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Diasporic Desires:
Making Hindus & the Cultivation of Longing in the United
States and Beyond

Forthcoming from New York University Press

Based on more than 20 years of extensive fieldwork and over 400 interviews, Diasporic Desires focuses on the political and affective dimensions of contemporary Hindu formations in North America. These manifestations of Hinduism are linked to modern variants of the tradition found in urban India, global Hindu nationalist movements, and iterations of religion among North American ethnic and immigrant communities. Each chapter follows trajectories of desire as they have evolved among North American Hindus, from the desires of new immigrants and parents who came beginning in the late 1960s to those of the second-generation who became adults in the 1990s and 2000s.

 

For North American Hindus, like other immigrant communities, the desires associated with diasporic experiences manifest in a range of ways and have always been about more than longing for homelands. Situating contemporary Hindu formations in their historical context, book chapters provide detailed ethnographic accounts and analysis of a range of spheres —educational, theological, political, ritual, material, romantic, civic, and nationalistic—that shape modern Hinduism and Hindus today.

Diasporic Desires examines the desires that are pursued and cultivated by parents and community leaders in their endeavors to create Hindu communities and subjectivities. Indeed, many diasporic Hindu practices revolve around the inculcation and fulfillment of desires. Desire is a recurrent trope, articulated differently by parents, teachers, community leaders, students, young adults, devotees, and children.

 

The word 'desire' does not denote a single emotion, practice, or state of awareness. And, it is the multivalency of  ‘desire’ that enables it to serve as a useful framework for exploring the aspirational and affective dimensions of Hindu diasporic life. Inflected in a range of ways, desire can be an outgrowth of love, affection, anxiety, fear, vulnerability, hatred, and/or devotion; it can be personal and communal, public and private, proactive and reactive. The book considers not only the spheres in which explicit discourses about desire are used to convey and construct notions about what it means to be a Hindu living in the contemporary diaspora but it also examines the ways in which desire serves as motivation.

Desires inspire parents and community leaders to create Hindu educational programs, curricula, camps, and organizations for themselves and their children. Myriad desires are present among those who advocate and mobilize around issues of the representation of Hindus, Hinduism, and India, be it in public schools, the academy, or civic life. As women have taken on an increasingly central role in the dissemination and codification of modern Hinduisms, new configurations of authority and desires have arisen with respect to gendered norms. Not only do people express their own desires, but they negotiate, facilitate, or hinder the desires, both real and perceived, of others. Desire, in these instances, is not only aspirational—driven by what people want their children to know and find meaningful, with whom they want them to feel kinship, or how they want Hindus to be perceived—but it is generative, propelling effort and action, fueling political agendas and the creation of new institutions, and prompting processes of communal- and self-scrutiny, discipline, and circumscription. Through engagement with others, participation in pedagogic and intellectual exercises, rituals of devotion and expression, acts of consumption and representation, performances of citizenship and civic duty, and contestations over history, authenticity, and authority, Hindus are enacting desires and making and remaking new forms of Hinduism and Hindus in North America.  

Shedding light on Hindu communities, but also on larger human processes, the book explores how desires make, sustain, and animate subjects. The ways that people locate themselves and are located by others are often artifacts of desire. Using desire as a lens through which to explore modern identity formations foregrounds the affective dimensions of political and religious endeavors, complicating how we make sense of the globalized world in which we live.

The book explores the ways in which religious groups foster sentiments of belonging and cultivate identity among the next generation, engaging in processes of self-fashioning.  Parents and community leaders advocate and cultivate "desirable desires" in educational and theological contexts (Hindu camps, schools, temples), through practices of consumption (South Asian groceries, sari shops, restaurants, and trips to South Asia), and self-representation (exhibitions and performances). Desires are evident in the formation and mobilization of Hindu political organizations, and through rituals and discourse reinforcing social and sexual norms, or queering those norms through the articulation of new theologies and the evolution of rituals. And they are at work in enactments of, what I describe as, “strategic citizenship” among Hindus desiring public acceptance and seeking to assimilate through a framework and politics of respectability, especially in the wake of hate crimes.

Documenting the evolution of exhibitionary practices and the pursuit of epistemic desires through advocacy efforts surrounding the representation of India and Hindus in public school textbooks, academia, and popular culture, Diasporic Desires helps readers to consider the implications of North American Hindu efforts to actively curate their story and traditions for consumption by Others as well as the next generation of American-born Hindus. 

Diasporic Desires attends to the contemporary political landscape and the way that the construct of the “model minority” has shaped and situated Hindus in relationship to other groups, both fostering solidarities across racial and religious lines and contributing to anti-Black and anti-Muslim racism. Masking the casteist and supremacist logics that undergird their public advocacy on issues such as education and representation, the work explores how Hindu groups coopt progressive language and leverage fear using discourses of victimization and accusations of 'Hinduphobia' to further their campaigns. 

 

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