Tag Archives: Western

Namaste America: Forget the Handshake

Do you remember where we were before the pandemic hit?

Inequality had reached historical records worldwide, Australia had burned for months on end, autocrats were suffocating democracy in Hungary and Venezuela, and a wave of protests had swept across six continents– from Beirut to Paris, from Hong Kong to Moscow. 

COVID-19 is spreading worldwide, confusion prevails, and some of the leaders of the advanced world seem to embrace a casual approach. We offer a simple pathway to guide that will reduce the virus spread. Coronavirus within the last seven months has brought the whole world to its knees. 

Examine the situation in India: Migrant laborers/working populations are stranded with no job prospects. No way to get back to their home villages, many hundreds of miles away. And no access to medical care. This pandemic, affecting the developed and developing nations, has had the same level of impact. 

Preventive steps are now universally encouraged for COVID19, namely “stay at home” and a virtual lockdown of economies, thus separating the infected from the non-infected. Its compliance had been erratic in the US.

It is time to reframe our approaches to daily living activities, more specifically, how we greet each other. A universal, symbolic one is the handshake. We need to reduce the communicability of infections. 

How can we reduce the spread of infection from one human to another? 

Begin to use Namaste universally. With the ever-present paranoia of touching strangers, the gesture Namaste (verbal and symbolic) can be more than just a phrase we hear after yoga.

When someone uses the namaste gesture, it reflects the intended expression of mutual respect for another person’s personality. It means that everyone extended the utmost reverence. Namaste implies that “the divinity within me respects and honors the divinity within you.” You can reflect this profound thought with one physical gesture.

However, the Namaste gesture itself unrestricted, beyond the Indian American culture. As an example, many cultures around the globe fold their hands when worshipping. In Japan, it can mean conceptually, “I am sorry,” “thank you,” or “please.” As a greeting, this gesture is familiar throughout most of Southeast Asia. 

Namaste dates back to the origins of the Indus valley civilization itself. The Terracotta figures and sculptures are depicting this gesture are dated back to 3000 years, even before the Christian Era. As civilizations blossomed and cultures intermingled, the namaste pose became even more widespread. 

The handshake, on the other hand, is used as a standard greeting in Western cultures. It is a way of agreeing to specific terms of the trust, a show of mutual trust. To prove neither side was carrying weapons. As significant life-saving steps evolve, fortunately, this handshaking might have seen its last days with the pandemonium of the Covid-19 viral infections. Dare we live without shaking peoples’ hands? 

Yes, as it is a preventative step in the spread of infections. 

Consider how interpreted grips are, when shaking someone’s hand:

Like gripping their hand too much? Bone Crunching? Too floppy? Are palms sweaty and clammy? Or are they too dry? Symbolically, as we say sometimes, the individual has “cold hands,” here reflecting a not helpful individual. One sometimes feels that someone extending the hand used some moisturizer (or a sanitizer) before that handshake! 

Aside from its simplicity, the namaste posture implicates mutual fairness. There is no prominent or submissive interpretation implied. Whereas, with a handshake, a person with a firmer grip is seen as more authoritative. In contrast, a person with a less firm grasp is seen as submissive. Namaste levels this field of cognitive conflicts. 

The only expected interactive way to reciprocate to a namaste is with a namaste concurrently. It is simple to remember: respect demands respect. Namaste a universal value packed into a single interactive step. 

Even more important is the social distance Namaste provides. One can greet each other across a conference table as an example. Namaste removes the ambiguity, “should I hug them?” “pat them on the shoulder?” “fist bump them?” or “shake their hand?” “peck on the cheek?” and other dilemmas that we encounter, day in and out.

We now realize that the handshakes and hugs need to take a backseat in light of the current coronavirus pandemonium. It is time that the namaste pose might become a universal form of greeting. It has gained significant traction in western civilizations. This step is a viable alternative to the potentially polluting handshakes, hugs, and fist bumps. 

In Western cultures, we only have seen Namaste used by yoga instructors.

Namaste, its meaning, and significance with its health and wellness benefits make it ready to be universally acknowledged. 

So the next time, when having a neighborly chat, start with a Namaste – no language limitations – even from across the yard with a coffee mug in hand.


Reema Kalidindi is a junior at Lower Bucks High School and a lead volunteer at Bharatiya Temple’s school for children. 

Dr. Akkaraju Sarma, M.D., F.A.A.F.P., Ph.D., has academic roots in Anthropology and Internal Medicine. He has practiced medicine in underserved areas in Philadelphia (37+ years). He leads the health & human services programs at Bharatiya Temple for a decade and help. 

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 frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic Knowledge Tradition, and current affairs in several media outlets.

South Asian Arts Council Gives Indian Art “A New Life”

SAAC (South Asian Arts Council) board member Ravinder Reddy says his virtual study groups are educational – just not in the traditional sense. 

“We’re not discussing art the way [one does] in college or an AP course, but learning about art so that when one goes to a museum, you have the broader context of how the art fits in with the larger scheme of Indian art,” he explains. “You also have enough knowledge to appreciate what you’re looking at.”

Ravinder Reddy

Reddy began hosting his study groups two years ago as an effort to bring South Asian art to a broader Western audience.  A psychiatrist, he owes his fascination with Indian art to the culture he left behind when he moved to the United States. 

“Growing up, my parents used to take me to temples and I wasn’t interested at all at that age,” Reddy says. “Most of what I know now about India is after I moved to America.”

Beyond his involvement in the South Asian Cultural Arts Council, Reddy is also the author of Arms & Armour of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka: Types, Decoration & Symbolism, where he explores the history behind ancient Indian weaponry. He joined this San Diego Museum of Art-based support council years ago to “increase awareness and appreciation of the rich and diverse arts of the Indian subcontinent.” As a board member, he is one of the several South Asians who volunteer their time by offering lectures.

These monthly meetings were originally held at the San Diego Museum of Art, home to more than 1,500 works of art originally from South Asia. From there began a journey of appreciation, inspection, and analysis of Indian art, iconography and symbolism. After gaining traction with his monthly sessions, he now offers bi-weekly meetings to keep up the momentum of learning, and members seem to appreciate this greater frequency. Today, his virtual study group has art-lovers from beyond just San Diego. 

“We’re taking art out of the context of an enclosed culture,” says Reddy. “Or just a museum. Or just people in the know.” 

Although Reddy was thrilled by the newfound diversity in his audience, the study group’s increasing popularity brought its own set of challenges as well. For one, there was a noticeable difference between the audience members’ understanding of Indian art itself. 

“We have people who are from India, either first or second-generation immigrants. We have people who have visited India multiple times,” Reddy says. “But then, on the other hand, you have people who have never been to India but are fascinated by art from South Asia, perhaps because of the colors or the stories or the exoticisms.”

Krishna Bichwa, 18th century, Karnataka.
Published in Ravinder Reddy (2018): Arms & Armour of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Hali Publications, p. 243

To navigate these differences, Reddy keeps his curriculum simple. He opens every session with a review of the material he covered previously and provides necessary explanations for niche religious or mythological concepts. Study group members also receive supplementary study materials that provide the broader context of the art he covers.

“If you have an audience that is not shy about asking questions, that’s a huge advantage,” Reddy says. 

The coronavirus pandemic has penetrated nearly every sphere of public life. Reddy’s study groups were no exception. Unsure of how to safely continue these study groups, the SAAC originally cancelled them. Then, the rest of the world slowly began to go virtual, and Reddy followed suit. These study groups were given a new life through bi-weekly Zoom meetings. Although the shift was unprecedented for Reddy, who was accustomed to leading his small group in person in the rooms of the San Diego Museum of Art, he appreciates the merits of a virtual format. 

“The huge advantage people is that people don’t have to leave their homes” Reddy says, laughing. “They don’t have to get into their cars and find parking, which is a nightmare, if you know anything about San Diego. They don’t have to dress up at all.” 

But the benefits of Zoom go beyond mere convenience. Reddy forged new connections with his audience after the pandemic struck — connections that were not possible with his previous study groups.

“We now get people who are not local,” Reddy says. “I mean, you and I would not be having this conversation if this was a purely local activity. You live in Pleasanton, but you still had a chance to watch our video. Without that, you would have had to drive all the way to San Diego.” 

Before closing off our meeting, Reddy holds an artifact of his own up to the Zoom camera. It’s an ancient, authentic dagger from Karnataka, with a handle in the shape of a baby Krishna. Although Reddy confirms that the dagger is real, he says his interest in this object is purely artistic, not as a weapon.

“It’s an honest-to-goodness dagger. But the question is, what’s Krishna doing on the handle of this dagger?”, Reddy says and laughs. “Do you see this two-headed bird right here?” he asks, pointing to the sculpted feathers emerging behind the Krishna. “It’s Karnataka’s state emblem. It’s called the Gandaberunda…and what context can this be used in? Well, today it’s used in a particular kind of dance in Karnataka. To me, the blade is nice. But it’s the handle where the story lies.”

It’s heartening to watch the SAAC study groups grow and attract different members of the American demography. It’s a reminder that South Asian tradition and heritage is just as important and celebrated as its Western counterpart. Reddy’s study groups have faced some setbacks, from cultural contrasts to a global pandemic. But his leadership is a reminder that ancient art can survive — and even thrive — in an increasingly digitized culture. 

“It’s giving art,” Reddy says, “especially ancient art, a new life.”

Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, the Director of Media Outreach at Break the Outbreak, and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. Her Instagram is @kanchan_naik_

Quarantet Celebrates LGBTQIA Win in Supreme Court

A Supreme Court win marks a historic victory for the LGBTQ community. In a 6-3 decision made by both conservative and left-leaning Justices, federal law now defends all gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination in the workplace. As stated by Justice Neil Gorsuch, “There is simply no escaping the role intent plays here: Just as sex is necessarily a but-for cause when an employer discriminates against homosexual or transgender employees, an employer who discriminates on these grounds inescapably intends to rely on sex in its decisionmaking.” The decision addresses decades of prejudice against the LGBTQ community within the workplace, and opens the door towards more civil rights for all sexual orientations. 

The fight for equality manifests in every aspect of our daily lives, including music. Composer, drummer, and dhol player Sunny Jain brought together a socially-distanced quartet in honor of Pride Month — a combination he likes to call a ‘Quarantet’. The composition is an intriguing blend of classical Indian and Western music, with instruments such as the mrudangam and dhol offset by Kathak rhythms. In his own words, Jain describes the RHYTHM AND PRIDE quarantet as “honoring Pride Month today & everyday, while also remaining committed to the rhythm of the streets & Black Lives Matter.” While recognizing the legacy of the LGBTQ movement through their spirited video, the group also plans to donate their proceeds towards organizations focused on racial equality, such as the Bail Project. This project represents the intersectionality between race and LGBTQ identities, and how these challenging times also permit us to celebrate both. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwLwOPHYXLQ

Learn more about Jain’s music at his Instagram and Facebook.

Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and Director of Media Outreach at nonprofit Break the Outbreak

A Texan Qawwali for Mahatma Gandhi

Vaishnava jana toh is known as Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite bhajan. It is commonly sung, instrumentally rendered, and danced to at various devotional or cross-cultural Indian gatherings. Sonny Mehta, founder of the Austin, Texas-based band Riyaaz Qawwali (Riyaaz) presented it in the Qawwali style and hasn’t looked back. The Huffington Post recently included it in its “Daily Meditations” column and featured the group, as did NPR.

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Qawwali is characterized by an intense Sufi undertone of attempting a communion with the Divine. This underpinning is what keeps Mehta inspired. “The music is unlike any other, due to the melodies and upbeat rhythmic cycles commonly used. Everything one hears in Qawwali can be addressed to a lover and to the Beloved. There are so many parts of this art … can be a life-long catalyst for inspiration.”

Riyaaz’s most recent album called Ishq, was released in March and is a ghazal album highlighting evergreen poets Mirza Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Amir Khussrau, and a living poet, Tahir Faraz. The first album, Kashti, is available on iTunes.

Listening to the group’s tracks through the years, it becomes apparent that they have continuously worked on perfecting their sound, with innovations of their own. Right off the bat, one notices the violin in the ensemble, uncommon in this genre. Riyaaz’s originality shines through in the selection of the songs themselves and in the creation of their Qawwali avatars. Inadequacies in tonal quality in a few of the early works are more than made up for in the sentiment, which arguably is the truer test of a qawwali. Vaishanava jana toh, for example, has notational improvisations that Sufiana lovers have come to expect, as does the bhajan, “Pyaare kanha bajaye bansuri.”  The second volume of Ishq includes “Maye ni Maye,” a tribute to motherhood. Its folksy language is weaved through the fabric of chorus deliberation, intertwined with the tenacious rhythm and cycles of the qawwali style. The meditative quality that Riyaaz has been able to capture with every beat and syllable makes it remarkable. “Rone se aur ishq mein” brings home the Divine drama of Riyaaz’s qawwali starting with surrender, petulance, and despair: through Mehta’s crescendo, the poet speculates, “Tumhari berukhi par bhi lootadi zindagi humne; agar tum meherbaan hote, hamara haal kya hota?” (I spent a lifetime embracing your rejection; should you have reciprocated, I wonder what my condition would be?)

The ethos and pathos of this music makes it challenging for practitioners and organizers alike. About the first, Mehta says, “Being able to reach our own goals and standards, practicing enough, learning enough about the music and the poetry—these are struggles for any artist … Two weekends every month, we take our individual practice and build a combined sound. [Qawwali] requires knowledge of lyrics that is deeper than just mere translations. Practices are spent on musical and linguistic growth.” Many in the ensemble have been trained classically, Western and Indian. Mehta himself was initiated into classical music by his grandfather, who would insist that he hold a note for long periods. After that, he pursued his training for 16 more years, with various teachers. He continues to cultivate his interest in Urdu and Punjabi poetry under the guidance of experts in the field.

 Mehta asserts: “Bringing Qawwali on to a professional performing stage is harder than you would think. The stage is heavily biased towards Bollywood, who consider us classical but classical music stages consider us semi-classical. Quoting from a poem … dyar-e-ishq mein, apna makaam paida kar (Through the frontiers of love; stake your own claim).”

His claim paid off, when in 2013, Riyaaz was chosen by prominent music composer Philip Glass for the presentation of “In The Spirit: Music from the World’s Great Traditions” at the Garrison Institute in New York City. Mehta proudly reminisces, “He picked four musicians from around the world. It was an exhilarating experience, with fantastic audience response. The best part was that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Saheb had performed his first U.S. concert at that venue!” Interestingly, Glass is very familiar with the Mahatma, having produced his own musical “Satyagraha” which premiered at The Metropolitan Opera in 2008. Khan needs no introduction; his performances are what made Sufi Qawwali popular in niche circles in the last two decades.

Mehta is committed to expanding the borders of both, his musical medium of choice and geographical listenership. He is in talks with a television network regarding “The Riyaaz Experience.” It is planned as an 8-episode series that looks at Qawwali in the new homeland, collaborations with other art forms; including expert opinions from University of Texas and Harvard Universities. Of non-South Asian audiences, Mehta says, “We have fared well, because we try to break the art down into universal truths: love for the Beloved, inner search for the truth, harmony among one another. These audiences have given us the love that boosted us early on. A quote again: “Jab tak bika na tha, koi puuchta na tha, tune mujhe khareed kar anmol kar diya.” (When I was in the market, nobody valued me; you made a bid for me, and I became invaluable.)”

Riyaaz’s second album, Ishq, will be available on iTunes in May.

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz, and other genres.