Divided We Fail: How HAF’s Involvement With the California History Curriculum is a Manifestation of Deeper Battles in the Indian Subcontinent - Hindu American Foundation

Divided We Fail: How HAF’s Involvement With the California History Curriculum is a Manifestation of Deeper Battles in the Indian Subcontinent

By May 10, 2016 November 7th, 2019 One Comment

In the 1990s, historians Gary B. Nash, Ross Dunn, and the late Charlotte Crabtree helped to establish the National Center for History in the Schools, the organization that would create the National History Standards.

However, what was a labor of love for educators passionate about a comprehensive understanding of world history, turned into an ideological battle, with right-wing activists accusing the standards of being an “indoctrination.” Nash, Dunn, and Crabtree faced enormous backlash, and many states ended up capitulating to conservative activists. They later wrote about their experience in the tell-all History on Trial.

But in the wake of the battles over the National History Standards, a new effort to understand history from a multicultural lens emerged. Some of this approach was marked by a genuine attempt at inclusion, while some of the sentiment behind it seemed to reify the idea of diverse cultures being tokenized within classroom curricula. Indeed, the term multiculturalism became panned by the early 2000s because it was seen as a condescending approach to accommodate diversity, rather than a genuine attempt at inclusion and understanding.

In states with rapidly diversifying populations, culturally competent instructional content isn’t just about political correctness; they’ve become demographic necessities. School administrators, textbook publishers, and teachers have all had to weigh the demands of changing or contested scholarship with the desires of diverse communities that each want stories told their way.

Muslim American groups in the early 1990s began pressing for changes in the way Islam was represented in textbooks and other materials, but after 9/11, they found increasing backlash from groups who claimed a whitewashing of Islam’s sometimes violent contact with other cultures. This wasn’t necessarily just a right-wing backlash, but right-wing groups – primarily those motivated by notions of Christian chauvinism – were the loudest in the fray. Textbook publishers in turn began to steer towards content that was both incontrovertible and innocuous, though in the process they began to dumb-down information at precisely the time when comprehensive and nuanced knowledge was the most needed. Similarly, issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender have all been in the crosshairs of curriculum battles across the country.

The right to define

The most prominent aspect of many of these curriculum battles is the right of self-definition within the contexts of K-12 curriculum, and ongoing — and likely irreconcilable — conflict between academic constructions of various identities versus the interests of those who live them. These battles often begin within academia and in activist circles (or an overlap of the two), but too often get imported into K-12 curriculum, where educators and administrators are often too overwhelmed to deal with the complexities of these debates.

It should be noted that within these rights to define, there has been dialogue and tensions within communities on not only the articulation of identities, but who gets to articulate them.

The Hindu American experience in curriculum reform is admittedly late-coming in comparison to other groups, and it has been impacted by several important factors: the diversity of the Hindu community itself, shaped in part by their concentration in states like California and Texas; the different perspectives of Hindu organizations on what constitutes education reform; and the politics of the Indian subcontinent that have shaped American ideas about Hinduism for the better part of two decades.

For starters, it’s undeniable that the majority of the approximately 2.5 million Hindus in the United States are either Indian immigrants or the descendants of Indian immigrants, but that majority does not imply interchangeability between Indians and Hindus. In fact, close to 350,000 Hindus come from the West Indies, while a growing population of self-identifying Hindus do not have any South Asian heritage. Even among Indian Hindus, the diversity of culture and language has shaped their experiences in the United States. And despite the overarching media narratives of Hindu affluence, a substantial portion of the Hindu American community are of modest or limited means, ranging from the Gujarati small business owners in Mississippi to the Guyanese blue-collar workers in Schenectady, New York, to the Bhutanese refugees in Alameda, California. The Hindu American experience is diverse, complex, and not unified by a single narrative. Similarly, essentializing the Indian American experience through a Hindu-centric lens minimizes the contributions of Indian-American Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jains, and others who proudly identify with their hyphenated identities.

As such, teaching about Hinduism — already a challenge because it doesn’t fit neatly into the prototypical “world religions chart” — is problematized by the diverse communities of Hindus across the country, and how educational content aligns with their traditions and experiences. Moreover, the teaching of Indian history becomes challenged by what communities often want told from their experiences. Additionally, the changing consensus on certain aspects of Indian history — particularly ancient history — has made publishing content and teaching about India all the more of a challenge. The push for more centralized standards — a la the National History Standards — would have likely helped, but the hyper-politicized nature of education reform, particularly in the age of Common Core, has made that outcome virtually impossible.

The unease with which Hindus feel about educational content stretches back five decades, but the push by Hindu American groups, representing a variety of ideologies and interests, to make their voices heard in education reform is a more recent phenomenon. Some Hindu groups have tried to push for a history that glorifies Indian civilization and claims Hinduism has existed untouched, unscathed, and unchanged for thousands of years. Many others, like the Hindu American Foundation, have long promoted the idea that cultural competency and scholarly consensus don’t have to be mutually exclusive. HAF’s approach, shaped in part by its second-generation outlook, is geared towards a history and depiction of Hinduism that’s simply fair and on par with other religions. In short, there is no “common” Hindu approach to education reform, and the diversity of approaches can be both an asset and a liability, especially when those different voices enter into the same forums at the same time.

But even as different Hindu groups and individuals weigh in on what they believe to be the best way to represent the faith in American classrooms, the politics of homeland continue to loom large in the United States. Sectarian violence in India over the past three decades, highlighted by a violent Sikh separatist movement in the 1980s, anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984, an Islamic insurgency and ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Kashmir in 1990-1991, the tearing down of Babri Masjid in 1992, and Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, have all loomed large over the Indian American Diaspora. Even lesser known conflicts, like Sikh-Muslim clashes in Punjab, Hindu-Christian clashes in Orissa, or Christian-Muslim clashes in Assam, have occasionally made headlines in the United States. Sadly, these flashpoints not only have undermined India’s reputation for pluralism, they have impacted relationships among Indian Diaspora communities. The rise of a conservative political movement in India that has used Hindu iconography (often lazily called Hindu nationalism) as a means of rallying voters has also created angst and tension among different Indian American religious groups.

The politics of India, in fact, frequently mobilize groups that have long been antagonistic towards Hindus. Ironically, some of these groups opposed to Hindu efforts at education reform are not uniformly on one ideological side; they are either left wing or right wing, with neither side having a progressive understanding of the lived experiences of Hindus in America. Ironically, Indian American activists who have embraced the term South Asian as a means of including other subcontinental identities often focus their critique on Hindu majoritarianism in India, either oblivious or indifferent to sectarianism in neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, which have all seen significant violence as a result of religious nationalism.

The 2005-2009 experience

While subcontinental politics have provided a backdrop for the way Hindus – and Hinduism – have been seen in the realm of education reform, most educators and a growing number of textbook publishers already began eschewing prior depictions of Hinduism and India as archaic, offensive, or simply caricature. One teacher in California said she stopped using textbooks after her first visit to a Hindu temple, and her realization that the way her 6th grade students were learning about Hinduism was in direct contradiction to the way it was lived. Teacher education programs and noted historians also began calling for better ways to understand Hinduism as a living tradition whose philosophy transcended social practices in the Indian subcontinent.

In California, however, the state’s history and social science standards of learning were last updated in the 1990s. While the California Department of Education allowed various groups – including right-wing Christian activist David Barton – to provide input on the standards (and subsequent curriculum frameworks), Hindu groups were left out of the process. As such, the California standards of learning for 6th grade guide schools – and textbooks –  in the state only requires students to: “discuss the significance of the Aryan Invasion,” “explain the major beliefs of Brahmanism,” and “outline the social structure of the caste system.” The problem is that the Aryan Invasion theory was largely debunked by the 1990s, a point that Dunn made to the CDE’s History Social Science committee during discussions of the revision. However, according to Bradley Fogo of the Stanford History Education Group, the CDE chose to listen to other committee members, who insisted on keeping the Aryan Invasion language.  Secondly, the term Brahmanism is a term that emerged from 19th and early 20th century European Indology, and lost its currency among most religion scholars by the mid-1980s. More importantly, no Hindu uses the term to describe the early periods of Hinduism. Lastly, the discussion of caste wasn’t so much problematic as it was the time period discussed and the overemphasis on it in relation to other aspects of Hinduism. Taken together, the idea of Hinduism in 6th grade textbooks becomes reduced to caste, cows, and karma, with the majority of pages dedicated to caste (a term that conflated two separate concepts – varna and jati).

The typical textbook narratives have almost always grossly misrepresented Hinduism.

The typical textbook narratives have almost always grossly misrepresented Hinduism.

In the mid-2000s, the Council on Islamic Education conducted an assessment of California textbooks and found that in some, “coverage of Hinduism and Buddhism is folded together in this text, but Hinduism gets the shortest shrift, both in terms of beliefs and practices, as well as history.” They also noted that description of Hinduism was closely linked with Indian social practice without any mention of Hindu philosophy. In their analysis of one textbook, they observed:

Brahmanism is given as an alternative name to Hinduism, and again reinforcing the importance of the caste system, links it with religiosity in Indian civilization after the Aryans. The gods are described and named, and major beliefs include the illusory nature of this world, reincarnation, and the single universal spirit called Brahman. The concepts of karma and dharma are related to the caste system and reincarnation with the goal of moksha, or salvation. The section on Gupta rule and the Mauryan Empire includes their promotion of Hinduism, mentioning that the rise of Buddhism meant the decline in the popularity of Hinduism. The section describes ways in which the Hindu Gupta rulers supported religious development, including Buddhism and Jainism in addition to Hinduism, and again emphasizes the centrality of the caste system to Hinduism and stable social order in the empire. Discussion of women in the Gupta social order links their low status to Brahmanism, stating, “This was not good news for women…” in a rather striking example of tempocentrism.

The Council on Islamic Education wasn’t the only group pointing out these glaring issues. Soon, several Hindu American groups, including the Vedic Education Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation, worked with the CDE to address what they argued were stereotypical and inaccurate depictions of Hinduism and India in textbooks. However, at the behest of South Asian activists based in the Bay Area, a group of professors led by Harvard’s Michael Witzel – who at the time was the leading proponent of the Aryan Invasion theory – wrote to the State Board of Education claiming that Hindu nationalists were revising Indian history. While it appeared Witzel’s group never actually saw the proposed edits, the CDE backtracked on the edits, and brought in Witzel for closed-door consultations.

Over the next few years, several Hindu American groups – including HAF – filed suits against the State Board of Education, claiming that the process through which the backtracking was done violated the state’s open meetings law. The lawsuits produced mixed results.  While it forced the State Board of Education to formalize its adoption process and cover legal fees for the Hindu American Foundation, the judge, in spite of the textbooks being adopted through an illegal process, refused to throw them out.  Moreover, both the content standards and frameworks remained in place. An attempt to revise the state’s curriculum frameworks was stopped in 2010 by the General Assembly due to the state’s financial woes.

The lawsuits did more than just highlight disparities in the way Hinduism was covered – they led to conversations among educators on how to deal with religious minority communities that had long complained about accuracy. As California’s content standards and frameworks remained mired in the past, more educators – and textbook publishers – looked forward. More schools simply ignored textbooks, while textbook publishers held off on making any new California versions until new content guidelines were adopted.

Curriculum reform in California since 2014

HAF spearheaded an effort joined by teachers groups, and faith and civil rights organizations to pass a bill that would have updated the state’s content standards. The bill, SB 1057, passed almost unanimously in both chambers of the state legislature before being vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2014. Hindu American community members turned their attention to the resumption of the state’s curriculum frameworks adoption, which would essentially be the document teachers draw from to teach about various subjects. However, as many teachers in California note, it’s a largely ignored document because of its size and lack of clarity.

Still, because California is home to the largest community of Hindus in the country (numbering about 1 million), having an inclusive, accurate, and culturally competent history and social science curriculum would seem like a mandate for the state’s Board of Education. Since the revision process started, HAF and other Hindu American groups – representing diverse views and constituencies – worked constructively with the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission to ensure a culturally competent and accurate draft narrative was adopted.

It should be noted that prior to submitting any public comments, HAF asked for input from professors of religion and history, so that there was an academically sound argument for why changes were being requested. Given that these frameworks are for 6th and 7th grade teachers to guide their teaching to middle school students, HAF’s requests were in line with academic consensus and best practice pedagogy. Its primary goals were to note that: 1) the origins of Indian history are contested, as evidenced by current scholarly battles; 2) caste in India developed over many centuries and needed to be contextualized for a better understanding of how a social practice arose – often in contradiction to religious teachings; 3) that Hinduism’s core philosophies, including its inherent pluralism, were included in the frameworks; and 4.) that the contributions of women and members of low castes – including important Hindu sages and saints – be highlighted.

We made sure commission members understood our concerns and worked in a constructive and positive manner to ensure that the Hindu American community had a voice in the process. Other Hindu organizations representing diverse constituencies also have been active in the process. While each of the groups have the same goal of seeing a more accurate depiction of Hinduism, the scale and scope of suggested improvements in the frameworks have varied. In other words, the Hindu American community’s involvement in California cannot be reduced to a homogeneous or monolithic effort. Instead, these efforts reflect Hinduism’s diversity and pluralistic ethos.

What made this effort more encouraging was the number of scholars – professors of religion and history – who made independent (or jointly signed) recommendations that aligned with what HAF and other Hindu groups were seeking. These scholars wanted a more accurate, accessible, and culturally competent document that emphasized Hinduism’s role as a living tradition. They also pushed for an understanding of world history as a period of exchange and interaction, and that such interactions must be treated with nuance to respect diverse perspectives and social histories.

Similarly, the Hindu American community’s efforts drew widespread support from a diverse coalition of over 100 interfaith and civil rights leaders, as well as members of cultural and educational organizations, who collectively urged the Instructional Quality Commission in November to represent Hinduism, Jainism, and India accurately and equitably in the framework. The community’s efforts also had the backing of historians, religion professors, and other academics.

In December, the commission released a draft that many felt was closer to becoming a more inclusive document. However, in March, the commission’s new recommended revisions – which included a set of last-minute edits from a small group of South Asia faculty members – undid many of those positive changes and seemed to ignore the recommendations of a much larger body of educators, academics, and community members. These edits maliciously sought to erase Hinduism and India from many parts of the sixth and seventh grade sections of the framework, and relink caste with Hindu religious beliefs, for example. There were two key issues that HAF, other Hindu groups, and even other academics had major problems with: the process by which the edits were accepted, and the political nature of the edits, which seemed to be based on pitch battles happening overseas in India.

One of the primary challenges over the past few months is to communicate what’s really happening: the ideological and political battles within academia and within the Indian subcontinent are being awkwardly superimposed onto American K-12 classrooms. What has been more challenging is that the opposition to a more constructive understanding of Hinduism has come primarily from other Indian-American/South Asian activist groups. Some Sikh groups, for example, which have tried to re-version Sikh theology and present a history of Sikhism completely independent of (and implicitly superior and in opposition to) Hinduism, have charged that Hindus are trying to erase their history. Ironically, those same Sikh groups in this process have pushed for changes that would have whitewashed their own history, including pushing for the removal of the Dasam Granth, a work purportedly written by Guru Gobind Singh, because of its references to Hindu deities. Sikh groups also want their own connection with caste – an issue that is salient to all faith groups in India – removed, while some Dalit groups have pushed for Hinduism to be the sole source of caste and caste-ism.

Similarly, groups and scholars associated with the Indian Left (not to be conflated with progressives) have used the bogeyman of Hindu nationalism to depict any Hindu American group as right-wing. More problematically, they’ve engaged in a shrill and often duplicitous campaign to try to smear any Hindu American efforts at education reform as sinister. From this lens, the Indian Left continues to view Hinduism with skepticism and hostility, and that animosity has made it virtually impossible to have constructive discourse.

Finding space to heal

The politicized nature of the frameworks process, and the activity of South Asian activists and scholar-activists in the Bay Area, have made dialogue and progress even more difficult. Whatever version of the frameworks the State Board of Education chooses, the divisions within the Indian American diaspora won’t easily be reconciled. Some have suggested mediation among groups, and while HAF is willing to discuss anything with any group, such attempts must be reciprocated. Moreover, there needs to be an acknowledgment that in the United States, Hindu American children – regardless of where they are from – are a religious minority and need to feel safe in their classrooms. And their experiences must not be minimized or diminished by others. That would involve reflexivity and a tacit understanding that self-definition doesn’t need to come at the expense of others. In California and across the country, HAF will continue to work constructively for a better understanding of Hinduism, more culturally competent curriculum, and most importantly, fostering a climate where pluralism is the norm.

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10/30/22Sanatana Dharma in the Movies

Hinduism is often referred to as Sanatana Dharma (the ‘eternal way’), indicating the religion’s emphasis on eternal truths that are applicable to all of humanity. Thus, it makes sense that a medley of mainstream movies could convey Hindu ideals that resonate strongly with audiences, while not actually talking directly about anything understood by the public as Hindu.

In Groundhog Day, for example, when cynical TV weatherman Phil Collins discovers he is trapped in a time loop, living the same day over and over, only to be released after transforming his character from an egocentric narcissist to a thoughtful and kindhearted philanthropist, it’s hard not to be reminded of the Hindu notion of samsara, a cycle of reincarnation from which a soul attains liberation by realizing its divine nature after lifetimes of spiritual practice. 

Or in The Matrix when Neo chooses the red pill of knowledge over the blue pill of ignorance, and is subsequently unplugged from an illusory world and cast into the truth of reality, the film seems to be conveying a foundational Vedic teaching: that we must transcend our own ignorance — a product of maya, literally meaning “illusion” in Sanskrit — to uncover our true nature. Hindu concepts appear to be further exhibited in Neo’s relationship with Morpheus, which starkly reflects that of a disciple and guru, as the latter reveals to the former the knowledge he needs in order to understand this “true nature.” As Neo’s faith in Morpheus’ words develops, so does his capacity to see past the illusion of the matrix, garnering him the ability to manipulate the laws of this false reality, similar to the Jedi and yogis described earlier.

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10/29/22Hinduism and American Thought

Hindu Americans and the Vedanta philosophy have significantly influenced notable intellectuals such as Henry  David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, J.D. Salinger, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith, and Joseph Campbell just to name a few. Some feel that it started back In 1812, when Thomas Jefferson recommended to John Adams the writings of Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian minister who had published works that compared Christianity to other religions — Hinduism in particular — Adam’s interest was piqued.

Going through Priestley’s writings, Adams became riveted by Hindu thought, as he launched into a five-year exploration of Eastern philosophy. As his knowledge of Hinduism and ancient Indian civilization grew, so did his respect for it. This legacy took shape in the 1830s as Transcendentalism, a philosophical, social, and literary movement that emphasized the spiritual goodness inherent in all people despite the corruption imposed on an individual by society and its institutions. Espousing that divinity pervades all of nature and humanity, Transcendentalists believed divine experience existed in the everyday, and held progressive views on women’s rights, abolition, and education. At the heart of this movement were three of America’s most influential authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.

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10/27/22The Hindu Diaspora in Afghanistan

Before becoming an Islamic state, Afghanistan was once home to a medley of religious practices, the oldest being Hinduism. A long time ago, much of Afghanistan was part of an ancient kingdom known as Gandhara, which also covered parts of northern Pakistan.Today, many of Afghanistan’s province names, though slightly altered, are clearly Sanskrit in origin, hinting at the region’s ancient past. To cite a few examples, Balkh comes from the Sanskrit Bhalika, Nangarhar from Nagarahara, and Kabul from Kubha. Though Gandhara’s earliest mention can be found in the Vedas, it is better known for its connections to the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and Ramayana. There is also the historic Asamai temple in Kabul located on a hill named after the Hindu Goddess of hope, Asha. The temple has survived numerous conflicts and attacks but it still stands. The temple is a remnant from Hindu Shahi Kings, who ruled from the Kabul Valley as far back as 850 CE. However, Hindus are indigenous but endangered minorities in Afghanistan, numbering approximately 700 out of a community that recently included over 8,000 members. Many have left for new homes, include in New York which is home to a large Afghani Hindu population.

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10/26/22Dogs and Diwali

According to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey, 70% of U.S. households (90.5 million homes) owned a pet as of 2022, with 69 million U.S. households having a pet dog. Recognized for their loyalty, service, companionship, and the special relationship they have with humans, Hinduism’s reverence for dogs is expansive, as they are worshiped in festivals and appreciated in connection to a number of Hindu gods and stories. Observed in Nepal, Bhutan, and the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal, Kukar Tihar (the 2nd day of Tihar) honors dogs as messengers that help guide spirits of the deceased across the River of Death. In the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira, his brothers, and the queen Draupadi renounced their kingdom to ascend to the heavens. However, Yudhisthira was the only one that survived along with a dog that had joined them. Yudhisthira refused to go to heaven without the dog, who turned out to be Yamaraj, the God of Death. Sarama, the “female dog of the gods,” was famously asked by Indra to retrieve a herd of cows that were stolen. When the thieves were caught, they tried to bribe Sarama but she refused and now represents those who do not wish to possess but instead find what has been lost. The symbolic import of dogs is further driven in connection with Dattatreya, as he is commonly depicted with four of them to represent the Vedas, the Yugas, the stages of sound, and the inner forces of a human being (will, faculty, hope, and desire).

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10/25/22Black Panther

In 2018, the long-running Marvel comic series Black Panther, was brought to the big screen. A more prominent scene is when M’baku, a character vying for the throne of the fictional country of Wakanda, challenges T’Challa/Black Panther, and yells, “Glory to Hanuman.” However, despite dharma as an unsaid aspect of the characters’ interactions, Black Panther relies slightly more on Hindu symbolism than philosophy. But the significance of Hanuman as a transcendent deity cannot be overlooked, especially at a time when dialogues about global migration, the right to worship, and access to natural resources are becoming more overtly racialized. The film provides more than just an entertainment escape: it reimagines a world in which the current racial and theological paradigms are challenged forcefully. With the film expected to have at least several sequels, there will be more opportunities to reference Hinduism and Hindu iconography.

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One of the most celebrated Hindu festivals, Diwali (dee-VAH-lee) or Deepavali (dee-PAH-va-lee) commemorates the victory of good over evil during the course of five days. The word refers to rows of diyas — or clay lamps — which are put all around homes and places of worship. The light from these lamps symbolizes the illumination within all of us, which can overcome ignorance, represented by darkness. Devotees gather in local temples, homes, or community centers, to spend time with loved ones, make positive goals, and appreciate life.

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On this day, because Diwali is a time for dana (charitable giving) and seva (selfless service), Hindus traditionally perform a deep cleaning of their homes and surroundings, as cleanliness is believed to invoke the presence and blessings of Goddess Lakshmi who, as mentioned earlier, is the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. Many will also make rangoli or kolum (colored patterns of flowers, powder, rice, or sand made on the floor), which are also said to invite auspiciousness. Observers thus begin Diwali by cultivating a spirit of generosity, doing things like giving money to charities, feeding the hungry, and endeavoring to help those in need.

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10/22/22The Hindu Diaspora in Bali

The spread of Hinduism to Southeast Asia established powerful Hindu kingdoms in the region, most notably the Khmer Empire that encompassed modern Cambodia and Thailand, and influential kingdoms in the Indonesia archipelago. Though Buddhism and Hinduism co-existed in the region for several centuries, Buddhism (and Islam in Indonesia) eventually replaced Hinduism as a primary religion. Today, there are approximately five million Hindus in Indonesia, primarily in Bali. As Bali is roughly 90 percent Hindu, this makes it a religious enclave in a country that contains the world’s largest Muslim population. There are also roughly 60,000 Cham Hindus in Vietnam, and smaller numbers in Thailand. Hinduism in Fiji, Malaysia, and Singapore is a much more recent phenomenon, with Hindus arriving in the 19th and early 20th centuries as indentured laborers. Today, Hindus are prominent in politics and business in all three countries, though they continue to experience discrimination as religious minorities.

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10/21/22Smithsonian/American History Exhibit - American Indian experience

In 2014, the first Smithsonian exhibition chronicling the experiences of Indian Americans, many of whom are Hindus,  in the US was unveiled at their National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. This exhibit was one of the largest ever produced by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, occupying 5,000 square feet and reaching millions of visitors. The message behind “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” aimed to dispel stereotypes and myths that have followed Indian immigrants since they first arrived in the U.S. in 1790. The exhibit explored the heritage, daily experiences, and the many diverse contributions that immigrants and Indian Americans have made to the United States. The exhibition at the Museum of Natural History includes historical and contemporary images and artifacts, including those that document histories of discrimination and resistance, convey daily experiences, and symbolize achievements across the professions. Music and visual artworks provide commentary on the Indian American experience and form an important component of the exhibition. In 2017, this exhibit went on the road, traveling from city to city so that all could see the impact of Indians on American culture.

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10/20/22Swami Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda was a Hindu monk and yogi who came to the United States in 1920 and lived here for the last 32 years of his life. He is considered to be the first major Hindu Guru to settle in the United States. When Swami Yogananda arrived in the US, he made his first speech, made to the International Congress of Religious Liberals, on “The Science of Religion,” and was enthusiastically received. It was soon after that he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship (also known as Yogoda Satsanga Society (YSS) of India) and introduced millions of Americans to the ancient science and philosophy of meditation and Kriya yoga (path of attainment). In 1927, he was invited to the White House by President Calvin Coolidge, making Swami Yogananda the first prominent Indian and Hindu to be hosted in the White House.

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For those of us who are Hindu, we have noticed that some of the biggest Hollywood films produced in the last several decades have mirrored many of Hinduism's most fundamental philosophical ideas. One example is Avatar, a film named for the Sanskrit word avatāra (‘descent’), in which the protagonist, Jake Sully, enters and explores an alien world called Pandora by inhabiting the body of an indigenous 10-foot, blue-skinned being, an idea taken from Hinduism’s depictions of the various avatars of the blue god Vishnu, who are said to descend into our world for upholding dharma. Instead of aligning with the interests of the humans, who merely want to mine Pandora for the valuable mineral unobtanium, Sully fights alongside the alien humanoids native to the world, called Na’vi, who live in harmony with nature, believe all life is sacred, and that all life is connected by a divine force — teachings synonymous with Hinduism. Thus, similar to the avatars of Vishnu, Sully defends and preserves a spiritual culture by defeating those who would destroy it for materialistic pursuit. While this film doesn’t indicate in any direct way that they have anything to do with Hinduism, it’s clear they are communicating Hindu ideas that everyone relates to and understands on a profound level.

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10/18/22Swami Prabhupada

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), also known as the Hare Krishna movement, was founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a highly respected Vaishnava  (devotion to the god Vishnu and his incarnations avatars) scholar and monk. At the age of 70, Swami Prabhupada traveled from India to New York City to bring the Bhakti tradition, or Krishna Consciousness, to the west. In the 11 years before his passing in 1977, Srila Prabhupada translated, with elaborate commentaries, 60 volumes of Vaishnava literature; established more than 100 temples on six continents; and initiated 5,000 disciples. Today, his writings are studied in universities around the globe and are translated into nearly 100 languages. To date, ISKCON has over 400 temples,  dozens of rural communities and eco-sustainable projects, and nearly 100 vegetarian restaurants world-wide with 56 of them in the US. 

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10/17/22The Hindu Diaspora in Africa

Hinduism came in waves to Africa, with Southern Africa getting Hindu workers during the early years of British colonization, while East and West Africa experienced Hindu migration during the 20th century. Hinduism’s roughly 0.2% presence in Africa is seen as so inconsequential, most data organizations don’t even bother explicitly mentioning it in their census reports. But Hinduism is Ghana's fastest growing religion and one in which there are steady populations in both Northern and Southern African states. Durban is now home to most of South Africa’s 1.3 million Indians, making it, according to some sources, the largest Indian city outside of India, and thus a most powerful hub of Hindu practice. In the US, there are both communities of African Hindus who have migrated, as well as Black Hindus, who according to the 2019 Pew Survey, make up 2% of the Hindu population in the US.

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10/16/22Star Wars

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, drew much of the inspiration for this major cultural phenomenon from the teachings of his mentor who was a lifelong student of Vedanta. In these films, many aspects of Hinduism are interwoven with the story. Some include Hanuman (Chewbaca and Ewoks), Shakti (force,energy), Yodha (Yoda), Brahman (infinite being). Besides the many philosophical parallels that can be highlighted between Star Wars and Hinduism, Star Wars also exhibits similarities in story structure and character roles to one of India’s famous epics, the Ramayana. Never seen the movie? Now might be the time to see how universally relatable Hindu thought can truly be.

What do the Matrix, Avatar, Groundhog Day, and Star Wars have to do with Hinduism?


The term Ayurveda is derived from the Sanskrit words ayur (life) and veda (science or knowledge), translation to the knowledge of life. Ayurveda is considered to be the oldest healing science, originating in 1000 BCE. Based on the five elements that comprise the universe (space, air, fire, water, and earth), they combine and permutate to create three health principles  that govern the functioning and interplay of a person’s body, mind, and consciousness. These energies are referred to as doshas in Sanskrit. Ayurveda can be used in conjunction with Western medicine and Ayurvedic schools have gained approval as educational institutions in several states.

5 Things to Know About Ayurveda

In Hinduism, What is the Relationship Between Spirituality and Health?


While it’s synonymous to meditation, and seen simply as a doorway to tranquility for yogic practitioners, the true meaning of Om is deeply embedded in Hindu philosophy.

The word Om is defined by Hindu scripture as being the original vibration of the universe, which all other vibrations are able to manifest. Within Hinduism, the meaning and connotations of Om is perceived in a variety of ways. Though heard and often written as “om,” due to the way it sounds when it is repeatedly chanted, the sacred syllable is originally and more accurately spelled as “aum.” Broken down, the three letters of A – U – M represent a number of sacred trinities such as different conditions of consciousness (waking state, dreaming state, and deep sleep state), the deities in charge of the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe ( Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva), aspects of time (past, present, and future), among many others. 

5 Things to Know About Om

Religious Symbols

10/28/22Dr. Anandibai Joshi

Dr. Anandi Gopal Joshi is credited with being the first woman from India to study medicine in the United States. Born in Bombay in 1865, she was married at the age of ten to an older man who had been her teacher. Dr. Joshi had a child at the age of 13, but the child died when only 10 days old. She believed that with better medical care, the child would have lived, and she frequently cited this as motivation for her desire to attend medical school. Her husband encouraged her in her academic pursuits and in 1883, Joshee joined the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, now known as the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. She graduated in 1886 with her degree in medicine; her M.D. thesis focused on Hindu obstetrics. Unfortunately,  Dr. Joshi was only able to practice medicine for a few months before passing away from tuberculosis.

Science in Hinduism

10/13/22The Hindu Diaspora in Guyana

Hinduism is the religion of almost 25% of Guyana’s population, making it the country with the highest percentage of Hindus in the Western Hemisphere. But from British professional recruiting agents targeting rural and uneducated Indians, to the aggressiveness of Christian proselytization of Hindus with a promise of a better life, Hinduism has been in a steady decline for many decades with many escaping to the United States for better opportunities and to practice their religion freely. Today, over 80% of Guyanese Americans live in the Northeastern United States with heavy concentrations in New Jersey and in New York, where a “Little Guyana”  helps these immigrants stay connected to their Guyanese roots.

Hinduism beyond India: Guyana

Hinduism Around the World

10/12/22Karwa Chauth

Karwa Chauth or Karva Chauth (kuhr-vah-CHOATH) is a North Indian holiday in which wives fast for the longevity and health of their husbands, however, many unmarried women celebrate in hopes of meeting their ideal life partner. Typically, wives spend the day preparing gifts to exchange, and fasting until the moon is visible. It is believed that its light symbolizes love and blessings of a happy life. While there are varying legends behind this holiday’s traditions and meaning, the message of honoring the relationships women form with their family and community prevails.

Karwa Chauth

Hindu Holidays & Dharmic Days Calendar

10/11/22Hinduism and Music

As sound vibration can affect the most subtle element of creation, it is interpreted in Hindu scriptures that spiritual sound vibrations can affect the atman (soul) in a particularly potent way. Such spiritual sound vibrations are said to have the ability to awaken our original spiritual consciousness and help us remember that we are beyond the ambivalence of life, and actually originate from the Divine. As such, the main goal of many types of Hindu musical expression is to help stir us out of our spiritual slumber by evoking feelings of love and connection that help us to better perceive the presence of the Divine within all. Some of the more popular examples of musical expressions within Hinduism include shlokas (verse, or poem), mantras (sacred syllables repeated in prayer), kirtans (congregational singing of mantras), and bhajans (devotional songs). You can find musical spiritual expressions through the US in temples,  Mandirs, and community centers.

The Power of Music According to Hinduism

What is Kirtan?


Yoga is considered Hinduism’s gift to humanity. At its broadest, yoga, from the root word “yuj” in Sanskrit, means to unite. Most Hindu texts discuss yoga as a practice to control the senses and ultimately, the mind. The most famous is the Bhagavad Gita (dating back to 6th-3rd Century BCE), in which Krishna speaks of four types of yoga – bhakti, or devotion; jnana, or knowledge; karma, or action; and dhyana, or concentration (often referred to as raja yoga, though not all sources agree on the term) – as paths to achieve moksha (enlightenment), the ultimate goal according to Hindu understanding. According to a 2016 study,  in the United States there are an estimated 36.7 million people currently practicing yoga in the United States.


The Hindu Roots of Yoga

10/9/22Swami Vivekananda

According to Vedic cosmology, 108 is the basis of creation, representing the universe and all our existence. As the soul is encased in two types of bodies: the physical body (made of earth, water, fire, air, and ether) and the subtle body (composed of intelligence, mind and ego), Swami Viveknanda is often attributed with bringing Hindu teachings and practices — such as yoga and transcendental meditation — to Western audiences. In 1893, he was officially introduced to the United States at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where in his speech he called for religious tolerance and described Hinduism as “a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” The day that Swami Vivekananda delivered his speech at the Parliament of Religions is now known as ‘World Brotherhood Day.’ And his birthday, known as Swami Vivekananda Jayanti, is honored on January 12th each year. On this day he is commemorated and recognized for his contributions as a modern Hindu monk and respected guru of the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. In 1900, Swami Viveknanda founded the Vedanta Society in California and to date there are 36 Vedanta Society Centers in the United States.

Swami Vivekananda Influenced Countless Americans

Hindu Holidays & Dharmic Days Calendar


According to Vedic cosmology, 108 is the basis of creation, representing the universe and all our existence. As the soul is encased in two types of bodies: the physical body (made of earth, water, fire, air, and ether) and the subtle body (composed of intelligence, mind and ego), 108 plays a significant role in keeping these two bodies healthily connected. Hindus believe the body holds seven chakras, or pools of energy, which begin at the bottom of the spine and go all the way down to the top of the head and it is believed there are 108 energy lines that converge to form the heart chakra. Ayurveda says there are 108 hidden spots in the body called marma points, where various tissues like muscles, veins, and ligaments meet. These are vital points of life force, and when they are out of balance, energy cannot properly flow throughout the body. Sun salutations, yogic asanas that honor the sun god Surya, are generally completed in nine rounds of 12 postures, totaling 108. Mantra meditation is usually chanted on a set of 108 beads.   In Hinduism there are 108 Upanishads, the sacred texts of wisdom from ancient sages. Additionally, in the Sanskrit alphabet, there are 54 letters. Each letter has a feminine, or Shakti, and masculine, or Shiva, quality. 54 multiplied by 2 equals 108. Ultimately, breathwork, chanting, studying scripture, and asana’s help harmonize one’s energy with the energy of the supreme spiritual source. These processes become especially effective when they are performed in connection with the number 108. Hindu scriptures strive to remind people of this divine commonality by continuously highlighting the innumerable threads connecting everything in existence. One of these threads is the number 108.

5 Things to know about 108

Here's How the Number 108 Binds Us to the Universe

10/7/22The Hindu Diaspora in Trinidad/Tobago

A decade after slavery was abolished in 1834, the British government began importing indentured labor from India to work on their estates in other countries such as Trinidad and Tobago.  From 1845 to 1917, the ships would continue to arrive, carrying over 140,000 Indians to the island, facilitating Trinidad's population growth from Indian laborers. Today, there are roughly 240,000 declared Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago, comprising about 18% of the island’s population. There are a total of about 300 temples on the island, welcoming all who wish to enter and where many beloved Hindu festivals take place. But for some, the migration journey doesn’t end as New York and Florida have seen the development of large Indo-Caribbean communities.

Hinduism beyond India: Trinidad and Tobago


From ancient tribes to present-day devotees, tattoos have held a special place in Hinduism for centuries. In the Indian states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, the Ramnaami community invoked Rama’s protection with tattoos of the name “Rama” in Sanskrit on every inch of their skin, including the tongue and inside the lips.The Mahabharata tells the story of the Pandavas that were exiled to the Kutch district of Gujarat. Today, their descendants - members of the Ribari tribe - live as their ancestors did, with women covered in tattoos that symbolize their people’s strong spirit for survival. Some Hindus consider tattoos as protective emblems,such as tattoos of Hanuman are often used to relieve physical or mental pain. People will often get tattoos of other deities to invoke their blessings. Mehndi, a plant-based temporary tattoo, is commonly done at weddings and religious ceremonies as a form of celebration of love and spirituality. While tattoos have been in Hindu communities for centuries, tattoos as symbols of honor, devotion, and even fashion are incredibly popular today. Hindus and non Hindus alike adorn themselves with Hindu emblems and tattoos that reflect Hindu teachings.

Guidelines for Commercial Use of Hindu Images


Navaratri (nuhv-uh-RA-three) is a nine night celebration of the feminine divine that occurs four times a year — the spring and fall celebrations being amongst the more widely celebrated. Some traditions honor the nine manifestations of Goddess Durga, while others celebrate the three goddesses (Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati) with three days dedicated to each. This is a time to recognize the role in which the loving, compassionate, and gentle — yet sometimes powerful and fierce — feminine energy plays in our lives.

Nine Things to Know About Navaratri

Hindu Holidays & Dharmic Days Calendar


Dussehra (duh-sheh-RAH) or Vijayadashmi (vi-juhyuh-dushuh-mee) celebrates the victory of Lord Rama over the ten-headed demon King Ravana. This also marks the end of Ramalila — a brief retelling of the Ramayana and the story of Rama, Sita, and Lakshman in the form of dramatic reading or dance. It also signifies the end of negativity and evil within us (vices, biases, prejudices) for a fresh new beginning. Dussehra often coincides with the end of Navratri and Duga Puja, and celebrations can last ten days, with huge figures of Ravana set ablaze as a reminder that good always prevails over evil.

Hindu Holidays & Dharmic Days Calendar

Hinduism 101 & Women

10/3/22Ahimsa + Cow sanctuaries

Many Hindus hold reverence for the cow as a representation of mother earth, fertility, and Hindu values of selfless service, strength, dignity, and non-harming. Though not all Hindus are vegetarian, for this reason many traditionally abstain from eating beef. This is often linked with the concept of ahimsa (non-violence), which can be applied to diet choices and our interactions with the environment, and potentially determine our next birth, according to the doctrine of karma. This is part of the reason that some Hindus may choose a vegetarian lifestyle as an expression of ahimsa as well as explains the growing number of cow protection projects that are led by individuals who have felt compelled to put their Hindu values into practice. The US is home to several cow protection projects and sanctuaries

Dairy Is Traditionally Sattvic Food, but the Way We Treat Cows Today Can Be Tamasic

Cultured Meat and Animal-Free Dairy Upends the Plant-Based Food Discussion

10/1/2022First Hindu temple in US

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 facilitated the journey of many Indian immigrants to the United States. In this new land, many created home shrines and community temples to practice and hold pujas (services). As Hindu American populations grew in metropolitan and rural areas, so did the need to find a permanent temple site for worship. In 1906, the Vedanta Society built the Old Temple in San Francisco, California but as this was not considered a formal temple, many don’t credit this with being the first. Others believe it is the Shiva Murugan Temple built in 1957 in Concord, California, whereas others believe it is the Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devanstanam in New York that should be considered the first. Today, there are nearly 1,000 temples in the United States . Regardless of where you live, you have the right to practice your faith.

A Guide To Temple Safety and Security

5 Things to Know About Visiting a Hindu Temple