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Indianness: Culture or Religion?

Indianness: Culture or Religion?

December 17, 2010

If I read stories about Krishna & Brahma to my son, am I stealing someone else's beliefs?

Earlier this week, I posted about learning about Indian culture to pass a sense of Indianness on to my son, Mir. In the comments, there are some wonderful suggestions for reading material, including a suggestion from Nethra, that we try the Ramayana and Mahabharata. And although part of me wants to run to the bookstore and pick up copies right now, the other wonders if that would be cultural misappropriation.

I grew up in a Muslim-Catholic household. We celebrate Easter, Christmas, Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Adha, and Ramadan (though only my father fasts). At Christmas, my parents literally deck their halls--tinsel and ornaments overrun the house, half a dozen animatronic Santas carol in the living room, and a Christmas train chugs through a snowy wonderland on the dining room table. We’re a marvelously mixed-up family, and I love it. But my father’s family, the Indian side, has only two Hindus, both of whom married into the family. Our Indianness is a Muslim-Indianness; I have little knowledge of Hinduism beyond recognizing pictures and statuary of Kali, Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna, and Brahma.

Hindu Gods do hold a certain fascination for me. I’ve always been interested in polytheistic religions, and I’ve read widely about the Greek, Roman, and Norse traditions. I’ve read many myths to Mir; we even have a few mythology picture books. But Hinduism is a living religion. If I read stories about Krishna to Mir, am I simply reading him a story, or am I stealing someone else’s belief system? Moreover, am I misrepresenting myself, and by extension, him?

Will reading Mir sacred texts teach him about being Indian? Probably. Is that theft? Possibly. Although I believe in religious conversion and anthropological study, I worry that I’d be teaching him something that is not mine to teach. During an interview earlier this year, I asked the interviewee about being Hindu in the US. One of the things he mentioned was frustration with the American use of Hindu symbols in a non-sacred way, such as using religious wall hangings or giant statues of Ganesh, Shiva, and other deities as mere decoration, or wearing t-shirts with Hindu deities and jewelry with religious significance.

As the product of a mixed-household, I’m not offended by the secular use of religious artifacts. It doesn’t bother me when people hang prayer mats on their wall; fashion crucifixes don’t worry me either (though some of the gorier looking crucifixes with Jesus on the cross and colored dabs to represent blood do make me shudder a little). I tell Mir about Santa rather than the three wise men, because we aren’t a religious household, we’ll open presents on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve, because Joe’s Danish heritage celebrates with a feast and presents on the 24th, and we’ll be putting a small, homemade owl ornament at the top of our tree. Cultural misappropriation isn’t really an issue for us, because our culture is a hodge podge of traditions. Nonetheless they’re traditions we grew up with, that came from our families, not traditions we’ve made up in search of something we’re not sure how to find.

Ultimately, I want Mir to learn about Indianness. But Indianness is a many-headed thing. My father’s family was moved from then India to Fiji sometime in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Although we have few details, it seems that his mother was from the northen Punjab area and his father from somewhere over the border, in what’s now Pakistan. As a group, my father’s family, myself included, self-identify as Indian. Yet I’ve never been to India, and we speak a Fiji-specific dialect of Hindi (though Joe and I are learning what my family refers to as “pure” Hindi, from an Indian-born speaker). We eat Indian food, though things are often a little different; we even tell Birbal stories. Indianness, it seems, transcends place--not just in terms of first and second generation immigrants, but first generation immigrants removed.


  • Khadija
    15.07.12 07:27 PM
    Wow, I love hearing about people's ancestries. You ought to be proud that you can share such a diverse heritage with your son, it can only be good for him. :)
  • tys
    14.04.11 02:45 AM
    traditions, culture , indianess, all has a human hand behind it... We made it... U r doing fine making one of ur own.. It will help not bothering too much into what others and their own self sustainable belief is...
  • Amogh
    24.03.11 11:53 PM
    I agree with ravi swami
  • Alfred Jones
    Alfred Jones
    29.12.10 01:59 AM
    I was born into a multi-lingual Christian family in Mysore, Karnataka. Part of my weekend routine was attending Sunday services conducted in very chaste and "propah" Kannada. During summer holidays, my uncle would visit us from a very rural part of Andhra Pradesh where his church did its thing in Telugu. On Sunday, he'd come along with us to our church and calmly hum his hymns while pretending to read the hymn book, sit and stand at the right times, bow down when the time came and generally manage to complete his worship with nary a trace of being out of place. I once asked him about it, "Doddappa, why do you come to our church if you can't understand anything we do there?". His answer was, "Raja, I don't have to understand the language to understand why I am there and what everyone else is doing.". To me, this captures what Indianness is all about.

    Millions of Indians embody that very sentiment as they relocate to other parts of India where pretty much everthing from local language, cuisine, worship, and social norms are completely unfamiliar. But they don't stop to ask if the new mileu they find themselves is Indian or not. They jump in with both feet and assimilate as best as they can. I've seen Muslim devotees at Tirupati who didn't know what to do when the poojari offered them the traditional aarathi platter or theertha (holy water) but nevertheless managed to express their devotion in whatever way they saw fit at the time. The same is true of Hindu piligrims at various Muslim holy shrines they visit to quench whatever spiritual thirst brought them there. The underlying rationale is, if you're somewhere in India then whatever the locals do there is Indian and that's good enough. This almost unconscious and idiosyncratic cultural elasticity is, I think, the Indianness you ask about in your piece.

    Most of my Hindu friends learnt their Hindu mythology not in a religious setting but like the rest of us non-Hindus did, i.e. by reading Amar Chitra Katha comics, Chandamaama etc. While those stories are admittedly part of religious mythology, they would shrivel and die if they weren't told and retold in the free air outside of established religious settings and rituals. I am a committed atheist now but I've just finished reading to my kids about Garuda, Prahalaada, Narasimha and Hiranyakashipu and am getting ready to dive into the story of Vishnu's Vaamana avataara. I see what I do as giving them the mental context in which they can locate what they see, hear and experience when they visit India. (They've been there twice already and it was a joy to see them recognize a lot of what they saw from the stories they heard at our home here in the US.) So by all means, tell Mir about all the Indian stories you can get your hands on.

    If you do go the Amar Chitra Katha route a word of caution is in order, Amar Chitra Katha comics tend to use a very formal and stuffy brand of English so just reading them straight to children of pre-school age and up can get a bit dicey. You'll need to substitute your own informal and age appropriate literal narrative to compensate for that. The graphics can be quite gory as well.

    Another Indian publisher who does a phenomenal job of capturing (secular) Indian stories in all their colour and diversity exclusively for children is Tulika Books ( The original art they commission to use in their books is just stunningly Indian both in palette and character. My wife and I have standing subscriptions with Tulika and our kids gobble it all up with great delight.


    PS: "Doddappa" is literally "big father" in Kannada, i.e. my father's older brother. And "Raja", as you've probably guessed, is a very typical and generic South Indian term of endearment for children.
  • Jerome Osmund Roopan Singh
    Jerome Osmund Roopan Singh
    22.12.10 10:40 PM
    I am Anglican married to a Catholic, my grandparents were from India and I grew up with them in South America. I really don't know what religion I am but put Christian on the forms I have to fill out although I do not believe in the Trinity. I believe in God and prefer the "India" religious philosophy.This is a personal choice and i hate it when people who know I an South American ask if I am "Indian". I am actually a "West Indian" since I was born in Guyana S.A.
    I find this amusing since India is not a Continent like Africa or Europe nor is Indian a race. What is Indian for me is present day INDIA. I don't see Indianness as a way of life or a mix of all its cultures/religions. But I find readinging of its philosophy from its ancient stories and books facinating even as some proof is found that it is not MYTHS as Sir Richard Burton in his Penguin published book Hindu Myths wants us to believe.
  • ravi swami
    ravi swami
    18.12.10 09:15 PM
    Better to communicate that Hinduism exists rather than pretend it doesn't, I would have thought, & therefore all the more reason to communicate these "stories" / philosophies.

    We have no qualms or dilemmas when studying so-called "dead" religions like those of the ancient Greeks or Egypt, and it's important to convey that antique religions, even if they are still practiced, laid the foundations for many religions current in the World now.

    That has nothing to do with "Indian-ness" since this is a fluid and personal concept.

    Cultural misrepresentation is a different issue (since you mention it...) - that's largely down to ignorance, and ignorant people result from a lack of knowledge about something.

    Stories beget belief systems (don't believe me ? - just trawl the internet...), so I don't see why reading a story is some kind of misdirection - this is how we grasp the world and ultimately, reality - abstract concepts don't hold the attention in the quite the same way.

    Most religious stories are narratives pointing to the abstract concept which is "God" - but then the idea of spirituality / God as an abstract concept is a matter of opinion, I suppose.

    In simple terms, J.M Barrie (the author of Peter Pan)summed it up perfectly - every time you say Fairies don't exist then one dies - similarly by denying the existence of something, you limit its ability to become a concrete reality in someone's mind - and it gradually ceases to exist or have relevance.

    Subsequently, your "Indian-ness" is largely a matter of choice and degree - you pick and mix those aspects which suit you.

    People have annoyed me in the past (usually other "Indians") by asking me "are you very Indian?" - I was born and grew up in the UK in a Hindu family - & my concept of being Indian is largely personal - if others disagree with it, then fine, but in my view it can't be quantified or broken down simply into this or that, how much of this or how much of that - or the number of religions my family might represent.

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