For several consecutive years, a Hindu American contestant of Indian origin has won the National Spelling Bee in the United States. Preparing for the National Spelling Bee is undoubtedly no small task with contestants studying for many hours a day over several years in order to have a realistic chance at winning.
It is no wonder that such arduous effort is expended with a hope for victory; the champion receives $30,000 in cash from Scripps along with the Scripps National Spelling Bee engraved trophy, $5,000 cash from Words With Friends, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond and complete reference library from Merriam-Webster, $1,100 of reference works from Encyclopaedia including the Britannica Global Edition, 1768 Encyclopaedia Britannica Replica Set Deluxe Edition, and a 3-year membership to Britannica Online Premium. The second place winner receives $12,500 cash and third place receives $7,500 cash. Other placing finalists, semifinalists, and spellers also win cash and other prizes.
Such achievements have brought tremendous pride and confidence to the Hindu American community and have even garnered the attention of mainstream media outlets. As a result, such success has also inspired many other Hindu American children to enter spelling bees at the local and regional level with the goal of advancing to the national bee. Moreover, such coverage reinforces positive stereotypes of a hard working “model minority” group which is committed to academic excellence and professional success.
Additionally, successful individuals in the Indian Hindu American community have created local competition circuits which help children prepare for the rigors of the national competition.
So what is wrong with this seemingly pristine picture?
First, the words asked at the national level are so incredibly rare as to be virtually useless in any humanities, social sciences, literary, political, legal, scientific, and artistic discourse. Is it worth it for Hindu children to spend inordinate amounts of time in learning such useless words? No, it isn’t. When was the last time “appoggiatura” (winning word of the 2005 competition) was useful? It is the extreme rarity of these words which separate the winners from the losers and shows nothing more than a willingness of contestants to engage in minutia. This alone should be enough to discourage children from striving to compete in the national spelling bee and to direct their efforts to more worthwhile endeavors.
Second, the Indian Hindu American community in the United States are relative newcomers having only arrived in recent decades. Though present for over 100 years in very small numbers, the population of the community began to increase rapidly in the 1960s due to a change in the immigration policies of the United States federal government during the Cold War.
Consequently, Indians were allowed to enter primarily as graduate students, scientists, engineers, medical doctors, and other professionals. Many already had families with young children who were born in India and had additional children born in the United States or had all of their children born in the United States. Though building their careers and raising their families were their main priorities, the Hindus also began to build temples to fulfill their spiritual needs and to formally organize based on shared ethnic and language backgrounds.
As with any new immigrant group, the children faced challenges of assimilating into their host country. While maintaining a Indian and Hindu identity at home, they were expected to navigate and negotiate their way through the new culture and many parents were completely ill-equipped to help them do so. Thus, many children experienced an identity crisis which lowered their self-esteem due to being mocked for being a different race, religion, and culture.
They were often taunted about various aspects of Hinduism rooted in false stereotypes and made to feel ashamed and embarrassed of their Hindu identity. In school social studies curricula nationwide, textbooks inaccurately portrayed Hinduism as a religion of oppression, superstition, and ritual thus furthering their embarrassment.
Many parents failed to instill a strong sense of Hindu identity in their children because they were not very knowledgeable about Hinduism or believed it was unnecessary for their children to be knowledgeable Hindus or both. Thus, many Hindu children were forced to endure intimidation at school and suffered in silence because they were unable to adequately explain their religious and cultural backgrounds. As a result, it was not uncommon for Hindu children to downplay, even repudiate, their Indian and Hindu roots in order to fit into the mainstream society.
Due to these negative experiences, many have married outside the tradition and generally failed to pass on Hinduism in any meaningful way as adults, if at all, to their own children. Consequently, Hindu collective identity is not as strong as it could be and perceptions of Hinduism in the mainstream are not always positive and sometimes wholly inaccurate. Whatever professional success Indian Hindus have had as a “model minority”, their Indian nationality is always mentioned but almost never their concomitant Hindu identity.
Other minority groups have been successful in advancing their interests and the Hindus can learn from their example. The Jews are an example of a minority group in the Western world which has done quite well to protect their religio-cultural identity. After surviving the Holocaust, they have come together to become one of the most successful minority groups in the world.
In the United States, Jews have achieved disproportionate success across the board and are leaders in business, media, law, medicine, politics, and other fields. They have formed a strong collective identity and protect their interests ruthlessly. Additionally, the Jewish lobby is quite powerful in influencing American foreign policy towards Israel and no savvy politician would ever take an anti-Israel stance publicly without risking political suicide. Even Muslims and their sympathizers often use allegations of “Islamophobia” to silence criticisms of Islam even if legitimate. Furthermore, they have been successful in getting leftists and others to advance their interests as well.
So how can Hindus more effectively advance their own interests like the other groups?
For the short term, the Hindu community must realize that it is absolutely worth it to take Hinduism and its collective Hindu identity more seriously. Without this basic prerequisite, Hindus will not be as successful in asserting their collective identity to protect and advance their own interests as other groups do. Hindus getting overly excited about the success of kids in spelling bees shows a lack of creativity and an adeptness at playing someone else’s game. Hindus need to play and dominate their own game and this must first begin with taking their Hindu identity and traditions very seriously.
As the United States becomes more religiously liberal, being proud of one’s religious identity and boldly asserting it is seen as virtuous. (It is beyond the scope of this article to address the simultaneous rise of the now powerful Christian right-wing radicals.)
Many Indian Hindus have not understood this and thus are reluctant to publicly admit they are even Hindu. This shame and embarrassment is no longer necessary and is a self-inflicted impediment which is preventing Hindus from realizing their full potential as a group. General societal attitudes are changing to accommodate Hindus more readily everywhere and Hindus need to take advantage of it by unapologetically being proud of who they are without being chauvinistic.
For the long term, Hindu families need to stop over emphasizing worthless spelling bees which do little to inculcate Hindu values, identity, and culture in their children. Just as there are circuits to prepare children to compete in spelling bees and other subjects, similar circuits need to be developed to train kids in Hinduism. Additionally, the community needs to organize its own competitions where contestants win money and other prizes.
By utilizing the popular crowd funding websites, Hindus can easily raise thousands of dollars to fund these competitions. The leadership of the temples can also pool funds together for this very purpose as well. The training should be intense and the children should ultimately come out possessing knowledge which would impress even a scholar.
After all, celebrating the warrior king Shivaji is a cause for celebration for all Hindus and not the latest spelling bee winner whose name is quickly forgotten. A simple “Sunday School” kind of model will not suffice even though it has the right intent. There is lots of room for creativity in format and certainly no shortage of topics for such Hindu-themed competitions: Vedas, Yoga, Tantra, Ayurveda, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Puranas, Sanskrit non-translatables, Vedanta, history, comparative religion and philosophy, contemporary issues, and so on. Various gurukulams can be involved to help develop test questions and to assist in other ways.
As the children assiduously prepare for and compete in these competitions, they will realize the benefits of their efforts immediately. In school, they will be better prepared to explain Hinduism to their teachers and classmates without suffering from any social stigma or lack of confidence.
As adults, they will be confidently able to represent the Hindu community in a variety of settings due to being well-informed about Hinduism including being able to protect it against bias, prejudice, and other distortions. They will be able to speak out against the academic Hinduphobia present in American universities and to lend support to the Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Back Yoga” campaign. Additionally, they will be able to participate in and influence geopolitical discourse involving India and Hindus all around the world with a solid basis for their opinions.
For example, it is well known that church membership and attendance in the West is facing a precipitous decline and churches are now targeting developing nations for new converts via predatory proselytization, especially Hindus in India.
Well-informed and concerned Hindus will make their voices heard in speaking up against such chicanery as they are now beginning to do. They will be able to advocate for Hindus against aggression by those who wish to see Hinduism destroyed and replaced by other religions and ideologies.
In other instances, these children will be in a position to write higher quality personal statements and essays when applying for colleges by emphasizing what their Hindu identity means to them and how it will enrich the diversity of campus life.
While in college, they will be inspired to start Hindu student groups which presently do not exist in most college campuses despite other religions having their own groups. Going beyond a typical “Indian Students Association”, there will then be “Hindu Students Association” groups to serve all Hindus of all races, ethnicities, ancestry, and so on.
In so-called “interfaith dialogue” Hindus will present themselves without what Rajiv Malhotra calls “difference anxiety” and not take nonsensical positions such as “all religions teach the same thing” which compromise Hinduism by opening it up for digestion and cultural appropriation. In the classroom, they will be able to challenge their professors who teach the racist and discredited Aryan Invasion Theory which other non-Hindu students may not even know to question in the first place. In other discussions, they will be able to offer an “insider” perspective that will help to enhance the discourse for everyone.
They will be able to speak out against the Wendy Donigers and the Sheldon Pollocks of the world and will not be so naive as to assume that any particular scholar has their best interests at heart but instead should be the subject of a thorough due diligence.
They will eventually be in a position to give back to the community by volunteering their time, money, energy, and experiences in mentoring the next generation of Hindus in their families and communities. All of this can only happen if Hindus become more inward looking if they are to become a group that is respected as Hindus and not just primarily as Indians.
Moreover, many non-Indians are becoming interested in Hinduism but often have misconceptions about what Hinduism is all about, i.e., one can only be a Hindu if born into it, Hinduism is inherently oppressive because of the so-called “caste” system, etc. Meeting a well-informed Hindu can help rid them of all these incorrect notions and help them join the global Hindu family if this is the path these seekers wish to take.
Finally, new immigrant Hindus can feel assured that there is a vibrant Hindu community that cares about maintaining its traditions which is worth being a part of. Thus, they will not be as likely to believe that they must throw away all their traditions if they are too smoothly assimilate into society.
Third, the Hindu American community is quite successful in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and boasts a disproportionate over representation in these fields. As an alternative to Hindu-themes competitions, Hindu children of professionals would be better served if their boundless energy and enthusiasm were directed to the various age appropriate STEM competitions available to them. Not only will they develop their study and work habits, they will hone research and problem solving skills which will benefit them regardless of whatever career paths they ultimately choose in life. The irony is that it is not uncommon to see children of STEM professionals to compete in spelling bees but not STEM competitions!
The Hindu community has no shortage of intelligent and hard working individuals who need to work more closely together in order to create STEM competition circuits to help prepare their children for STEM competitions. All that is needed is to parlay these efforts into these subjects as well.
Other Asian and ethnic groups are focusing their efforts in STEM competitions and are convincingly winning. They are not wasting their precious time and energy with spelling bees and instead are focusing on subjects that actually matter in the long run. Why not learn from their example?
Fourth, the Hindu American community does not value having children participate in instrumental music, sports, and other arts at a serious level and consider them to be a waste of time. Though kids may participate in them as young children, most are not involved in these activities by the time they reach high school. Parents erroneously believe that these activities have little value and emphasize academic success above all else.
In actuality, music, sports, and the arts have tremendous value and teach concepts of teamwork, compromise, and strategic thinking in addition to focus, dedication, and perseverance. Most academic success is an individualized effort whereas the real world requires teamwork to achieve goals which cannot be accomplished with individual effort alone.
The sooner these skills are learned in life, the better. Additionally, children involved in sports at a serious level are more likely to be physically active as adults and thus will reap greater health benefits as a result. Those involved in music and the arts will be able to enjoy a richer dimension to their lives and are more likely to be supporters of such programs as adults. The community should not discount these benefits and should instead encourage lifelong participation in music, arts, and sports.
Lastly, the current generation and subsequent generations of Hindu Americans will inevitably branch out and began making their presence known in law, business, politics, journalism, media, art, and other fields which were typically not the same profession as their parents. Being well-grounded in Hinduism can only be an asset for them regardless of which path they take and will make it more likely that those in different walks of life will get to know a Hindu. This is a win/win situation for everyone.
Now is the perfect time for Hindus to come together to collectively ensure they take themselves seriously. As the awareness of the importance of Hindu identity and identity politics rises among Hindu Americans, this will result in the aforementioned suggestions being fully realized. The hard work remains of organizing and creating the Hindu-themed competition circuits and this can all happen very quickly through the dedication of committed volunteers.
This is how the Hindu American community should spell success! So what are we waiting for?
By Aditya Tyagi
Aditya Tyagi is an Indian American Hindu. He has a BS in Computer Engineering and a JD. He enjoys music and reading.
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