Hayden S. Higgins
8 May 2011
Local Expressions of Displaced Identities: Navigating Identity at the Hindu Center of Charlotte
Individuals of varying South Asian descent come together at the Hindu Center of Charlotte to worship and hold cultural events. At a place between two nations yet concretely engaged in both, the members navigate complex fields of identity including nationality, religiosity, and ethnicity. These individuals use the Center as a site of resistance to dominant American views of identity which shunt aside various differentiations that enrich the lives of members. These differentiations are mutually supported through a pluralistic attitude towards nationality and
recognition of shared experiences.
When I decided I wanted to study Indian diasporic experience after spending time in India, it was impossible for me not to stumble upon the Hindu Center of Charlotte as a field site. Charlotte is a religiously diverse city for its region, but Hindus are decidedly in the minority, occupying some small portion of the 37% of Charlotteans whose religion is categorized as “other” amidst a visible Christian, Protestant hegemony. The Center occupies a central place for this small minority in a network of sites of diasporic expression, stretching from educational programs to restaurants and grocers that serve the Indian-American community. Given the relatively modest size of the Indian-American community in Charlotte, these sites are limited in their scope and specialization, and the Center itself serves a rather general role.
Growing up with Indian-American friends who tapped into these specialized networks of Punjabi or Gujarati immigrants, I knew that differentiation existed; but after visiting India I was amazed there was not more differentiation. I was fascinated by the youth culture I witnessed and participated in and its ethnographic description in Desi Land (Shankar 2008). This culture was one in which youth shared a common experience of difference as a minority, of being “brown” which became brotherhood through the label “desi.”
On some level, there is an expectation for a diasporic meeting place like the Hindu Center to recreate what has been lost in being displaced from the homeland. In this the Hindu Center might be a microcosm of India; might one then expect the messiness of Indian identity, with its confusing mix of ancient civilizations, colonial legacy, regional rivalry, and religious diversity? The field site brings up several fertile theoretical topics: religion, diaspora, and nationality may be the most prominent. At the intersection of these is the amorphous but indisputably central concept of identity, writ large. My research focuses on the dialogues that shape individual and communal understandings of identity, dialogues between places, narratives, and people. Identities as self-constructed and imposed are often in conflict, resulting in dynamic understandings of the self (or community). I have undertaken examination of structure and discourse at the Hindu Center, through participant-observation of events, interviews, and historical research, with the goal of understanding what role the Center plays as Indian-Americans negotiate various fields of identity. How does this identity change with relocation to America and intermixture not only with the dominant American culture but also with that of other Indian-Americans at the Center? In a sentence, how does one be Indian-American at the Hindu Center?
The Hindu Center of Charlotte is located in South Charlotte off of Independence Boulevard. It is located at the end of a small residential street, City View. The neighborhood around it seems to be predominantly African-American, but an examination of the nearby area does reveal some Indian presence, in the form of an Indian restaurant just down Independence.
The Center itself consists of three main buildings. The Vedanta Hall is the oldest (1982). Vedanta (referring to the Vedas, the foundational scriptures of Hinduism) Hall is a temple, housing murtis (shrines) of several of the most important gods of Hinduism, with room behind them to circumambulate. It has an office for the Brahmins (priests) to work from, and the main hall is large enough to accommodate more than a hundred people. Adjacent to the Vedanta Hall is the Vihar Hall, a multipurpose room large enough for several hundred people (1990, renovated 1999). It is built in a style that can only be described as educational, reminding one of nothing so much as a high school gymnasium with a stage. It is, however, very nice, and, while unadorned, perfectly flexible, accommodating any number of different setups for different events. These two adjacent buildings are surrounded by a parking lot, basketball court, and playground. Across the road is the most recent acquisition (2004) of the Center, the Gandhi Bhavan. This is an old church that was purchased by the Center. It now holds educational programs in its basement, and the steeple still rises over the repurposed congregational space, where pews face not towards a cross but a statue of the late Gandhi, national hero of India. These spaces begin to tell the story of the Center: Vedanta Hall attests to the importance of religion; Vihar Hall, to that of cultural events; Gandhi Bhavan, to that of nationality (Gandhi being representative of inclusive Indianness); and the playground to the fact that the Center is a place for social reproduction, especially for children.
THE PLANS TO RENOVATE
Plans to expand are central to the vision of the Hindu Center, literally and metaphorically. Land is being cleared now in between the Vedanta Hall parking lot and the Gandhi Bhavan parking lot to house a new building, and stylish architectural sketches are available online for viewing (Figure 1). A very ambitious remodel is planned for the Vedanta Hall, and indeed the entire complex. The master plan includes a walking trail, residential complex for seniors and priests, sports facility, and more. The renovation plans embody several of the Center’s core principles, most notably that it is not only a place of worship. In some sense the plans encompass an attempt to create a microcosmic India. It is closer to a community center than a church in its operation, with the capacity to address the fullness of Indian diasporic identity through education and sport as well as religion.
Expansion is a pervasive part of the rhetoric of the Hindu Center, where members frequently talk about the recent increase in their numbers. While proselytization is not part of the Hindu discourse, expansion was still central to the rhetoric of identity at the Hindu Center. Money is constantly being raised to fund these projects (see section on fundraising). Longtime members always couched their narratives of expansion in terms of physical changes to the Center rather than changes in its membership. One might say, “Back then, we were very small; we had only the Vedanta Hall. Now, we have bought the building from the church across the street, and you can just look outside to see how much more we have planned.” When viewed from beginning to end, the organizational history Powerpoint on the Center website is the story of physical expansion, from one communally built hall in 1982 to the grand projects of tomorrow.
SPONSORSHIP, FUNDRAISING, AND PRIMARY ACTORS
This expansion does not happen in a vacuum. The plans to renovate obviously require a significant amount of capital to go forward. When one sees the immense plans for the Hindu Center going forward, it is clear that a lot of money will be needed. To that end, sponsorship is a highly visible and public affair at the Hindu Center. Because access to programming is very open, membership (and therefore dues-paying) seems to mostly be a motion of voluntary support for the organization, rather than a contractual give-and-take.
Sponsorship is engraved on the geography of the site. On the bulletin board, a sheet lists the amount required to sponsor certain events (especially Mahaprasad, an offering to a deity), with names next to the events that have been sponsored. The names of very major sponsors grace the streets inside the Center. A large poster is present on the entrance to the Vedanta Hall, proclaiming the need for donations and showing a chart with sponsorship intervals of $1001, $5001, and $10001 (fortuitous numbers in India). These intervals correspond with commemorative bricks or plaques increasing in size with the size of the donation. The poster implores the members to “leave your legacy by leaving a marker for the generations.” This poster embodies several principles of social life at the Hindu Center: firstly, sponsorship is important; the poster occupies the most prominent possible location. Secondly, sponsorship is public; everyone knows who the sponsor is. Thirdly, sponsorship is scaled; there are those who can give more than others.
At the top of this scale are a few primary actors—those whose support can make or break a project or program. Mr. Maheshwari is one such primary actor giving his support today. Mr Maheshwari had a street named after him outside the Vedanta Hall. At the Cheti Chand ceremony, one man pointed him out to me, saying, “This man is the one you should talk to. He sponsors this whole thing. He has lots of real estate, he is a millionaire.” Though I never had a chance to talk to him, I could see from the way he interacted with others that he was a central node in the Sindh community.
The organizational history given on the Hindu Center website makes clear the importance of individual sponsorship through its format. The Powerpoint presentation begins with a slide saying “SOME WHO MADE A DIFFERENCE,” followed by a slide with three individuals. Most of the rest of the history is framed by pictures from each year not of activities at the Center but of the chairman and president in office for that year. This attitude is encapsulated by the phrase “It is not the masses which can change the world, only one is enough to make the difference” (ibid), shown in the Powerpoint history.
“Hindu” is most obviously a religious category, but not a monolithic one. There is no central authority to Hinduism other than a philosophical foundation in the Vedas; there is no institution occupying a role similar to that of the Vatican in the Roman Catholic religion. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, its many adherents worshipping an overlapping pantheon of gods in ways both complementary and contradictory. There are numberless schools and styles within Hinduism. The religious symbol uniting these diverse perspectives is om, which auspiciously graces the center of the Vedanta Hall.
Hinduism is not a congregational religion in the way that Christianity is, but the central location of the Vedanta Hall allows for a certain diversity of religious experiences. It is staffed by Brahmin priests who conduct ceremonies, paid for by dues and sponsorship. It also allows for devotional (bhakti) worship of the gods housed in shrines (murti). This is done through gaze (darsan) which can only be achieved in physical proximity to the shrine. Pooja (offerings) is also a common method of worship. The front of the Vedanta Hall displays the following gods, from right to left:
- ·A scene with Rama, Laxmana, Sita, and Hanuman, primary characters in the Hindu epic Ramayana (Rama is an avatar of Vishnu)
- Mahavira (the final Jain tirthankar)
- Krishna and Radha (Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu)
- Balaji (Balaji is an avatar of Vishnu)
These gods are the object of devotional practice. Worshippers stand in front of the murti in a reverential position, the style and vigor of which is entirely up to the worshipper. They also circumambulate behind the shrines, always clockwise. In my experience worship was followed by meals in the large Vihar Hall, with food serving as a focal point to bring people together for socialization. The meals are times for socialization, for conversation that could not happen during worship, and through the kind of cuisine served serve to mark the event as sponsored by a particular group within the Center.
Different Indian ethnic groups have commonly coalesced when removed to America as a result of their relative invisibility within American culture, as a way of consolidating power rather than remaining fragmented (Kurien 2004). This is evident upon examination of the deities housed at Vedanta Hall. Mahavira, one of the deities, is a Jain deity. Jainism is an advaidika belief system, advaidika meaning that it rejects the authority of the Vedas, the books that give their name to the Vedanta Hall. This seeming contradiction is mitigated by a number of factors, including historical precedent (Jains and Hindus share many holy sites in India, such as the Ellora Caves), practicality (Kurien 2004), and an attitude at the Hindu Center of pluralism, discussed below.
PLURALISM WITHIN THE HINDU CENTER
Pluralism is here taken to mean an attitude that values identity on several different levels as not mutually exclusive. The Hindu Center is internally pluralistic. It is a site of celebration and mutual reinforcement of preexisting cultural patterns, usually embodied in some combination of ethnic, linguistic, and religious identities whose significance is lost to the macro-American world. In this way the Hindu Center functions as a site of resistance to the hegemonic American discourse which would describe every members as little more than “Indian,” perhaps “Hindu,” with no comprehension for the complexity embedded in that term. In American rhetorics of identity, race and nationality are foregrounded, but there is little opportunity for expression of (as an example) Gujarati identity. The Hindu Center is a place for differentiation because, as the gathering place for Indians of all stripes in the area, it is the only public outlet for performance of certain kinds of identities.
At the Hindu Center these signifiers (Tamil language, for example, or origin in the state of Tamil Nadu) coalesce into what I term “sub-communities” in that they have some recognition through specific events but exist within the Center. These may be centered around religious beliefs (Jainism) or regional identity (Sindhi). Some sub-communities have in the past become large enough to break off and form their own Centers. For example, in the vicinity of Charlotte there is a Swami Narayan temple and a Sikh gurudwara who might have joined the Hindu Center if they weren’t large enough to exist autonomously. Nonetheless, American temples tend to be very ecumenical, in part due to the prohibitive cost that operating their own temple would pose to individual sub-communities (Williams 1992:238-240). While this is adequate motivation to form temples that may enshrine deities from different and perhaps conflicting traditions, once that temple is constructed these different traditions serve as audiences for the performance of one another’s unique identity, which would otherwise go unnoticed in the outside world. In this way the Hindu Center functions as a place to transplant historical cultural traditions, the language of which does not exist in the macrocosm of America; the Center is, at times, a microcosm of India. Sub-communities at the Center are permanently tied to the memory of their identity as it existed before immigration.
The coexistence of multiple sub-communities is not without dynamism. As evinced by the example of the Swami Narayan temple, it is possible to become a large enough group to garner one’s own temple. At the level of the Center, this is illustrated by gaining a priest hired specifically to cater to a specific religious style. One informant told me that the “Gujaratis have their own priest now, and the South Indians will be wanting one,” attesting to the presence of competition. Differentiation also comes through organizing cultural events, such as dances for children or religious holidays, or language classes, as the Gujaratis did.
The fact of dynamic pluralism is reflected in the center of Center life, the shrines of the Vedanta Hall. There, the Jains occupy their own niche, their deity Mahavira revered alongside the Hindu gods. I witnessed one path of negotiation between the Center and the Jains during Mahavira Jayanti. The Center President took the microphone to say a few words towards the end of the service, saying that the Jains had been good members and had raised lots of money for the Center in the past. He implored those assembled to “keep giving, and then we can have a good Mahavira in the new Vedanta Hall. And we will also have the Jain symbol on the new flag [of the Hindu Center].” Demonstration of devotion to the whole Center through donation enables differentiation at the sub-community level; agency via sponsorship.
The entire Hindu Center is supportive of differentiation at the sub-community level. Though all the people of the Center are somehow related to the places referenced in Hindu epics like the Ramayana, the experience of the Sindhi people is quintessentially diasporic in its unfolding. As a story that involves Indianness as much as Sindhiness, it is a narrative especially likely to resonate with the sub-communities of the Hindu Center. The story begins with the Sindhi people, a Hindu group living in the Sindh province of what became Pakistan. During the Partition—the violent birth of free India—Sindhs fled Pakistan as fast as they could in fear. Though there was both Hindu and Muslim blood shed on both sides of the border, the Sindhi retelling is one of escape: one Sindhi told me “not all Muslims left India, because it is tolerant. Look at Gandhi. But all the Hindus had to leave Pakistan. They had no chance.” Another told me how his family had rebuilt its wealth after leaving behind much real estate in Sindh, for fear of losing their lives.
This narrative was reflected in a series of posters that adorned the luncheon following Cheti Chand (Sindhi New Year). These posters painted a picture of a Sindhi people who were first victims, then became cosmopolitan, peaceful, and successful. They had become successful people all around the globe, all coming from the five million who escaped, went the narrative, all “without a millimeter of their own land.” A proud people, despite that: “The 2nd most common language in Spain is Sindhi not English” read one poster. The Sindhis, as they presented themselves, are a paragon of the diasporic experience: displaced but successful, victimized then vindicated. One poster read, “They paid supreme price for the FREEDOM OF INDIA,” linking Sindhi identity to national Indian identity.
When I arrived at the Cheti Chand pooja, I spoke to several individuals who were not Sindhi but who were there for themselves. Some were Center administrators; others were just there doing their own devotional pooja. But all expressed support for the Sindhis. One man from Mumbai expressed admiration for their dedication and perseverance. One Sindhi man himself expressed, “Just like there are Jews, Christians, and Hindus, there are different kinds of Hindus. But in a foreign country all the different sects come together.”
The successful framing of the Sindhis as the paradigmatic Indian diaspora community whose sub-communal identity was intertwined with flight and Indian national identity highlights the power which a shared national identity holds within the Center. The story of the Sindhis traces an arc that is international, successfully touching on national identity while retaining regional integrity. If some interactions between sub-communities demonstrate subtle tensions, or at least competition for attention, this tension is more than counterbalanced by solidarity. This solidarity is the result not only of a shared need for a site of differentiation but also of actually shared bonds of displacement from India. Events that were not associated with any particular sub-community but rather were organized at the level of the Center itself were especially associated with this sense of solidarity.
Holi is the second most important festival of the year for many Hindus, not just those of a particular sect. Holi is noted for its liminal qualities and ability to bring people of all kinds together. Everyone wears old clothing and carries colored paint and water, smearing or throwing it on one another with much abandon. It allows people of all kinds to rub together intimately, interacting without antagonism; in India, the festival is noteworthy because it allows lower caste individuals to throw paint on upper caste individuals without fear of retribution.
At the Center, the festival is celebrated in the parking lot. Loud Indian music blares through the speakers. Children carried water guns—a Western addition to the old tradition. I frightfully put my notebook down and entered the fray after being invited by a woman who wiped her paint on my face and wished me a happy Holi. The scene would have been chaotic if not for the convivial mood enjoyed by all. Children—especially the teenage boys—were to be watched for, as they often carried buckets of cold water and traveled in packs. I conversed as much as possible in between the splashes of colored water, learning that the event was attended by members and non-members alike. There were probably two hundred people there in all. Three things were commonly related to me when I asked about Holi: that it brought family together, everyone was equal, and that it reminded individuals of India.
As I have pointed out before, the Center at times functions as a microcosm of India, recreating in the fullest way certain experiences not offered by other institutions in American life. It is firmly rooted in adaptation that serves needs which are tied to place (America), and removal from place (India). Holi is emblematic of processes at the Center that bring all members and even nonmembers together, acting as it does in India as redressive machinery that solidifies group unity through normative communitas (Turner 1982:11).
NATIONALITY AND PLURALISM IN THE DIASPORA
Celebrations of Republic Day, celebrated January 26th, encompassed sub-community differentiation alongside Center solidarity, which was expressed in the language of compatible American and Indian nationalities. This was a very well-attended event, with more than 200 people present throughout. For Republic Day, various groups organized presentations of their sub-community identity, expressed through youth dance and musical activities, which as Beeman (1998:509) notes exist as “social texts that embed long and complex histories of intergroup relations” and which serve at the Hindu Center as a primary vehicle for expressing sub-community autonomy (if you have a cultural dance, you must be a legitimate group, it seemed).
These dances were opened by the singing of both the American and Indian national anthems, marking the day as one in which Center would function as a field for negotiating identity at the national level. The dances which followed testified that sub-communal identity was part and parcel of that national identity and were not extricable from it. Religious identity was invoked through the singing of “God Bless America” and a similar, parallel song in Hindi. Symmetry was signified onstage by Indian and American flags. The pluralistic mood was cemented by a commentary on Gandhi’s effect on Obama and a singing of the civil rights standard “We Shall Overcome.” A speaker talked about the commonalities of India and America, the world’s two largest democracies. Rather than presenting dual national identity as conflictive, the speakers at Republic Day (including Center administrators) presented national identity as interdependent, completely and simultaneously Indian and American. Moreover, the arrangement of the celebration incorporated important religious and regional symbols to similarly reconcile sub-community and national identity. The entire event took place in Gandhi Bhavan, Gandhi’s statue presiding over the repurposed church, symbolizing the community’s ability to appropriate cultural symbols from both sides to create a site of new identity.
Center members on Republic Day and at other times demonstrated commitment to all facets of identity, suggesting that members fall outside anthropological categories of cosmopolitanism (Hannerz 1990:239) because they treat identity, while multifaceted, as cohesive rather than fragmentary. This resulted in novel presentations of identity that, while unorthodox, presented cogent understandings of what it means to be an Indian-American. I ate lunch with Christians who had just finished a non-Christian worship in the Vedanta Hall and heard from a Hindu that Hinduism was compatible with Christianity and that Jesus appeared as “Isaid” in Hindu mythology. Instead of seeing these categories as conflictive, the Hindu Center served as a place to reconcile them. In this the Hindu Center qualifies as further evidence for criticisms of diaspora studies assuming that diaspora communities are primarily oriented towards the homeland rather than the needs of the community in the present (Tambiah 2000:170, Mukadam 2006:108).
It is important to remember that the word Hindu has its roots not in religion but geography, with the same root as Indus; those east of the Indus were called Hindus by Turkic invaders. This helps make sense of the cacophonous diversity of voices coming from the “Hinduism,” which may only exist as a coherent whole in the imagination. It also accounts for why religious minorities like the Jain people are included in the Hindu Center umbrella, suggesting a meaning of ‘Hindu’ in this context that is more cultural or national than it is religious, more tied to common Indian-ness than worship of a particular deity. This is confirmed by the language of the Center’s mission, “to nurture rich Indian spiritual and cultural heritage.” This is done in ways that extend laterally (referring back to India through maintenance of sub-community values) and vertically (in terms of consolidation of place within America). Lateral identity is usually expressed through events held by sub-communities, which seek to differentiate themselves even while mutually supporting one another. Vertical identity is communicated in national terms, both Indian and American.
The Hindu Center then is an arena for performance of identity. Believing, with Clifford Geertz, that culture is public because meaning is, public interaction constantly reshapes and recreates identity (Geertz 1973:12-13). At the Hindu Center, interaction happens through education, religious worship, events, commensality, sponsorship, and celebrations, occurring both at the sub-community level and at the level of the Center itself. Markers of traditional identity, which may have been “set adrift” when translocated to America, are measured, reevaluated, and articulated anew (Palmer 2006:97).
The Charlotte temple exists situated amidst a history of interplay between internal and external forces. The British came to India and made it a colony, but the Indians took agency and became a nation-state. Now, as immigrants in America, Indian-Americans at the Center take the dominant discourses about their identity (which are centered around foggy notions of race and, too often, fear [Kurien 2006:731]) and act upon them. Within the Center, they defy these discourses by organizing as sub-communities to articulate identities alien to America. They also work actively to express a national identity whose power at the Center derives from the fact that it is among the only things shared by almost all members, whose diversity is actively celebrated by the Center.
In my fieldwork I asked a youth about these “different sects” coming together, and he replied: “they are all desis… it means fellow, friend.” At the Hindu Center, Indian-Americans navigate many layers of identity, some of which can only be articulated at the Center. Though these layers are different for different individuals, the Hindu Center is a place to share the difficulty of the passage. When it acts as a microcosm of India, it does so firmly rooted in the lifeways of Indian-Americans, not only hearkening back but looking forward.
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 I was never able to confirm this, but I believe the Brahmins at the Hindu Center were Vaishnava, that is, emphasized an understanding of Vishnu and his avatars as the supreme God. This is based on my observation of the way that the priests decorate their forehead, in a V-shape, which is how Vaishnava priests in India decorate their foreheads.
 This is completely false. Another poster claimed Sindhi was the 3rd most common language in the US and UK, which is similarly and puzzlingly not even close to true. I suspect this is related to inter-sub-community competition that would never be spoken aloud.
 Interestingly enough, this may have had significance that I was never able to investigate. The song has an extensive history of use in Indian contexts, having been employed to great success at different points by Keralan communist students, Bengali activists, and, most recently, in the very popular film My Name Is Khan, about the difficulties faced by Muslims in America.