Other Voices Hinduism 101caption

File photo of scented candles being lit before being offered to well-wishers during a ceremony as Hindus celebrate Diwali at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir on Nov. 14, 2012 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Being born and raised in California, I have heard mixed messages about Hinduism from my parents, my school, and the religious organization that I grew up with (Sri Satya Sai Baba Bal Vikas). Everyone had their own interpretation of what it meant to be a Hindu.

This is why I have always felt like Hinduism needed its own public relations team. Our community needs to be clear on what Hinduism is and what it is not, so that we properly address the misconceptions that exist in our society. As I grew older, I realized that mostly everything I had learned about Hinduism was outdated, wrong, or misrepresented. The textbooks have had their fair share of problems. Many of my peers believed Hindus worshipped cows, burned widows (i.e., practice of sati) and believed in multiple gods.

Recently, I was part of a panel that reviewed the new 2017-2018 history textbooks for the State of California. During this time, I witnessed many Indian Americans of the Hindu faith protesting and taking a stance regarding the inaccurate portrayal of Hinduism in middle school textbooks. The Board of Education for the State of California heard hours of testimonies (the longest in history for the Board) from many Hindu Americans about ways in which Hindus have been perceived in a negative spotlight due to outdated and/or inaccurate information. Fortunately, two history textbooks were rejected due to “adverse reflections.” In addition, a recent report, “Bullying in American Schools” by the Hindu America Foundation, found that many Hindu American youth face bullying and bias based on these textbook inaccuracies.

When I was in school, when my friends came to my house and saw our puja room, they always asked why there were so many different types of God. I just told them that we prayed to the different Gods based on what we were praying for: Ganesha for Obstacles, Lakshmi for Wealth, Saraswati for Education, etc., but it never even occurred to me until much later in life that Hindus have ONE GOD — who takes on many forms.

On a side note, I recently attended a Saraswati puja with my kids and when I posted the picture on my Instagram account, I decided to use the hashtag #onegodmanyforms. I encourage you all to do the same. This simple step can clear up a lot of the confusion, especially since many people in our society still believe Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, when it is actually a monotheistic religion.

In addition, I recently became aware that some middle school teachers are doing simulations of the caste system in schools. When I asked my son’s friend’s older brother (who is Caucasian and in middle school) what he was learning about Hinduism, he told me that they were role-playing the caste system and he didn’t have to do very much work because he was “on the top, a Brahmin.”

This is wrong on so many levels: teaching the caste system as a central feature in Hinduism, having Brahmins oppress others within the caste system, and role-playing all of these misconceptions in the classroom. If this is happening at your school, it’s important to approach the administration because this is against the Education Code 60044(a), which clearly states that students should not simulate or role-play religious ceremonies or beliefs.

In addition, we need to have conversations about the how the caste system is a social practice in India that has conflated two different concepts (one that is religious and one that is social) from the Vedas. A person’s unique personality, characteristics, and temperament (varna/religious) with their job/occupation (jati/social). As time went on, the social practice became more hereditary, hierarchical, and oppressive. However, the caste system is a social practice and not an inherent part of Hinduism.

I think as parents we need to help articulate our culture and religion to our children so that they can understand their heritage and feel proud of who they are, where they come from, and what they believe in. We need to convey the core teachings of Hinduism in simple terms, so that they can articulate their religion to others. We need to share important concepts and worldviews with them so they can carry on with their traditions, values, and beliefs.

Some Key Concepts to Share:

  1. Address why we have multiple representations of the same God. We take into account that God is an abstract concept that is impersonal and formless. By taking this account, each person can then choose their own representation of God to worship and to form a relationship with. We worship different forms of the same God so that each person will create an intimate relationship with the form they make a personal connection with. Use the hashtag #onegodmanyforms to educate others.
  2. Discuss the caste system because they will learn about it in school. Many textbooks connect Hinduism to the caste system. However, it is not a religious practice, but unfortunately, a social practice. Hinduism is often put in a negative spotlight when it is compared to other religions that do not condone the caste system. In Hinduism, we acknowledge that everyone person is born with a particular temperament (varna/religious) and that connects them to the work or occupation that they do (jati/social). However, when these two concepts were conflated or brought together in a fixed way, the social practice of the caste system originated and people were treated differently because of it.
  3. Discuss what Karma means and address misconceptions such as Karma being fatalistic. Many people assume you don’t have the power to change the outcomes of your life. However, this is not true. You are fully accountable for your actions. Present actions affect future Karma.
  4. Dharma is an important concept for children to learn how to distinguish between right and wrong. Dharma is different for different people and in different situations. It’s complicated but using real-life hypothetical situations you can help guide children towards what their dharma is. There are many books that explain the Bhagavad Gita for kids in a child-friendly way that can help with this. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna guides Arjuna towards his duty and faces many dilemmas along the way. In addition, for children, it will be important for them to figure out their own dharma, or duty in life. What are the passionate about? And how will they make a difference in the world? Answering these questions will allow for them to gain contentment and fulfillment in their lives.
  5. We often hear that Hinduism is a “way of life.” This has led many people to think that Hinduism is not a religion. However, we need to stress that Hinduism is more than a religion. This is because we seek to recognize the presence of God in all our thoughts and actions – in all situations. One important saying in Hinduism is to treat everyone like they are a part of your family. It’s important to engage in seva, or service to those that are in need without expecting anything in return. This can also be infused in different ways in everyday life. Children can perform random acts of kindness for others or think of ways to help out their peers who may need help.

For many young families it may be difficult to go to the temple every week. Use Sundays as “Hinduism day” to teach important lessons from the Bhagavad Gita, to teach them about the Gayatri Mantra and why it’s one of the most powerful mantras in Hinduism, or to do some seva in your community to connect back to ways Hinduism is more than a religion but a way of life.

(Dr. Amita Roy Shah is an author, educator, and entrepreneur. She is an adjunct professor at San Jose State University in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development. She is the author of “It’s Time for Holi! and Lights, Camera, Diwali!” She is also the founder of hybridparenting.org, an online platform to empower parents to invest in the cultural well-being of their children. She has a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.)

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