Partition's bloody legacy: a conversation with Bangladeshi activist Dr. Sachi Dastidar
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Partition’s bloody legacy: a conversation with Bangladeshi activist Dr. Sachi Dastidar

By August 15, 2022 No Comments

Dr. Sachi Dastidar (second from right) and others stands outside a 15th-century Vishnu temple in the Barisal District of Bangladesh. Its original structure damaged during the pogroms of the 1950s, the deity now sits in a poorly constructed shed with leaky windows and doors.

What was life like before Partition?

My family was very highly educated. In 1919, my mother stood first in all of East Bengal in her school exam. That same school exists now in her name, because she was probably the first girl to stand first in that college school exam.

My maternal grandfather was a lawyer and involved in politics and India’s independence movement. My grandmother, grandfather, and two uncles spent over 17 years in prison — British criminal prison as I call it — because it was a colonizer’s prison for those who participated in India’s independence movement. One of my uncles passed his I.A., B.A., and M.A. from behind bars. He became, I think at one time, head of the Journalist Association of India in Delhi.

So they were very highly educated and they were very active in social politics. Because of this, once Partition happened, there was an attack on my maternal grandfather. He managed to rent a boat and take them to the Indian border, after which they lived in a little hut. Once the division took place, you became no one.

How would you describe the period directly leading up to the Partition?

Directly leading up to Partition, there were two parallel things, particularly in Bengal. You have one group, the Congress Party, wanting India’s independence as a united India. And then you have the Muslim League, which was ruling the Province of Bengal, wanting the Partition of India, and all of Bengal to become part of the Islamic republic.

This, however, was prevented by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who wanted to have a referendum. When Bengal did the referendum, some parts that were Hindu majority, like parts of my family’s district, remained in East Pakistan. Chittagong Hill for example, was 99% non-Muslim, but for some reason the district was given to Pakistan.

So life was very tough as Partition took place because you had to find a shelter. Being homeless is not easy. Even as educated middle-class people, my parents, you’d be surprised to know, didn’t have money, not even four rupees, which is maybe 25-50 cents, to send me to school during the first four years. And because in Indian culture you are never alone, my father, who was the oldest in the family, had to take care of uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. So that was the real tussle in terms of survival.

What feelings and images come to mind when remembering Partition itself?

Partition is a really, really bad memory — the slaughter of Hindu minorities and the taking of their homes without paying a penny.

Pakistan created a law, which is still in Pakistan and Bangladesh called the Enemy Property Act. Under this act, indigenous Hindu minorities who were there before any Muslim, can be declared an enemy of the state, and a stranger can walk in and take their home without having to pay a penny. There is nothing in the world more miserable than that. The Hindus are the ones who established the village. The Hindus are the ones who invited the Muslims, yet the Hindus are the ones who were driven out.

You become homeless and you can bring almost nothing. So it’s a horrendous thing. And there’s also forced conversion, the destruction of temples, and the destruction of deities. I just spoke to a person in Bangladesh who’s trying to recover an old deity found in a pond in one of the villages of the Barisal District. That was a very common thing, when people came to destroy the temples, devotees hid the deities in the pond, hoping they could find them later. As such, there are a huge number of deities that have been found in ponds.

So, yes, Partition reminds me of very horrendous things: forced conversion and the slaughter of individuals for no reason — only because they were part of the Hindu minority.

In August 1947, after some 300 years, the British finally were forced to quit India, and the subcontinent was subsequently partitioned into the independent nations of Hindu-majority but secular India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

After World War 2, bereft of the resources required to retain the jewel of its empire, which was growing increasingly unstable amidst India’s desire for independence coupled with the Muslim League’s push for a separate Islamic state, Britain’s exit was rushed, reckless, and woefully executed. Using out-of-date maps and census materials to create the new borders, which awkwardly split the key provinces of Punjab and Bengal in two, Partition triggered one of the largest mass migrations in human history, as the chaos, violence, and brutality that ensued swiftly spread, forcing millions to flee from all over, including provinces like Sindh and the North-West Frontier. Resulting in millions killed, millions more displaced, and some 100,000 women kidnapped and raped, the event is undoubtedly one of the worst to have ever taken place, though somehow it is yet to be recognized as such.

Among those hoping to change this fact is Dr. Sachi Dastidar, a Bangladeshi who was raised in Kolkata, where his family, along with most of the Hindu refugees who fled from what was once East Bengal — before becoming East Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh — settled. Now a distinguished professor, he has gone to great lengths to shed light on the atrocities of Partition, and how the horrors of that event continue to affect people today.

In addition to producing numerous books, articles, and lectures on the subject, he has founded the Probini Foundation, which supports the education of the needy and orphaned in West Bengal and Bangladesh, and created ISPaD, a Partition documentation project aimed at preserving the memories of those who underwent the hardships of that period.

A new building constructed by the Muslim family now occupying the land of Dastidar’s ancestors. His family was just one of countless whose land was taken as such.

When and how did your family leave their home?

I was actually born in Kolkata, as it was the only place in the region at the time with a good hospital. My mother had meant only to come for delivery, but ended up staying after the pogroms in East Bengal began taking place.

Before Partition, my two older brothers — they’re over 20 years older than me — after graduating from school in East Bengal, Barisal District, had also gone to Kolkata for higher studies. That was the norm. For Hindus and Muslims, if you did well you went to Kolkata. It was the capital of India, the capital of the Bengal Province. My oldest brother is a medical doctor and my other older brother is an engineer. By the time they finished school and got their degrees, however, Partition had started and they also couldn’t go back to their home in East Bengal. They lost everything. Everything.

Those of my family who were still in East Bengal when Partition took place, fled in the early ‘50s, hoping it would be temporary, that they would be able to go back later, but a Muslim neighbor moved into our home of 500 years without having to pay a penny. And it wasn’t just one home. In a village you have your uncle’s home, your aunt’s home, your second uncle, your third uncle, because as the family grew, more homes would be built. So it’s not just one home that our family lost, but many, many homes.

Luckily, in my family’s case, it was a little easier than others because my father was an engineer. I still remember, I was very young, a toddler, but I still remember. My father rented a three-bedroom house in Kolkata. At times there were 20-30 people there — all the refugees were coming. So they gave them shelter there.

What was life like after? Did you or any family members live in refugee colonies, and if so, what was that like?

A contradiction that took place during Partition is that when the refugees were forced to leave their ancestral homes in East Pakistan, they ended up grabbing Hindu properties in West Bengal, creating illegal refugee areas.

Throughout West Bengal, you’ll find these illegal settlements, they used to call them Jabar-dakhal, or “fully occupied properties,” which is a contradiction. These refugees were coming to West Bengal and becoming leaders of the region while occupying the land of other Hindus who were generous enough to let them stay there, yet those same refugees were not protesting against the loss of their own ancestor’s homeland.

My grandfather, who was a lawyer and Indian freedom fighter, found shelter in one of these areas in southern Kolkata, which initially was a hut with a grass covering on the top. As he and others found jobs, however, a building was eventually built there. 

I had many family members who went to various refugee colonies. I visited many, many refugee camps. In Dandakaranya in central India, there was a refugee settlement in which my older brother was a doctor, eventually rising to become the chief medical officer.

Recently I visited a refugee shelter in Haryana, and found a document there saying there are over 225,000 refugees in Northern India in Uttar Pradesh and other places where they have been living for 60 to 70 years, but have still not been given citizenship.

What of everything you endured during that period was the most challenging?

When you are in that situation, you do not think that you are missing something. Even in Kolkata, a house you’d grow up in would have no electricity, but would I complain? No, because I was surviving.

At some points in time, we would have 20 to 30 people sharing three bedrooms, but was I complaining? No. We just accepted it. My parents couldn’t even send me to school for the first four years, though it only cost four rupees, which is probably less than 50 cents. My father was an engineer, but they needed to spend the money elsewhere. This was normal for most refugees. 

How did the challenges of that period differ from the older generation to the younger? (In other words, how was it different for you versus your parents or grandparents?)

Parents and grandparents — they went from a decent and settled lifestyle to being homeless and not being able to find a place to sleep. It was an unbelievably drastic change that you cannot even imagine. Before they had grain in their own farm. Now they basically had to starve before finding food.

I remember beggars would visit our home, and we couldn’t give them food because we didn’t have the money. So more than me, for our parents it was very drastic, a very, very big difference. Here, in America, you generally have support from others at the very least, but there you had none. Not only did you have to find a way to feed yourselves, you had to find a way to feed others. My parents, for example, had to find a way to feed not only their family, but also those who had worked for them in East Bengal.

A road situated in the village Dastidar’s family and ancestors lived in.

Despite the fact relations varied considerably by region and by ruler, Hinduism and Islam managed to exist alongside each for close to a thousand years in India up through the 19th century. What, in your eyes, caused these relations to deteriorate so immensely in the two-decade period leading up to partition? What, specifically, led to such violence and horror?

There are a number of things. There is an element in Hinduism which allows for what I call a fatalistic survival technique — even if your family members are killed, you say “it’s my fate, God did it.” That, and also a lack of memory, somehow ignoring large-scale killings by India’s various invaders, like the Mughals who slaughtered Hindus left and right.

And then there’s the British. Most Indians don’t know this, but because Bengal was leading India’s independence movement, the British, in 1905, divided the region into Muslim Bengal and Hindu Bengal, even though no Muslim or Hindu wanted that. They thus instituted an apartheid, saying that Muslims could work for Muslims only, and non-Muslims — Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, and Jains — could only work for themselves. There was even a guy the British imported from Northern India to Dhaka, who was given a royal title and 300,000 rupees (a Muslim researcher now says it was 800,000) to start a party that referred to Muslims and non-Muslims as two different races.

Such historical oppression and institutionalizing by the British is not even taught in our own history books. If you go to Delhi, there is the Qutub Minar, with a plaque from the British era saying that the structure is a victory tower, which they won over the Hindus and built by destroying Hindu and Jain temples. It would be like if it were censored in America that blacks were never slaves at all. 

I mean, there are so many things like this. There’s a temple in Krishna’s birthplace in Vrindavan with a plaque from the British era saying how many times the temple was destroyed after being rebuilt. And they don’t even allow you to bring a pen into the temple, in case it’s secretly a camera you can take a photo with. So this is censorship.

What have been the ripple effects of Partition from one generation to the next? How have you/do you pass on memories to children and grandchildren?

What happened in the case of the refugees who settled in the states of West Bengal and Tripurara, on either side of Bangladesh, is that they all favored the political left, and so the two states came to be run by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Instead of blaming the Muslim League and those responsible for the slaughter that was taking place daily, they, to get votes, were blaming the Congress Party. That Communist Party rule, which I had also supported way back in the ’60s, at one stage controlled 90% of the state of the West Bengal assembly, and most of the leaders were Bangladesh refugees who didn’t blame Islamic extremism.

So, to come back to your question, as the second and third generation become less religious and fatalistic, they’ve become more politically right-minded. As a result, they now question their parents and grandparents asking: “Why did you do this? Why was this your narrative? Why not place blame where it is meant to be placed? Why have we not supported the secular Muslims in Bangladesh who have been writing about all of this and getting killed for it?”

This false narrative we all bought into is unparalleled in human history. It would be like if the Jews didn’t blame the Nazis, but blamed other Jews. Once I came to understand this false narrative, I began exposing it through my writing.

How do the events of Partition continue to affect life throughout the subcontinent (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) today? In retrospect, are you convinced that Partition was ultimately for the best?

In Pakistan and Bangladesh the Partition never ended, the ethnic cleansing never stopped. Almost monthly, you have pogrom after pogrom after pogrom, driving people out. Actually, I was recently contacted by four families (roughly 30 people) living in India, who were cleansed within the last 20 years.

In retrospect, are you convinced that Partition was ultimately for the best?

No, Partition was not for the best, however, with a caveat: only if all parts are equally tolerant. In other words, if Partition didn’t take place, but extreme Islamism, which is militant Islamism, is part of the society, then Hindus would still be driven out. Just like in Kashmir — In Hindu-majority India — they are being driven out.

All nations, not just India, must have a secular constitution, but Pakistan’s constitution bars pre-Islamic indigenous Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and post-Islam Sikhs from holding top governmental offices, and Bangladesh is also almost there. Moreover, all nations surrounding India — Myanmar, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and even Nepal — have a sectarian constitution and have ethnically cleansed Hindu minorities from their nations.

So of course I don’t support Partition, however, once you raise the element of racism, and all sides are not equally tolerant, then it’s a problem. To have only one group tolerant while others are not — that can’t ever happen. In general Hindus are very tolerant, because in Hinduism if somebody gets killed we say “it was their fate.” But as we see in America, if only blacks are tolerant, or if Native Americans are tolerant and whites are not, or vice versa, the situation doesn’t work well. 

The village pond. It was in such ponds many deities were hidden to prevent them from being destroyed during the pogroms.

What lessons should we take from that period?

That racism, whether in the name of race or religion, is awful. It should not be tolerated and should not be encouraged. And if you don’t learn from history then it’s going to repeat itself.

Pakistan didn’t learn from that history, which is why it was partitioned again in ‘71 only 24 years after Partition in 1947. So if you let things continue as they are in Pakistan, with the pushing of one identity for the most part, more separatist groups could arise. There already are groups, in fact, which are asking for independence from Pakistan. So the best thing is to be tolerant.

But how can you do this, many Muslim writers have asked, when an aspect of the teachings itself contains intolerance, allowing one to kill a kafir without any blame from God? Hoping to address this teaching, there were liberal Muslims during the British era who attempted to have 24 verses dropped from the Quran, but of course they were unsuccessful.

Even Christianity, you know, was intolerant for a long time, but then came reformation and enlightenment, so they changed many things. And in the case of Hinduism, there have also been many reformations throughout. From Buddha there was a reformation, Jains caused a reformation, Sri Chaitanya caused a reformation in the 1500s, as well as Guru Nanak. But reformation hasn’t been able take place when it comes to Islam.

Do you think Hindu-Muslim relations could ever heal to how they were before the 20th century? If so, what will it take?

Yes it can, but remember, the Hindu-Muslim relationship was not always very tolerant. If you look at the 800 years of history from the first millennium, there are examples of oppression, but Hindus generally never fought back, they were always subservient.

For relations to get better, a reformation movement within Islam, as mentioned, needs to take place. Unfortunately, there has been no real leadership for such a cause. In Saudi Arabia, if you try to enter the country wearing a necklace with a cross, they tear it up at customs. They even destroy tiny deities people bring from their homes in India.

In my judgment, some of the monarchies, like Morocco and Jordan, are actually more tolerant, with even the UAE allowing for the building of temples and gurdwaras. So tolerance must be promoted.

What positivity, if any, came out of your people’s struggle?

Probably 70% of those who attended my high school in Kolkata were refugees. And in college, 12 of the 16 students in my class of architecture were refugees. So though the older generation couldn’t grab the land needed to continue being farmers as they were in East Bengal, in the struggle for survival, they pushed for education, setting a very high standard in that.

Thus when, in the ‘60’s, America and other countries began offering entrance to educated people, those who had had such access were able to take advantage of the opportunity.

Have you had a chance to go back to your childhood or ancestral home? What would you like to see or do “back home,” if given the chance?

In 1982 I visited my ancestral home for the first time. That began my journey. My parents, however, couldn’t go due to the Enemy Property Act that not only allowed for their home and property of 40 generations to be taken from them, but also marked them an “enemy of the state.”

I backpacked multiple times through Bangladesh and saw how people were/are being treated and harassed. When you see village after village burned down, and nobody’s saying anything, what do you do? Even if you try to offer some money, like 100 dollars, you can’t help but feel guilty, because that is not going to do anything. After a recent large-scale pogrom that took place there, we were able to send 300,000 Bangladeshi takas. But when 100 homes are burned down, 300,000 isn’t even enough to buy one tin roof. But at least it makes the people there feel like somebody is with them.

I have tried to help by building schools, creating the Probini Foundation and ISPaD, and producing books, articles, papers, and lectures, but these atrocities are ongoing and the Western media, like the New York Times for example, never include even a footnote about any of it.

A document detailing Dastidar’s family tree, proving his family goes back at least 40 generations in Bangladesh.

What is your hope for the future?

My hope is for more refugees to visit each other’s homeland — meaning that Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Jains who fled from Pakistan and now live in India should be able to go back and visit their homeland, and Muslims who fled from India and now live in Pakistan should be able to go back to India — allowing for the building of a cultural bridge.

One time, for example, during a trip to Bangladesh when I was trying to buy ferry tickets for myself and two kids, a Muslim gentleman noticed us and asked where we were staying. When I told him where I was going, he bought a ticket to come with us to make sure we would be protected in the course of our journey. It would be like if you took a trip from New York to Louisiana to protect a complete stranger’s family because you know how intolerant your home country is towards that family’s people. 

So these are the kinds of people we need to build bridges with. It’s very important.

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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.

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

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. 

Statement Against Caste Based Discrimination: ISKCON

Who was that Hare Krishna at the start of “Get Back”?

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.

Hinduism Beyond Africa

Hinduism Around the World

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