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UK Hindus: Exploring new paradigms

UK Hindus: Exploring new paradigms

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 7, 2002

Indians abroad, particularly those who left the country some generations ago, are going through an interesting metamorphosis. For the sake of a working definition, I would call it an intermediate stage of consciousness. This is not wholly satisfactory because the communities, especially the youth, are bursting with ideas and energy, and premature definitions tend to confine rather than define the subject of the thesis.

Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience to interact with youngsters from the Indian community in Britain. While there have been indications of ferment amongst youth of Indian origin in countries where they comprise a sizeable number, it was only during the course of a recent visit to London that I had a chance to witness first hand the sincerity and vigour of their intellectual quest for identity and moorings in the traditions of their once-native land.

This was an eye-opener because most British Indians are migrants twice-removed from this country. Their forefathers went to Africa four or five generations ago and though they did well there, they were forced to migrate under pressure of repressive regimes such as Idi Amin's Uganda, often with little or no funds. Their British passports enabled them to land on that shore, and they availed of the opportunities to make a new life. At the time of writing, London was anticipating a fresh influx of refugees from Zimbabwe, where questionable elections have returned a discredited regime to power.

Now, a generation that has grown up in Britain; it speaks the local lingo, power-dresses according to prevailing fashions and feels confident enough to seek to assert a unique identity. This inevitably means a Hindu identity, as the vast majority of UK Indians are Hindus, while Muslims there have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, and other countries. This is surprising because most of these youths do not speak a word of Hindi and cannot follow an ordinary conversation in the language. Nor do they have a very deep understanding of the complex realities of India, which are baffling enough for us here. Moreover, they do not have a bloated sense of grievance towards white Englishmen; this means that the search for cultural roots is not a reaction to real or perceived discrimination in that society.

Clearly, social scientists and scholars interested in ethnic communities will one day investigate this phenomenon in depth and, I hope, with sympathy. I believe that the quest for, and assertion of, identity must be viewed as intrinsically good for the foundational well-being of the human being and the group. It should be accepted as an absolute value, like freedom, as it determines the self-definition and self-esteem of the individual and group, and affects his/its relationships with others.

British Indians are not rejecting their citizenship or the civic ethic of their adopted fatherland. But they are not adopting western concepts blindly, and are seeking their own solutions to problems of identity and integration. To begin with, they want their link with Hindu dharma and India to be respected, and are prickly about being clubbed as "Asians" along with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. I understand that some of them have taken up cudgels with the mighty BBC in this regard. In fact, much of their ire against Britain is focused on BBC reportage, as mainstream newspapers are regarded as more sober and less desirous of causing deliberate offence.

While it is still premature to speculate where all this will lead, an emerging consciousness of Hindu-ness seems the most important paradigm of Indian youth in Britain today. They have an inward awareness of the value of their cultural-spiritual traditions, and wish to be rooted in them in a pluralistic rather than sectarian fashion. I found to my astonishment that the youth as also the older generation resent their religious leaders.

The most common complaint was that the swamis ensconced themselves comfortably in their temples and protected their respective turfs by promoting sectarianism in society. It was felt that this was the reason why the various sampradayas (sects) did not interact with each other socially and on religious occasions. People now want cross-sectarian affiliations and intermixing, and they resent the exclusiveness practiced by the religious hierarchy. Another sore point with UK Indians was that of late the Indian High Commission had ceased to celebrate Diwali; they are keen to maintain cultural ties with their mother country.

Even more positive was the thirst for information that will promote respect for India. I was besieged with requests for references of history books that depict the true history of India, for biographies of great Indian heroes, for the best commentaries on the Gita and the Upanishads, and so on. Needless to say, I was hardly prepared for the avalanche. I could readily suggest sound commentaries and even identify possible sources where they would be available. But I had to promise to get back with reliable source books on history from reputable publishing houses as they were candidly against the "distorted" accounts of Marxist historians!

I did, however, suggest that they read good literature from all societies and traditions to enrich themselves and their worldview, as an exclusive diet of Hindu dharma, particularly in a non- Hindu country, could prove restrictive and one-dimensional. Ironically, that would also be un- Hindu as Vedic culture is intrinsically cosmic, well-rounded, inclusive, and pluralistic. What is more, consciousness is like the flow of the river; it accepts many streams and flows on, ever changing and ever eternal.

What I found most striking about the youngsters was their clarity of vision and daring in some respects-they are formally converting white boys and girls who are attracted to Hindu dharma and wish to share its essence. This is truly dramatic because hitherto most Indian gurus and spiritual orders have resisted official conversions and have permitted everyone to share the treasures of the Sanatana dharma, such as yoga, various meditation techniques and Hindu philosophy, without renouncing their native faiths.

Initially this practice did not pose a problem. However, of late, American Hindus have found to their consternation that prominent western individuals and groups have started "cannibalising" Hindu traditions such as yoga and philosophy by appropriating them without acknowledging the original source. Indeed, the term "Hindu" is virtually taboo in US academia, and the Infinity Foundation and other groups are now battling to reverse this unfortunate development. US Hindus feel that the attitude of not accepting those who were drawn towards the Indic tradition and wished to be formally accepted in it was a mistake. They also feel that the claim that all religions are equal is specious as it denies the uniqueness of each tradition, and tilts the balance towards faiths that indulge in conversions by force, fraud or other forms of coercion. Clearly the UK youngsters are leagues ahead in this respect; I met a young Greek girl who teaches yoga!

One problem youngsters have to resolve themselves is the issue of dating and marriage. In India, the college or workplace romance followed by marriage is a route well-travelled in urban areas; in UK Hindu society few dates lead to marriage, to the chagrin of young girls who rightly feel that the practice of 'importing' brides from India must end. Indian families as a whole need to grow up in this regard and accept the social mores of the society and times in which they live.

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