This occasion of Ganesha Chaturthi marks the first time I have been home to celebrate this festival since going to university. Since then, I have grown a great deal in my personal and spiritual life. I have only recently become more practicing as a Hindu, utilizing specific practices, including meditation, reading scripture, as well as going to temple on a regular basis. I have recently begun to reflect on my life so far, considering my place as an Asian American, an Indian American, and as an individual of other identities.
While growing up, it was always a given that I would participate in these festivals and pujas with my family and extended family, where we would invite relatives and close family friends to participate in the festivities. I received ārti with my Indian family friends while my mother conducted puja in our house, and partook of my mother’s traditional South Indian cooking made especially for this day. But religion rarely ever went outside my house, aside from my being Hindu.
I happened upon a kind of crisis when I went to New York University for my undergraduate studies. I steadily became very involved in student activism and learning more about Asian American issues, but I struggled to articulate the particular issues of the Hindu American community. That’s where I found the Sadhana Coalition, a small but growing group of individuals committed to creating a concrete voice for Hindus in the US. Asian Americans of faith already constitute a very specific demographic that are not often discussed. But it is in the case of Hindus and Muslims, who are often of South Asian origin in the US, that religion it becomes a very pertinent issue in the Indian and other South Asian communities.
The role of religion in the South Asian community is often lost on my non-Indian and non-South Asian peers. This is primarily a result of a lack of real exposure to South Asian religion and communities. In high school, I attended a Filipina friend’s debut, an important coming of age event for a young woman in the Philippines. But I have never invited my friends to a puja held at my house. I have asked my parents if this is even possible, but they simply said that it’s not done and would be seen as deeply strange in our community.
Understandably, one might say that we don’t invite non-Hindus and non-Indians to our festivals and celebrations because they might feel uncomfortable or out of place. However, there is a growing tradition of secular alternatives to and secular spaces within religious events, as seen in Diwali and Holi, both of which are steeped in traditional Hindu practices that might ordinarily turn off outsiders due to a lack of familiarity. Yet it is this lack of familiarity that prevents us from engaging in proper acts of solidarity. For more obscure, yet arguably more important events like my thread ceremony, there is little to no knowledge on how it impacts our culture or our practices.
The experience of being a Hindu will remain inscrutable to the outsider so long as they remain outside the proverbial gate. I have been in many Asian American spaces where we call for solidarity among different communities with vastly different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, but this will remain impossible when we cannot perceive the cultural nuances of particular communities. We cannot march together but retreat into our homes and separate communities when the march is over.
Sadhana has started on this themselves, and are trying to go to other communal spaces and tell others who we, as Hindus, are. But we cannot be the only ones doing, for societal change begins with individuals, and with small steps. Just as we have invited the goddess Gauri and her beloved son, Ganesha, into our homes, we must do the same for our communities.
For Ganesh Chaturthi this year, I challenge my fellow Hindus to invite some of their non-Desi or non-Hindu friends to the celebration. To have truly cross-communal action and widespread mobilization, we must be inclusive of our friends and families who are not Hindu. It goes without saying that we must be mindful of how they enter and interact with the space, and how we consider them in our spaces, but ultimately, this is in our hands.
This blog was written by Sadhana member Shashank Rao, New York University, Class of 2019.