rearminghinduism

REARMING HINDUISM: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence by Vamsee Juluri. 2015. Westland Limited. 250 pages.

We are far away from home, all of us immigrants, and we have forgotten the sensory world that cocooned us; the smell of fresh monsoons, the burning of skin in the noonday sun, the taste of ripe mangoes in summer, the riot of colors worn by smiling festival crowds, and walking narrow lanes. Memory fades a little every day. We don’t remember ourselves as well as we should.

Hindus have had amnesia for millennia. So lost are we, so weak is our recollection of home, that we have come to think in a borrowed language, our history books written for us by kind civilizing experts, and our culture, mythology and economic system all force wrapped into this package called “religion” and handed to us as “Hinduism.” Why, we read that even the words “hindu” and “India” are borrowed from others who knew us better than we know ourselves now!

We believe them, when some say our people were blond, blue-eyed European overlords, quick on the horse, and weak with them written scripts. Others told us that we split our society into four hard-bands that were separated at birth. We learn also that our religion promotes indolence by its emphasis on fate and karma. Some tell us, with relish, that ancient Hindus were a randy bunch, complete with pantomimed animal sex built into their rituals. So deep our amnesia, and so pervasive this new conditioning, that we know these claims to be indisputable facts, not subject to scientific inquiry any more.

But wait, there’s the other side that claims the exact opposite too, of a golden civilization that wasn’t just imaginative, but also infinitely (often comically) inventive. Flying airplanes, nuclear weapons, inter-stellar travel, test-tube babies … these are all made in Bharat. Everything great … all made in one great country. We want to believe them—because who wants to believe they were once lowly—but cringe at some claims, because we don’t know what sources they cite, and anyways don’t know the language and idiom of antiquity.

Both schools of thought are loud. One, in English and written by the English and their descendants in academia, that simplifies a complex society into a comic-book religion, and the Other, by reawakened and resurgent right-wingers, that seems to swing the pendulum widely in the other direction and makes claims that are evidently exaggerated, also a comic-book religion.

But who speaks for practicing Hindus who believe there’s merit in knowing more about the historical, spiritual and cultural context into which they were born?

Vamsee Juluri raises his arm, with Rearming Hinduism, published by Westland Books in India and available also as an eBook. The book’s title is a pun, not a warning, by the way, just in the way “A Farewell to Arms” might refer both to the loss of ordnance, as well as to the loss of limbs. Just use a brown paper cover while carrying this book at the airport.

The book is a valiant attempt at opening up a third position in the cacophony around Hinduism. Written by someone who grew up in India but has been out of the country for a good part of his grown-up life, the book speaks up on behalf of many of us. Distance and time away from India have also given the author the perspective that’s needed to formulate his own, independent, opinion that is contrasted with the prevailing academic opinion in the west, and with extreme right-wing propaganda in India.

The book is brave; here’s an academic taking a stance counter to the prevailing academic dogma of the time. (Wendy Doniger, take note). Hinduism is defined internationally not by the Hindus themselves, but by India-watching academics who deploy their shrill screeds to defend their own kind. This discourse on Hinduism has been an outsider’s perspective, informed only by reading each others’ mutually congratulatory works and tempered not with any experience of living the dharma that’s still alive and full of life. Instead of looking at the flame in the tea-light-candle, the academics have fussed over the empty aluminum shells that carry neither the fire nor the fuel, and declared the religion devoid of life or substance.

A friend (esteemed academic, he), joked to me once that academics look at an event that has happened, and think “this works in practice, but does it work in theory”?! Juluri has taken a sharp, humorous, and clear stance against this academic orthodoxy in this book.

The book is also deft at avoiding the land-mines that might trip the intrepid independent thinker. Juluri questions the lame history of the academics but does not spend any ink in offering his own alternative “alternative history.” He does not get into the “my religion is better than yours” debate either, which is a wise choice, too. He has also not made the book into “banning bait” by directly attacking sharp-right positions on Hinduism, or even Hindutva. Well played, Sir, well played!

I did find the author’s voice troublesome. He writes as if the book is to be read aloud by trained Hollywood trailer narrators (“IN A WORLD … ”). What could have been a pleasant airplane side-seat conversation over peanuts and over-iced soda turns out to be a harangue. Maybe the author felt obliged to do so to counter the shrill noise on the other sides. It would have been better to have a calmer voice, given the importance of the subject and the fine mastery of nuance needed to have the conversation.

The author also spends half the book with a somewhat lyrical take on the Hindu view on God. This is core to his understanding of Hinduism, and this half of the book certainly is a very personal take on the heart of all Hindu practice.

Hinduism is coming out of its amnesia. There is a room for a calm practitioner’s perspective.

Juluri’s book, Rearming Hinduism, is a great place for sane voices to gather and rediscover dharma. This isn’t the final word on the subject, but is certainly a great ice-breaker to start the conversation. Go read it with your book club.

Gaurav is the author of Offshore: India’s Services Juggernaut. He lives in the Bay Area, where he’s also spreading Yoga and plotting a spiritual revolution.

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