In many states across the US, October has been declared as the Hindu Heritage Month, marking the cultural and spiritual contributions of Hinduism as well as the role of the Hindu diaspora community in the USA's social and economic milieu. As per the Hindu American Foundation, a US-based diaspora association and advocacy platform, there are 2.23 million Hindu Americans, spread across the country. However, the total numbers of Indian diaspora including People of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Non-Residential Indians (NRIs) account to be approximately four million in the US, adding significantly to the country’s sociocultural, political and economic progress. This diaspora community is a consumer and promoter of Indian soft power through cuisine, films, crafts and art forms, literature and more. Additionally, diaspora members also propound indigenous ideas, values and practices rooted in their traditions and thus enhancing Indian cultural footprint across the globe.
The proclamation of the Vermont State, released by the Office of Governor Philip B Scott demonstrates the influence of Indic values and philosophy. The document mentions, “Hinduism was officially introduced to the United States by Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and he founded the Vedanta Society in San Francisco, in 1900 … “Hindu Americans promote the ideals of pluralism, religious freedom, and mutual respect, which are inherent to their teachings. The Vedas, the ancient sacred texts of Hinduism, provide the basis for these core principles: “Truth is one, the wise call it by many names” (Ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti).”
Synchronous to the spread of ideas and values is the increasing presence of the Indian diaspora in multinational corporations, entrepreneurial ventures and other professional sectors. Owing to their enterprising nature, requisite cultural know-how, and ease in adapting to foreign environments, the Indian workforce has well-established itself across the professional spectrum, as business leaders, influencers, and industry experts. As highly educated immigrant entrepreneurs, members of the Indian diaspora are placed in dynamic and technologically sophisticated industries and have gained recognition for their intellectual excellence and socially active lifestyles.
The State of California which has been celebrating the Hindu American Awareness and Appreciation Month for over five years now noted in its resolution that “Hindu Americans share the entrepreneurial spirit of America and contribute to California’s economic vitality, having been pioneers and leaders in Silicon Valley and founding several of its early startups. Hindu Americans are estimated to be employed in 40 percent of startups in Silicon Valley … Hindu Americans have also contributed to many of California’s economic sectors and have particularly excelled in the areas of business, law, politics, information technology, medicine, and science.”
Furthermore, a few individuals have also made successful strides in advancing and popularizing Indic knowledge traditions abroad through entrepreneurial, and institutional means. The diaspora community has played a significant role in promoting Yoga, Ayurveda and Indic wellness traditions in the US. These include, amongst others, Dr. Vasant Lad who founded The Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, Arun Deva and Suhas Kshirsagar who occupy key leadership positions in the National Ayurvedic and Medical Associations and Sevanti Institute. Today, the Yoga industry alone generates revenue worth 9 billion in the US.
Commemorating the Hindu Heritage Roy Cooper, Governor of North Carolina in the state’s Hindu Heritage Month proclamation noted that “Hindu heritage, culture, traditions and values provide invaluable solutions to many of life’s problems and often serve as a source of inspiration, reflection and contemplation for the millions of individuals who look to the teaching of Hinduism for guidance.” Besides this, diaspora members also contributed immensely to the creative and academic sectors. Visual artist Shanthi Chandrasekhar created a Kolam installation for the White House; Prof Subhash Kak, a strong proponent of Indic Knowledge Systems and also a recipient of Padma Shri for his contributions in quantum science, AI and mathematics; and Srijith Gopinath, the only Indian chef to have won two Michelin stars and has pioneered an infusion of Indian and Californian cuisines.
The recognition of these contributions and the celebration of Hindu Heritage by state governments as well as individuals, therefore, strongly communicates the influence of Indian culture and the potential it holds in bringing the diverse communities together. It is also a significant step towards strengthening people-to-people relations as well as diaspora diplomacy.
However, the spread of our heritage and values through the diaspora is neither confined geographically to the US nor is a recent phenomenon. Authorities of the host nations have acknowledged the peaceful and pluralist nature of the Hindu community, giving them respect and a place in their societal fabric. This was demonstrated in the case of merchant communities from Gujarat and Maharashtra who undertook voyages to Russia and settled in Astrakhan, on the banks of the Volga River. In as early as the 18th century, the Russian Senate issued a law to protect the Hindu beliefs and practices of the Indian settlers, making it the first of its kind in Russia. In 1788, the Bhagawad Gita was translated, for the first time, into Russian. Even today, the interest in our spiritual texts including Vedas and in the philosophy of Yoga, the popularity of Indian literature and performing arts as well as the activities of ISKON, BAPS and other Hindu religious groups continue to keep this cultural affinity alive.
Even before travelling to Russia, traders, merchants and artists journeyed from India to Southeast Asia. This led to a very organic yet strong integration of Indic beliefs and traditions with the local practices of the region, some of which continue to date. A flourishing diaspora community lives in Thailand today, many of whom are fifth or sixth-generation PIOs. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Thailand in November 2019, a commemorative coin was released to mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. A Thai translation of the 19th-century Tamil classic literature, Tirukkurall was also launched, thus indicating the strong connection the Indian diaspora in Thailand has with their motherland. The India Heritage Center, schools dedicated to Indian performing arts, and of course the vibrant India Town in Singapore is a testimony to the presence of a large and flourishing Indian diaspora in the country. The Indian government has also highlighted the deep-rooted cultural and civilizational linkages with Southeast Asia as a key pillar of its Act East Policy. This has created greater avenues for governments and individuals on both sides to the practice of diaspora diplomacy and develop strong cultural dialogues between the two regions.
In another instance, the government of Victoria, Australia, in 2019, provided assistance worth AUD 3 million to the Indian diaspora community for the purpose of temple conservation and building cultural centres. Victoria is home to the highest number of Indian PIOs, NRIs and expats across Australia and this community has been important in making Victoria one of the most multicultural places in the world.
In this sense, the Indian diaspora has served as a bridge between the diverse cultures of their homeland and host land. Over the years, they have been influential in shaping a global discourse, increasing awareness towards Indic philosophies and values, underpinned by ideals of democracy, acceptance and pluralism. The efforts by various foreign governments at the national and state level to promote Indic heritage and wisdom, carried forth by the diaspora community, signifies the increasing relevance and appreciation of India’s cultural contributions to the world. At the same time, it also indicates the power that the Indian diaspora community holds as contributors to their host country’s economic, political and social progress. Today, the Indian diaspora community has not just emerged as the largest in the world but also as a powerful instrument of our soft power.