June 4, 2001
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Brahmins Deplore Loss of Culture

Ashok Easwaran
India Abroad Correspondent in Chicago

A small group of Indian Americans flew in from all over the country to Elmhurst, a small town near Chicago, to discuss issues that concern them.

It was a motley group, comprising physicians, engineers, scientists and students, the youngest being in their teens, while the oldest was in his nineties.

The event was organized by the American Association of Telugu Brahmins, which took birth in Pittsburgh in 1999 and claims about 150 members.

Although there are over 20,000 Telugu Brahmins in the US, many apparently shied from the association because they do not want to be seen as 'casteist'.

Others, more cosmopolitan, have moved away, either by choice or through an inter-cultural or interracial marriage, from the orthodox Brahmin culture and all that it entails.

But the organizers took pains to explain that they were not 'casteist'. "Traditionally, Brahmins have been known as the well-wishers of society. We only want to preserve our culture. The Vedas are getting lost. Our duty is to revive them," said C M Prasad, association president.

"Brahmin," said Dr Sriram Sonty, who has done considerable work for the preservation of Telugu arts and culture in the US, "was a profession and became a caste much later," adding, "one can become a Brahmin by birth as well as by belief."

While some lamented the gradual dilution of Brahmin culture, others spoke of the discrimination Brahmins faced in several states in India, notably Tamil Nadu. The association, many felt, would lead to a "support system" which would encourage the second-generation Telugu Brahmin in the US.

"The Brahmin system encourages stability and respect for the institution of marriage," said Sonty.

A network of Telugu Brahmins would also achieve another objective --a meeting of eligible men and women, which would hopefully end in marriage. Several second-generation Telugu Brahmins said they had married another Brahmin on grounds of compatibility. "Except for the language everything else is common," said Keerthana Saradananda. "Our beliefs and food habits are similar."

Saradananda met her husband Anikit Sidhaye, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, while they were both doing medical residency at Northwestern University.

Another girl, Divya Vinjamuri joked that a marriage between Brahmins would be ideal because "our practices at home are so orthodox, it is very hard for other people to put up with us".

Elaborating on what appealed to her as a Brahmin, she said, "Vegetarianism and respect for elders are the primary values. Here [in the US] respect for parents is minimal."

On an intellectual level, she said she was attracted to the Brahminical "concept of duty, which is absent from Western philosophy. We have been taught that if one does one's duty, all else follows."

Arun Sankisa, a young software engineer at Lucent, said his American colleagues and friends were "very understanding" when he explained why he was vegetarian. "When we go out to eat, they even check out first if the restaurant has vegetarian dishes," he said.

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