09/20/2013 10:20 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Critiquing the 'Sacred:' Promoting the Idea of Discourse Within the Hindu American Community

One of the strongest qualities of Hinduism is that, despite its diverse approaches to the Divine, there has been a rich tradition of debate and discourse that has nourished and revitalized Hindu thought and practice. Hindu scriptures and spiritual leaders have for thousands of years extolled the virtue of learning and knowledge creation, commonly referred to among Hindus as jnana yoga. In fact, my own inspiration as a critical scholar -- questioning everything and the exhilaration of academic debate -- comes from the 17th century Hindu saint Raghavendra, who excelled in debating and successfully questioned long assumed orthodoxies within the Vaishnavite tradition in which he was raised. One such debate was captured masterfully in a 1985 Tamil language biopic.

With the spiritual wealth accumulated through centuries of discourse within India, Diasporic Hindu communities have been able to use that capital in helping to evolve the spiritual traditions and acclimate within diverse settings across the globe, while those who have found Hinduism from other walks of life have added their own rich contributions.

Despite this rich tradition within Hinduism, there are times when Hindu Americans seem reluctant to debate issues of philosophy, practice, and even cultural symbolism. There is a legitimate reason for this, as many older Hindu Americans were educated in the aftermath of partition and were often taught that Hinduism was an enemy of modernity, a result of the British institutionalizing Hindu inferiority in English medium education. Colonialism stifled debate and placed Hindus - and Hinduism - into poorly fitting categories while homogenizing its numerous approaches to understanding the Divine.

When the first major wave of Hindu immigrants came to the United States after 1965, their children attended schools in which Hinduism was presented -- and often continues to be -- as an archaic spiritual and religious tradition, giving rise to a generation of Hindu Americans feeling embarrassed about their identity. It's not surprising then, for some to feel defensive or territorial when it comes to discourses about Hinduism while others are reluctant to engage in any types of discussion, particularly as it relates to reforming practices from within the community. Individual Hindu religious organizations have tried to foster discourses, but they are often self-contained and fail to reach the vast majority of Hindu Americans who don't belong to a particular temple or religious group (one of the paradoxically beautiful and challenging aspects of Hinduism).

Perhaps academia can provide an avenue for these types of debates. Last week, I attended a lecture on Pope Francis by Father Thomas Reese at Santa Clara University. In a room full of mostly Catholics, including many elderly guests, Reese engaged in a lively discussion on Francis's impact on the Church and how previous notions of clericalism, institutionalized doctrinism, and rigid hierarchies were being challenged by the new Pope. The audience members laughed along with Reese's often humorous anecdotes and not-too-subtle critiques of Church orthodoxy, and afterwards asked enlightened questions about the future of the Church and its reforms as seen in their daily practice. If Catholics can have these sort of constructive discussions, we Hindus can also have these same sorts of conversations, particularly with academics.

Hinduism has always been a knowledge-driven way of life, as its adherents engage in a lifelong quest for greater truths. It espouses the rational and yet is teeming with emotion, as exhibited by various displays of bhakti worship. In other words, Hinduism is a faith tradition that inherently connects the head and heart. While gurus and spiritual leaders have held these roles, intellectual discussions introduced by academics -- including the ones whose research is critical of aspects of Hindu practice -- are also necessary for meaningful growth and dialogue. They sharpen our understanding of the expanse of the religion's philosophies and practices, open avenues of conversation between generations, and allow practitioners to engage in rigorous defense of certain traditions.

Our community, growing and diverse, geographically spread out yet often clustered together within regions, must figure out ways to embrace discourse that will ultimately help to grow Hinduism in a way reflective of its Diaspora. That means challenging existing orthodoxies and silos of praxis that have created self-imposed barriers within the community. The alternative, as the Catholic Church faced for many years, is the potential for stagnancy and imprisonment by the "time capsule" mentality. In this light, Pope Francis's call to reform the Catholic Church can serve as an important reminder for Hindu Americans seeking to reconcile the sacredness of tradition with the necessities of a collective spiritual evolution.