Today on the Unsupervised Learning podcast Razib talks to Suhag Shukla, the Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). Suhag is an attorney who grew up in Cupertino, California, and is now a leading advocate for the interests of American Hindus. Razib and Suhag clear up the fact that HAF does not speak for all Hindus, of whom there are over one billion, or, the world’s 1.4 billion Indians. Additionally, the HAF is an explicitly Hindu-focused organization, as opposed to an Indian-American one. Suhag notes that Indian Americans, just like Indians, are religiously diverse, and there are also Hindus of various ethnicities, including Julia Roberts, a white American woman, and Tulsi Gabbard, who is of European and Samoan heritage.
Despite that, Suhag does admit that Hinduism as a religion is somewhat different from American Protestantism, which is focused on belief and individual choice in belonging. Hindus have a strong cultural attachment to their folkways and traditions, distinct from their particular beliefs about God and the universe. In this way, Hinduism resembles Judaism. Suhag points out that there is even an atheistic movement that emerged out of Hinduism, Carvaka materialism. One of the reasons that HAF exists is to educate Americans about Hinduism because aside from stereotypes about elephant Gods, sacred cows, and vegetarianism, most people in the US know very little about the religion. When Suhag went to Congress in 2006 and explained she represented American Hindus, the representative asked “are you, Sunni or Shia?”
Though HAF’s purview is America, it often gets dragged into Indian cultural politics. Suhag addresses accusations that HAF gives comfort to Hindu nationalists and Hindutva, and outlines for American listeners what these ideologies actually are. Indian politics and society are complex topics, and Suhag and Razib barely scratch the surface, but they do touch specifically on the issue of caste and how it is now becoming a live issue in the US. Over the past year, activists have been demanding that caste be included as a protected class, due to allegations of discrimination in the US. Suhag and Razib both agree that at 1% of America’s population it is unlikely that American Hindus are recreating the same stratified social system that obtains in India. Additionally, Razib points out that while white American Hindus are never going to be asked about caste, brown-skinned non-Hindus like himself will be, because the average American tends to racialize Hindu identity.
They close out the discussion by tackling whether Hinduism can adapt to the American landscape, where conversion and fluidity are the norms. Suhag is optimistic about the future of Hinduism and points to the fact that the data show high retention rates of people raised as Hindus in the US to the religion as adults. She also offers evidence that Indian Americans raised in a more assimilated environment often come back to their ancestral traditions later in life, and that includes their religion.