Last December, Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri was addressing an audience in Wisconsin and she related one of her formative experiences growing up. In third grade, she said, a schoolmate castigated her: “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell.”
That was in a small town in Oklahoma, part of the belt where more Bibles are thumped per capita than there are supporters of American President Barack Obama.
As she was being crowned Miss America, Davuluri uttered the words, “Thank you, Swami!”, a statement, that, alongside her duskiness, prompted a barrage of racist and religious bias.
This month, Indian Americans complained after the Hindu Temple Cultural Center near Seattle bore the graffiti, “Get out”, coupled with a swastika. Given that Americans are fairly ignorant about Hinduism, that was possibly more Neo-Nazi than anti-Hindu. And in condemning a policeman’s assault on Sureshbhai Patel in Alabama, the Hindu American Foundation referred to Patel as a “Hindu Indian”.
That’s part of recent trend, that of crying Hinduphobia, amid claims of a rise in attacks as the FBI starts tracking specific anti-Hindu crimes this year. The complaints, ironically, are partly due to growing confidence.
With Hare Krishnas chanting at Times Square and gurus preaching to the gullible with their transcendental mendacity, Hinduism in America used to enjoy cult status, though not in a nice way. But second and third generation Indians growing up Hindu in America, along with IT-enabled immigrants not reticent about their faith, are creating a more assertive Hindu community in the US. Anyone on social media knows how vocal they can be.
In the past decade, their faith has received a fillip, with an invocation to commence a session of the US Senate, the annual White House Diwali ceremony, and the arrival of a clutch of role models. If Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi takes her beliefs seriously, there’s a federal judge and a surgeon-general taking their oaths of office on the Bhagwad Gita. There’s also the first Hindu member of the House of Representatives, Tulsi Gabbard, the anti-Bobby Jindal.
That Hinduism has entered the cultural mainstream adds another layer of confidence. When this year’s Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady keeps a bronze statuette of Ganesha to, obviously, remove obstacles, Julia Roberts renames her children Laxmi, Ganesh and Krishna Balram, and the President, famously, owns a Hanuman amulet, Hindu kids don’t necessarily grow up thinking they’re engaging in idle worship. Several factors play into this newfound sense of identity: Once actually excluded from the US, there’s now acceptance of Indian immigrants seeking their slice of the American pie.
In many metropolitan areas, all roads appear to lead to Om, with yoga studios as numerous as corner Starbucks brewing lattes. Major retailers have Diwali specials, complete with discounts on that most essential of foods – Maggi noodles. Columns like US Views on God and Life are Turning Hindu in Newsweek and How movies embraced Hinduism feed into that confidence. Hindu student groups are now a presence on major campuses.
As the youth mature, community groups are also coming of age, entering that most American of activities, lobbying on Capitol Hill.
Though some can still seem juvenile, throwing tantrums at every manifestation of cultural crossings. Curiously enough, this saffron strand of the America fabric is pretty much also part of the Democratic Party blue; standing firm on a liberal bias though, at times, aggravated when the President uses an evangelical platform to harangue against apparent intolerance in India.
All that, of course, means Hindus are joining the thriving grievance industry in America, and perceived slights, however slight they may be, will have them doing the human rights hullabaloo.
But they’re unapologetic about it. Davuluri, for instance, was speaking at a fundraising event organised by the American Hindu Association.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal