My toddler son stood in front of me – three lines of vibhuthi (sacred ash) smeared across his forehead, ready for preschool. I looked dumbfounded at the three white lines of vibhuti that trailed across his forehead, marking his identity as a Hindu. Did I want him to go to preschool with vibhuti on his forehead? I was confused about what to do next.
Yes – I did have a prayer alcove in my townhome. And yes – I had two silver containers – one that held white sacred ash – vibhuti and another that held red kumkumam. In Hinduism, the vibhuti on the forehead signifies that on cremation we will all turn into ash one day, with the daily ritual of applying sacred ash on our foreheads acting as a deterrent from being egoistic in the way we conduct ourselves. Kumkumam, the red dot that women and girls wear on the forehead marks one of the seven chakras or energy centers in the body and the spot between the eyebrows marks the chakra where we seek human liberation.
The significance of why we wear vibhuti or kumkumam was not known to my toddler. So, I was surprised to see him wearing sacred ash in such a prominent manner before going to his Montessori preschool. When I quizzed him, he responded that he was only copying what my father did in India every day. Now that made sense – we had just returned from a vacation in India, where he had seen his grandfather smear three prominent lines of vibhuti every morning. In India, if my son had applied vibhuti, I would have just laughed about how he was copying his grandfather and gone about my day. Growing up in India, I had worn vibhuti to school every day. There were many Hindu girls who attended the Catholic-run school of my childhood who wore vibhuti to school too. It was socially acceptable to wear vibhuti, with Hindus being the dominant religious majority. No eyebrows would have been raised seeing the marks of religion on my forehead. But, I lived in California as a first generation American immigrant.
I did not want my son to attend school in a multiracial American environment displaying religious signs on his forehead. At the same time, I could not explain to a three-year-old why I applied vibhuti differently here. I had always applied a small dab of vibhuti to his throat and mine in the morning as we prayed. The vibhuti was hidden in the crevices of our necks and it was hardly visible. This seemed a perfect way to wear vibhuti here in America.
Don’t get me wrong – I was committed to raising him as a Hindu – I taught him age-appropriate lessons drawn from mythology, and made him recite verses drawn from ancient texts. Prayer within the home, and attending religious celebrations at the local temple made the list. But, wearing prominent marks of vibhuti on the forehead while going about daily life in American suburbia did not make the list.
I was in a quandary. I could not tell him not to wear vibhuti. Nor could I explain why it was better to wear a religious mark in an unobtrusive manner. Unable to explain my predicament to a three-year-old, I employed a “sweater” trick that I came up with at that very moment.
My son was wearing a navy blue sweater with horizontal stripes of yellow, red and green that ran across the middle. I lied saying, “Oh, the colors on your sweater are lopsided somehow. Let me fix it for you.” Before he had a chance to answer, I lifted his arms up and slipped the sweater off, and with my fingers I wiped the vibhuti away and slipped the sweater back on. He looked down at his sweater confused wondering if the colored stripes looked any different across his chest. I still remember that look of confusion on his face.
What he did not know then but knows now, was that my fingers had moved across his forehead wiping away the marks of vibhuti so that he could fit what I believed to be assimilation in an American preschool.
In December of 2016, I did something similar to that instance of wiping vibhuti away; only this time it was my bindi. It had been just a few weeks after the election of Trump. I was driving to attend an Indian classical dance rehearsal. Attired in a salwar kameez with my hair tied back, I was wearing a red bindi. Much like peeling a sticker off a sheet, I had peeled it off at home, and pressed the bindi on my forehead between my eyebrows. After driving for a little while, my right hand crept up and I took the bindi off my forehead and stuck it on my left wrist that lay on the steering wheel. There was no imminent feeling of threat – I was inside my car, cruising on a California highway in broad daylight. I had worn a bindi on occasion in public without feeling “different” in America.
When I reached my destination, I pressed it back on my forehead and entered the rehearsal studio. I still do not know what prompted me to take the bindi off while driving on that particular day. But, I do remember thinking to myself – in Trump’s America – to bindi or not to bindi had become a question to dwell upon.
Thoughts of my sweater deception and my highway bindi hiding experience swirled in my mind recently. An article in The New York Times stated that those who receive Danish citizenship will be required by law to shake hands with the official granting them citizenship during the ceremony. This law seemed to be specifically aimed at Muslim immigrants who, for religious reasons, typically refrain from shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. Many mayors entrusted with the task of swearing in newly minted citizens accused the Danish parliament of, “artificially elevating a social custom to a national value.” That phrase made me stop and re-read.
Really – what customs count to being national values in a society? And can you legislate to achieve the spread of “national values?”
I truly value religious freedom, an American national value, one of the principles on which this country was founded. It is this religious freedom that allows me to practice Hinduism. I pray in the seclusion of my home, support Hindu temples in the area, and teach my children the tenets of Hinduism with no restrictions. But, at the same time, I do not wear vibhuti or kumukum from my prayer alcove to my workplace or to professional meetings. I am at peace with this order of things.
The melting pot analogy to describe America has always been problematic to me. Am I 40% American, 40% Indian and 20% citizen of the world? Or, is the math somehow different? Even if someone had been born right here in America, does that fact suddenly make them 100% American? Defining nationhood as adhering to a set of values belonging to a group to the exclusion of all others not only in America but in any country is rife with problems. That is because the ideas that define nations are full of contradictions.
There are Christian conservatives, Jewish synagogue-goers, Sikh gurudwara attendees and agnostics who are equally American. There are heterosexuals, homesexuals and transgendered people here; there are rich business owners and factory workers who slide on different sides of the capitalist scale who call this “home.” There are gun owners and anti-gun lobbyists who speak on different sides of the same issue. There are pro-life and pro-choice women who are American.
Where do we draw a line in the sand to say – yes, you are counted as American, you are not. Being able to look past differences, while celebrating the commonness that binds us as human beings is the only way to exist within this nation-state.
My custom of wearing a bindi in public on occasion – I think of this practice as being perfectly acceptable and there will be many other Indian-American Hindus who would consider this to be acceptable as well. How many of us will think the same of a hijab-wearing Muslim or a Bible-carrying Christian? And, how many Muslims and Christians will look at my practice as being completely natural and acceptable?
Only when our hearts accept other cultural and religious customs as having equal validity, can we begin to have an America that works for all.
Each generation has an opportunity to build a composite of ideas, rife with contradictions and points of convergence. Conversations that lead to convergence are what we need today and every day. As long as we keep talking and listening, we can make this work for you and for me.
Wishing you a New Year filled with points of convergence and understanding!