The turbulent American summer has seemingly reached a boiling point in the last few days, particularly in Ferguson, Missouri, where daily unrest has ensued in the wake of the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
The Brown shooting has come on the heels of other racially and economically charged events across the country, whether it has been the shutting off of water for poor Detroit residents, the upholding of North Carolina's dubious voter ID laws, or the ongoing crisis of unaccompanied undocumented children on the U.S.-Mexico border.
When Hindu Americans are asked to join interfaith efforts to advocate or speak out on these issues, a common response is "How does this affect us?" That question is driven in part by the demographics of the Hindu American community, which is still overwhelming of South Asian descent. As a result, there still tends to be a conflation between ethnic and religious identities.
But Hinduism and its principles go far beyond ethnic identities and national borders. In fact, the universality of Hinduism makes it applicable in almost every aspect of our daily lives, particularly when it comes to the equality of all beings and our inherent need to help them. After all, as the Bhagavad Gita states, "A person is considered supreme who looks at companions, friends, enemies, neutrals, arbiters, haters, relatives, saints, and sinners with the same eye," which acknowledges the divinity within all of us. There are Hindu-based organizations already doing this in communities across the country, whether it's the Hindu Temple Society in Queens helping the poor dislocated by Hurricane Sandy, Hindu American Community Services Inc., providing food for the homeless and helping in the resettlement of refugees from Bhutan; or even the Hindu American Foundation's recent involvement with Justice for Juniors, a program designed to reduce recidivism among youth in inner-city Washington, D.C.
The concept of ahimsa, or non-violence, is apt today given the nature of senseless violence. But beyond that, speaking out and acting to help find solutions to ongoing racial tensions, economic and social inequality can also be viewed as inherently dharmic. After all, the Hindu concept of dharma is predicated upon the concept of righteous action and service to others as a means of spiritual uplift. Just as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders have joined together to try to find solutions, so must Hindu leaders join in these conversations as equals. In this regard, we can also look at the Gita's instruction: "The wise see knowledge and action as one; they see truly."
There also is the ongoing challenge of Hindu Americans de-linking their religious identities (and the enduring guidelines of our faith) from their sociocultural perspectives. For many Hindus of Indian descent, this perspective is shaped by a largely self-segregating suburban and middle-class vantage point. However, Hindus are part of the inner-cities of America, whether they are the Bhutanese refugees who struggle on the East Side of Baltimore and South Philadelphia or the immigrants from Bangladesh, Guyana, and Trinidad who still live in subsidized housing in parts of Brooklyn or Queens. In other words, Hindus do live in close quarters with poorer communities of color. From this standpoint, we must not only act from a spiritual view of the equality of all living beings, but from an empathetic one acknowledging that there are potential Michael Browns in our own communities as well.
The ancient Tamil Hindu text Tirukkural sums up the universality of Hindu compassion: "Find and follow the good path and be ruled by compassion. For if the various ways are examined, compassion will prove the means to liberation." Using this as a guiding principle, Hindu Americans must act to help our greater humanity. While Michael Brown's death and the ensuing unrest should serve as a reminder that we have a long way forward in helping to heal the wounds of this country, we must also remember we have the spiritual and scriptural tools at our disposal to do so.