Non-Desi Hindu: What I Look Like to Others

Our friend Andrea noticed an interesting thread on Reddit a while back and pointed it out to me. It’s a group for American born Desis (people of south Asian heritage) and they are discussing how they feel about non-Desi Hindus (or other Indian religions).

I’ve said before, I feel like my experience most closely mirrors the experiences of American born Desis. I relate to them. I think they and I are working out similar issues and questions. Though my home life wasn’t an Indian culture, it was still markedly different from the typical American culture around me. There was some genuine culture shock in going to college and being involved suddenly in a world that wasn’t as patriarchal, religious, or Victorian as I was used to.

The thread on Reddit is mostly pretty positive, with people willing to acknowledge that there can be genuine Hindus (or Sikhs, etc.) who are not of Indian heritage. However, several also call out a very particular stereotype:

“On the other hand, I go to college in a somewhat hippy area, and some people think Hinduism is just a religion where you can wear tattoos of Ganesha and Om on your body and smoke pot all day, while not trying to understand the other aspects like self-control or discipline.”

Suddenly I see through someone else’s eyes. I realize that when many white people say they are Hindu, they are taking only the surface level of it. What they’ve heard about its peace/love/and brotherhood message. This is a person who loves getting high, tells others to “chill out, man” and does yoga for exercise. They tattoo Gods onto themselves without ever thinking about whether its appropriate for an image of the God to be present while you’re having sex or using the bathroom.

It reminds me of a movie I watched last night. It’s called Rachel Getting Married. I had heard good things about it when it came out and it has Anne Hathaway in it, one of my favorite actresses. I enjoyed the movie, though it’s a little sad. About drug addiction. But one thing that really stuck out to me was that the main character’s sister, Rachel, is getting married in a very Indian theme.

When Kim, the main character, first gets home we see Rachel trying on her white bridal sari and there are people hanging colorful torans around the house. Naturally I assume she’s marrying an Indian. But nope. Her finacee is Black and they seem to just be in a very multi-culti crowd. They enjoy different cultures and have friends from around the world. There aren’t any Indians, though. It is never mentioned. No one ever says a word about everyone wearing Indian clothes and decorating in a very Indian theme. The only Indian person is a seven year old girl we see running around the wedding, but her name isn’t given and we don’t know how she is related. (You know what else was weird? The bridesmaids wore saris, but they only covered less than half their blouse. It was strangely immodest).

I think I now see what people have been saying: that there are non-Indian people who are enamored of Indian culture and take the pretty things from it and mix them with all the pretty things they like from all over the world and every different culture they like.

I guess I can understand why some people would roll their eyes when I say that I’m Hindu. They’d think I go to a yoga class or two. I must smoke pot and focus on personal pleasure, thinking that’s Hindu.

How could I ever explain?

I have no tattoos, I’ve never smoked anything, I’ve never done any drugs that weren’t prescription antibiotics (and even then I’m pretty reluctant). I believe in spiritual discipline and that the good of all is more important than my happiness.

When people look at me, though, many assume I know only the very surface level of Hinduism.

That is my message here: don’t judge on appearances. You never know the depth of someone else’s spiritual life. A saint can be hidden in the guise of a madman. You can’t tell from looking at me how deeply and how long Hinduism has been part of my life. You can’t know from looking at a yoga teacher with a Ganesha tattoo on her ankle how dedicated she is to her spiritual practice.