Torn between worlds

Torn between worlds

Hindu parents struggle to pass culture to U.S.-born children

By SHEILA B. LALWANI April 2, 2006 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Pewaukee – Before Anand Adavi and Vijaya Adavi journeyed to the Hindu temple for prayers and fellowship, they took part in another ritual.

Rohini Kumar Peddu, his wife, Syamala, and 2-year-old son, Tejaswi, attend a Hindu New Year service last week at the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin in Pewaukee. Many Hindu parents have difficulty passing on their traditions to their children.

Their son, Pranav Anand, a precocious 7-year-old with deep brown eyes and a toothy grin, dallied on his PlayStation and lobbied to stay in the family’s New Berlin home and away from the temple where strangers sang unfamiliar verses in a far-off language and worshipped unknown deities.

The battle was standard practice for the couple from India, who said they have coaxed, encouraged and even bribed their son to partake in ancient Hindu traditions with them.

“We are from abroad,” Anand Adavi said. “If we don’t follow the culture, how will he get it?”

The Anands peeled Pranav away from his PlayStation. As they took part in Ugadi last week, which marks the beginning of the New Year on the Hindu lunar calendar for many Hindus, Pranav sat quietly on the temple carpet next to his mother, who wore an elegant rose-colored sari and gold jewelry.

“I like staying home,” Pranav said. “It means a lot for them, but not for me. I was born in America.”

The obstacles area Hindus face reflect the struggles of a growing number of Hindus across the country who endeavor to pass on their religion in a culture that is often at odds with that faith and to a generation wedged between two distinct worlds.

As the Indian community in America grows in size and influence, many worry whether Indian-Americans are prepared to carry out the religious and cultural customs of their ancestors.

The Hindu Temple of Wisconsin in Pewaukee on Saturday marked Mata Chowki, which is a celebration in which Hindus pray to Durga, a Hindu goddess, for several hours. The event is part of Navarati, a major festival of nine nights that is celebrated twice a year.

On Saturday, Hindus held their hands together and bowed their heads in prayer. A Hindu priest sat before a plate of almonds, fruit and incense as an offering and chanted. At the prayer, some children sat quietly with their parents, while others participated more actively in the ceremony. During March and April, the temple marks several holidays, including the New Year on the Hindu lunar calendar last week.

Parents said their kids might not pray with them, but exposing them to Hinduism is a start.

“We want to get them involved,” event organizer Pramod Agrawal said.

Hinduism, the world’s third-largest religion, traces its roots to the Indus Valley circa 4,000 B.C. to 2,200 B.C. and is believed to be one of the oldest religions in the world. An estimated 1.5 million Hindus live in the United States, and Hindus are among the fastest growing religious groups in the country. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, which seeks to raise awareness of religious diversity through research, lists 737 Hindu temples and centers in the United States. The Hindu temple in Pewaukee is the only one in Wisconsin.

Experts said the experience of assimilating vs. integrating is common among U.S. immigrants and said second-generation Indian-Americans often struggle with cultural and religious identity, especially because Hinduism is frequently unfamiliar or misunderstood in the U.S.

National Hindu organizations have addressed the issue. The Hindu American Foundation, a Florida-based human rights organization that seeks to provide a voice for Hindu Americans, sued the California Board of Education in March for approving textbooks the group contends depict Hinduism inaccurately. The Vedic Foundation, a Texas non-profit that addresses stereotypes concerning Hinduism in America, spearheaded the campaign – even among Hindus who share different interpretations of the faith.

Janeshwari Devi, director of programs for the Vedic Foundation, said Hindu youth are often ridiculed at school because of their skin color and in turn, reject their religion to avoid being that much more different from other children.

“They don’t blend in,” Devi said. “If they feel like that, they at least want to have the same religion as the other kids.”

In Waukesha, Asha Gorur said she worries about her son, Ritvik Seshadri, 5. She and her husband left India several years ago and try to incorporate as much Indian culture and tradition into their lives as they can. But with two careers and a baby, Gorur said, they aren’t sure how successful they’ve been.

“I’ve been teaching him about Hinduism since he was 2,” Gorur said. “He’s not that into it. Sometimes, he grasps it. Sometimes, he says, ‘Can I go play?’ ”

When others at the temple began to congregate around a Hindu deity on Thursday, she motioned toward Ritvik.

“Come on, Ritvik,” Gorur said.

“Are we going home?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

For some families, the religious and cultural challenges of life in America may prove too much.

Vamsi Lolugu and Jhansi Allu have lived in Milwaukee for the last several years and have a daughter, Aahladita, 2.

They said they have discussed moving back to India, in part for her to be closer to their culture.

But Lolugu said they aren’t sure if moving back to India would be better for the family.

Gita Lodhia of Brookfield, who attended the Saturday prayer, is hopeful. She raised two kids and said that as they get older, they tend to embrace their heritage more.

“It gets easier,” she said. “They realize this is our culture, tradition.”