Hindus, Afghan Hindus, UK-based or African Hindus, and even Americans who adopted Hindu practices.
With such a demand, it is good to see that these critics are accepting the geography-based definition of the word Hindu and its interoperability with the word Indian. It can also be labeled as a nationalist approach of these critics who demand all Indian origin shall identify as being Indian. But there is an implicit assumption that Hindu Dharma is unique and exclusive only to Indians. This assumption is factually incorrect.
There are other issues in the making. Can anyone force so many diverse groups not born in India to affiliate with Indianness? At the same time, can anyone force someone to choose only one identity as Indian Americans or Hindu Americans?
It is essential to acknowledge intersectionality, where an individual can have a diverse background based on religion or dharma and other socio and geo-political affiliations. When a first-generation Hindu immigrated from India goes to the Indian independence day celebration, s/he connects as an Indian while chanting Jana Gana Mana. At that time, they consider themselves Indian or of Indian origin. But when the naturalized immigrants and second/third-generation born in the U.S. Hindus of Indian origin enjoy the 4th of July celebration and chant “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they consider themselves American at that time and neither Hindu nor Indian.
So let people live their lives the way they want. And leave the question “Who am I” to Ben Sobel, who hilariously babbles meaninglessly,”…who am I is the question for the ages that’s the one we all are searching to find out who am I …” Or, if you really want to think deep then refer to the philosopher like Adi Shankaracharya, who said,
कस्त्वं कोऽहं कुत आयातः, का मे जननी को मे तातः।
इति परिभावय सर्वमसारम्, विश्वं त्यक्त्वा स्वप्न विचारम् ॥23॥
Who are you? Who am I? From where have I come? Who is my mother, and who is my father? Reflect on these questions and acknowledge that the world is like a dream.
(Bhaj Govindam verse 23 by Adi Shankaracharya)
Vikas Deshpande is a member of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA.