A religion’s strongest cultural expression consistently happens far from the religion’s place of origin. When we think of the foremost Christian art, we don’t think of Nazareth and Jerusalem; we think of the Gentiles of Western Europe, peoples who were, centuries earlier, converted to the faith. Similarly, the poetry and art of Islam flourished among descendants of converted Turks and Persians like Rumi and Hafiz, and not in the Hijaz. Buddhism died in India, but thrived in Tibet and China, and indeed as far afield as Borobodur in Indonesia.  Jewish cultural flowerings have been scattered both in geography and time. Throughout the Diaspora, their memory of the Holy Land remained precious, but they flourished without residing there. Hinduism has several impressive temples in India, both ancient and modern, but we must remember that the architectural treasures of Cambodia, including Angkor Wat (whose architectural design reflects the Vedic conception of the universe, with Mount Meru at the center), were originally Hindu temples built by non-Indian, Hindu kings.

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Hindus, in every country other than India, are a tiny minority; every generation must find its own way to survive and, hopefully, to flourish. The model of Europe’s Muslim population, and of the early immigrant Hindus in the Caribbean (see V. S. Naipaul’s many descriptions of the time-capsule effect that took place in Trinidad), is not a fit for us. Overseas Hindus do not have the numbers or the cohesion, except in a few areas in Britain and the United States; and besides, assimilation comes altogether too easily to us.

In fact, if anything, we need a brake on assimilation; we need to define a core religious identity, and preserve it, while our surfaces match our surroundings ever more closely. The chameleon’s changes stays skin deep.

To this end, our best—our only—model is that of the Jews in Europe and America.

Overseas Hindus must preserve themselves as Hindus and not as Indians. Indians themselves, one might argue, are not preserving themselves as Indians. India’s has always been a civilization exceptionally permeable to the cultural influence of worldly power. In Japan, by contrast, the force resisting the West was, for a long time, stronger than the force longing to imitate it; in early 20th-century Japan, the imitation was shrewdly selective, mostly that of military and communications technology (we have seen a parallel in Osama bin Laden’s eagerness to disseminate video clips of himself). In Hindu India, the force resisting the West, or any other temporal power (imperial Britain, expansionist Islam), has been weaker than the force eager to mimic it; the reasons likely have to do with Hinduism’s own internal heterogeneity and tradition of tolerance (lamentably lost in its politicized form).

We assimilate successfully, often excelling in many (but not all) of the same endeavors as Jews, such as medicine and business, while being relatively less represented in others, like the military. Yet the Jews have remained Jewish because they have defined their identity not solely in racial or national terms, but also in religious terms. Similarly, India’s overseas Hindus must understand their identity to have both a racial, or Indian, component, and a religious, or Hindu, component. What is Indian in us will perish, often within two generations, only traces remaining in cuisine or a last name. What is Hindu in us can last, but we must define it, defend it, and pass it on.

This first step—self-definition—can only happen through a medium largely neglected among overseas Hindus: literature and the arts. Now it may be argued that Indians have done well for themselves in English-language literature—Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra,  Jhumpa Lahiri,  Kiran Desai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and many others; but note how little Hinduism figures in their writing, except for the standard caricature of the corrupt and worldly Brahmin. Hinduism does not inform their writing because they are writing, primarily, for a non-Hindu, non-Indian audience; to penetrate and present the nature of a truly foreign religion such as Hinduism (far more foreign than Judaism or Islam, to a Christian or post-Christian Western reader) would get them summarily excluded from The New Yorker or the New York Timesbestseller list.

The fault, however, is not on the writers’ end. Intimately connected with the miracle of Jewish self-preservation is the Jewish love of words and literature. America’s Jews excel not just in medicine and other high-prestige professions; they also play a major cultural role as publishers and editors in New York publishing houses. They write books; they produce books; and, above all, they read books. This is what overseas Hindus must learn from their example: To create a common literature, and through that a common fund of ideas and images, that will reflect and shape our identity as a growing Hindu culture, as opposed to Americans or Britishers “of Indian ancestry.” We must demand and produce a Hindu literature first of all; there is no better way to define our identity, no better way to defend it, no better way to pass it on.

Amit Majmudar won 1st place in India Currents’ KATHA story contest two years in a row. His first book, 0°,0° [Zero Degrees, Zero Degrees], was released by Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books in late 2009. His second manuscript, Heaven and Earth, won the 2011 Donald Justice Award.

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