Prem Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hain (Say with love that we are Hindu)

Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus is an organization I helped start about five years ago, along with like-minded friends. Sadhana founders were Hindu by faith and identity, and also activists and advocates for progressive issues: racial justice, gender justice, and the protection of the environment. We used the term “progressive” to refer to a Hindu tradition that affirms the dignity and equal worth of all and which is engaged in the struggle for justice. Even though our Hindu faith taught us the interconnectedness of all of us, all species and the universe, and motivated these progressive values, we had kept our Hindu identity separate from our public engagement.

At the women’s march in DC with my son Satya, Jan 21, 2017

At the women’s march in DC with my son Satya, Jan 21, 2017

We felt disturbed by the strong Hindu nationalist voice in the public discourse with no progressive Hindu voice to counter it. Other religious communities had their “Not in Our Name” contingent which spoke up against more conservative voices, and we very badly wanted our own.

Some of us were young ourselves; and others of us were raising our young. We all felt it was important for progressive Hindu families to raise children with positive messages about Hinduism and the world. We pledged to create opportunities for young Hindus to get involved — as Hindus — in community service.

We were inspired by world leaders, including Hindu leaders, who took on the mission of justice not just for their own community or people, but justice for all. If we are all interconnected, then so are our struggles, and we decided that Sadhana’s work would be most impactful if devoted to the most marginalized.

Most importantly, we were determined not to build Sadhana in reaction to more conservative voices and forces in the world. Rather, we would root this work in our understanding of core Hindu teachings: the oneness of all regardless of race, caste, sex, sexual orientation, etc (ekatva); the notion that a life of service (karma yoga) is a valid path to God; the goal of ahimsa (nonviolence/minimizing of suffering and environmental degradation); and dharma (prioritization of righteous action without desire and attachments). We named ourselves Sadhana because “sadhana” means “the practice of faith,” and we want to be an organization of action rather than just words.

In the past five years, we have been steadfastly building a progressive Hindu platform. Sadhana’s Project Prithvi (Prithvi means Mother Earth) mobilizes Hindu volunteers to help clean up a beach in NY where Hindus worship, leaving their offerings to line the beach as litter. We have also been an active part of movements calling for an end to racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia — often the only Hindu participants.

In Brooklyn, where I live, I helped start a Bala Vihar (children’s Hinduism class) where children not only learn about Hinduism but also engage in community service projects (seva). Our kids have helped with Sadhana’s beach cleanups, activities to serve NY’s homeless, and Black Lives Matter rallies. On January 22nd, two days after Donald Trump’s inauguration as this nation’s new President, a few of them shared a Hindu prayer for the Earth as part of an interfaith vigil on Brooklyn Bridge.

It has been quite difficult to grow Sadhana. Even though we are five years old, we only have a dozen or so members. We find that those who are Hindu by birth and left-leaning in their politics often don’t identify in public as Hindus: they either choose to keep their Hindu identity separate and private, or they completely reject Hinduism because they see the religion as oppressive to minorities such as Muslims, lower castes and Dalits. However, as has been confirmed to us time and time again, there are innumerable progressive Hindus who would never use the label, but are also not speaking up against right wing Hinduism.

Mrs. Y. Kameswari, my aunt who helped raise me, is a powerful woman who until her retirement was her family’s sole breadwinner, the principal of a Chennai high school, and a role model for many women and girls, myself included. She never had any need for the labels “feminist” or “progressive,” but she was the earliest feminist Hindu influence in my life. She also has her blind spots – she is not progressive on the issue of caste. However, as a child, I was able to challenge her on this issue. Those early debates were profoundly formative for me, and took place because she was open-minded and encouraging of questioning and critical reasoning in her household.

I recently had the fortune of meeting Brahmachari Vraj Vihari Sharan, the Director of Hindu Life at Georgetown University. We were at a meeting about Hinduism and LGBTQ rights, and when he heard the name of our organization, he commented that the word “progressive” was redundant, “Hinduism is by definition progressive.”

We do hear this feedback frequently, and we respond by explaining that since there isn’t a contemporary public voice which is Hindu and progressive, it is important to clarify this in our name. Later in the meeting, we each had to state what Hinduism means to us. Brahmachariji answered that to him, Hinduism means always keeping an open mind and engaging in logical reasoning rather than following blindly. His answer was so inspiring to me, and I realized that just like my aunt, whether he took on the label or not, he was an undeniably progressive Hindu.

There are so many examples of Hindus who are quiet in the good works they do to serve the needy and marginalized. After making their fortune in the United States, Gopal and Kamala Singh returned to their ancestral village of Shivpur, near Benares, to start a girl school for the mostly Dalit girls from their village. When I asked what motivates this couple, I learned that Gopal is a student of Vedanta and a follower of Swami Bodhananda. Kamala’s inspiration is her late father-in-law who was a Ram Bhakt who devoted himself to seva for the poor and needy in his village all his life. Again, they would never use the label, but there is no denying that Kamala and Gopal are progressive Hindus.

It may seem strange for people like my aunt, or Brahmachariji, or the Singhs to call themselves progressive Hindus, but we in Sadhana believe it is supremely important for Hindus who believe in equality and justice for all to begin speaking up as Hindus. Otherwise the religion will be ceded, at least in the public discourse, to the followers of the right wing Hindu nationalism that has come to be called Hindutva. Hindutva ideology was first promulgated by Veer Savarkar and its followers idealize a Hindu India, and deny the civil rights of Indian Muslims and other minorities.

I recently met with a dear writer-activist friend in Mumbai, Rajni Bakshi. Rajni was remembering that after Hindutva mobs demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992, the slogan “garv se kaho hum Hindu Hain” (say with pride that we are Hindu) showed up across north India.

Rajni was part of the secular, anti-communal movement which responded, “prem se kaho hum insaan hain” (say with love that we are humans).

Rajni wrote to me in an email continuing our conversation, “At that time I thought this was a perfect answer because I believed that living through religious/ethnic identity was a historical artifact. Today I would tweak that line to acknowledge that some form of religious/ethnic identity is a strong and real factor in many people’s lives. And the very fact of this sense of identity is not a ‘problem,’ nor does it automatically signify something regressive. Therefore, when my cousin recently said (in a family conversation over dinner), “garv se kaho hum Hindu hain,” I asked him why not say “prem se kaho hum Hindu hain.” (say with love that we are Hindu)

And therein lies the mission of Sadhana – we are proud to be Hindu but also believe that the heart of Hinduism is love for all and the desire for all to be happy and healthy, with their needs met and rights respected.

Along with 9-year-old son Satya, I participated in the massive women’s march that took place the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. I marched as a woman, a progressive Hindu, a member of Sadhana, an immigrant, a mother, and an Asian American. My sign quoted the Maha Upanishad, “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, The world is one family.”

This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of Desi Life and Times. It was also published in the Huffington Post.