As a young, modern British Hindu, I'm one of a confused bunch of people. Our Sanatan Dharma represents the oldest religion in the world. Our Vedic texts introduced philosophy to the world. That's our heritage. But almost every young Hindu I know plans to marry in lavish multi-day long ceremonies not because it's so Hindu, but because it's so Bollywood. And most of us won't know the meanings of any of those ceremonial wedding rituals. So most of us will be Hindu in name only, at major festivals and weddings.
It's not that we're not interested in our rich heritage in more than just name. It's just that, well, it seems too hard. We don't have a Hindu Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela to look up to in Britain. We'd probably like to be led, I suspect, but we don't have anyone that can show us the way. We're likely to learn about Hinduism's most popular export, yoga, from a Californian; and its most recognizable deity, Krishna, from a movement that proliferated in Britain thanks to The Beatles.
But to "lead" Hindus, one most first "represent" Hindus. One of Hinduism's key strengths is that it is such a broad church. It's simply not possible to for one person to "represent all Hindus."
So when a Hindu priest claims to do just that, I get confused. When Selena Gomez wore a bindi at a succession of TV appearances to promote her new song recently, a Hindu priest from Nevada promptly issued a statement saying she had offended all Hindus because a bindi wasn't "meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effective or as a fashion accessory." Clearly he had never heard arguably one of the biggest Bollywood songs of all time, the 1969 classic "Bindiyaa chamkegi" ("My bindi will dazzle"), with lyrics such as "I will be playful and tease you."
The same Hindu preacher accused an independent theater production, from a town near Melbourne of making Hindus and Lord Ganesh "a laughing stock" -- without having seen the show (I saw the show and, to put it lightly, this was an unrepresentative view). The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) protested last year at Oscar-winner Kathyn Bigelow filming Zero Dark Thirty because her team was trying to film Pakistani scenes in the Indian city of Chandigarh. Many years ago, I remember acclaimed Indian director, Ismail Merchant, generating controversy because he cast Tina Turner to play the part of the Goddess Shakti, in a movie. Apparently she wasn't chaste enough, but a Bollywood actress would presumably have been fine.
A research report by the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a cross-partisan British think-tank, said earlier this year that Hindus were under-represented in the media in Britain. Out of 3,945 articles they surveyed over 10 years, the HJS found almost all of the Hindu representation in mainstream media were to do with three issues: opposition to the slaughter of a cow in Wales in 2007; asking Royal Mail to remove Christmas stamps featuring Hindu deities in 2005; and finally a case against Newcastle City Council asking for land to be dedicated for open air pyres.
While these may have been important issues, there were almost no Hindu opinions expressed in the media with relation to foreign policy, international aid, community cohesion, discrimination, defense, environment, justice, anti-terrorism, economic policy, employment, family, immigration and abortion. According to report author Hannah Stuart, "Hindu claims were often more specific, and not about wider society and contributions to public policy."
So on the one hand, there are global organizations such as the VHP, which claim to represent Hindus, but have some views most young British Hindus would consider outdated. On the other hand, there are national organizations elected to represent British Hindus, who don't comment on issues that matter.
Hindu community leadership in Britain is at a crossroads. Young British Hindus care about many of the same issues as other young Britons -- pop music, the credit crunch, Bollywood, the environment, inflation, cultural identity and football. When community leaders do not speak the same language as the next generation, they begin to lose relevance. Many second and third generation Hindus, whose parents are from East Africa or India, have already begun to see their linguistic and cultural heritage dilute over time.
This month gave a sneak peek into what the future may hold. The British government passed legislation to specifically ban "caste" discrimination as part of the Equalities Act 2010, something that was likely to happen since the Act originally came into force on 1 October 2010. Hindus condemned any discrimination based on caste (obviously), but many had serious concerns about the consequences and practicality of such legislation, and the impact it may have on entrenching the outdated notion of caste-based discrimination in Britain.
In saying the notion was outdated, community leaders were likely in sync with what most, especially young, Hindus thought. MPs and community leaders alike, speaking in hushed tones, said it was the first time they could ever remember the Hindu community coming together in such a united voice.
And therein lies the rub. When I heard people say this to me, the statement always conveyed genuine surprise that the community had for once come together. And that too, for a issue unrelated to stamps, shoes or songs. There was also bemusement as to why, if the community felt so strongly, it chose to act only in the last few weeks rather than in October 2010.
What it means to be a young Hindu in modern Britain has changed over the last 30 years. The Hindu community faces the challenge of spending less time being issue-driven, and more time developing an ecosystem that young Hindus consider as relevant for the future.