How We Continue
Given enough time away, the tiny suburb of Flower Mound, Texas, could be an idyllic place. As I drove into town, the familiar rows of trees near home cast little shadow in the May morning. Meticulously maintained roads, without sign of fallen leaves, led to my street where children chased ducks around the neighborhood pond. I coasted past my driveway and parked finally at the home of our friends the Prasads. Taking in the sight of tall brick houses with wrought iron fences, I saw the spitting image of the American Dream. Inside the Prasad house, I would be taking part in an ancient Hindu ritual.
I was late, but I knew that events in my Telugu community ran on “Indian Standard Time”. I fidgeted in the car for a few moments before strolling up to the door. I was nervous. For a couple of years, I had intermittently learned a collection of chanted Sanskrit verses known as the Śri Rudram. This would be my first public chanting since leaving Flower Mound to study Hinduism in graduate school. The Rudram contains eleven sections that enumerate the many names and forms of the Hindu God Śiva, followed by eleven more that request Śiva to fulfill various desires. Altogether, the Rudram is part of the Yajur Veda, one of four sacred Vedas that were the first Hindu scriptures. The Yajur Veda’s provenance dates to sometime between 1500–1000 BCE, but its verses, incredibly, have been transmitted orally with little change from generation to generation over three thousand years. This meant a rigorous system of learning, dedication, and practice.1 It also meant a lot of pressure to not make mistakes. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been practicing at all while in school. Perhaps something about studying religion made me less religious.
When Venkat Prasad opened the door, I was greeted by the customary frenzy of activity preceding the start of a puja. Children ran this way and that, grabbing at each other’s shirt tails, while men and women carried silver bowls, spoons, apples, and ghee to the altar. On that day, an auspicious day for the Hindu God Śiva, we would perform an abhiśekam, where a small idol of the God is ritually bathed with five key materials: milk, ghee, yogurt, sugar, honey. When coupled with our full chanting of the Rudram, the abhiśekam would be known as a Rudrābhiśekam.2
I found a seat near the back of the living room, behind twenty middle-aged men who looked more confident about their chanting prowess. Eventually, my Rudram teacher Veeramani Prasad, Venkat’s father, came by to start the abhiśekam. He anointed my head with a dark grey ash in honor of Śiva and we began. I was proud of myself. Despite the time without practice, my Sanskrit and memory were excellent. But after ten minutes, I knew only every other line. Then, a word here and there. Then, nothing at all. Veeramani, noticing the absence of my voice, looked back with a furrowed brow and nodded upward to ask what was wrong. I shook my head, shrugged my shoulders, and mouthed, “sorry.”
It felt anticlimactic, perhaps blasphemous, to have learned the Rudram for two years and forgotten it in four months. As I grew bored and took out my phone, I saw some children in a corner huddled around an iPad, tapping violently at the screen. One of them was Venkat’s son Krishna, who at four years old, was too oblivious to know the importance of that day’s ritual. Something inside of me grew jealous. Back in my day, I thought, there were no iPads, so you had to sit and watch. I scowled at the children and went back to looking at my phone.
I wanted to take refuge in the fact that Rudram chanting is a niche undertaking; most of my Hindu-American peers had never heard of it. Maybe mastering the chant wasn’t for everyone. Yet, there were twenty strangers gathered in the obscure town of Flower Mound, Texas, to chant Rudram at the Prasad house. Perhaps, then, this was an issue of transferring religious practice through generations, especially in an America that increasingly identified as “spiritual but not religious.”3 It seemed possible that the three-thousand-year-old tradition of learning Rudram could end for many Hindu-American families with my generation or the next. After all, we had iPads.
The night after the Rudrābhiśekam, I joined the Prasads along with my parents for dinner. Their family scene was one of organized chaos. Venkat, recently turned 46, spent his time picking up after his only son Krishna’s spilled morsels of junior enchiladas. His wife, Latha, aided him while ensuring her mother and mother-in-law were eating their veggie tacos (instead of staring at the non-Indian food in disgust). The septuagenarian grandfather, Veeramani, ate half his dinner and spent the remainder of the evening chasing Krishna around the restaurant. Despite all this activity, the faces of all the Prasads were at ease, the most prominent wrinkles on their faces being those left by smiling too often.
The Prasad family’s journey was emblematic of many Hindu-Americans. After immigration reform in 1990, the Indian-American population more than doubled in a decade.4 Venkat, like many others (including my own family), came here in the 90s for a software engineer job, got married, brought his wife over from India, earned good money, and bought a suburban house. Afterwards, when his son was born, he brought his parents from India to live with him. Thus, three generations of Prasads lived under a roof in Flower Mound, Texas: perhaps the last place that a young Veeramani would have imagined. What remains to be seen in the Hindu-American community is how such stories of immigrant success carry a loss of Hindu tradition. Somewhere along his path of economic growth, Venkat had chosen to cultivate his religious growth, not just by visiting the temple more often, but by learning the ancient Rudram. Would his son follow suit? Conceptions of religion are often frozen at the time of immigration, making it difficult for future generations to make religion relevant to their needs. It is unclear if children like Krishna will want to carry the same dedication towards ancient practices as their parents, or whether, like in my case, such traditions are easier forgotten than learned.
When Krishna had finally exhausted himself at our dinner, Veeramani returned triumphantly to his seat and dug his fork into his leftovers. As we conversed about the latest Telugu movies, I told Veeramani that I had doubts about the Rudram’s survival among Hindu-Americans. His unfettered optimism about someday chanting along with his son and grandson made me wonder if I was wrong. I asked him for an interview.
Veeramani Prasad fits the description of “sprightly old man” to the letter: he dances, sings, and walks with a hopeful bounce in his step, but grows serious when talking about the Rudram. He wears t-shirts and jeans, and is more active than me on Facebook, but maintains a miniscule ponytail seen only on the strictest of orthodox upper-caste Hindus. On the day of our conversation, he led me into the prayer room, which was divided from the rest of the Prasad house by an opaque curtain, giving the room a feeling of timelessness.
“I was very unfortunate,” Veeramani told me. “My father died when I was three. I didn’t have any men in the house to teach me our Vedic traditions when I was young. I worked as a manager at a shipyard for several years, and one day my colleague told me I could learn from a new Vedic teacher in town. I told him he was crazy; how could I learn Rudram at age 40! But I went anyway, and my guru was excellent. Not a single day goes by without me thinking of him.
“I’ve been doing Rudrābhiśekam nearly daily for 30 years now. I also teach the Rudram over FaceTime to one student a day, so I can continue the tradition like my guru. Children should be taught the Vedas alongside their present-day academics. See, Rudram is not a mechanical thing. Rudram teaches you how to live as a family man, as a bachelor, as an old person, it teaches you how to live with flies, birds, whatever it is. What the Rudram says is that God is everywhere, nature has been created by God.”
“But now people forget the Rudram from not practicing, like I forgot it,” I said.
“Even if they stop chanting it, they’ll keep the meaning of it in their mind,” Veeramani insisted. “This human brain is an amazing thing; I still remember algebra formulas that I haven’t used since school. See, I worked a busy job but I also made time for Rudram. Where there is a will, there is a way. The next generation needs to learn how to do both. Krishna will do that.”
It seemed that learning Rudram offered Veeramani a way to connect to his ancestors despite losing his father early on. Yet, instead of appealing to religious tradition or culture, he spoke about its importance in abstract terms of “God is everywhere”. Several Hindu chants and songs, which are much easier to learn than Rudram, also address the many names and forms of God. Why couldn’t the next generation of Hindu-Americans, like Krishna, learn those instead? There must have been some unspoken appeal, for Veeramani, of his grandson continuing the Rudram tradition, the same appeal that had popularized Rudram chanting in Flower Mound.
I left the prayer room, still feeling uncertain about the transfer of such traditions through generations in America and came upon Venkat playing with Krishna in the living room. I wondered if Venkat chanted Rudram out of filial piety or religious piety, or whether they were inextricably tied. One day Krishna would be asked to learn the chant, to practice it with difficulty to remember it. Would filial piety be then enough for Krishna to keep the tradition going, as his father had? I approached Venkat to settle some of these doubts.
Ever the diligent software engineer, Venkat insisted that I send him interview questions in advance of our meeting. When we met, he pulled me into the office room of his house, and I found it significant that he had chosen this whereas Veeramani had chosen the prayer room. Mid-afternoon light from the window fell onto Venkat’s receding hairline, as he swiveled in his leather chair to a notepad on which he had written answers for me. Before he could start reading, Krishna waddled in and Venkat had to banish him to the living room.
“Currently, I chant Rudram on Saturdays and Sundays at home,” said Venkat. “During auspicious months for Śiva, I chant daily. As for why I’m not doing it daily year-round… I have to blame myself for that: either work, or being busy with Krishna, all sorts of things. I used to find Rudram chanting occasions through one of three WhatsApp groups. When I first started chanting I would go literally anywhere people were hosting, even if I had never even met the hosts before. I did that for about six years.”
“A WhatsApp group for Rudram chanting!” I said. “Why is it so popular?”
“All these saints or “holy people” [quotes indicated by Venkat], like Sathya Sai Baba, you go to them with your problems and they used to tell you to get an abhiśekam done. For some reason in the past 10 years, they started to say: if you have any problem, go chant Rudram. It’s like a trend that’s catching on for Hindus and even Westerners. In India, I wouldn’t have looked at it from an out-of-the-box perspective. But in the U.S., some say Rudram is orthodox, some just like the sound of it, others want to meditate with it.”
“The boundaries of Hinduism are looser here?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Venkat said. “Now they’re saying all genders, all castes should chant Rudram. For me, when my father told me about it, I wanted to learn from him. But at the time, calls to India were expensive, so I learned however I could. I pasted pieces of the Rudram on my windshield and just kept reading it. When I finally chanted it one day from start to finish, it was exhilarating. I wanted to do that in front of my father!”
“Did Rudram help you connect with your father even though he was in India?” I asked.
“You could say that,” Venkat accepted.
“Will Krishna learn?” I inquired, reaching the heart of my curiosity.
“Yes, we will teach him at age seven because the next generation needs to have balance. Learn the rituals! If you stop afterwards, that’s fine, but at least you have some philosophical foundation. Rudram has nothing to do with religion — it just tells us how to relate as a human to other humans, and other living beings. I don’t think it is so different from the Qur’an or Bible.”
Venkat had finally shed some light on the Rudram’s popularity in America: more people were choosing to divorce this ancient tradition from its ritual history, making it a newly “spiritual” exercise that was fit for meditation as well as ancient ritual. On top of that, cults surrounding holy figures like Karunamayi or Sathya Sai Baba had caught on to Rudram like the latest fashion trend; indeed, religion is subject to fads in the same way denim is. Both Veeramani and Venkat said the Rudram’s underlying philosophy was applicable to anyone, not just those who followed a strict chanting tradition. Venkat had even learned in an unorthodox way, pasting verses on his windshield. Slippage of tradition occurred, but it was leading to democratization instead of loss. While they both insisted that Krishna would learn it in the orthodox manner, they seemed to be okay with him someday forsaking the chanting on his own accord. Perhaps the future would hold dozens of Hindu-Americans like myself who learned and forgot their traditions in a society that rarely left time for ancient ritual. Perhaps, if that should be the case, there would still be some net benefit or desire for learning Vedic material in the first place. While I wanted to confirm this hunch and complete my profile of the Prasad family’s religiosity, Krishna was roughly twenty years too young. Instead, I went to a similar source that had been around Rudram his entire life: the son of our local priest.
The priest’s son, Aakash, is not what anyone would expect. Armed with boyish good looks and copious charm, he has crafted a career as a budding actor and model at age 24. We met for donuts and coffee in downtown Dallas, where he greeted me with a comically wide smile and insisted that I order the cold brew. The casual setting of our conversation seemed to indicate how our generation handled religion, compared to Venkat or Veeramani’s generations. As we ate and chatted, he flicked his long hair to the side in between sentences that casually mentioned Zen philosophers and financial trading concepts. I nodded my head with vigor, pretending to know what he was talking about until I could bring the conversation around to Rudram.
“I grew up in my father’s shadow, absolutely,” Aakash said. “I was just known as the temple boy [emphasis by Aakash], for years! The entire community had certain expectations on me. But I eventually found the value in Hinduism myself, and embraced the temple boy identity. It meant I could impact my peers by teaching a more intangible understanding of Hinduism. Our generation doesn’t know that there is such a rich philosophy in the Vedas. Our parents’ generation follows tradition for the sake of it, but now is the time of reasoning. If there’s no reason to continue a tradition, we’re not going to.
“I’ve heard the Rudram for like 20 years so it’s in my brain. When I grew older I started looking into the definitions of the words. For example: the word “Rohit” in the Rudram refers the red of the rising and setting sun. When I see the setting sun, I remember that. Everywhere I look is some iteration of Śiva as described in the Rudram, and that’s what the Rudram is trying to say ultimately. You see God everywhere and you try to remain virtuous as a result. I’ve had transcendental experiences listening to the Rudram: I would skip classes to listen at the temple, I would listen to it on long car drives.”
“And then you switch to hearing Drake?” I joked, giving him a break to finish his donut.
“Yes, exactly! But really, with Rudram and Vedas, people will not find the value in them immediately. I think it’s imperative that our generation knows the background behind them — if we don’t, then what’s the point? I want to teach that predisposition to philosophy to my kids.”
Incredibly, across three generations, the same basic view of Rudram, and the need to continue its tradition, held fast. Each person I interviewed maintained that it helped them to see God everywhere, that its true meaning was somehow beyond religion. Yet, each generation also had a progressively more open view of how the practice of the Rudram could occur. Whereas Veeramani had to access Rudram through a strict Vedic teacher, Venkat used tapes and printed pages to learn it however he could and came across others with utterly differently methods. Aakash, in millennial fashion, put the Rudram on his iPhone and simply listened to it whenever he desired. Against the odds of immigration and modernization, Hindu-Americans like Venkat and Aakash seemed to be creating the slight concessions in their traditions that would allow practices like the Rudram to survive.
However, the Rudram had not lost all its barriers to entry, as I learned from Priya, a teenager that briefly learned from Veeramani. After her first period, she was told she couldn’t learn the Rudram anymore. Menstruation has historically been seen as impure by Hindu orthodoxy, which prevented women from accessing certain spaces or traditions. In Priya’s eyes, this was “old-fashioned” and “discriminatory,” and she plans to learn it anyway in the future to pass on to her children. Priya’s attitudes can be found within many other strands of Hinduism as well, which do not agree with the orthodox, upper-caste tradition that denied her access. She certainly has options to learn by herself: a quick Google search results in a plethora of websites dedicated to cataloguing and translating the verses for modern readers. In Priya’s case, generational transfer of Hindu-American religion can go on to take several forms and break historical restrictions. Though Priya was prevented from learning, she possesses a greater desire to ensure such an opportunity for her children through any means available.
Thus, for Hindu-Americans, one path to salvaging tradition is to break free of frozen conceptions from the time of immigration. As witnessed in the views of the Prasad family, Aakash, and Priya, Hindu traditions are not necessarily lost in America, they are instead molded to each successive generation. If a tradition of adaptation continues, even the most ancient rituals can survive. By choosing ritual meanings compatible with modern-day spirituality and forsaking prior cultural restrictions, Hindu-Americans can newly dictate what Hinduism, or practices like the Rudram, can mean. As Aakash said, “if we don’t, then what’s the point?”
A few days after my failed Rudram attempt at Venkat’s house, a group of Indian families in Flower Mound went out for an afternoon picnic at the local lake. As I walked up to the picnic tables, Krishna, cheeks rosy from running too much, dashed forward at top speed to hug me. Veeramani started walking up to greet me as well, and as Krishna babbled something to me about playing tag, his grandpa ordered him to speak to me in Telugu.
Veeramani turned to me and said, “make sure he speaks Telugu, he’s only speaking English since he started school. We have to correct that.”
“Okay!” I said, eager for Krishna not to forget Telugu as I had.
Krishna waited for Veeramani to walk away and then asked for me to bend down. He whispered defiantly into my ear in clear English, “let’s go play in the…” He paused, searching for the word, and said, “neellu,” the Telugu word for water.
1. See Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism, page 39.
2. Traditionally, such worship is most common among upper-caste Hindus that favor Śiva. This does not speak for all forms of Hindu worship by any means.
3. See Michael Lipka and Claire Gecewicz’s article in Pew Research, titled “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual but Not Religious.”
4. See Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova’s article on MigrationPolicy.org, titled “Indian Immigrants in the United States.”