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Letter to a Young American Hindu


Dear Friend,

Like you, I was raised in a mixed family. My parents’ families came to Bengal from Punjab, and from Burma. One side leans towards Hinduism; the other to Sikhism. The city, the metro, provided its own cultural mooring, and in secular India, I found myself interested in all religions and deeply schooled in none. Id meant fellowship with my Muslim neighbors and friends; a Navjot meant a crash course in Parsi life; Nanak’s birthday meant a visit to Gurudwara Sant Kutiya in the center of town; Christmas, which is Bara Din in Calcutta, meant a brightly lit Park Street and a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral; and, of course, Diwali and Holi represented the high-points of our festival culture. Religion was colorful, and friendly. It didn’t represent either the harshest of personal morality nor the resentments or distrust of others.

I learnt a few prayers and songs, but this learning was not systematic. Some of my friends were better schooled than I in their various traditions. Our diversity was not simply across religion, but also a diversity of the density of our engagement with religion: agnostics or religious illiterates were as welcome as those who were committed to their faith. The festival that I most liked was Saraswati Puja, the day when we wore yellow and put all our schoolbooks at the feet of the goddess. The respite from study was welcome, as you can imagine.

My morality came from elsewhere than religion, from recognition of the pain in the world. Religious teachers whom I encountered sometimes talked about this suffering, but they didn’t seem to have more than charity to offer to those who suffered. It struck me that while religious festivals were beautiful, religions themselves were not adequate as a solution to modern crises. But religion, as I came to understand while reading Gandhi many years later, can play a role in the cleansing of public morality. In 1940, Gandhi wrote, “I still hold the view that I cannot conceive politics as divorced from religion. Indeed, religion should pervade everyone one of our actions. Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral government of the universe. It is not less real because it is unseen. This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. It does not supersede them. It harmonizes them and gives them reality” (Harijan, February 10, 1940). In other words, politics should not be simply about power struggles, but it must be suffused with moral concerns. It is not enough to win; one must strive to create, what Gandhi called, Truth in the world.

To strive for Truth does not mean that we, as humans, can be sure that what we believe in or what we aspire to is some transcendental truth. Gandhi’s autobiography was not called I’ve Found Truth, but The Story of My Experiments with Truth. The use of the word “experiments” is revealing, since it refers to a scientific tradition that privileges verifiable testing (this is also the case with the Gujarati word “prayago,” which is in the original 1927 title, Satya-na Prayago athva Atmakatha; Professor Babu Suthar links “prayoga,” the singular of “prayago,” to the ayurvedic and yogic sense of treatment and practice. An ayurvedic doctor must ask the patient to “prayoga” a medicine, which would imply, try it out to see if it works). Religious traditions are resources to guide us, as social individuals, through the difficulties and opportunities of our lives. They are not dogmas to tear people apart from each other. In a powerful essay against compulsory widow segregation, Gandhi wrote, “It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide” (Navajivan, June 28, 1925). Let tradition be a studied resource, not a set of inflexible, unchanging rules.

The Gita.

More than a decade ago, I was teaching South Asian history in central New York. A few young students invited me to their Gita reading group. I was delighted to join them, not because I was an expert in the Gita, but because it pleased me to see second-generation South Asian Americans take an interest in the history and traditions of the subcontinent. The students, dutifully, read their section for the evening and proceeded to have a discussion about it. They had little guidance apart from the text, and they valiantly drew from the analytical skills they learnt in their classes to make sense of the Gita. For them, religion was not an “experiment with truth,” but because of their context, it was the Truth that had to be unmasked by their close, devoted reading. I felt myself sinking into it.

The Gita is a remarkable book, precisely because of its history (it was composed long after the Mahabharata, written in classical Sanskrit of the Gupta era, and interpolated into the long epic much later). Frustrated with the hierarchy promoted by Brahmans through the Vedic traditions, scores of people turned to Sramanic traditions (most familiarly, Buddhism). The Gita is a sublime response to the power of Buddhism with concepts such as karma drawn from it. The genius of the text is that it takes concepts and ideas from these popular traditions and brings them into line with some of the central principles of Brahmanism (varna, mainly). The Gita is awash with contradictions: it preaches ahimsa, and yet is set in a battlefield, where Krishna must convince Arjun to go into the fight; it validates the importance of caste hierarchy, and yet shines a light on the equality of all before the awesome might of divinity. The contradictory nature of the text allows every reader to find something beneficial in it. It works as a mirror to our reality.

Then there is bhakti, one of the foundation stones of modern Hinduism. It is the Gita’s central concept. Personal devotion (bhakti) drew out from the oppressed peoples of the subcontinent the ability to challenge those who stood between them and divinity (the Brahmins, for instance) and those who stood between them and a peaceful life (Kings, for instance). The concept, Bhakti, was the central idea for a series of important spiritual and social rebellions, led by such people as Andal, Kabir, Mirabai, Tukaram, and above all, Jnanesvar. Jnanesvar, the 13th century Marathi poet, wrote an extended commentary on the Gita in which he not only went after the powerful, but also bemoaned the great harm done to the people for whom religion had become a crutch rather than an engine. “The peasant farmer sets up cult after cult, according to convenience,” he wrote. “He follows the preacher who seems most impressive at the moment, learns his mystic formula. Harsh to the living, he relies upon stones and images; but even then never lives true to any one of them.” Jnanesvar’s powerful critique was not met with an equally powerful movement to overthrow the foundation of the social order of his time. As the historian D. D. Kosambi wrote, “Though an adept in yoga as a path towards physical immortality and mystical perfection, there was nothing left for [Jnanesvar] except suicide.” The ideas were glorious, but there was no institutional platform to realize them.

Noxious Hindutva

All this is lost if one reads the Gita as settled Truth rather than an experiment in truth. When Gandhi claimed to base his ahimsa philosophy on the Gita, he faced opposition. “My claim to Hinduism has been rejected by some,” he wrote in Young India (May 29, 1924), “because I believe [in] and advocate non-violence in its extreme form. They say that I am a Christian in disguise. I have been even seriously told that I am distorting the meaning of the Gita when I ascribe to that great poem the teaching of unadulterated non-violence. Some of my Hindu friends tell me that killing is a duty enjoined by the Gita under certain circumstances. A very learned Shashtri only the other day scornfully rejected my interpretation of the Gita and said that there was no warrant for the opinion held by some commentators that the Gita represented the eternal duel between forces of evil and good, and inculcated the duty of eradicating evil within us without hesitation, without tenderness…My religion is a matter solely between my Maker and myself. If I am a Hindu, I cannot cease to be one even though I may be disowned by the whole of the Hindu population.”

Those who criticized Gandhi for his “misuse” of Hinduism came from the organizations of the Right. The Hindu Mahasabha (1915) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (1925) provided this Right with an institutional nucleus to sharpen the assault on both Indian society and on the Indian freedom movement (whose undisputed leader at this time was Gandhi). The leadership of this Right considered Gandhi a “traitor” to the “Hindu people,” and it was their cadre that murdered him in 1948. The RSS, the spearhead of the new “Hindu nationalism,” eschewed the mass Freedom Struggle that emerged in the 1920s, sharpened in the 1930s and eventually defeated the British Raj in the 1940s. In 1928, the RSS inaugurated its Officer Training Camp to train its own storm-troopers, not to do battle with the powerful British and its institutions, but with the relatively powerless Muslim masses. The swayamsevak, or volunteer, took an oath, “offering himself entirely – body, mind and wealth – for the preservation and progress of the Hindu Nation.” The complexity of India, its diverse heritages and its fluid cultural resources, was anathema to the RSS and its doctrine of Hindutva (Hinduness).

The influence of Italian fascism and German Nazism pervaded the RSS, becoming clarified in the 1939 book by M. S. Golwalkar, “Germany has shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.” For Golwalkar, the role of the “Jew” within India was to be played by the “Muslim” (it should be said that his 1939 book was reprinted in 1944 and in 1947, after the Holocaust was known to all, and yet there was no revision of this section). No wonder Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen considered the ideology of the RSS to be “communal fascism.” The RSS remained a marginal element in Indian political life, having played no role in the Freedom Struggle and having a noxious view of the complexity of Indian social life that appealed only to a few among the dominant castes who felt left out of the new Indian republic.

Indian Honeycomb

That complexity is something that Gandhi and others well understood. In 1992, the Anthropological Society of India published the first of an ongoing series of monographs with the omnibus title, The People of India. In this volume, the late K. S. Singh laid out the basic findings of this immense study of the Indian people. There are, he wrote, 4635 identifiable communities in India, “diverse in biological traits, dress, language, forms of worship, occupation, food habits, and kinship patterns. It is all these communities who in their essential ways of life express our national popular life.” Strikingly, the scholars working under Singh’s direction discovered the immense overlap across religious lines. They identified 775 traits that related to ecology, settlement, identity, food habits, marriage patterns, social customs, social organization, economy and occupation. What they found was that Hindus share 96.77% traits with Muslims, 91.19% with Buddhists, 88.99% with Sikhs, 77.46% with Jains (Muslims, in turn, share 91.18% with Buddhists and 89.95% with Sikhs). Because of this, Singh pointed out that Indian society was like a “honeycomb,” where each community is in constant and meaningful interaction with every other community. The boundaries between communities are more a fact of self-definition than of cultural distinction. This Gandhi knew implicitly. Unity was a fact of life, not a conceit of secular theory.

When I went to Punjab in the early 1990s to do my dissertation research, I was startled to find communities that considered themselves on the fence about their religious identification. Three in particular (that make their way into Singh’s study) stood out: the Mirasi, Sonar and Rajputs, who claimed to be both Hindus and Muslims. The group I had gone to study, the Balmikis, had a wonderfully rich religious history, where they crafted their own spiritual tradition around the preceptor Bala Shah Nuri and Lalbeg. Bala Shah’s poems attacked both the Brahmins and the Mullahs for their perpetuation of untouchability and their refusal to stand for justice. Ram te Rahim kian chhap chhap jana, the followers of Ram and Rahim will hide themselves in fear, sava neze te din avega, hade dosakh pana, and when the sun sets, Bala will send them to hell. This evokes the kind of language of that other great Punjabi poet, Bulle Shah, who sang, Musalman sarne to dared hindu dared gor, dove ese vich mard eho duha di khor (Muslims fear the flame, Hindus the tomb; both die in this fright, such is their hatred).

Hindutva, or the ideology and movement of Hindu chauvinism, attempts to do to this richness what agro-businesses do to bio-diversity. They want to reduce the multiplicity and plurality of cultural forms into the one that they are then able to control: a deracinated “Hindu,” like a Genetically Modified form of rice or barley. The joy of religious life, of social life, is reduced into a mass-produced form of worship, cultivated out of hatred for other religions rather than fellowship for humanity. With the RSS and its parivar (family), we are no longer in the land of religion. We are now in the land of power and politics, hate and resentment.

Till the 1980s, the RSS remained on the margins of Indian politics. Rejected at the ballot, the movement emerged only through assassination and intimidation, through riots and mayhem, through which it sought to define the political and social space. In the 1980s, conditions changed, as the Congress abandoned its soft socialism/soft secularism for neo-liberal globalization and the politicization of religion (first by patronizing Sikh separatists). The RSS family won over the Congress’ “Hindu vote bank” through an aggressive campaign against dalits (over the Mandal Commissions attempt to deepen reservations), against Muslims (over the Meenakshipuram conversions and the controversy over the mosque at Ayodhya) and against the Left (by deeming its ideology to be “foreign”). Flamboyant campaigns designed to make the most of the television media and harsh rhetoric against minorities attracted the dispossessed, who now joined with disgruntled dominant castes to bring the BJP to power.

The Indian honeycomb began to breakup in this period. It was also in this time that Hindutva went overseas with a new confidence.

Yankee Hindutva

More than a decade ago, I used the term “Yankee Hindutva” to describe the way Hindu chauvinism came into the United States. Eager to branch out to the Diaspora, the RSS and its subsidiaries took advantage of multiculturalism to build their foothold here. Not for the American audience an unadulterated anti-Muslim rhetoric (that would come only in some “safe” spaces, and more aggressively, after 9/11). Initially, the RSS organizations, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) and its youth wing, the Hindu Students Council (HSC), promoted the idea that Hinduism is denigrated in the U. S. and that if other cultures are being celebrated, why not Hinduism too. This is an unimpeachable argument, but it came with some implementation problems. First, it assumed that “Hinduism” is a singular thing, not a clumsy name for a diversity of beliefs and affections that litter not only the subcontinent but also the South Asian Diaspora (from Trinidad to Fiji). Second, because the VHPA and the HSC jumped in the game first, and because the most stringent are best often to claim to speak for a religion, the conservatives took control of this issue. There was no liberal critique of the denigration of Hinduism, and when liberals and radicals did dare to tread, the conservatives harshly shut the door to them as being inauthentic defenders of the Culture. This was the tenor of the battle over the 2005-06 revisions of the California text-books. We didn’t like the old books either. But we didn’t like the sanitized version of Indian history promoted by the conservatives. We wanted “India” to appear for what it is, a land of contradictions, not an unblemished “brand” that needs to be sold so that we can feel falsely proud.

In 1990, a group of committed activists of the hard Right formed the Hindu Students Council (HSC) in the woods of New Jersey. Their public pronouncement was along the grain of liberal multiculturalism, that they wanted to assist Hindu students who struggle with the “loss and isolation” due to their “upbringing in a dual culture Hindu and Judeo-Christian….We try to reconcile our own sorrows and imperfections as human beings in a variety of self-defeating ways. And we usually go through this confused internal struggle alone. It was precisely to assist you with this spiritual, emotional and identity needs that HSC was born.” Given the strictures of liberal multiculturalism, everyone, including college administrators, stood by and applauded. But the HSC was never simply about the identity struggles of those whom it called Hindu Americans. It was also the youthful fingers of the long-arm of Hindutva-supremacy in India. The HSC was initially a “project of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America,” the far Right “cultural wing” of the hard Right Sangh Parivar (Family of the Faithful). When activists of the Right destroyed a five hundred year old mosque in 1992, the VHP egged them on, the VHPA cheered, and so did the leaders of the HSC. For them, concern over the identity struggles of young Indian Americans could easily be reconciled with their anti-Muslim politics. Multiculturalism in the U. S. provided cover for the cruel, cultural chauvinism in India.

Young South Asian Americans, such as yourself, come to the HSC not always for its politics, but as a space for shelter and struggle against anti-Indian racism. Falguni Trivedi, who participated with the HSC in 1997, tells the story poignantly, “When I was twelve years old, American kids would gang up on me at the bus stop, yelling ‘Gandhi Dot’ and ask, ‘why do you people in India worship cows and drink cow urine?’ It is pretty tough for young Hindus stuck between two cultures.” When Trivedi went to her parents, they, like many first-generation migrants, offered her the ostrich-strategy. “Adjust” to the verbal abuse, they said. Trivedi, however, wanted her parents to offer clear answers to the questions posed by the racist youth, such as answers about the cow. The parents didn’t have ready answers. “Parents don’t know,” said Dheeraj Singhal, now a lawyer in Ohio, “they’re lost. They don’t know where to look. Kids are really desperate to know who they are, the meaning of their customs. This giant void of ignorance facing them is a great issue.” It is here that the HSC and other such organizations (including the non-communal South Asian Student Associations on various college campuses) come in. But the HSC is actually unable or ill-fitted to deal with U. S. racism. It tells the youth that they come from an ancient heritage and that they should be proud of it, but the HSC makes no attempt to undermine the structures of racism that produce this sort of off-the-cuff racist remark. To promote Indians as the “model minority,” who have a great and ancient culture, and not combat the racism that devastates the world of color and pits people of color against each other, is inadequate. It simply lifts up one minority, us, and says that we shouldn’t take this nonsense because we are culturally great.

Groups like the HSC and the VHPA are less concerned with the broad problem of racism and of Indian American life, than they are to push the Hindutva agenda in the U. S. and Canada. Here are two examples:

(1)Air-conditioned Sadhus.

By the late 1990s, Hindu temples could be found in most of the areas where Indian Americans lived (or where American Hindus did, such as in Hawaiii). The Prathishtapanas for the Middletown, CT., Satyanarayan temple near where I live took place in 1999 (although families in the area had worshipped in their basements since the early 1980s). These temples are a resource for Hinduism, with ceremonies and festivals, “Sunday Schools” and devotional sessions. The VHPA has other ideas for the temples. In 1998, at a VHPA Dharam Sansad, the conclave decided that all temples and cultural organizations “should associate, endorse and/or affiliate with the VHPA to make the Hindu voice more effective.” In 2000, the VHPA sent a hundred God-men from India on a Dharma Prachar Yatra “in a manner so that all of America is covered with Hindutva,” as a VHPA activist put it. One of the tasks of the Yatra was for the sadhus to “clear the misconceptions about the VHP” and to assert “the VHP’s point of view about issues like Ayodhya movement and attacks on Christians.” All talk of “inter-faith dialogue” and of Hinduism as tolerance was out the window. These God-men went on tour, not to offer solace, spiritual guidance or to explain the travails of racism – they came out to plug for the BJP, the VHP and its campaigns against Muslims and Christians in India.

The God-men were treated like touring rock-stars. Luckily I was teaching the Manavadharmasastra (or the Laws of Manu) that semester: “A priest should always be alarmed by adulation as if it were poison and always desire scorn as if it were ambrosia” (II. 162). Our air-conditioned priests are far removed from even the barest humility asked of them by their calling.

(2)Representing Hinduism.

For decades, there has been an ongoing debate within the broad field of India Studies. Influenced by social historians who opened up the world of Indian popular culture and the struggles of ordinary Indians, and by the intervention of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), these scholars fought against the racism and conservatism of the academy. Sanskrit studies, for instance, treated India as an ancient resource with no lived heritage of Hinduism; political scientists saw India in terms of U. S. or British foreign policy, not in terms of what is in the best interests of the Indian people. Graduate school in the 1980s and early 1990s was a hive of conflict against what some of us saw as a racist representation of the subcontinent.

In 2000, Rajiv Malhotra of the Infinity Foundation published a long essay against the tenor of Hinduism Studies in the U. S. As if he were a lonely pioneer, Malhotra went hell-for-leather against the entire U. S. academy. Much of what he said is correct (there is an insensitivity toward the Hindu tradition, and a disregard for the real living Indians), and it had been the basis for a long-standing debate around the institutions. With his access to the Indian American media, Malhotra (and the soon to be formed Hindu American Foundation) went after individual academics and then the California 6th grade textbooks. It was a lot of flash and lightning: many of us liberals and radicals were already in the thick of these fights, and much of our work has been fruitful. But we were not invested simply in making India look good: we wanted to ensure that the diversity of India’s history and its struggles be represented in the curriculum and in the research agendas. “The social science and history textbooks do not give as generous a portrayal of Indian culture as they do of Islamic, Jewish, Christian cultures,” carped Malhotra. When asked about the struggles of dalits and women in ancient India, Suhag Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation grumbled, “In terms of men and women, I think, first of all if you look at Christianity or Judaism or Islam, no-where in the textbooks is there any discussion of women’s rights. Then to pull it in for Hinduism, is a different treatment of Hinduism.” All culture must have equal treatment, all contemporary representatives of that culture should be able to create their sense of self-worth based on this representation. Shukla has a point: no tradition is in the clear on these issues. The solution is not to brown-wash the textbooks on ancient Indian history, but to write more honest books about the contradictions of all civilizations.

Malhotra’s assault to get a politically correct interpretation accepted or nothing at all is the genteel version of the Shiv Sena and VHP activists in India who went after James Laine’s book on Shivaji (by book burnings and physical assaults on his collaborators).

These issues are brought to the center by the VHPA, the HSC, the HFA: all to blind us from other issues, such as racism in the U. S., the Iraq War, economic uncertainty and distress in India, rising numbers on sexual assault and female infanticide in India, and the Gujarat pogrom. Yankee Hindutva is a set of blinders, not an optic to see the world clearly.

What Would You Have?

yadidam svayamarthanam rocate tatra ke vayam
If the objects themselves are like that, who are we?
Dharmakirti (7th Century).

The suffocating presence of the VHPA and the HSC, of the RSS and the BJP does not exhaust the capacity of either Hinduism or of its adherents. Our affection for its resources is not diminished, nor should we turn away from our traditions because the RSS and its family try to debase it.

In 2004, the Indian people, and a majority of them being claimants to the title Hindu, rejected the parties of the far Right in the parliamentary election (they were defeated again in 2007 in the Uttar Pradesh state elections). The mandate was offered to the Congress and the Left, who crafted a Common Minimum Program that promised a more generous set of policies for the working-class, the peasantry and the indigent, as well as a more secular defense of the public sphere. The parties of Hindutva went into a self-imposed period of infighting, as scandals interrupted their claim to holding the high-moral ground.

In the Diaspora, there was some reflection of this change in the Indian political landscape. The far Right moved to consolidate its agenda despite changes within India – closer ties between Indian American lobby groups and pro-Israeli lobby groups, to sharpen the idea that the Indo-Pakistani problems can only be resolved in the Israeli fashion, through force; the creation of the Hindu American Foundation (whose main campaign in 2004-05 was the Diwali resolution, and who was an active leader of the California textbooks campaign); an assault on scholars of India and Hinduism, led this time by the Infinity Foundation. But not a word from any of these organizations on the farmer’s suicides in Andhra Pradesh, on the deepening problem of unemployment across India, and on the cataclysmic child malnutrition rates across the country. These matters were not, apparently, of importance. Discussions about Planet India, as Mira Kamdar puts it, eclipsed the burgeoning social crises in India. As Gandhi warned his fellows ninety years ago, “The test of orderliness in a country is not the number of millionaires it owns, but the absence of starvation among its masses” (Muir Central College Economics Society, Allahabad, December 22, 1916). Equally, these organizations remained silent after 9/11 at the attacks on South Asians and Arabs and at the illegal detentions of hundreds of South Asians (the civil rights and activists groups, such as South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow and Desis Rising Up and Moving were in the lead here). Immigration reform, “Operation Meth Merchant” (against the small Indian shopkeepers in Georgia) and other such issues were equally off the radar of the HSC, the VHPA and HAF.

If I were you, I’d abandon the Hindu Students Council and create a new organization called Sarvodaya (Compassion for All), a word Gandhi coined for his variety of social justice. You can still have intellectual and spiritual investigations of the Gita, you can still hold inter-faith discussions, you can still educate your fellows about the rich and diverse tradition of Hinduism, and you can also promote egalitarianism and social justice as values derived from your tradition.

The Hinduism that cares more for its reputation than for its relevance is no longer a living tradition. It has become something that one reveres from a distance. To keep it alive, Hinduism requires an engagement with its history (which shows us how it evolves and changes) and with its core concepts (what we otherwise call philosophy). “Every formula of every religion has, in this age of reason, to submit to the acid test of reason and universal justice if it is to ask for universal assent” Gandhi wrote in 1925. “Error can claim no exemption even if it can be supported by the scriptures of the world” (Young India, February 26, 1925). Submit all faith to experiments, to see how they are able to assist one in the messy world we live in: to detach faith into self-indulgence is to patronize those traditions. That’s the nature of experimentation, a far better approach to faith traditions than empty reverence.

The choice lies between giving over the traditions you love to the forces of hatred who might masquerade as the defenders of tradition; or to the force within you, and around you, a force of love and ecstasy, passion and pain to transform the world. What would you have?

Vijay Prashad
May 17, 2007.

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