Note from the editor: "Every day, my Hindu-ness makes me a better American because... " This opening sentence presented the essay challenge that the Hindu American Foundation posed to the next generation of Hindu Americans. The Huffington Post Religion is proud to feature the three excellent first place winners and applauds the intent and result of HAF's fine contest. For more on this contest and other winners visit the HAF website.
Western Fire, Eastern Wood
By Faren Rajkumar
To be a true American is to be patriotic and persevering. A good American citizen understands the constitution and is aware of and protects their rights to free speech, press and religion. "If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter," said George Washington. None value and exert this right more than those who spill their souls onto paper for the whole world to read.
The words I write are a mere extension of who I am. I am an American. I am a Hindu. I am a writer, and every distinguished writer has a raison d'être; a justification for their chosen path, a burning passion that causes their fingers to itch when they are separated from a pen. There is a flare of that cause in every word they inscribe, defining them as an power in their chosen realm. My religious beliefs are the fuel to my printed fire. Without a religion so pervasive and unwavering, my presence in the world of journalism would be invisible. Every story and poem, every news article and review, is underlain by whispers of the timeless wisdom found between the covers of our holy scriptures. My pride in and dedication to my way of life instills in me a deep patriotism no different than the fervor felt by the leaders of this great nation and has made clear my place in the world, my dharma. Dharma instills, above all other lessons, that true happiness and one's moral duty are inseparable. Because I have learned to be strong, from and for my religion, and have found bliss in doing so, I possess little hesitation in doing the same for the country that has provided me endless opportunity and freedom.
Because no man, bird, tree or stone is exempt from divinity, Hinduism has nurtures a firm sense of respect, humility and understanding. Often, my generation's constant dissatisfaction with America's state of affairs, coupled with our desire for rapid change alienates us from this primal sense of gratitude. We fail to realize that by hastily declaring ourselves unfaithful to our leaders and unhappy with our country, we are becoming part of the problem, not the much needed solution. About one year ago, I witnessed a sharp decline in the simplest means of political activity among my peers. Standing for the pledge of allegiance is the smallest, but easiest way to offer support to our nation, and for those who are not of voting age and cannot do much more to help this country, I wondered if it was really too much to ask. I delivered a furious tirade to my peers via the school newspaper, scolding, "If you do not stand for the pledge of allegiance, you do not stand for this country. And if you do not stand for the very soil you live on, then what do you stand for?" I was Krishna, demanding no less than everything from Arjuna. I was a Hindu demanding selfless service from those who failed to realize their Dharma, calling my peers to their simplest of obligations. It is essential that one's duty is fulfilled without hesitation or expectation; it by this fundamental Hindu ideal that I live.
The ideals that govern the way I live my everyday exist in beautiful mutualism. A true American will proudly claim their way of life in the face of adversity and will not accept an offense without making an endeavor to correct it. My way of life is so often affronted by misconceptions and myths, and the perpetrators of these falsehoods have unknowingly motivated me to do the American thing -- defend my rights. After years of enduring a wild, savage portrayal of India and my religion in school, I finally complained. The entire world listened via an editorial in Hinduism Today. When I witnessed an image of God being defiled and subjected to the whims of commercialism as a marketing tool to sell mere hamburgers, I did not look away. I wrote to the CEO of Burger King, asserting the right to protect my religion. When asked to identify and research a controversial topic for a term paper, I chose an issue that resounded loudly within me -- the plague of conversion in India under the guise of humanitarian aid. When asked to write an opinions piece on the possibility of vegetarian school lunches, I made a clear stand in the Sun-Sentinel Teenlink on the right to religious practices guaranteed to every American student, including vegetarianism. The instances go on; the influence Hinduism has had on my role as proud citizen of this nation is clearly steadfast.
The depths of my soul are expressed through my written words, and with each that I inscribe, I strive to inspire and move, and Hinduism has created a niche within the scholastic world for me to exert my right to speak freely. Similar to a force of nature, printed words possess a power that can shake and move the foundation of any empire and cannot be stopped by any man or nation; it is by this fundamental American ideal that I live. I am fearless and strong on paper. I never waver in my dedication to my spiritual life, and Hinduism gives me reason to be American. If my fire is of the West, the wood sustaining the flames is forever imported from the East.
Faren Rajkumar, 17, currently resides in Plantation, Florida and is a senior at South Plantation High and editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. She is an avid writer, photographer and journalist, currently a staff member for the Sun-Sentinel Teenlink and a Cappies theater critic, and has been published in Hinduism Today. Faren hopes to freelance and write fiction while pursuing a career in medicine.
By Sohini Sircar
Many American Hindus view their lives as having two poles. They display their Hindu side at home or at the temple amongst family and their American side at school or work. This dual life–almost like split personality–can be confusing when the two areas converge. But this is not the only way to live as an American Hindu. In fact, I strongly believe that these two identities are inextricably linked in my existence as a Hindu in the United States.
My Hindu-ness makes me a better American, because I understand that there is a certain essence that links us. Just as understanding that the soul (atman) links the entire universe helps me dispel the illusion of distinctions (maya), understanding the essence of what makes me American helps me look past different skin colors and accents.
During my freshman year of college, I looked into the mirror in my dorm room, and for the first time, I really understood that I have looked and will always look South Asian. By my appearance alone, no one would understand how much I believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Internally, I face a struggle. In my interest area of international development and health, someday I would like to work for the U.S. government, and even serve as a delegate in international settings. But I also realize that when people look at me, they see a South Asian. And unless I put my pen down to paper or open my mouth to speak, there is no way of conveying my Hindu American identity.
I was, once again, forced to consider this dilemma when I recently attended a White House ceremony recognizing the valiant work of Hindus in the Armed Forces. I found myself surprised to wonder how they so bravely pledged their lives for a country their parents had only immigrated to a few decades ago. What makes us so loyal to the U.S.? What keeps us from working for a South Asian country when that is the region from where my genes, faith and culture come from?
Even more recently, in my hunt to find an apartment, I encountered a young woman who, via e-mail, asked me where I was from. Without thinking much, I wrote that I had always lived in the U.S. She then replied, “well, where are you originally from.” Looking at that e-mail, I wanted to shout, “America! I was born here!” I realized that was not the answer she was looking for, but why did it matter from which country my parents immigrated if I told her I was American. Regardless of my feelings of my American identity, she refused to accept me due to the foreignness of my name. But that is exactly what makes me a Hindu American.
But what does it mean to be Hindu, and what does it mean to be American? And where does the essence of those identities intersect?
My faith helps me understand that while all things in the universe have so many different exteriors, they all have the same atman. What is the similarity between a tree, a human and a mushroom? It seems like little, seeing as how they are not even in the same kingdom taxonomy. By dispelling maya, we find that all beings are created from the same soul.
My dedication to my faith does not take away from my American identity, but instead reinforces this message. I see America as a beautiful potpourri of people and cultures – all with the same soul of liberty, opportunity and freedom. Being American is about having a certain invisible essence that links us to all other Americans, regardless of external appearance. No single external feature in body, voice or movement distinguishes an American. There is no answer to the question of what a “typical” American looks like. All people living on this continent came as immigrants, and that is what makes the U.S. such a sparkling mix of gems of different colors, shapes and sizes. While human exterior facial features, skin colors and accents can seem to distinguish one person from another, the atman within all things links the universe together.
These concepts that are so intrinsic to my understanding of Hinduism are also so elegantly woven into the fabric of my belief in the American system. Simply based on citizenship, all Americans can vote, are guaranteed a fair trial and are promised protection. This idea that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the U.S. government requires that we disregard the maya of external features and, instead, understand the essence of what makes us all American.
My Hindu and American identities intertwine in such a way that I cannot explain one without the other. These identities teach me to respect all living and non-living things, and this means that we must treat everything with equality and care. This is beautifully depicted in the illustrated pages of my Bhagavad Gita - everything has the same God within it. This concept involves making sure we strive to give everyone access to food, water, shelter and medical care, as the U.S. does through humanitarian assistance. Respecting the soul within all things means recognizing the equality and oneness that flows through us all.
My belief of this essential equality defines my duty to serve for justice, harmony and peace. This way of thinking has not come from my identity as either a Hindu or an American, but instead as the combined identity of both. This convergence of ideas like justice, atman and equality challenge my ideas of race, religion and nationality, and I strive to fully comprehend that my soul is made of the same essence as everything else. When the world understands this concept, conflicts over mine and yours will end, and peace will pervade.
Every day my Hindu-ness makes me a better American and my American-ness makes me a better Hindu because they teach me that people and things have the same essence.
Sohini Sircar, is 22 years old and graduated in May of 2011 from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University with a Bachelor of Science in Science, Technology and International Affairs, with a concentration in Biotechnology and Global Health and a certificate in International Development. She is currently working at the National Technical Assistance Center for Children’s Mental Health. Most recently, she attended and helped organize a conference hosted by Hindu American Seva Charities at the White House and at Georgetown University and hopes to continue with her work with these and other Hindu organizations.
How Hinduism Makes Me A Better American
By Vinti Singh
I tried an experiment last year in which I attempted to go a week without buying anything from China. My choices as a consumer were severely limited. It was nearly impossible to find clothes, gifts or even nails to hang up a picture frame. Since finding non-made-in-China alternatives were rare occurrences, I often just did without. At first, I was frustrated and sad. Coming home from the mall empty handed made me feel just as empty on the inside.
It was my religion, Hinduism, that brought me to the realization that material possessions will never fulfill me. Being a Hindu makes me a better American because it helps me see with clarity the American dream, and the pursuit of happiness, as something that is materially intangible, but much more satisfying when achieved.
Stuff, material stuff, will never really satisfy you. A lot of people spend their whole lives trying to accumulate as much of it as possible, but as Hindu philosophy teaches us, you have to give up all material desires if you ever really want to be happy.
“You cannot become progressive in spiritual life if you indulge in unrestricted sense gratification because sense gratification is the cause of our bondage in this material world,” A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, a Vedic teacher, said in a lecture in New York in the 1960s.
This recession is particularly hard on people because shrinking budgets, both for government bodies and personal wallets, has meant everyone has had sacrifices. For some people, it means they can’t take a vacation that year. For others, it means they’re not sure how they are going to fund their next meal. As the middle class disappears, so do the stories about people buying bigger televisions, bigger cars and bigger houses. But if we are to be good Americans, we can’t dwell on the things that are gone and keep postponing our dreams till “when the economy turns around.” We have to learn to find joy in ingenuity, creativity and innovation.
For example, I started a container garden on my patio last year to save some money. My yield was semi-successful. I let my spinach flower too fast and didn’t water my mint enough. But I got some fresh, juicy tomatoes and bell peppers. If I had gone to the grocery store, I would have picked up a tomato off the shelf and bought it. But planting the seeds, watching the plant grow and knowing I was capable of making food brought me a separate joy. My friends have found similar satisfaction in stitching their own clothes, brewing their own beer and building their own furniture. Americans are innovative, and we should all embrace the innovators within ourselves. It’s much more satisfying than buying all of our solutions.
As Americans, we also have to be mindful of the effect materialism has on the environment. The Bhagavad Gita tells us, “For, so sustained by sacrifice, the gods will give you the food of your desire. Whosoever enjoys their gift, yet gives nothing, is a thief, no more nor less” ("Karma Yoga.” Bhagavad Gita As It Is. Swami Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta.) The materials economy (extraction, production, distribution, consumption, disposal) is a system in crisis, Annie Leonard, author of "The Story of Stuff," explained in a YouTube video. “It’s a linear system and we live on a finite planet and you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely,” she said. “We are running out of resources, we are using too much stuff.”
If we buy things we don’t really need and will probably throw away within a year, we’re wasting those precious resources. By purchasing clothes second-hand, by recycling my papers and plastics, and not buying that iPad that it would be nice to have but I don’t really need, I am not thieving from the environment. All Americans can make the decision to buy higher mileage cars to reduce the amount of oil they use. Or better yet, they can take public transportation when possible. When we take the time to understand where all our materials come from and what they truly cost, we start to see that the things we buy cost a lot more than what we pay for them.
Sometimes it seems like materialism is the dominant religion in America. But by breaking free from that cycle of desire and focusing on what’s really important, like ingenuity and innovation, I have become a better American. By reducing my material desire, I’m also reducing my impact on the environment. I’m a Hindu, and that’s what helps me see the real American dream -– finding happiness within myself.
Vinti Singh, 24, is a reporter for the Connecticut Post, a Hearst Connecticut Media Group newspaper in Bridgeport, Conn. She reports on municipal issues, as well as energy and environment policy. She grew up in a suburb outside of Philadelphia and she graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism and a minor in women’s and gender studies.