My parents and I are spending the first two weeks of 2017 in Kaua’i, Hawai’i. A large part of my identity which is masked in my daily life is visible here—my Hindu identity, that is. Each time my family returns to the island, it’s a pilgrimage of sorts.
The Kaua’i Adheenam, or the Kaua’i Hindu Monastery, is located in the hills of Kapa’a, and it is absolutely a different world. I could spend hours (and I have) on the 400 acre premises: walking around, picking fruit, attending pujas, conversing with the swamis (monks), and immersing in nature. Perhaps my favorite part is the ability to sing each morning following the 9 am puja; this incredible opportunity gives me a chance to feel the immensity of the atmosphere, to gain some peace, and to rejuvenate—all of which are difficult to come by in the bustle of our daily lives.
I was brought up Hindu. I’ve spent countless hours at temples over weekends, we’ve hosted rudrams each year in our home, I spent a summer interning for the Hindu American Foundation, and we visit the Kauai’ Adheenam nearly every year. I started singing Carnatic vocal at the age of three, and since then, it’s been my central form of worship. It’s how I’ve connected with Hinduism and spirituality, and it’s how I relax and calm myself. Singing at the monastery is ethereal, bringing me a joy that I can’t explain. So, being here is a wholesome experience for me— allowing me to absorb the spiritual and emotional ambiance emanating from the premises and to feel a peace that I have yet to find in myself and elsewhere.
However, outside this bubble, it’s not that I hide this identity, but that there’s no place or reason for it to come up. My childhood was sectioned—I was Indian and Hindu at home, but these identities rarely meshed with my school life. In high school, we learned about religions, with little to no discussion on Hinduism outside of the caste system. Because of this narrow-minded view of Hinduism, I’ve received a number of ill-informed questions about my religion, comments that I practice paganism and that my religion isn’t real, and furthermore, my Hindu peers are unable to explain the tenets of Hinduism in order to fix these misconceptions. Additionally, I have a number of Christian friends who post about their faith openly, but my Hindu friends feel unable to do the same—our religion isn’t widely acknowledged as a positive faith, and that perception affects our abilities to affirm ourselves.
I sat down with one of the swamis this week to discuss the growing gap between the elders and my generation of Hindus. One of the most compelling—and also most hindering— facets of Hinduism is its flexibility: as a Hindu, you choose how you worship, you choose the path you follow. However, this has caused a large hole to form in my generation’s knowledge. Though we may have attended (sometimes, forced to attend) temple for years, we never actually learned why we gave certain offerings, why we put pranam, why we believe in reincarnation, etc. And because of this lack of understanding, often times, students will go off to college and return as nonbelievers. Bible study and other organized forms of religious discussion, which are present in other religions for youth members, are sparse in Hinduism. Though Balvihar and related programs do exist, attendance is disproportionate to the number of Hindus in the United States, and as such this number will continue to dwindle over generations.
The swamis of the Kaua’i Monastery are hoping to address this problem and to find mediums through which to teach and attract younger generations. They have written a number of books to share Hindu teachings with all ages, made movies on the history of Hinduism (click here to view- there are 4 parts), and created mobile applications such as Spiritual Workout for us to engage with daily practice. Still, this application requires a basic understanding of Hinduism and also need to be advertised in order to gain popularity. How do we attract generational Hindus who are only Hindu by association and how do we make them interested in learning more? A rift already exists, and filling this gap is going to take an immeasurable amount of effort on our parts. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over this first week here, and I wonder what we can do to better educate and interest young Hindus across the country. Technological outreach certainly seems a viable path, but if this lack of knowledge has already caused widespread disinterest, can an easily accessible application intrigue this audience?