Every few years I teach a class called “Hippies.” The main theme of the course is to follow the white, suburban middle-class in its homage to Asia – from the 1967 Summer of Love debut of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Mediation to the 1990s version via Deepak Chopra and the Dalai Lama.
We study the genuine sense of malaise among suburban youth (the condition that Paul Goodman called “Growing Up Absurd”), but we also tend to the way in which “Asia” functions as an alibi for a politics to transcend the condition of the suburb. A bumper sticker that says “Free Tibet” seems to offer an entry into a transcendental politics, far removed from the social melancholy of suburban life.
Does Tibet or Hinduism offer a coherent program to reconstruct the oppression of suburban capitalism? My own sense is that it facilitates an escape from the rigors of our world. The conceit that whites have no culture and that they can get cultural from this tryst with Asia also contributes to the continued fascination with the surface and/or spiritual level of Asian cultures.
When Gwen Stefani of No Doubt or Madonna can wear a bindi and get accolades for it, those thousands of South Asian girls and women who get teased in school and at work for the “dot” on their forehead feel rightfully bitter and angry.
I’ve got nothing against cultural borrowings because I believe that culture comes without boundaries, without discrete origins and it does anyway move across the frail boundaries set-up by one cultural orthodoxy or another. Polycultural existences or cultural fluidity is inevitable.
But what do we do about the romantic entry of suburban whites into Hinduism when many of the organs that disseminate the faith are linked to the groups that conduct pogroms against Muslims in India?
Are “curiosity” and “respect” sufficient grounds for the entry of the suburban white into the theocratic fascism of these variations of faith?
In a perfect world, yes, but not in this one.
For about a decade, Biju Mathew (best known for his work with the New York Taxi Workers’ Association) and I have conducted research on the Hindutva Right in the US and we’ve found that millions of dollars travel each year through illegal and legal networks to finance right-wing activity in the subcontinent.
This long-distance theocratic fascism was part of the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya in 1992, the anti-Christian riots in Gujarat a few years ago, and now, certainly, in the state-engineered pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat where at least two thousand people died.
Kanwal Rekhi, a neoliberal entrepreneur, co-wrote a powerful opinion piece in the Washington Post (22 May 2002):
“Many overseas Indian Hindus, including some in this country, finance religious groups in India in the belief that the funds will be used to build temples, and educate and feed the poor of their faith. Many would be appalled to know that some recipients of their money are out to destroy minorities (Christians as well as Muslims) and their places of worship. Mr. Vajpayee could deal a severe blow to such covert causes by simply labeling them as terrorists.”
What Rekhi missed was that it was not only “Indian Hindus” who financed the pogrom, but also many suburban whites who uncritically join temples and other such organizations. They give the Hindutva Right money certainly, but also the much needed legitimacy of white followers in the movement.
Of course the bulk of the saffron dollars comes from the Indian-American community, but the suburban whites who don the robes of Hindutva give prestige and legitimacy to the movement. The legacy and persistence of racism provides respect to any artifact or institution of color that is worn or frequented by whites.
This was the reason, for instance, why it was so important for the erstwhile right-wing Dharam Hinduja Indic Research Center at Columbia University to attract large numbers of white scholars for its project to whitewash Hindutva. Many came, mainly white women who study various aspects of Hinduism and are themselves very well known and otherwise respected scholars of Indology. Eager for cash, they disregarded the role they played for Hindutva, just as those whites who become Hindus in this day and age do not actively engage with the crucial role Hindutva plays within global Hinduism.
Let’s stay with the Hinduja institute. Funded by the arms-dealer and industrialist S. P. Hinduja, the center is named for his late son Dharam. Dharam, a Wharton graduate, fell in love with and married an Anglo-Indian Catholic woman whom he wanted to marry. Adamantly opposed to it, the family chased him off and, as a result, he committed suicide in 1992.
Those so-called “Hindu values” that would not accept the child’s desire to live as a human being in a complex world were now to be cruelly sanctified in a research institute that bears his name. Even as Columbia University abandoned the money after sustained protest by secular forces, Cambridge University continues to host such a center (there is also one in New Delhi).
And the suburban whites in the Hindutva Right movement are not only followers, because a few of them are important leaders. This should come as no surprise to those of us who have been accosted by ISCKON workers (the “Hare Krishnas”) in airports and other places. Two of the main grandees are men who converted to Hinduism, became important intellectuals of the Hindutva movement and now flog the ideology via the Internet, in their books and periodicals:
(1) David Frawley, aka Swami Vamdev. Frawley is affiliated with various theocratic fascist organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Hindu Students Council (HSC) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) – all three arms of the global Hindutva movement whose teeth were bared in Gujarat recently. In 1996, Frawley traveled across England as an honored guest of the VHP.
From Arise Arjuna (1995) to Hinduism and the Clash of Civilizations (2001), Frawley offers a Huntingtonian analysis of the clash between Islam (bad) and Christianity (almost good), with Hinduism being the necessary ally of the good. The anti-Muslim tenor of his books is also evident in his works on ancient India (such as Gods, Sages and Kings, 1991) where Frawley joins a series of theocratic fascists to argue that Vedic India was bliss and that everything since then has been a disaster.
(2) Satuguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami and Satguru Bodhinatha Velanswami. Founders of the magazine Hinduism Today and of the ashram in Hawaii that houses the Hindu Heritage Endowment, these two swamis (Satguru or Gurudev has since died) have very close ties to the VHP. Their materials regularly quote approvingly from VHP documents and the money raised by the HHE goes toward Hindutva activities.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of spirituality under the sign of Hinduism; indeed there is perhaps much to be gained from it. However, as Hindutva-style cruelty devastates the landscape of Indian life, it is imperative for those who claim Hinduism to offer ruthless criticism of global Hindutva.
If you attend a temple, ask the priests and others about their relationship with the pogrom in Gujarat: and don’t take their denials at face value. Demand to see the account books, investigate the guests who come and speak to the members, find out if any group like the HSS runs the show. Do not allow liberal multiculturalism to give global Hindutva cover from secular forces.
Finally, as global Hindutva tries to get United Way clearance and as its front organs try to pose as charitable organizations, be ready to fight them all the way. The current exchange rate is fifty rupees for one dollar. Even a few greenbacks translate into crucial resources in impoverished zones and become a saffron bludgeon against the Indian masses.