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Home Indian Diaspora Sanskrit renaissance has begun and is here to stay: Dr. Jyotsna Kalavar

Sanskrit renaissance has begun and is here to stay: Dr. Jyotsna Kalavar

By Nithin Sridhar

Hinduism in US: Present and Future: Part 1

Hindu community is a rattling and flourishing community in United States. According to recent PEW survey, Hindus form around 0.7% of total US population, a rise from 0.4% in 2007. That is, at least 2.23 million Americans are currently Hindus. But, these figures may well be much more in reality. A 2008 estimate given by Hinduism Today magazine, had given a figure of around 2.3 million Hindus in 2008 itself.

Picture credit: wsj.net
Picture credit: wsj.net

In any case, Hindu American community is well thriving and developing in US. Further, various Hindu practices like Yoga and Ayurveda have become very popular among non-Hindu Americans as well. Hence, there is a definite growth in Hinduism as a religion and community.

At the same time, there is a growing trend of irreverence among Americans, as more number of Americans are rejecting religion and a negative portrayal of Hinduism in certain sections of US academia and media that can have huge impact on young Hindu Americans and the practice of Hinduism in US.

NewsGram decided to speak to various people from diverse background who are associated with Hinduism and Hindu American community and get their views regarding the present condition of Hinduism in American society and the future of Hinduism in United States.

In the first installment of this “Hinduism in US: Present and Future” series, NewsGram spoke to Dr. Jyotsna Kalavar, who is a Professor of Human Development & Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University, USA and is an instructor at Samskrita Bharati, USA.

Dr.Jyotsna.Kalavar
Dr. Jyotsna Kalavar

Nithin Sridhar: Yoga, Vedanta and Ayurveda are very popular in the US today. But do they enjoy same popularity among Hindu Americans as well? How widespread is the practice of Yoga, Vedanta and Ayurveda among Hindus in US?

Jyotsna Kalavar: Indeed, these three have been packaged beautifully in the United States. In mainstream America, Yoga is widely popular, Ayurveda is rapidly gaining momentum, and Vedanta has not been left far behind. Among Hindu Americans, my personal observation is that of the three, the study of Vedanta is most frequently seen in the Hindu community, followed closely by Yoga, and then Ayurveda.

The study of Vedanta has been popularized by a number of institutions such as Chinmaya Mission, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, etc. These days, they also offer online courses on these subject matters, and many Hindus participate in webinars and other such offerings.

In health clubs, it’s non-Hindus primarily practicing yoga though temples and other centers of learning (Vedanta or Sanskrit) offer yoga lessons as well. Most Hindus here appear to rely on allopathic medicine, and infrequently, I have come across those who exclusively follow Ayurvedic medicine as well.

Nithin Sridhar: What does it mean to be a Hindu for the younger generation of Hindu Americans?

Jyotsna Kalavar: The question depends on the generation (first or second generation immigrant status), age, area of residence (urban/suburban), state of residence (number of Hindus in their community), family orientation towards assimilation of American culture and desire to retain the identity of culture of origin.

Compared to a couple of decades ago, Indian culture and exposure to Hinduism is fairly widespread now. We have multiple temples in nearly every state and in some cases, multiple temples in metropolitan areas.

Fostering Hindu identity and efforts to pass on our rich cultural and religious heritage is undertaken through weekly classes held in temples, libraries, community centers, and even family basements.

From what I have seen, most Hindu children in the United States take immense pride in their heritage, go through some period of soul searching and questioning, and pursue their personal definition of what it means to be a Hindu. Some take up the study of Sanskrit, literature, art, Vedic chanting, Vedanta, dance, music, Yoga – whatever aspect of Hinduism that appeals to them.

On the one hand, I have seen Hindu children in the United States being more Hindu than children in India. They have learned sections of the Vedas, speak Sanskrit fluently, and take great pride in their Hindu beliefs. Recently, I was at an event in Stroudsburg, PA where more than a dozen children had memorized the entire Bhagavad Gita, and were participating in a competition. I was simply bowled over by these children.

On the other hand, I have also seen Hindu American children totally disconnected from their roots. Thankfully, the latter are few and far in between. So, it’s really a continuum with both extremes included.

Nithin Sridhar: Are young Hindu Americans enthusiastic to adopt Hindu identity and practice Hindu tenets? Or is there an increase in disillusionment towards Hinduism among young Hindus?

Jyotsna Kalavar: It really depends on how the family has laid the foundation, and what they seek to practice and preserve in their offspring. The children are enthusiastic about our festivals, dance, music, folklore, Puranas, epics, prayers, rituals, etc. Through adolescence, there is some questioning which is not unusual but fairly typical of this developmental period.

But Hindu children have the additional cultural tug of war between the culture of parental origin and the culture of the land of their birth. They are in a minority here, and seek to fit in with everyone else.

In their quest for approbation, it becomes a period of testing for the entire family. But, I have seen that if the family earnestly sows the seeds of Hindu heritage in childhood, as young adults, they inevitably return back to their roots.

Nithin Sridhar: What is the response of Hindu Americans to Sanskrit learning?

Jyotsna Kalavar: I have been amazed at the interest in learning Sanskrit among Hindu Americans. My first Samskrita Bharati family camp was in 2006, and the camp was attended by approximately 75 people. Today, Samskrita Bharati has five family camps (attendance of 200+ in some camps), three youth camps, and summer week long camps for children.

All this within a decade, so it reflects phenomenal growth and astounding interest in learning Sanskrit. Of course, the interest is more among the first generation immigrants than their offspring.

But the growth in youth camp attendance and increased enrollment in Samskrita Bharati’s Sanskrit as a Foreign Language (SAFL) program, is evidence enough that Sanskrit has a strong and promising future in the United States.

Of course, this is not uniformly seen throughout the country but mostly in the states of California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. But, the number of centers in other states is rapidly increasing.

Nithin Sridhar: What role do you see for Sanskrit, in the survival and future growth of Hinduism in US?

Jyotsna Kalavar: Sanskrit is inextricably linked to Hinduism but not limited to Hinduism alone. Sanskrit texts are found in Jainism and Buddhism also. Sanskrit provides the key to our culture and heritage.

It is the basis of Vedic thought, and also provides a treasure trove of information on various secular subjects such as astronomy, mathematics, engineering, medicine, etc. The language need not be cast in a religious mold alone. Knowing Sanskrit is empowering as it enables us to understand Hinduism without relying on translations (sometimes misguided) made by others.

As a liturgical language, Sanskrit will continue to play an important role among Hindus worldwide. As a trans-sectional language, I am very optimistic that it will pick up steam both in India and outside.

It seems like the Sanskrit renaissance has begun and is here to stay!

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