bell hooks once wrote that “homeplace” was a place constructed “where Black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination.” I like to think that the Indian American, specifically the Hindu American community that raised me is a homeplace of sorts for brown folks in the racial superstructure of the U.S. It is the place where I made sense of my diasporic, non-white, Brahmin Hindu social position.
My earliest memory of my childhood religious upbringing was my father and I laying at the foot of my bed, reading mythological epics from Amar Chitra Katha. My favorite was the story of Shakuntala, the mother of Bharat. In her story, due to a vicious curse from a Rishi known as Durvasa, Shakuntala’s husband King Dushyanta forgot that she existed until years later when he saw the ring he gave her; all his memories of his love for her came rushing back. As a child, I considered Durvasa’s curse to be the most evil, most vile thing to bestow upon another being. What would my life be like should my loved ones forget about me?
My father, an amateur theologian himself, smiled sadly at me. But don’t you see? This is the curse of humanity: we have all forgotten that atman, the soul, mirrors brahman, our cosmic reality. According to the teachings of the Upanishads, a forgotten truth of humanity is that every soul that exists is a perfect reflection of the universe. Of course, in my childhood, I could not grasp the radical inclusiveness of this concept. For, if atman is brahman, and brahman is atman, thus every soul is identical and equal in value and dignity.
As I continued my studies and pursued a Ph.D. studying South Asian America and caste, I found myself fixating on this concept that encapsulated the foundation of my belief system. I learned that in the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of my youth, every soul could achieve liberation from the earthly cycles of violence and indignity, should only they remember the fundamental equality of all people.
In my study of Hinduism, of the history and legacy of caste, and of South Asians in the diaspora, I came to recognize the disproportionate influence of caste on one’s livelihood. What was the difference between my soul born Brahmin and the soul of someone born Dalit, other than the random positions of our births? Yet, material outcomes told a different story. I grew up privileged, comfortably upper-middle-class, and with access to resources and education. As Ajantha Subramanian argues in her book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India, while caste has increasingly become less visible in India, it still overwhelmingly benefits the caste privileged in terms of one’s educational and socioeconomic outcomes, including one’s ease of mobility to move to the United States. A 2003 study by the University of Pennsylvania found that only 1.5 percent of Indian immigrants in the United States were Dalit or of another oppressed caste. Equality Labs’ recent report on Caste in the U.S. found that 1 in 3 US-based Dalits experienced caste discrimination as students and 2 in 3 US-based Dalits experienced caste discrimination in their workplace.
The complex and fate-determining caste system itself largely stems from the Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), a text that legal scholar Charles J. Naegele has positioned as similar in influence to the Code of Hammurabi. Unlike texts like the Vedas and the Upanishads that establish core Hindu teachings, the Laws of Manu put forward a code of conduct and manners for Hindu citizens during the 2nd century BCE. Along with a rigid caste system, the Laws of Manu put forward strict notions of gendered social roles, ideas about taxation, and clear guidelines on hygiene habits, much of which have been disregarded throughout history.
While the Laws of Manu can be understood in its historical context, it is inconceivable to me that such an antiquated text should inform people’s futures — particularly when doing so moves us to forget the resounding truth that atman is brahman is atman. Moreover, Quare studies theorist E. Patrick Johnson emphasizes homeplace is also a site that we must critique in order to make it better. To envision a Hindu American homeplace where all souls are alike in dignity and equal in treatment requires liberation from the indignity of caste. Just as King Dushyanta remembered Shakuntala upon seeing his ring, we must remember the radical sense of justice enshrined in the Hindu faith.
The Santa Clara Human Rights Commission heard public testimonies on April 29th to determine whether citizens should be protected against caste discrimination. As Hindu Americans, we must acknowledge that caste discrimination exists, that the caste oppressed must be protected, and that ensuring equality for all souls is what Hindu Americans should do.
Pavithra Suresh is a first-generation Indian Tamil American. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University where she teaches Global Affairs 101. Her dissertation will investigate the legacy of caste in the South Asian American community.