What is Hindu Dharma in Contemporary Times in America?

I was recently asked to speak on the topic of Hindu Dharma and, without hesitation, I accepted to speak on “Hindu Dharma in Contemporary Times in America.” Now I have to prepare for it. So what is it? Here is my humble opinion.

In Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Swami Prabhupada explains: “Dharma refers to that which is constantly existing with a particular object. We conclude that there is heat and light along with the fire; without heat and light, there is no meaning to the word fire. Similarly, we must discover the essential part of the living being, that part which is his constant companion. That constant companion is his eternal quality, and that eternal quality is his eternal religion.”

On a website, I found the following definition of dharma:

“In Hinduism it means ‘duty’, ‘virtue’, ‘morality’, even ‘religion’ and it refers to the power which upholds the universe and society.  Dharma is the power that maintains society, it makes the grass grow, the sun shine, and makes us moral people or rather gives humans the opportunity to act virtuously.

But acting virtuously does not mean precisely the same for everyone; different people have different obligations and duties according to their age, gender, and social position. Dharma is universal but it is also particular and operates within concrete circumstances. Each person therefore has their own dharma known as sva-dharma. What is correct for a woman might not be for a man or what is correct for an adult might not be for a child.”

So each of us has our own dharma.  Whatever it is, it is to be in common good.  But is there a group dharma that is common to us Hindus living at the present in America? I think so.  In my opinion, our group dharma should be to speak for ourselves. Organization is power.  We are too complacent — it’s not going to happen to me(!) and when it happens, we have no one to speak for us and no one else to blame but ourselves. Another reason may be that we are afraid to stand up and stick our neck out for the fear of recrimination and retaliation. Yet another reason may be shame – for whatever reason admitting that we are a minority in this country.  No matter what the reason, the upshot is that the Hindu dharma for us is to organize and look out for each other.

Hinduism is open, universal and pluralistic. That is the beauty of it and also its curse. Organizing on Hinduism line seems alien to us and counter to the notion of being universal and pluralistic.  But not to stand up and be wiped out – what good would that do to the universalism and pluralism if sectarianism is all that prevails? It is not Incidental that many minority groups are organized: NAACP speaks for African Americans; there are several Jewish organizations; the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) speaks for Muslims in America; UnidosUS, formerly National Council of La Raza (NCLR) is the Latino organization; the OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates is for Asian Pacific Americans.

So who speaks for us Hindus? The only organization that comes to mind is the Hindu American Foundation (HAFwww.hafsite.org).  How many us belong to HAF or contribute to it? I recall that when the representative of HAF, Suhag Shukla, came to our temple, there were only a handful of people there to listen to her. I myself don’t subscribe to all their views, for example, the yoga being co-opted by the West, but I support their vision, mission, objectives and goal. Rather than creating another advocacy group, why not support what already exists, and join them actively to guide their policies and actions? Imagine if all of us reading this Blog did that!

As much as I am urging to join and support HAF, I (we) need to be extremely cautious not to develop a victim complex and look for discrimination where it doesn’t exist or it can be easily brushed off.  Doesn’t discrimination exist in India? We Hindus/Indians in America have very little to complain.  We just need to look at the iconic companies such as Microsoft, Google and Pepsi Cola – all headed by Indians; U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis; two recent former Governors (Piyush and Nimrata) of southern states including the Palmetto State where one’s ancestry matters above all, and so on.

In this light, whether you are persuaded to join HAF or not, sva-dharma to me is above all of it, and is of paramount importance. How I treat others, my family and friends, my students, will in the end matter more than anything else. I just have to remember it every second (not easy!) and to make it my innate nature –  repeating again, in Swami Prabhupada’s words: “There is heat and light along with the fire; without heat and light, there is no meaning to the word fire.” And, the false ego is my greatest of all enemies.

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