The Sorry State of Hinduism on American College Campuses

Growing up in post-liberalization India, with a warped sense of secularized education forced upon my generation, I learned nothing about religion during my undergraduate education, nor did I have any inkling of how religion forms a core aspect  of campus life in American universities.

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Jews observing Yom Kippur

So coming to the U.S. for graduate school in 2008 was my first encounter with American university life, and it also opened my  eyes to how college religious groups advocate – often staunchly – for their presence on campus.

I came to this realization rather abruptly, when I was serving as president of the Duke graduate students in 2013: the Jewish students protested the scheduling of Duke’s famed basketball campout (a bacchanal weekend where grad students try to win Duke basketball season tickets) which coincided with Yom Kippur (a twenty-five hour period of atonement where Jews fast and pray).

I learned from that episode, and I also began observing how other faiths advocate for their views in universities. Yet as a Hindu, I quickly became dismayed at the role and presence of Hinduism on American campuses.

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Duke’s famed basketball campout

Hinduism simply does not enjoy the same degree of resources, programming, and attention from college administrators as do Judaism, Islam, and the various Christian sects. And this is surprising given the fact that Hindus in the U.S. are a highly educated, wealthy, and progressive group, not to mention the fact that many Hindu ideas and practices are commonly shared on college campuses without being necessarily labelled (or understood) as “Hindu.”

Hindus constitute about 0.7% of the U.S. population. Because Hinduism mainly focuses on the inner journey of the mind-body and lacks a clear outward code of engagement with other religions, the first wave of Hindu immigrants that came to the country were mostly introverted about their faith, keeping their practices and beliefs confined to their personal lives.

As Hindus grew economically powerful, they used their political and financial might to assert their faith by creating numerous temples across the country. However, these temples tend to remain primarily places of worship and haven’t transformed into their intended roles as learning centers as they were traditionally used in pre-colonial India.

Secularization theory suggests that as societies progress towards modernization and rationalization religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life. A study of undergraduates at UCLA found that while students’ attendance at religious services declines from freshman to junior years, their overall spirituality increases. While college education in the 1970s was described as a “breeding ground for apostasy,” it has more recently been described as a “breeding ground for vital religious practice and teaching,” however it is hard to ascertain the causal relationship between this transformation and the increasing ‘spiritual but not religious’ trend on college campuses.

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Center for Jewish Life

This transformation is quite visible at Duke regarding all religions but Hinduism. In fact, the Abrahamic religions on campus have an extensive religious program – the Duke Catholic Center spends almost $817,000 every year on programming for Catholic Life while the Duke Jewish Center not only has a dedicated center for Jewish Life run by a Campus Rabbi, but also enjoys an endowment of $5 million, owing to generous donations from Jewish faculty, alumni and trustees. The Muslim community is very dynamic and active, led by a young Imam who periodically engages with the Duke community through regular columns, op-eds and discussions.

The Abrahamic religions’ programming – managed by a dedicated staff – includes weekly congregations, fundraising from alumni, outside community engagement as well as active promotion and assertion of their faith through public events.

It is obvious that while the Abrahamic faiths are investing heavily towards religious programming, in order to arrest the inevitable non-religious trends among college students, the Hindu community has completely missed this bandwagon in its unilateral pursuit of building expensive temples.

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Muslim prayer on campus

The mere $10,000 per year that Hindu Chaplaincy receives from the university as token money for religious programming is minuscule in comparison to the resources other faiths enjoy.

While other religions have individual centers with office space for staff, Hindus perform their meditations in a dingy room hidden at the basement of the student union building or hold religious pujas in the basement of the chapel often with chapel choirs singing Christian hymns in the background. It is practically unimaginable to think of Sunday mass being held in a basement or Muslims being expected to perform their prayers over the din of Sanskrit chanting!

The consequence of this impoverished Hindu programming is that Hinduism is fragmented into various disciplines without any cross-talk. Hinduism is studied as an academic discipline, using Western theories taught by non-Hindu professors who have zero embodied experience of Hinduism. Additionally, cultural Hindu events get celebrated without the holistic understanding of the philosophies underlying these festivals. Students who come for the pujas and yagnas (rituals involving chanting of mantras) are completely unaware of the scientific study of meditation and yoga which is being conducted at the Duke Hospital.

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A meditator is studied by Western scientists

This segregation of Hinduism’s vast limbs of knowledge into silos leads to disingenuity and social malpractices such as cultural appropriation and digestion. Though the modern practice of Yoga is quite popular in America, it remains devoid of its metaphysical and philosophical underpinnings. This amounts to cultural appropriation. Yoga is still taught at the Duke gym as a form of aerobic or group fitness class. That the Hindu students are completely oblivious to the treasures of their heritage being openly misappropriated on a prestigious campus is a clarion call for aggressive religious programming.

It is disheartening to know that although Indian food is one of the most popular cuisines and Indian cultural events like ‘Awaaz’ are among the most popular social events among undergrads, the upholding architecture – Hinduism – that binds all these myriad  interconnected aspects of life together fails to garner similar support. I’ve noticed that ours is a campus that loves Hindu ideas without the implicit knowledge of them being Hindu.

Yet, it seems we suffer from a sort of Hindu inferiority complex – a pathology we inherited from the centuries of imperialism that prevents us Hindus from asserting ourselves and building on our highly developed philosophical tradition. In this context, when someone says, “Yoga is good for health,” this is a case of the classic Gettier problem in philosophy – although the statement itself may be true and justified, it may not necessarily amount to knowledge of yoga.

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Duke’s annual Awaaz event

I find it shocking that Hinduism has failed to establish itself on Duke’s campus.

If lack of economic prosperity of the community could be reasoned as the cause then it is clearly invalidated by the fact that Hindus are among the richest religious groups in America on a per capita basis (36% Hindus have annual household income of greater than $100,000).

If liberal backlash at Duke could be accounted for stemming the growth of Hindu life, then it would suffice to present that only 18% Hindus in America consider themselves as conservative. Contrary to other faiths, 93% Hindus use a mixture of philosophy, reason, science and common sense to form a basis for their morality. Hindu ideas like vegetarianism, sacredness of nature and animals, divinity as feminine, and ecofeminism constitute the core of progressive American ideas and yet Hindus as a collective community have failed to capitalize on the benefits of this progressive branding. The reasons for this colossal failure is well-summed up by Rajiv Malhotra in his brilliant essay on The Position of Hinduism in America’s Higher Education:

“Most academic chairs on Hinduism, India Studies and Indic traditions, and other faculty positions in these fields, as well as editorial boards in university presses and scholarly journals are dominated and controlled by scholars from outside these traditions. This is also reflected in the asymmetrical representation on panels, and in journal articles and textbooks about Indic traditions. No other tradition has such a low percentage of its own scholars representing its portrayal than does Hinduism, even when compared to Buddhism, but especially as compared to Christianity and Judaism.”

Given that one in three U.S. Hindu students are bullied for their religious beliefs, it is high time that the Hindu community organize itself around the cause of promoting Hinduism on college campuses. They should use an intellectual approach to start exposing the gross misappropriations and to reclaim the lost jewels of our tradition. In a future post, I’ll discuss specific strategies that students, universities, and the Hindu community generally can undertake to achieve that goal.

Author: Amol Yadav

Neuroscientist and Associate Dharma advisor at Duke University, seeker of truth on the path of gyaan yoga, vegan.

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