Chapter 3:
A Discussion with Young American Hindus

A Discussion with Young American Hindus

Left to right: Nithya Nagarajan, 26 years old, works for the United States Trade Administration. Sanjay Subramanian, 22 years old, is studying for his B.A. in finance and economics and wants to be a mutual fund manager. Anuradha (Anura) Subramanian, 16 years old, wants to be a doctor like her mother. Her sister Arathi Subramanian, 13 years old, wants to go into business like her father. Anura and Arathi are both cousins of Sanjay. Shruti Murti, 13 years old, wants to be a lawyer.

The following is the transcript of a discussion among five young American Hindus who live in the Washington, D.C., area. It focuses on aspects of puja and Hindu life for young Americans. The participants were all born in the United States, except for Sanjay, who was born in England. Their parents had left India to further their own education. They each travel to India every two or three years to see their grandparents and other relatives. They are very proud to be Hindus and wish that Hinduism were better understood by Americans.

Sanjay Hinduism emphasizes duty and honor. If you do the basic things, like if you look after your family, your friends, and those around you, that's the best way of worshiping God. You can sit and worship an idol or you can pray every day, but if you [aren't dutiful and honorable], it doesn't mean anything.

People think of Indians as having many gods. But Hinduism is not polytheistic, it's monotheistic. It's just that God can be viewed in different ways. A Christian may go to church and pray to God, "Please, God, help me with my exam," whereas a Hindu could pray to Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge. When you pray to Saraswati, you are just focusing on one particular aspect of God. Since God has no form, you can view God in many different ways.

Anura You don't need idols [to worship], but they are very helpful for visual learning. If I have a picture of the god in my head, it helps me concentrate on the idea better.


Nithya Each of the images tells a story and each story has a lesson that is trying to be portrayed through the image.


Sanjay People ask, "Why do gods have multiple arms?" Well, have you ever said, "I wish I had more arms-I can't do everything"? If you had eight pairs of arms you could do a lot more.

People ask, "Why does the god Ganesha have an elephant's head?" Well, the elephant is considered one of the wisest animals, and Ganesha is a very wise god. His big ears mean he listens a lot. His mouth is generally covered, which means he doesn't speak too much. He is very wise because he doesn't talk too much and he listens. So the elephant head is a simple way of reminding us of this.

Each idol provides a focus so that you can concentrate on that one aspect of religion. You aren't praying to the idol, it is just a path to God. Some people need something to focus on, others don't. It's there if you need it.

Anura I love going to the temple because of the mood and setting, and seeing all of the images of the gods together. You know that the gods are there all around you. We are taught that God is always all around you, but when you go to the temple and see all of the images of the gods, you can really visualize it. It paints a picture.

Nithya You don't have to go to temple to worship-which is good because up to ten years ago there was no temple in this area. Our parents kept the religion alive at home with the religious holidays. You learn about Hinduism from your parents.


Shruti My parents made it fun for me. My mother told me stories about the gods, about celebrating festivals in India, and now we celebrate them here.


Arathi You start reading comic books [based on the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana] at a young age. I remember my parents and grandparents reading them to me.


Anura When gods interact with one another in a story, it's to teach a lesson. A lot of these things are symbolic. The stories help you understand a particular idea. A story is the best way to explain the idea.


Sanjay The comic books get your interest. For the guys they have the war; for the girls they have the love stuff. But later on you start to understand the message.


Shruti There is lots of symbolism in the stories. I know many of the stories. I began learning them when I was two. You can't quickly explain all of these stories.


Anura In each story there is a moral that you can use in daily life. I love learning new stories. Half of the religion I know has been taught to me through Indian dance. I've been taking lessons since I was six or seven. The dances are all about the gods: what they act like, what they look like. They each tell a story. The stories are passed down through the dances. They tell so much about the culture.


Nithya Every time you go to an Indian concert to hear music or see dance, you hear the stories. If you listen to the words in the songs, you are listening to Hindu religion.


Arathi If you had to sum up Hinduism you would say it's about duty, honor and family.


Sanjay There is one story that sums it up: Shiva and Parvati are sitting with their sons, Ganesha and Karttikeya. They have one mango between them and Ganesha and Karttikeya are fighting over the mango. Shiva says, "OK, I will give the mango to whichever of you goes around the universe and comes back first." So Karttikeya speeds off and goes around the universe and comes back. But when he gets back Ganesha has finished the mango. Karttikeya asks, "Father, how can this be? Ganesha didn't pass me. I was always in the lead. How could he have come back before me?" And Shiva says, "He walked around his parents. That should be the universe to every child."


Arathi Duty and honor are the basis of the religion. I think all of the gods are only stories to portray those ideas. They are meant to teach us how we should live. How to be righteous and peaceful. That's the reason why we pray to God. We have the gods to show us what we are trying to be. For the main concepts of Hinduism you don't need all of the gods and all of the stories. To be called a Hindu you just need to be good.

< Guide for Educators Contents

< Previous | Top of Page

Puja Home | Finding your way around the site
© 1997 Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC