Tag Archives: #indigenous

Dharmic Environmentalism

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

The environment is a universal concern.

Universal environmentalism, however, is myopic, monopolistic, and hegemonic. It overlooks native and Indigenous solutions and, as such, is a recipe for disaster. 

We all relate to our surroundings differently. Present-day environmentalism, however, is based on the Western anthropocentric approach. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, anthropocentrism as a religious and philosophical doctrine holds that “human life has intrinsic value while other entities (including animals, plants, mineral resources, and so on) are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind.”

The destruction of ancient paganism was a turning point in environmentalism. Before the advent of Christianity, both as a religion and as a political power, there was no distinction between nature and the divine in the widespread pagan societies. Pagans believed in God’s transcendence in the elements of nature. The notion of the ‘sacred grove,’ however, is an alien concept in the West. Moreover, Marxism, Liberalism, neoliberalism, etc., too are an extension of the same anthropocentric ideology. They regard humankind as central and the most important in the world. 

What is considered modern and scientific in our day-to-day lives today, is based primarily on Christian theology. Implicit faith in perpetual progress dominates our lifestyle, our habits of action, and our planning for the future. Man’s destiny, within this paradigm, is to be hopeful of a future affected by science, technology, a promise of more progress, and doomsday prophecies. 

Modern technology too ends up being a means to an end. As the attitude and the will to exert dominion over nature becomes all the more urgent, the more technology threatens to slip from human control. We end up empowering our political class as they promise to make things better with newer progressive technologies as well as with catchy phrases and slogans.

Such thinking was unknown either to the pagan Greco-Roman antiquity or to the indigenous civilizations of what came to be known as the Orient. Indigenous care for nature goes much beyond the shrill of environmentalism. Such care is deeply rooted in culture, “religion,” and spiritualism. Native cultures, such as Hinduism, have a long history of living in harmony with their surroundings. They are mindful of ecological limits, constraints, and boundaries of nature and do not take from nature more than what is needed. There is an element of reverence towards the earth and other elements of nature that guides them. Native cultures have developed a complex system of using and preserving the ecology. Native American communities’ use of low-intensity controlled burns, regenerative harvesting, etc are examples of native environmentalism. 

Bishnoi Woman (Image from Permaculture News)

As for Hindus, much before any modern-day environmental protocol was ever signed, it is the Bhoomisuktam (hymn of the Mother Earth) of the Atharva Veda that provides a framework for environmentalism. Composed more than 3,000 years ago, Bhoomisuktam is considered the oldest environmental protocol. The Sukta is composed of 63 verses. These verses provide a framework of understanding as well as respecting Mother Earth and her environment. The Sukta recognizes the Earth for all her gifts such as plants and herbs; rivers and cultivable land for food; and animals for milk, honey, etc. But going a step further, the invoker of the verses declares that despite availing all those boons, he does not intend to hurt Mother Earth in any manner whatsoever. The Sukta gives to Mother Earth an assurance of rational utilization of her resources. 

Much of our interaction with the elements of nature, according to Hinduism, is guided by Dharma: the rules of ethical behavior. Such behaviors are guided not by rights, but by obligations. Pankaj Jain in his book Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities describes three communities in India that have actively and consciously worked to preserve and protect the environment as part of their cultural and religious ideology. Those communities include the Swadhyayis, Bishnois, and Bhils.

The Swadhyayis disavow environmentalism. Their mission is “to generate and spread reverence for humans, animals, trees, earth, nature, and the entire universe in general.”

Similarly, the Bishnoi community was founded by a 15th century Guru Jambheshwara who spread the teachings of conservation and living in harmony with nature. Bhils, on the other hand, have protected their sacred groves for generations. 

According to Indic environmentalist and the author of the book Good News India, DV Sridharan, “one doesn’t restore nature, one just keeps a vigil against interruption of Nature’s relentless act of creating the fair and rightful balance.” Hindus believe that when the imbalance reaches a critical point and equilibrium is broken beyond redemption, an avatār ‘unburdens’ the Earth.

Unless the ecological concerns do not empower individuals and communities worldwide to find their indigenous solutions at a more local level, the answer to such concerns will always evade us.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He writes frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.

Indian-Americans Must Resist South Asian Identity

The South-Asian identity of the Indian diaspora is inherently biased and it is fraught with inaccuracies. It also constitutes part of a deliberate attempt by leftist groups to deny and subsequently erase from the consciousness the memory of a glorious non-Western indigenous pagan civilization.

The question of identity and how we, both as an individual and a group, relate to the rest of the world has been explored by social scientists, anthropologists, and spiritual scholars alike. Most consider identity as linkages of social structure and/or an internal process of self-verification. Whether in affirming group identity or in resisting assimilation and digestion, this notion forms the core of identity politics. 

Bharatvarsha – as the indigenous inhabitants called their subcontinental sacred land – is a land of major rivers (the Sapta-Sindhu), high mountains (the Himalayas), vast forests (the Vindhyas), and unfathomable seas (Samudra). It has a recorded history spanning well over 5,000 years. This land “bears traces of the gods and the footprints of the heroes. Every place has its own story, and conversely, every story in the vast storehouse of myth and legend has its place.” (Diana Eck, A Sacred Geography). 

Foreigners – travelers, and invaders alike – later called this land as India and Hindustan (the land of the Hindus). When Columbus sailed to explore the ‘new world’, the land of big fortunes, he was going to India, not South Asia. The European colonizers named their trading companies East India Company, not South Asia Company.

In fact, South Asia did not enter the Western lexicon until the 1940s. It became an identity marker for immigrants in North America from the Indian subcontinent, including Myanmar and Tibet in some cases. In its simplest form, this marker represents a certain cultural and historical background of US immigrants from the Subcontinent in general and India in particular. Post-1947, ‘South Asianism’ in the US emerged as a form of political activism. This notion of belonging to a borderless larger geographical entity was promoted primarily by the leftist intellectuals and activists.i

In the graph below, you will see the term South Asia unused until the 1940s.

Source: Google Ngram Search

The ‘South Asian” label itself, however, was first used by American politicians and academics, not the immigrants themselves. In 1948 the first department of South Asian Regional Studies became functional in the US at the University of Pennsylvania that offered courses in geography, linguistics, Hindustani, sociology, etc. The emergence of such departments in US universities, however, owes primarily to the political and strategic objectives of the US government during and after World War II. Many South Asia departments were funded, among others, by the US intelligence apparatuses, and many of the South Asian ‘scholars’ were actually spies of the US government. Prominent among them include Olive Irine Reddick and Maureen L. P. Patterson. Reddick was an analyst in the Office of Strategic Services and worked as an undercover operative in India during the war (1942-1946). Later she ran the Fulbright Scholarship program for 14 years. Patterson, who worked in the US Government’s War Department, is credited with developing the world-famous collection at the University of Chicago South Asian Library. 

Picture credit: The University of Chicago Library

The other purpose served by these South Asia departments was to train the missionaries about to go off to do “church work” in India. Combined, the legacy of these South Asia departments still haunts every aspect of the study of India in the US and beyond.

The South Asian identity is highly contested and has never been universally accepted. Many consider South Asia as a representation of India’s cultural, geographical, and economic hegemony. Leftist groups, academicians, and politicians opposed to the identity of the Hindus and people belonging to other indigenous faiths of the Indian subcontinent have used the South Asian label to delegitimize the genuine concerns of these religious minorities in the US.  The same group has also worked hard to remove most references of India and Hindu from the California high school textbooks

The socio-political goals of the Indian-subcontinental diaspora in the US are diverse and varied. India is the second-most populous country as well as the fifth-largest economy in the world. While Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are constitutional Islamic theocracy, India is a Hindu-majority secular state. Indians are among the most educated and their average household income is among the highest of any ethnic/national group in the US. 

It is time for Indian-Americans to carve out a separate non-South Asian identity for themselves to advance their social, political, and cultural agenda in the US.

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and an activist. He writes frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic Knowledge Tradition, and current affairs in several media outlets.

Uppa is Made of Momos

Uppa calls it the Mainland. For most people living outside of South Asia, India is nothing more than the mainland. India’s recognizable triangular shape is just a part of the story.

Uppa’s India snakes into the Himalayas, toward the North-East part of the subcontinent. Not only does it touch China, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar but it is also home to hundreds of thousands of individuals who despite being ethnically and culturally very diverse from other parts of India, are Indian citizens.

She comes from one of the many tribal communities that fill this northeastern region of India. Not long before the spread of COVID-19, she migrated to the United States and has been living in New York City. When I asked about her transition to the United States, one of the first challenges she brought up was just how difficult it is to get the foods she craves. Her story, her life even, is, like many of ours, defined by her access to and emotions around food. 

Despite these challenges, Uppa still takes great pride in her favorite meals and often grows nostalgic for them. Living in the U.S., she particularly misses momos: a quasi-dumpling from Northeast India and Ladakh. Think gently masala-spiced meat and vegetables, delicately rolled into a delectable, far-less processed and certainly less sickly-sweet Hershey kiss package, steamed or flash-fried in jumping, shimmery canola oil over a wood fire or massive gas burner that will surely burn your eyebrows off if you stand within six feet of it! Served on a flimsy piece of tinfoil, these bundles of joy are often viewed as a Delhi-street food staple. Bumble some broken Hindi phrases like bahut accha (very good) or svaadisht (delicious) to the momo-wala (momo seller) like the foreigner you are and he may even slip you an extra one!  

But when Uppa spoke of the momo, this simple meal became something far more poetic and perhaps a little less sweat-inducing… 

Far from being fast-paced or born on Delhi’s sweltering streets, momos are slow, delicate, and almost like family to Uppa. She describes them as a painter might describe a long-lost piece of art. It is about the family connections and the creative process, not just consumption. Respecting this process is just as important as the bite of momo itself. 

“Momos are not a one-person task. It becomes a family thing. Like everyone is doing their bit… One person is making the dough… I tried making them on my own but when my mom makes them, they remind me of happy times.”

While I might try to make dumplings at home merely for the fun of it, Uppa seemed hesitant to try preparing them during her time in the U.S. Why make something when there might be a missing ingredient or spice made by an unfamiliar company? Why make a momo when half of its taste comes from mom’s expertise, the other half from Dehradun’s fresh green chili? For her, the U.S. momo will inevitably be lackluster.

“Momos are a treat, they were a happy occasion food. Okay, you were sick, you just got out of being sick? Let’s make momos.”

Aside from her anxiety about differences in taste, it seems that Uppa’s craving for momos is also connected with her love for her community. The people, the place, the experience: these are the modes through which food shapes who we are. 

“I look at food slightly differently than a lot of people. Coming from a tribal community… our food is definitely different from the mainland. Food is best when it is still in its natural essence… not changed at all like the mainland’s cuisine.” 

For many people in the U.S. and Europe, India conjures up images of colorful chalk, deep dishes of buttery, oily chicken, elephants, and a flyer asking them to “feed the children.” These sentiments are particularly apparent in the ways people think about food. Food constructs Uppa’s identity as much as her swanky clothing choices, move to New York, or upbringing in the Himalayas. 

“India is so much more than just kebab and naan. If people only just opened themselves up to more than what just the stereotype of Indian food is in the west, they would see that Indian cuisine is so diverse, it’s amazing. I definitely think the west needs to open up its mind to Indian food beyond kebab and biryani.” 

Uppa, like all of us, identifies with the differences, the nuances of her place, her food, her people. The mainland of India, despite its diversity, feels too homogenous to encompass her preferences. The momo is a journey to Uppa’s world and an understanding of herself. A journey into her upbringing and identity. It captures the essence that makes Uppa.


Dan Soucy currently supports refugee resettlement and advocacy efforts throughout New England as a case manager and employment specialist with the International Institute of New England. He graduated from Saint Joseph’s University where he conducted oral history interviews with South Asian migrants to the United States. Dan has also studied, lived, and worked in various parts of India for 2 years. 

Juneteenth: Examining Our Own Bias

This Juneteenth, I reflect on the state of our nation. I’m heartened to see many South Asians protesting in solidarity with the Black community, but saddened that some in our community remain indifferent. I worry about deep-rooted biases that remain unaddressed within our community. 

Even as we speak out, we must also look inward. We need to change the ways we think and speak and act in the privacy of our homes and families. 

Growing up in India, I was, unfortunately, no stranger to racist biases. Some of my aunts believed fair skin was more beautiful. Villains in books I read were usually portrayed with darker skin (some written by and for Indians). A South Indian friend who moved to Bombay was teased and called “Kaalu” (black) at school. We might try to pass off these examples as “small things” but they aren’t. At the very least, this sort of insidious prejudice damages our self-confidence and instills self-hatred. Worse, even subtle bias against dark skin can build a wall between South Asians and other communities of color.  

Unfortunately, I noticed that immigrants continued to harbor insidious (and overt) prejudices.  I’ve rarely seen art by Black artists adorning the walls of South Asian American homes or books by Black authors on shelves. We rarely question the history our children are taught. We buy into the model minority myth; few of us question where it came from. Some of us deny the cruelty our own communities suffered as a result of colonial oppression. And when we experience racism, we often try to explain it away or excuse it or pretend it didn’t happen, as though we fear that admitting it might lead to our expulsion from America. 

When I came to Southern Virginia, I saw a noose hung in a yard; I was pulled over by a policeman whose hand went to his gun holster when I reached for the identification he demanded; I was told, by a well-meaning neighbor, how pleased she was that I, a “colored girl”, hadn’t created any trouble in their neighborhood.

Whenever I speak to young people, I work up the courage to mention these incidents, because to pretend they never happened would, I believe, do a greater disservice to their generation than any discomfort that I – or they – may feel if I share these difficult memories. I also acknowledge the privilege I have despite all that I’ve experienced because my skin isn’t Black (which is why I live to tell the tale about my frightening encounter with the police).

In addition to speaking honestly to our children, raising our voices on social media, and supporting organizations that seek change, there are a few other simple steps we can all easily take. We can actively seek to support black-owned businesses.

We can read books by authors like Dunbar-Ortiz and Kozol that speak about aspects of history or our nation today that are too-often overlooked. We can take pride in well-researched and documented achievements by South-Asians and people of color and distinguish these from unproven or exaggerated claims.

We can add books by diverse authors (African-American, South-Asian, indigenous, Latinx etc.) to our children’s shelves. We can educate ourselves about anti-racism. We can listen to music and comedy and watch current films and TV  created by and for people of color.

We can examine and eradicate racist expressions from the language we use. And we must celebrate joy and beauty in communities of color, too – because it is by embracing other people of color today that we move toward a more equitable tomorrow.

It’s hard enough to alter our own behavior and admit and accept our mistakes; it’s harder still to counter racist assertions when they’re made by family or friends. Especially when these members of the community are older than us. We uphold the notion that elders are to be respected. It’s an important, fundamental and undeniably compassionate aspect of our culture, which should be maintained. That doesn’t mean we ignore racist rhetoric; it means we devote time to cultivating individual ways to persuasively and persistently call attention to racism when we encounter it. A commitment to creating permanent and fundamental change sometimes involves engaging in uncomfortable conversations with those we love. Speaking up may be perceived as disrespectful, but remaining silent is worse – it is not only disrespectful to humanity but also a form of violence that aids the oppressor. 

If we ignore injustice, we set an example of cowardice to our youth and we endanger their futures by allowing oppression against people of color to continue. We also dishonor the thirty-five million South Asians who lost their lives because of white colonial oppression and forget how many of us – or our parents or grandparents – were driven here in part because of the floundering economy left behind in their countries of origin after years of white rule. Participation in protests is a wonderful beginning; we must continue by creating lasting cultural change.

Padma Venkatraman at a protest.

Black Lives Matter to our South Asian Community for two reasons. The first and far more important reason, which has been explored already in India Currents, is that we owe the Black community our gratitude because if it weren’t for the battles they fought, we wouldn’t be in this country today. The second and more self-centered reason to speak up and stand up is the one expressed in this article: we owe it to ourselves, our elders, and our children. 

Happy Juneteenth!

Dr. Padma Venkatraman is the author of The Bridge Home (a 2019 Global Read Aloud selection and winner of the Walters, Golden Kite, Crystal Kite, and South Asia Book awards), A Time to Dance, Island’s End (winner of the Paterson Prize) and Climbing the Stairs (a Julia Ward Howe young readers award winner).