As Indians and Hindus have migrated across the world for various reasons, they have taken their philosophies with them. Even though the overwhelming majority of the world’s Hindus live in the Indian subcontinent, adherents of the faith are drawn from all backgrounds and ethnicities. I was excited to stumble upon a discussion hosted by the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), featuring a panel of Black Hindus with roots in the Caribbean, North America, and South Africa. These women had undertaken various journeys to the religion, all drawing from their own rich heritages to find commonality with Sanatana Dharma.
Many trace the mainstream arrival of Hinduism in the US to Swami Vivekananda’s address at the 1893 World Congress of Religion. During his time in America, he took note of the country’s disparaging treatment of its Black citizens, often confused for being African American himself. More recent immigration from the Indian Subcontinent starting in the 1960s is directly linked to the gains from the civil rights struggle led by Dr. Martin Luther King. As members of two minority groups, Black Hindu Americans bring a unique perspective and the stories of the panelists exemplify these intertwined histories of persecution and resilience.
More than a million Indians arrived in Britain’s Caribbean colonies starting from the mid-1800s as part of a system of indentured servitude that ran for decades. The ensuing mix of Indian-African migrants produced a community known as the “dougla,” stemming from the Bhojpuri/Hindi meaning either “two-ness.” Lana Patel described growing up in a blended household in New York and Florida, consisting of Gujarati, Punjabi, and African descendants with Hindu, Catholic, and Baptist religious practices. She focused her study of Sanatana Dharma after the death of her Hindu grandfather, eventually coming to adopt it as part of embracing her identity as a trans woman, finding particular comfort in the Shakta tradition.
Two of the panelists, Adriana Nelson and Robin Michelle Taylor, were born and raised in the United States in the Baptist Church and the Church of Christ, respectively. Growing up in Louisville Kentucky, Robin struggled with depression and struggled to find peace of mind in the mainstream religious traditions of her community. As she cast her spiritual net wider, she embraced a more dharmic outlook and reoriented her life – to a point where she now wakes up each day in the pre-dawn hours of Brahma Muhutrata to do yoga and meditation. Adriana, a scholar who specializes in researching Asian archaeology and religions, reflected on her initial exposure to Hinduism, through art from the subcontinent, particularly Chola bronzes that were on display in a museum where she used to work. They were the start of a journey of self-exploration which included a trip to India and her ultimate adoption of Santana Dharma.
Ellie Fokane was raised in Johannesburg, South Africa by a mother who practiced both indigenous spirituality and Christianity. Severely depressed at the start of the pandemic, she was recommended regular meditation by her physician, who happened to be Hindu. This led her on a path of discovery to research Indian traditional medicine and from there Hinduism, drawing many similarities to her African spiritual tradition.
Not having been raised in Hindu households, the panelists described their own self-driven search for answers and the time they devoted to picking through and reading from the large body of Hindu literature. Today they find support and kinship as members of the Shanti Sisterhood, an organization focused on inspiring women to carry out dharma and embrace their power in everyday life.
Many of the participants talked about their journey to acceptance within a religious community that is often unaware of its own ethnic diversity. While they have been met with curiosity, they have not felt unwelcomed. Taylor shared a story of getting questions from fellow worshipers when visiting a Hindu temple in Louisville after donning a sari and jewelry, not unlike her habit of wearing her Sunday best for church, When asked why she was dressed as an Indian by another worshiper, she replied that she was dressed as a Hindu who wanted to “give god my best.”
Nelson has even found herself defending her choice to join the Hindu faith to a South Asian scholar, incidentally not Hindu, who alleged that conversion into Hinduism was not permitted. “It reminds me of my experience as a black person,” she reflected, frustrated that self-described experts from outside a community should act as its authorities. It was an especially ironic exchange, given Adrianna’s own scholarly background.
When musing over what she found most comforting about Sanatana Dharma, Fokane talked about its offerings towards health and wellness. “There isn’t just one path to healing but multiple ways,” she explained as she recounted her incorporation of Ayurveda for constitutional healing, yoga for physical healing, and puja for spiritual peace. It was also familiar for her since the African spirituality she was raised in helped her find space in her routine to honor her ancestors and speak to them, not unlike how Hindus speak to and pray to their ishta devatas.
The panelists and their stories certainly echo what we are all looking for – ways to tie who we come from to who we strive to be.
Sandhya Devaraj was born and raised in the DC suburbs and enjoys reading about history, language and religion. She is a family medicine physician who is passionate about preventative medicine and plant-based lifestyles. She currently lives in East Texas and loves visiting small towns in the US and learning more about her fellow Americans.