The word “Hindu” is not an easy term to define. The reason is that this ancient word coined by the Persians from the name of the river Sindhu, refers to: (1) a people; (2) a civilization with a history that is millennia old with roots lost in the mists of time; (3) an ancient culture which gave rise to its unique literature, dance, drama, festivals, cuisine, art, architecture, astronomy, music, poetry, and (4) a social and geo-political perspective, which it became increasingly identified with after the partition of India.
In this multiplicity of narratives and definitions, the other meaning of “Hindu”—the one that refers to its transcendent aspect, to its meaning in terms of a wisdom system beyond place and time, a knowledge-structure for self-transformation and spiritual sustenance—has become lost in translation and transmission. Yet, it is this meaning that should matter most to those who live in the diaspora and will leave behind descendants in foreign lands far from the places and spaces that birthed the word “Hindu” and its manifold meanings.
The first generation of Hindu non-resident Indians (NRIs) is of great significance. Their remarkable perseverance and productivity resulted in the swift rise of this community in financial, entrepreneurial, and educational rankings. Once established, they began a larger task of bequeathing to future generations not only a material endowment but a religious legacy. The result is visible in the nearly four hundred mandirs (temples) spread across the United States today. Billions of dollars have been poured into the construction and maintenance of temples. But has this massive effort been beneficial? To whom? And in what way? Mandirs do provide ritual, liturgical, and other vital services to the community; some also offer deeper teaching and training.
Nevertheless, one question remains: “Has the first generation been successful in transmitting the values, applied ethics, highest principles, and deepest insights of Hindu Dharma (Hinduism) to the second and third generations?” The answer is clearly a resounding “no!” The lack of second and third generation Hindus in the temples displays silent testimony to this growing problem. Throughout history, living in India allowed for the assimilation of dharma by absorption. Currently, the integration of Hindu Dharma by immersion has become more difficult especially for urban, educated middle classes in India. But it is simply impossible for generations of Hindus born in the USA.
Hindu Dharma as poetry and pictures, narratives and festivals, pujas and piety is completely inadequate to the needs of the children and grandchildren of the first generation. The generation that so carefully supported their children in every other way is failing severely in providing their offspring with that which matters most—the strength of spirit that arises from a strong conviction in the power vested in Hindu spiritual knowledge and practice.
Where can we fully explore the vastness of Hindu Dharma, its diversity of thought, richness of spiritual practices, freedom of theological choice, overarching principles that cut across denominations, the full range of its artistic and musical expressions? This breadth cannot be absorbed from a mandir or even a guru or acharya because their spiritual mandate (rightly) requires the preservation and teaching of a particular theological lineage.
The Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA (GTU), is the only Interreligious Graduate Consortium in America. With a reputation for academic excellence, and well over a thousand graduate students, GTU is the largest graduate program dedicated to the study of the World’s Religions in the USA. It is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, through cross registration of courses, availability of UCB faculty from various disciplines, and access to in-depth language training for ancient and vernacular languages.
The GTU recently announced a leading edge Hindu Studies Initiative with a Certificate and Master’s degree, due to a historic partnership with the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF). The DCF recently endowed the Thakkar Family-DCF Chair in Indic Civilization Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and is engaged in efforts to foster greater depth and quality of programs in Indic Studies. The GTU’s multidisciplinary Hindu Studies Initiative explores the rich diversity of Hindu Dharma from various lenses including that of ethics, ecology, theology, philosophy, art and symbolism, meditation and psychology, yoga and integrative medicine, and other important themes.
Innovative projects in dharma and the natural sciences will also be underway.
One can take courses and degree programs in Hindu Studies in many of America’s top universities. But such institutions, in general, do not have a mandate for the study of spiritual traditions as resources for human growth and planetary wellbeing. But theological schools—whether Buddhist, Christian, Jewish or other—operate under a different premise which is the reinterpretation of spiritual traditions for the betterment of humanity and the world. There are no Hindu theological schools in the American education system. Therefore, Hindu theology itself—the study of sacred texts, teachings, transformative practices, and the writings of Hindu theologians (mahacharyas) in order to seek the insights that powerfully engage the human condition—is conspicuous by its absence. The new Hindu Studies Initiative at the GTU is unique in this aspect because it has as its mission the exploration, reclamation, re-envisioning and deployment of the deepest theological principles and practices of Hindu Dharma towards the amendment of the major challenges of our time—both personal and planetary.
Rita D. Sherma, Ph.D. is Director of the Hindu Studies Initiative, and Associate Professor of Dharma Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA.