Cultural Usurpation


Before I start my rant, I just want to mention that these are solely my thoughts and I do not claim to be the spokesperson of people who belong to Hindu or Buddhist faith. I write this blog after a long and thoughtful exchange of ideas between my daughter, who is half Indian and half white, and my husband who is white and belongs to the Catholic faith. My daughter asked me how I felt about people in this country doing the Color Run or wearing bindi and henna as a trend instead of truly understanding the significance of it all.

I have lived in my adopted country for twenty years now. I have made my home here, found my livelihood, nurtured close relationships, been vocal about injustices, celebrated the country’s triumphs and mourned it’s losses. I have voted and participated in activism. I have made this country my own. I have become a citizen. And I have never left the country of my birth. It is indeed possible to love the people, culture, traditions of two countries and most immigrants do this always. I believe that I am one of those lucky ones who can pick and choose the traditions and rituals from both my birth country and my adopted country. I can discard from my life, the rituals and traditions that conflict with my values and adopt those which appeal to them.

When asked where I am from, I proudly say I am originally from India. I love to showcase the culture that I grew up in, the clothes, the adornments and accessories that I bring from my part of the world. And when asked, I love to explain their significance, to the best of my knowledge. For example, the idea behind namaste or nomoshkar – I bow to the divinity in you. How respectful is that greeting? Namaste is a greeting which I think truly reveres humanity, or the divinity within humanity. It respects the innate goodness, that Hindus believe, resides in each one of us. But wearing t-shirts that say Namaste Bitch or Namastay in Bed may seem funny to those who do not revere or understand the gesture but it does hurt us, those who find the word meaningful and significant. I have reverted back to Namaste during Covid 19 and will stay with it after Covid leaves.

“May I ask you a question? What does that dot on your forehead signify?” I have lost count how many times I have been asked this question while wearing a bindi, and I love answering it. According to Hindu tradition, all people have a third inner eye. The physical eyes are for seeing the external world while the third focuses inward toward God. The bindi or the dot on the forehead also symbolizes the existence of concentrated energy. (according to https://www.hinduamerican.org/blog/the-purpose-of-the-bindi/).

If someone outside my faith, wants to understand the significance of a bindi, I am happy to explain or provide information. If they want to wear one, I am even happy to provide them with it. I do not think they are usurping my culture, they are embracing it just like I embraced the culture of giving thanks in this country. If wearing bindi becomes a trend without understanding, I am fine with that too. It does not harm anyone and you are not denigrating anything by wearing it as part of your fashion. I reiterate that this is simply my opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of the entire Hindu community. Others may feel differently and they are completely entitled to. I feel similarly about henna being a fashion trend. Take the beauty from a part of the world. Try to learn the significance. Spread the beauty. Beautify yourself. Why not?

Holi, for me, is more about ushering spring in than anything religious. Throwing colors on each other, for me, manifests spreading joy. The divide that skin color creates in my nation gets obliterated, at least for a day. If organizers of Color Run get inspired by the spirit of Holi and integrate that in creating an event to promote good feelings, more power to them I say.

The worst example, in my opinion, of cultural usurpation was Hitler taking away our swastika and using it as a symbol of pain. I participated in a discussion with an American woman about it on social media, of all places. The woman said the symbol has caused pain to so many people and if her name was Swastika, she would change the ‘horrid’ name. I know numerous Swastikas in my part of the world because this is what swastika means to people of my faith along with some other faiths and has meant this for 5000 years as opposed to few decades of hateful symbol:

In Sanskrit the word Swastika is a combination of the word Su (means good) and Asti (means to exist). The symbol of swastika stands for something auspicious and good for centuries.

A little on the history of swastika here.

The Nazi party and the white supremacists did the worst cultural usurpation of a symbol that is as old as mankind for the people of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain faith and made it into a symbol of hate for the Western world. How can we reclaim our symbol and erase all the negativity and pain associated with it? By starting a conversation? By willing to listen? By understanding that the pain that Nazi party caused to millions is absolutely horrific but also seeking understanding from the Western world the pain it caused us by seeing the symbol of such importance in Hindu (and other) religion reviled so? There are a pair of earrings that have been handed down by my mother’s family to the daughters. The heirloom is a diamond and ruby encrusted design of swastika. Every time I go back home, my mother urges me to take it back with me to America. “Wear it. It is so beautiful.” She is disappointed when I say I can not wear it anywhere outside India or in countries in the subcontinent. So those earrings languish in a dark locker in a bank. I do not have the desire to be judged as a brown Klans(wo)man by wearing them in my adopted country. And I would not wear it because I know how much pain is associated with the symbol. Ironically, though, when my ancestors designed the earring, they thought they were bestowing their blessings on their daughters who would follow them by protecting them with something pure and good. The blessing of my ancestors have become a symbol of hate in the world I live in.

There is a disconnect between people. It would be naive of me to not acknowledge that. The first step towards building a bridge is perhaps to listen and to acknowledge. The aforementioned woman kept using the word “horrid” even after being informed about swastika’s significance to a huge community of people. I tried to tell her I completely understand the pain this symbol causes to many but did she, in turn, understand that it hurts us to see what Nazis made it to be? She did not.

That is it. Rant is over. I say let us learn about new cultures, read up on it, ask questions, embrace the philosophy behind it if it appeals to us. The process can only be enriching. It is a big world out there.

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