I am writing today with a heavy heart. About four days ago, I was notified that my grandfather, my Thatha, had passed away in India. While the entire family was able to free their schedules to uproot to Chennai, India to pay their respects, I am tied to my duties here in Afghanistan…ironically, I would of had the shortest distance to travel. In lieu of being with family, I now use this writing space, as I do after each of my missions, as a therapeutic tool to organize and articulate my thoughts to better understand myself.
From his wooden prayer stool wearing nothing but his doti and a punal, I would almost laugh as a child when I saw Thatha shouting orders at his wife and four children (to include my father) around his house. They each obeyed quietly, not out of subordination, but out of a unique form of love not found or known in the United States; at least, not to my generation. Thatha was a stern man who rarely smiled…but when he did, it almost always had something to do with his grandchildren. He didn’t say much, but the tight embrace from his thin and bony fingers and watching a few tears roll down his eyes each time I visited his apartment in Chennai told me everything I needed to know.
When I was young, from time to time, I would send Thatha a letter to let him know about life in America. I remember thinking that I wanted to impress him with my writing; not only its content, but its style. I wanted him to think I was smart, that I was going to be important one day. More importantly, I had my eye on some unique birthday gifts and would do anything to gain favor with my most generous caretakers. No matter the motive, I know those letters meant a lot to Thatha. He kept every single letter I sent in a small cupboard along with hundreds of documents, playbills, and other small trinkets marking the myriad accomplishments of his seven grandchildren. I was Thatha’s eldest grandchild. For that, I feel a degree of obligation to be there for the family during his passing. Since I can’t, I will offer the next best thing.
Below is an essay I recently submitted to the Hindu American Foundation’s Annual Essay Contest. The prompt was “The importance of the Hindu-American Identity.” I was humbled to learn last week, around the time of Thatha’s passing, that I had won 1st place in the contest. I never got the chance to send this essay to Thatha, but I think he would have liked it. In hopes that they have high speed internet access in Heaven, he might have a chance to read it on my website. I offer the following essay as a tribute to him.
My Battle Within: The Identity Crisis of a Hindu Soldier in the U.S. Army
By Rajiv Srinivasan
The barrel of my M4 assault rifle is slender, black, and cold. The rippled plastic grips fit ergonomically to a mission driven hand; one that aggresses to protect a nation and way of life. With each trigger squeeze, a 5.56 caliber bullet breaches the muzzle at 2,900 feet per second with the sole purpose of taking another’s life. Despite its lethality, this weapon is only a piece of metal. It is nothing without the mind and heart of the soldier perched behind it. As I dawn my body armor, grab my weapon, and prepare to lead my platoon of 22 soldiers into Afghanistan, I hesitate. I turn to the portrait of Krishna in my office and demand of him, “What is the worth of this fight? Is it worth our limbs, our lives, or the heartbreak of our parents? What cause is so important as to merit the coming violence?” And so begins my war within: the quest for an identity.
Like most Indian youth in the U.S., I faced the inner conflict between my Indian and American identities. At home, I watched Bollywood movies and prayed to Hindu deities; but at school, I spoke English, played football, and did whatever I could to emulate a typical American childhood. I felt pulled in two directions: one identity abandoning my Indian heritage, the other neglecting my American way of life. Thus, I went through my most formative years without knowing who I was, nor what I stood for.
As high school came to an end, I hastily made the decision to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but did so in vain. At the time, I was not sure about being an Army officer. I was just looking for a shining star for my résumé. I was looking for a way to pay for college. Perhaps on a deeper level, I was looking for a sense of belonging. I wanted an identity to which everyone in my immediate surroundings could relate and respect.
The U.S. Army is a rare home for an Indian immigrant, but no other endeavor has ever given me more professional and spiritual fulfillment than the experience of military service. The Army challenged my most extreme patriotic influences against my peaceful Hindu beliefs. How could I serve patriotically as a U.S. Army Officer, owning the responsibility of waging war against our national enemies, but remain a man of the Hindu faith believing in the peaceful coexistence of all beings? This was a deep philosophical confrontation, but I accepted it with resolve.
Through days of wet, cold, hot, humid, tired, and hungry, I maintained a vegetarian diet. After a long day of military training, I returned to my barracks to indulge myself in the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita. I found solace in Arjuna’s struggle as a shamed warrior fighting against his blood. I found strength in Krishna’s assertion of conviction and discipline. I found that, though typical Hindus and Soldiers lead vastly different lives, both share a common purpose: to serve a higher calling for good. Thus, there was no need for a struggle between my American and Hindu identities; rather, finding strength in one made me stronger in the other.
My Hindu-American Identity is now a defining part of my life. As Arjuna beckons of his charioteer, “How can I wage war against my family? I would rather surrender, than commit such atrocities”, Krishna affirms that it is our duty as Hindus to do what we believe is right, regardless of the opposition. When peaceful attempts to reconcile fail, we must be prepared to defend the values in which we so whole-heartedly believe. It is this reasoning that convinces Arjuna to fight to protect his kingdom. It is this reasoning that Gandhi used when supporting the British Army’s aggression against the Nazis in World War II. This reasoning is why I feel so compelled to defend this nation, that has given my family countless gifts, against those who wish to do it unnecessary harm. I do not fight in spite of my religion. I fight inspired by it.
The importance of the Hindu-American identity extends beyond a vague resolve to fight for what you believe in. Each of us is faced daily with moral challenges in this country, and our reactions to them define our spiritual identities. This nation is in an ethical crisis; from the poorest of American ghettos through the wealthiest of corporate banks. Hindu-Americans are a dominant source of influence, wealth, and intellect in this nation, so what does it say of our personal constitutions if we tolerate the ethical degradation around us? We have the means to drastically improve the ethical standards in this country. We owe it to ourselves as Hindu-Americans to defend, as Arjuna does his Kingdom, the moral foundations which have made this country a haven for religious and ethnic tolerance. We could collectively sit on the sidelines and criticize our leadership as many Americans do. But if we aspire to follow Krishna’s guidance, it is our duty to proactively defend the integrity that upholds our great society. This is the new importance, the calling, of the Hindu-American identity: inspired by our faith, we must actively rebuild our nation’s character and preserve it for our posterity. So I ask of each Hindu-American, what have you done to make America stronger for our children?
Krishna’s picture sits in my office as a constant reminder of my Hindu-American Identity; a reminder that strength in principle outweighs the comfort of indifference. No matter what challenges lie ahead of me, I will bear my uniform each day with pride knowing I am defending a nation I truly love, and caring for a platoon of soldiers who do the same. It is through the discharge of my duties to God and Country that I have finally found the identity I was looking for all along; that of a fulfilled Hindu-American.