What it means to be a Kerala Hindu in the USA!

‘Whatever! Should I care ?’ must not be the instinctive response of many, if they were posed with such a query.
The very objective of KHNA is not to hear such a response and ‘create a universal sense of pride and commitment about Malayali Hindu traditions and heritage, of their cultural roots and identity’. Are we accomplishing that objective? Let us analyze. Let us introspect
 The Universe
As proclaimed in Hindu Puranic perceptions, passed on to us through the wisdom of our rishis, the cosmological history of the multiverse is cyclical 166 without a beginning or end, comprising of a repetitive continuum incorporating many universes and many ‘Big-Bang’ explosive episodes. Our ancient hypothesis can intelligently accommodate the many postulates from the Greek stoic Ekpyrotic theory to the Buddhist concept of evolution or the modern scientific and technological understanding of the ‘origin’. A single day of Brahma, the Creator is the equivalent of over four billion years in human time and is divided into four Yugas, at the end of which is the cataclysmic deluge or Pralaya, when Brahma rests for the night, as equally long as his day. Through the ongoing cycles of Srishti (creation), Sthithi(sustenance), and Samhara (creative destruction), life begins and ends as dictated by the cosmic command under the guidance of the Ultimate Reality, the God Principle.
Life on Earth
     If one follows the sensible postulate of evolution, even the rudimentary form of life began after millions of years of preparation as the earth cooled down and gradually became receptive to sustain the living entity. Through a gradual process of adaptation, refinement, and perfection, there was a conceivable, gradual and steady improvement to the life forms that performed with more precision and intelligence. It is amusing to infer that even the Gods, the most knowledgeable authorities took their time and observed the laws of nature in advancing their creations with patience and endurance. And such events happen for a reason, a purpose that is to be contained and comprehended within the confines of a larger principle.
The Humans
     Following the concepts and philosophy of our faith, we owe plenty to the mercy of the Almighty. His biggest endowment to us is to have chosen us to confer the dignity of a human being. Not that any life is more precious than any other, but within our knowledge, the humans occupy the biggest pedestal of His creation. If we do not recognize, realize and be humbled of being the recipient of that ultimate distinction, we have missed out on the fundamental meaning of our existence. And such awareness can distinctly offer the support for our search assuring answers to how and why we should utilize that precious gift and return the favor. To realize that truth is to live life as it was meant to be.
     As per our traditional belief, ‘Arsha Bharatham’ is regarded and revered as a virtuous nation, a ‘Punyabhumi’. It is the land that gave birth to all our incarnations, the place that nurtured the many scholarly saints, the ground that has cultivated the attitude of harmony and accommodation, and where the philosophy 167 of Eternal Righteousness prevails supreme. In the recorded history of mankind, there is no place elsewhere which can boast of virtues of morality and rectitude as the fundamental theories of life. To be born into that heritage and be reared along such precious traditional value system is an exceptional privilege for human life. To all of us who are born Indians or have Indian heritage, it is a blessed concession, a sacred and distinguished stroke of destiny.
     Religions are created by man and are just establishments that promote and politicize divinity as the theme. Exceptionally enlightened souls authored philosophies to preach and to help evolve humans and their behavior. Such embodiments of divinity took life as they were sent to earth as often as required and as decided by the ultimate authority. Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Mahavira, Sankaracharya, and others were such enlightened souls who were born with the destined function to help humanity, to guide them towards righteous behavior. Their followers created organizations to promote and propagate their teachings that came to be known as religions. In due course, such entities started claiming divinity as their monopoly and advocating their methods as the only way to attain the eventual salvation. Most of the problems that we witness in today’s world are the results of the enormous dominance and influence exercised by religious interests.
Sanatana Dharma
     Hinduism is perhaps the only exception without a set agenda, claiming superiority or ownership of divinity and attempting proselytization of all else by coercion. Ironically and ignorantly it has been assigned the title as a ‘religion’ but in reality, it is ‘Sanatana Dharma’, a practice of ‘Eternal Righteousness’. It is a principle that provides an authoritative, intellectual, philosophical guidance to virtuous, moral living. And it invites and encourages everyone to understand the concepts using honest curiosity, unbiased analysis, and intelligent assimilation. Its basic principles rest on simple yet the ultimate truth; its complex philosophy may exceed limitations of human comprehension. Its doctrines are based on the fundamental meaning of life. Its tenets transcend promise of pleasures or covenants of punishment.
     We, the Hindus of Kerala are a uniquely blessed, distinctly endowed group of human beings. We have been awarded the exclusivity of an enviable blend of superlative, noble distinctions that are beyond even our imaginative conjectures. At every level of option, God has been generous and merciful in bestowing on us the best that can be granted. The ultimate of His creations, the human life; in the land of virtuosity, the Bharat Bhoomi; born as a Hindu, to observe the Eternal Righteous principle; in God’s own country, Kerala, the serenely stunning piece on planet earth. If we are not able to savor that absolute reality and not be exalted about our distinct excellence of birth, it is distressingly sad; it is our misfortune. And if we can appreciate the boon in its totality, we remain blessed. We truly are inimitable.
Our Identity
     Identity is as intimate and crucially imperative as one’s shadow. It gives one the authority, personality and the essentially vital correlation between self and everything else that it relates to. It offers the owner the spatial, social, functional and philosophic perspectives setting them apart from the rest and endorsing the uniqueness that is distinctive of human life. An individual utilizes sets of unique traits that collectively declare his individuality in a certain setting and based on the particular situation. Such traits vary from physical appearance to language to habits to religion to a variety of parameters, but nevertheless, they remain the distinguishing markers of that person. And when many people collectively share certain commonalities, it generates group identity and similarity in belonging. The distinction of identity may focus on a single individual to the family to a township or a community to the state or nationality, language or religious belief system, ultimately extending the concept to the entire humanity and beyond. Our distinction is to be born as a human, in India, being a Hindu from Kerala. That is our proud, precious, unique, identity
     Once we acknowledge our ancestry and accept our identity as to who we are, where we are from, and what we are, it is inevitable that we pose the question of what our role in life is, what is our purpose of being here. And that purpose will be at various levels and roles and obligations, from our responsibility as a child, a sibling, a student, an employee, a spouse, a parent, a provider, a social being, a citizen and as a human being. And right in this context, with relevance to this article, let us focus our attention to our role and responsibility as a Hindu from Kerala.
With that uniqueness, our obligations are two-fold; to live life as per the tenets of our faith and to adhere to the habits as expected of our heritage. Arriving in the new land of domicile, assuming to have undergone alteration, longing to be integrated into the society, some of us have a false notion that we need to act differently to be accepted, to be respected, to be included, and to be assimilated. Our generation of immigrants, the zero group who left the shores of India and opted to live in America, are preparing to exit the scene leaving a legacy that will follow a course, the direction and details of which the only history will decide. In 169 our eagerness to adapt to the myriad of challenges and struggling to succeed in the new environment without guidance from past experience or established routines each of us chose certain paths appealing to us as the appropriate ones. In many cases we did not have many options; in others, such choices came too late. When we observe our progeny who is well settled and raising their own descendants, we should be able to relate their behavior to our style of bringing them up. Since we had to take a path totally deviant from those of our ancestors of many millennia, such a sincere soul searching may leave many of us confused or penitent. In order to gain the accomplishments and materialistic acquirements, that was the price to pay in terms of sacrificing our established, precious and profound heritage.
     Change in Logistics
Within the constraints imposed by the altered environment and demands that enforce a modified lifestyle, we should have strived not to lose perspective of our fundamental value system and our precious traditions. And fortunately for us, the technological advances and consequent shrinking of the universe, along with many of our kind settling down here, it has become easier than a few decades ago, to adhere to most of our ethnic customs and religious observations. India is no more the strange, poor, distant third world continent that it was perceived as just a while ago. As computers and communication bridged the gap between continents, there is a mutual understanding of the cultures and even acceptance of different traditions and customs. Hindu Faith and followers being the third most widely accepted religious system in the world, our mores and practices are gaining tolerance, if not approval. And our time-honored gems of Yoga, meditation and philosophic discourses are gathering admiration by the mainstream. And the intellectuals who are able to grasp the profound fundamental principles of our Sanatana Dharma, there is growing respect and even followership.
     Our Pride
But we ourselves have to feel the same pride in our own profound traditions, realize the richness of our essential basics. Instead of trying to escape from our illustrious identity we should feel exalted to uphold it and exhibit its majesty. If we can successfully utilize the affluence of our heritage we can face the challenges as rewarding opportunities. If we are ashamed of our legacy and attempt to assume, or act a false identity, we will be losing the future generations and ourselves in the process.
     Our Role, our Duty
As transplanted Hindus, our responsibilities, as well as our challenges, are on many folds. It involves the spiritual, religious, social, cultural, linguistic, economic and political aspects of our life as based on our interest and degree of concern and contribution. If we make an earnest attempt to live our life as we have been raised, but adjusting to the limitations that we face in our new homeland, it 170 can easily be accomplished in a comfortable, practical way. Our children will learn from what we show, but not from what we preach. Our basics like having a pooja room in our homes, lighting the lamp, praying as a routine, observing our religious and cultural events and involving children in all the activities, and explaining to them the significance of each of our festivals, will certainly instill in them a proud sense of belonging, as it keeps us connected to our traditional beliefs. Getting involved in school activities, explaining our customs to outsiders and sharing the celebrations will link up the bridges and bring everyone closer. At the community level, we can collectively observe and celebrate events like Onam, Vishu, Vidyarambham, Thiruvathira and the like. Nowadays almost every city and community in the US have such organizations and even a handful of Kerala Hindus can arrange and invite others to celebrate our events
     Kerala Scenario
Unfortunately, the trend that is taking over Kerala has not been very encouraging. Are we losing our standing, our image? It seems that during festivals like Onam, all the felicitations are on the television or arranged events with almost no homes setting up the traditional welcome event for Onathappan, the visit of Mahabali. It is seldom that a housewife is willing to make the traditional sadya or prepare the customary delicacies, as families order the meals from available vendors. The ethos and the passion of our traditions have vanished from our culture. More distressing, many are celebrating the Hindu festivities with alcohol and meat dishes. Hindu functions like weddings and birthdays follow the same way, often serving beef, pork and scotch to ensure that invitees are ‘lured’ to show up. Many homes have abandoned the tradition at dusk of lighting the nilavilakku and placing it on the front porch with children singing bhajans as the grandparents guide them. Instead, the addictive TV serials engage the grown-ups as the youth stay busy texting on phones or partying in the malls. Politically, economically, administratively and in the sheer percentage of the population, Hindus are facing a vanishing presence in Kerala. Even worse, the enthusiasm, pride, and sense of commitment to protecting our precious legacy are abysmally dwindling among Hindus. Instead of finding common grounds to bond together, the Hindu factions in Kerala are getting splintered along lines of caste, creed, social orders, and political affinities. Have we become a disintegrated, feeble, rudderless, pride-less, powerless entity?
     We the Hindus of Kerala who have chosen to migrate, accepting this new land as our home are trying to catch up, promote, adapt and recreate the nostalgic splendor that we once owned. Many of us feel the agony of isolation, and a longing for a lost cause as many others laud it as their good fortune in gaining a glorified new identity. We can endorse the changes as predictable ‘progress’ that are part 171 of modernity, or of inevitable destiny and resign to go along with the stride as the tides of time impose them on us. Or in our limited way, holding on to our precious, rich and established traditions, we can make an attempt to recapture our treasures, and prevent their extinction. We can achieve it here, and we can definitely attempt to make an impact at home that we left behind. Collectively, under the banner of our common organization, we can accomplish a lot. How much we succeed and how worth such attempts are, will be decided by our efforts, enthusiasm and of course, time.
     And so will remain the future and relevance of being a Kerala Hindu in America. ‘The Kerala Hindus of North America’ deserves accolades and alliance for all their attempts to help materialize that noble intent. (March 2013)

Author: Dr. Venugopal Menon

Was born and raised in a loving family in pre-independent India, became a doctor, served Indian army, got married, then came over to America with wife and a daughter, established as a successful Allergist, raised a family of three children, was involved in many social establishments, retired, and wrote memoirs, 'My Mother Called Me Unni, A Doctor's Tale of Migration'.

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