Sindhuri Nandhakumar | Not complacent about caste
Questions for Answers | We need a critical dialogue about Hinduism at Penn
October 10, 2012, 1:39 am·
Questions for Answers
Last Friday, Trevor Hall stood on stage — his arms inked with Sanskrit phrases, dreadlocks swaying from side to side — and chanted the words, “Om Shakti Om.”
Hall is not a musician who has risen to super-celebrity status, but he has a committed following that enjoy his songs for their meaning and spiritual energy. A couple hundred people packed World Cafe Live to hear him perform.
As I listened to Trevor Hall sing, I became mesmerized. But I also couldn’t help feel like an underachiever.
Hall’s music took a turn when he began to look for spiritual meaning. He traveled to India where he adopted Hindu practices and now writes even more inspiring songs. He knows exactly what “Om” — a word which lies at the heart of Hinduism — means to him.
I, on the other hand, haven’t fully explored what it means to be Hindu. Besides shocking my mom by threatening to marry outside our caste, I have not figured out what Hinduism means to me.
Growing up, I was shuttled between temples, from wedding ceremonies to devotional pujas. I was discouraged from eating meat on holy days and given new clothes to wear on religious holidays.
While this was all entertaining, my favorite part of being Hindu usually happened at 5 a.m. on days when my father woke me and my sister up to meditate, do yoga and talk about our souls before sunrise. Our tradition continues to this day.
But I have a hard time connecting with how Hinduism is practiced in other contexts.
Many Hindu communities place an exaggerated emphasis on the divisions and barriers between people based on birth. The most obvious example, of course, is the caste system. Many interpretations of Hinduism prevent people from entering or marrying into a different caste. In traditional Hindu communities like the one I belong to, your social circle is largely determined by your caste.
Divisions in Hinduism are often exaggerated by regionalism. People from different parts of India have distinct approaches to Hinduism. People in each village — let alone each state — worship different deities in temples that are constructed differently and have unique marriage customs.
Whenever I mention my faith at Penn, people eagerly ask about the festival where you slap color on each other then proceed to tell me how much fun it was the one time they did it. But my family never celebrated Holi while I was growing up. Instead, we focused on other festivals and holidays.
For many, Hinduism has been simplified to festivals like Holi which celebrates color and Diwali, the festival of lights.
While this represents an effort to unite Hindus from different castes and regions, something is inevitably lost in the fanfare. In promoting Hinduism’s colorful elements, we forget about the holidays and ideas that are not as interesting or exciting. The mainstream community also ignores practices that are more complex and difficult to deal with.
Thai Pongal, the Harvest festival celebrated by South Indian Hindu communities, usually goes unnoticed at Penn. Whenever it is celebrated, it doesn’t receive the same attention that holidays like Diwali and Holi receive.
Debates and discussions about caste and our regional divisions are pushed into the realm of academia. But that shouldn’t be the case, since many Hindus grapple with these issues in their personal lives.
Students at Penn, and most college communities, are fortunate to have a vibrant intellectual and academic environment. For most of us, there will be no other time in our lives when we are going to meet and mingle with such a large group of intellectually charged and curious people.
Let’s take advantage of that and try and deepen our understanding of religion. Fellow Hindus at Penn: Let’s ask questions about difficult issues, work across unnecessary barriers and respect our diversity. Let’s be critical but welcoming at the same time.
Sindhuri Nandhakumar is a College senior from Kandy, Sri Lanka. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org “Questions for Answers” appears every other Wednesday. Ask her your question @sindhurin.