On January 10, 1969, I left India to pursue higher studies at the University of Houston. Little did I realize that my life would change so much after that date. It has been an exciting and fulfilling 39 years here in North America, and I feel I have done well in retaining my Indian roots while assimilating some of the pertinent Western culture into my lifestyle, just as many of my fellow Indian-born, first generation North Americans have as well.
Finding this ‘balance’ and establishing an identity of my own however, has not been an easy task. In fact, dealing with non-Indians was at times as frustrating as dealing with our own Indian people – something few Indian born people would expect. I would like to share my own personal identity crisis for the past 39 years amongst our own people in North America. Identity crisis may be too strong a word but certainly name confusion has caused enough grief in my life.
We have a tendency to identify a person by their name and determine by that where they come from and what language they are likely to speak. A name such as RAO, KUMAR or MURTHY could be a Telugu, Kannadiga, Maharashtran, or even Tamil. They could be Brahmins, Kammas, Velamas, Lingayats, or Christians. Despite all these possibilities, when I introduce myself to a Telugu person as “SHARANA BASAPPA”, their immediate reaction is to say “Ah! You must be from Karnataka”. My answer to that is “NO, I am from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.”. Their next question is, “Do you speak Telugu?” to which I answer “yes”. This will be followed up by that statement “But you must speak Kannada at home”; and so on, and so forth. I used to find this extremely frustrating and in the beginning I would answer most people in a very defensive manner. I used to say “I am Telugu, my mother and father are Telugu, my Thatha and Muthatha are Telugu, and our generations have been Telugu for 500 years!” On the other hand when I met a Kannadiga and introduce myself as “SHARANA BASAPPA”, they would immediately start speaking in Kannada. As this occurred repeatedly, I found myself becoming more bothered with this. Was I supposed to be something else? Am I supposed to know how to speak Kannada? Am I not also an Andhra? A Telugu? My discomfort reached the point where I decided to discover more of my background and my roots as a TELUGU VEERASHAIVA.
I grew up as a Veerashaiva, commonly known as Lingayat , with Telugu as my mother tongue. Veerashaivism set its roots in Karnataka in the 12th century. The ongoing political unrest, social inequality, exploitation and religious apartheid dictated the need for a new religion that satisfies the longings of all people, not just a few select Brahmins. Basaveshwara created such a religion, known as Veerashaivism or Lingayatism. He himself who was born into a Brahmin family denounced the UPANAYANAM ceremony at the age of 9, and left home in search of a new religion and social order, one that was accessible and fair to all people. Basaveshwara was in fact the forerunner among modern Hindu social reformers. Some of the key social reforms that were advocated by Gandhi were long entrenched as part of Veerashaiva belief. Removal of untouchability, abolition of caste, equal opportunity for women, equal respect for all professions, dignity of labour, uplifting of the masses; all of which appear modern in concept, were brilliantly envisaged by Basaveshwara 800 years ago. Currently, there are approximately 20 million Veerashaivas residing in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
Basaveshwara’s impact was felt in many parts of Andhra Pradesh including the coastal areas. Some of the well known literary scholars of Andhra Pradesh are Veearashaiavas; Sri Palkuriki Somanthudu, Siva Sri Bandaru Thammayya, Sri Piduparthi Somanatha Kavi, Sri Mallikarjuna Panditharadhya and Sri Mahadevaradhya of Vijayawada. Of course Sri Thammayya was a 19th century scholar but Sri Palkuriki and Sri Panditharadhya belong to the 12th century, as Basava’s contemporaries. Sri Palkuriki has written a very important book known as “BASAVA PURANA PANDITARADHYA CHARITRAM”. The first publication in the Kannada language about the life of Basaveshwara is in fact a translation from this Telugu book by Sri Bheema Kavi. This book contained some controversial statements about established practices in Hinduism and hence, never gained the popularity or the recognition it deserved. According to Sri Thammayya this book is “ఆంధ్ర భాషకు జీవనౌషధం". Of course Sri Thammayya was not only a great Telugu poet and literary scholar but also a well known Veerashaiva in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. His articles in Andhra Patrika, "శ్రీనథ విమర్షనా వ్యాసములు" have earned him the title as "విమర్షకాగ్రేసర". Some of his many titles include “Shiva Sharana”, “Shiva Sahiti Sarwa Bhauma”, “Soma Sahityacharya” and finally in 1968 he was honoured by the Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy with “Suvarna Pathakamu and Kashmir Shawl”.
An identity crisis or confused identity has forced me to read and research into my heritage and, in doing so, has reinforced my beliefs and upbringing as a Telugu Veerashaiva. Once I fully understood my roots, I became less defensive and was able to deflect the comments I had once found hurtful by speaking intelligently of my heritage. I have also been able to educate others along the way, building understanding and even motivating others to learn of their own history.
As first generation parents, we express concern for the identity of our children in North America, and rightfully so. We genuinely fear at times that our children may not have the right identity or may not have any identity at all. I hope this article will help many of our young people born here in North America to accept their own perceived identity crisis and encourage them to learn more of their roots. It is not enough to label yourself as ‘brown’ when your heritage is so rich in culture and diversity, something that should be celebrated rather than suppressed. I hope our youth will start learning more about their roots, heritage, culture and religion and be proud to share with any and all people who question their identity. The perceived identity crisis is forcing our children, to find out who they really are, and it is very positive and promising. It is my observation that many of our youth are keen on discovering and expressing their heritage, culture, and religion and proudly share this with others.
I am proud to call myself a Telugu Veerashaiva. This has led to great personal satisfaction and an inner peace within my soul. I encourage everyone who is questioned about their roots, to take that opportunity to discover more of your heritage and culture. Be proud of your history and speak openly and confidently about it with your friends, colleagues and peers. You’ll find, as I have, that doing so gives you a richness and sense of belonging and identity amongst the mosaic of people in the world today.
OM NAMAH SHIVAYA