What Hindus should be teaching children to fight off Hinduphobia and bullying in US schools, colleges

Hindu community in the United States
Hindu community in the United States
‘Don’t speak up, keep your head down, get good marks and good jobs and that’s good enough,’ seems to be the unspoken policy of the Hindu community in the United States
...Vamsee Juluri

I will begin with three examples of what is happening with Hindu children in schools, colleges, and even in Hindu programmes, in America. These examples should make us alarmed, ashamed, and afraid.

“Bullying.” This is the word that frames two of my examples but also informs, in a less direct way, my third one.

Just a few days ago, we learned about the disturbing incident of Shaan Pritmani, an Indian-origin child, being choked by another student in Texas. Just as shocking was the school’s response. The attacker got only one day’s suspension, and the victim, three. While we do not know yet if race, ethnicity, or religion played a direct role in the assault or the school’s callous response, there is a history here.

American schools are in a mess, and Hindu children are facing problems that are partly general symptoms affecting everyone, and partly unique to their own situation as Hindus in a Hinduphobic world (I couldn’t help recalling the adult activists who sneered at and mocked Hindu children and parents in California during the history curriculum hearings back in 2016-17).

The second example is an online panel on bullying hosted by an American Hindu organization recently. Two Hindu students, a child psychologist, and a Hindu school official spoke. While some of these issues were general, once again, what struck me was the fact that almost all of the concrete examples of being bullied shared by participants had to do specifically with anti-Hindu prejudices.

Before I go to the third example, I want to highlight the children themselves. Both the children who spoke on this panel pleaded that the community should support Hindu children who face Hinduphobic bullying in schools and colleges. They asked, specifically, for “unity.” One student said that of the five students in her class where Hindu students felt gaslighted by their professor, only one was willing to join her in speaking to the professors even. This is not surprising. “Don’t speak up, keep your head down, get good marks and good jobs and that’s good enough!” seems to be the unspoken policy of the community in the United States.

Some people in the community don’t even see a problem in how they are being treated and forced to comply with utter falsehoods about them (an interesting parallel can be found in Bari Weiss’s book How to Fight Anti-Semitism about Jewish students who have internalised false and hateful narratives about them so deeply that they don’t even realise they are being misrepresented and insulted in college). A few people do recognise that there is a problem, but magically, come back to the same, ineffective solution. “Get good grades and a job and that will be your revenge against Hinduphobia!” is their position. They attribute Hinduphobia to generic, surface issues like economic envy. The systemic nature of the problem isn’t quite grasped.

They keep handing their enemies the same ideological weapons they are building up to shame Hindu children and strip them of all human rights protections in institutions.

The third example is an anecdote from a Hindu spiritual-cultural organization’s weekend class. We love this programme, as do most parents, and children. As the academic year came to an end, students were asked to prepare a small skit or story to illustrate a life lesson they learned from the Mahabharata.

One idea that was floated was slightly different from the usual self-improvement stories. As it turns out, this very organization, and its globally popular children’s weekend school programme, in particular, have been repeatedly and forcefully named by university professors as a Hindutva-extremist indoctrination camp that demonized Muslims. Naturally, I never heard any talk of Muslims, politics, or anything like extremism in any of these classes or talks. We all know it’s a lie.

Given the timeliness of this example and the fact that in just a few more years every one of these children would be in colleges where those very same lies would be taught as facts by professors, some children thought they could do a play in which a college activist/professor character would smear their childhood Hinduism classes as fascist indoctrination camps, and they would push back using the Mahabharata as a guide.

Suffice it to say, this never happened. Everyone went back and forth, but it was clear that the topic, a real-life scenario that will be an imminent incident in students’ future lives, was wildly outside the imagination. “Our guru’s curriculum is set and it will cover everything!” is the way they believe the problem will be solved. I like the guru and his curriculum, and his legacy. It’s a powerful one, and it was done, as we all know, with Hindu children in mind, first and last. But magical thinking seems to have erased any concern about the lived realities that students will face in college and life, especially in the wake of the first two examples.

All of this left me seriously concerned about what, if anything, will force Hindus to take things seriously, as more than just a weekend activity or hobby. It’s a raw, searing truth that nothing Hindus say or do at the moment counts for anything like perceptible pushback, let alone a systemic programme for self-representation, institutional heft, and safety, forget even “dignity.”

Without a systemic, logical understanding of things, nothing will change for Hindu children anytime soon.

I would like to use these three examples now to recognize a series of Causes and Effects here. The effects are obvious. Bullying. Not fighting back. Bending more and more, and worse, sometimes joining the enemy and supporting their lies and hatred under the guise of the South Asia Studies label. That is the path that cohort after cohort seems destined to.

Let us now look at the “causes” that produce victims of bullying and a community that rarely succeeds in fighting back.  Some causes are beyond us. Systemic Hinduphobia is the status quo. It is the world that employs us, educates us, takes our labour, and deals with us with “Kill the Hindu/Spare the IT Worker and Costco Consumer” as its motto. That’s just the outside world. Before we take it on, we must also recognise the causes of these effects closer to home.

One major cause of community ineffectiveness among Hindu Americans in my view is that the goals of our many vibrant and pleasant community education programs for Hindu children are seriously inadequate. Children in weekend/temple Hindu classes basically get taught as goals what I would call 4 Cs (I know they are taught Ramayana, Bharatam, chants, stories etc. but the way they are taught seems to invariably come back to these 4 “takeaways” or practical modern applications).

These 4 Cs are:

Character: “Moral instruction” is more of a colonial-Christian relic rather than organic Indian story-telling. but it’s only one part of how children are taught to take inspiration from Rama, Krishna, Arjuna and so on, so I don’t find this entirely problematic. The other “Cs” are the real problem.

Compliance: Maybe it’s an immigrant and model-minority thing, or perhaps a STEM versus Critical Liberal Arts thing, but I find that weekend Hinduism classes never recognise defiance, challenging injustice, fighting when necessary, as takeaways from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Instead, children are essentially taught to view the lessons of these epics as tools to help us become better students, employees, co-workers and so on.

Coping: It is a natural corollary of Compliance as a model of behavior for the ideal Hindu American child. The meaning of the gods’ actions is often presented as some kind of inner strength that we could emulate in order to not burn the city down like angry Hanuman (metaphorically even) but to stay calm, not get stressed, and basically get along and do our jobs well.

Career: It is about all our parents talked to us about in terms of our futures, and what the present generation of parents does with the next generation too. But what we fail to talk about is the state of society, the direction the world is headed, what our duty ought to be, and so on. When teachers studiously avoid issues surrounding Hinduism or alleged Hindutva that their peers and professors and colleagues and bosses in the future will be talking about, most Hindu children will lack a Hindu view of the present. It is true Hindus typically aren’t big on social engineering the way conversion-oriented religions societies tend to be. But when Hindu children go to college and find the only “Hindus” talking about “social justice” and “changing the world” are the South Asia lot, they will not have a counterview at all and fall for it. Then, of course, parents sit and wonder how their kids who were wonderful in Bala Vihar then went and became Hinduphobic and Leftist in college! The stories of the gods have helped Hindu children see all of this world today, not just their fitness for competition and jobs.

These, in my view, are the four broad goals towards which most Hindu education in America for children is presently oriented. Hindu education is producing these four results quite beautifully. Everyone’s children are well mannered, have good character, and have good careers. Wonderful. But no one’s been trained to deal with the systemic, invasive, and diabolic nature of Hinduphobic propaganda everywhere which has been only getting worse in the last few years. Hindu classes should also be spaces for children to imagine what they will face in colleges (and sometimes are already facing in schools), and should give them role-playing and other opportunities to learn how to recognize and oppose Hinduphobic bullies whether these are peers or professors or employers.

Now for the 3Cs that are really needed.

The most important learning goal, frankly, should be “C” for “Courage.” Not some falsified idea of courage watered down from Rama’s deeds to bravery while doing homework or taking a test or spelling bee, but actual courage in confronting Hinduphobia, falsehood, and wrong-doing, in life. I see people in our community talking about “Kshatriya” spirit and all that. While that is a great ideal, I would like to offer another idea too to complement Courage as a vital learning outcome for Hindu children today.

I would urge parents and community leaders and teachers to think about two stepping stones to build in their classes to lead up to the specific kind of real-world courage needed for real-life school and college anti-Hinduphobia action. Clarity is one. Children will find courage when they are utterly convinced they have the forces and blessings of gods, gurus, ancestors, nature and truth inside them always.  If you are clear about what you are feeling, and what is being said or done to you, then you will have the courage to act appropriately too. If you are left confused or unprepared, you will not.

And finally, what contributes to Clarity among children is what educators should focus on the most, and that is Content; knowledge of self, society, the inner and the outer, language, communication, history, politics, social thought, arts, journalism, movies, everything. Weekend classes and zoom workshops teach only one small part of the “Content” needed, Hinduism, and history maybe, but no one has exposed them to the rest of it. Children need to know where everything is coming from, especially the thought of their professors and peers. They need not only a Hindu view of Hinduism but a Hindu view of Hinduphobia, America, the world, everything.

Finally, there is one ground reality we also have to recognize about ourselves. What we lament as a lack of “unity” is actually what I would call a Competition-based Cynicism against Community. One reason that we have no “Unity” is that we don’t see the value of it. Every Indian in the US. knows deep down they got here after competing against other Indians, and even in US schools, colleges and perhaps workplaces that reality stands. The system is set up to reward (economically, perhaps socially too) Hindus who present themselves as different and not like the other Hindus you read about in NPR or NYT. That is the propaganda/psy-war model we have never dealt with. The system is also set up to humiliate, deracinate, and even harm you at the same time. We don’t grasp that because we don’t go beyond our safe little myths and assumptions about our host society, including the misguided belief that our children somehow magically become accepted and American by being born here or going to school here. This is not an organic society, even for its own old-timers. It’s harder for immigrants, and even harder for those of us who happen to be targets of decades or centuries-long propaganda aimed at our existence.

To conclude: If we want to see Hindu children who know how to stand their ground against Hinduphobia, we have to stop teaching them through our actions that they should keep submitting to it and keep avoiding even talking about it. Content-Clarity-Courage. Not just Compliance-Coping-Career. That’s what we should seek from Krishna, Rama, and Hanuman for our children and with them.

The writer teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco. Views expressed are personal.

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