THE BLOG
08/28/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

For a New Generation of Hindu American Parents, a Changing Model of Religion and Culture

When I was growing up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1980s, many of my family's friends faced a challenge in raising their children as Indians in America.

For many in the earlier waves of Indian immigrants, primarily those who identified as Hindu, the dilemma was shaped by the fear that their children would become too "Americanized," a euphemism for wild and crazy. There was a clear distinction between what they considered Indian values and American ones, which, to be fair, is a binary made by immigrants from other communities as well.

But as works by S. Mitra Kalita (Suburban Sahibs) and Khyati Joshi (New Roots in America's Sacred Ground) have pointed out, the children of Indian immigrants -- whether Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, or Christian -- were often put in a tough position of being culturally Indian at home and assimilated American in school. For my generation (the Generation X Indian-Americans), there was little infrastructure or social support networks to deal with our hybridized identities. Bullying was common, and many of us became part of a lost generation -- unable to separate our religious identities from cultural ones and yet also unable to make the successful navigation between our faith traditions and our Americanness.

For those who identify as Hindu, the conflation between the religious identity and being Indian has been especially problematic, since being Hindu doesn't necessarily mean being Indian, and vice versa. For many of our parents' generation, however, it was hard to articulate a religious identity separate from homeland culture because the way they were raised often fused local cultural norms with religious practice, though there were certainly overlaps (and Hinduism's development was in many ways synonymous with India's). That even included the passing down of superstitions that had no religious basis, but were expected to be heeded by second-generation kids in the West.

That's why I've been heartened to see some of my second-generation Hindu peers who have started their own families embrace a different model that makes a clear distinction between growing up as a practicing Hindu and being culturally Indian. Thanks to the digital age, parents have more resources to share with their kids the meaning of Hindu stories such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata while also helping them understand some of the nuances of Hindu philosophy. Hindu religious organizations that have adapted to the dichotomy between Hinduness and Indianness are also educating a new generation of Hindu Americans -- many of Indian descent, and many others who aren't. They have imparted new ways for Hindu Americans to apply Hindu principles in getting involved in their greater communities, whether it's taking part in community service, public policy, or social justice movements.

Moreover, my generation of Hindu-American parents are also becoming more assertive in trying to get their kids to understand that what they are learning in classes about Hinduism isn't necessarily accurate, due to the continuing problem of outdated or misinformed textbooks and teachers who don't have the resources to better teach about the religion. Some of the instructional materials still rely on age-old misrepresentations such as the idea that Hindus are polytheistic; that Hinduism and the Indian caste system are one and the same; that Hinduism never left the Indian subcontinent; and that Hinduism seemed to go the way of the ancient Egyptian and Greek religions after 500 BCE. In my role with the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), I work to make sure educators across the country feel more comfortable and empowered in teaching about Hinduism.

With that being said, there are still a lot of young parents who enroll their children in cultural programs as well, in part because they know that some of these cultural traditions were passed down with great care from previous generations or are rooted in Hindu teachings. Some of my friends who never took part in cultural traditions (in part because they were embarrassed to do so) are now proudly enrolling their kids in Indian dance and music classes, a reflection that many of the stigmas we faced are slowly being removed. As a result, I think my generation's children are feeling a lot more comfortable as acculturated Americans. That's something I'm sure many in my parents' generation strove for but found hard to put into practice, which is why I think today's comfort level is largely due to the sacrifices they made so many years ago.