Tag Archives: Religion

The Significance of Pew’s ‘Religions of India’ Survey

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

When the US-based Pew Research Center published the findings of its Religions of India survey, it left many elite journalists, Marxist and “South-Asia” scholar-activists scratching their heads. Most Indians, including Indian-Americans, however, felt vindicated. 

At the heart of such polar reactions is the disconnect between perception and reality in the presentation of India, both in media and academia. There is this false perception of India deliberately and painstakingly crafted by the Indologists, Orientalists-Colonialists, and Marxists. And then, there is the real India, that is Bharat.

In a massive undertaking spanning over several months, Pew surveyed nearly 30,000 respondents in face-to-face interviews. These interviews were conducted in 17 languages across the length and breadth of India just before the Pandemic (2020). Pew, one of the most reputable polling agencies in the world, conducts “opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis, and other data-driven social science research.”

It came as no surprise to most that the survey found India to be a deeply “religious” country, even though the Indic notion of “religion” is quite different (for example, it is not dogmatic) from the Abrahamic one. Native Hindus have preserved and nurtured their indigenous notion of Dharma for over 5,000 years despite foreign invasions, colonization, and Marxist hegemony over India’s educational institutions. 

One of the key findings of the Pew survey was that Indians deeply value “religious tolerance.” The survey reported that it was essential for Indians to respect other faiths. Almost 84% (85% Hindus) of the respondents said that to be “truly Indian,” it is crucial not just to tolerate but also “respect” all religions. Remarkably, 80% of the respondents believed that respecting other religions is a “very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community.” 

This “Religious tolerance” is a Western and liberal representation and interpretation of a more nuanced Indic notion of sambhāva. “Respect” for ‘other’ religions is ingrained in the Indic value system. It comes from the quintessential Indic belief that there are many truths but only one Reality. The Rig Veda, one of the most ancient texts of the Hindus, proclaims:

ekaṁ sad viprā bahudhā vadanti 

(Truth is one, wise speak of it differently.)

Another critical finding of the Pew survey was that an overwhelming majority of Indians, almost 80% members of every faith community, reported that they felt free to practice their religion. In an overwhelmingly Hindu majority (80.5%) country of about 1.4 billion people, 89% of Muslims and Christians (each comprising 13.4% and 2.3% of the total Indian population, respectively) also said they were free to practice their religion. 

However, suppose one pays attention to the commentary in the Western media, including the Left-dominated American press and religious/human rights advocates. In that case, it is hard to reconcile with the findings of the Survey. The survey results were in sharp contrast to the portrayal of India in Western media; and seminars and conferences in various centers of South Asian Studies, think tanks, etc.

SN Balagandhar (Balu), a professor of Comparative Science of Cultures at the Ghent University in Belgium, alluded to this chasm in perception and reality in his address to the 2014 Maulana Azad Memorial Lecture organized by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). While recounting his 40-year academic research journey, Balu said that he discovered very early that there were many problems in his understanding of Indian history. Most of the knowledge about India that makes it to Indian textbooks is a description of India by foreign traders, travelers, and the Christian Missionaries, he noted. He further said that the perception of India these textbooks gave based on those accounts was not the India he “lived in.” Most Indians can easily relate to this statement.

In the last 200 years or so, foreigners and Marxists have dominated the study of India, its culture, traditions, texts, religions, and more. Indology, once a foremost enterprise for the study of India, for example, was based on neo-Protestant theology and their debates over scriptures and their racial prejudices. These prejudices over time, but consciously, were applied to the study of Indian texts where one can easily trace the antecedent of “anti-Brahmanism.” 

The British colonizers played an essential role in, first, creating and then institutionalizing their perception of India based on their understanding and prejudices. In British presentations, Hindus were condemned as “degenerate” and as “slaves.” The need to portray Hindus as primitive, savage, uncivilized, or vicious arose from the urgency of the colonizers to present themselves as civil and enlightened. As a result, what we ended up getting, according to Arvind Sharma, is a “situation in which a people were made more primitive than they were, or presented as more primitive than they were, or perceived as more primitive than they were, either deliberately or out of ignorance.”

On the other hand, Marxist historiography distorted and weaponized Indian history and the idea of India with its ideology of conflicts and divisions. 

The Pew Survey is one crucial step in setting the record straight and reclaiming the agency in representing and defining India and Indian culture.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.


 

Left to right: Author, Shoba Narayan and book, Food & Faith.

Food and Faith: The Intrinsic Prasadam at Hindu Temples

As a child growing up in India, I have visited my fair share of temples, partaking in the rituals and the prasad handed out the priests and never quite questioning my parents on why we did what we did. Nevertheless, I did wonder about the role of religion in our lives. So, when I was asked to review Shoba Narayan’s Food and Faith: A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India, I jumped at the chance.

Calling herself a lapsed Hindu, who was first an atheist in her teens, then agnostic in her 20s, she says, “After having two kids, faith was a way of going back to my roots, finding meaning. The journey of writing this book also became a sort of pilgrimage.” Narayan sets about visiting many of India’s iconic places of worship, trying to understand their rituals and make sense of religious polarities. In doing so, she attempts to answer the question that confounds many of us as we seek spirituality: what sustains us? 

In India, you can’t separate food from faith. If the 29 diverse varieties of Indian cuisines, each coming from one state in the country are not enough, we also have recipes that the temples and shrines in India dole out. Narayan attempts to spotlight many of them. “I started with a simple calculation. I would visit those temples that had good prasadam or sacred food offerings. These are, literally, foods for the gods, which belong to a time, place, and a specific deity. After offering it to God, the devotees partake of this ‘gracious gift of God’.” 

The book is divided into fourteen chapters based on where the author is traveling to, each chapter can be independently read as a short story. Narayan coincides her visits with each region’s most important festival. She travels to Puri during the Kumbh Mela, to a Jewish household in Mumbai during the Passover, and to Haridwar during a time of convergence of yogis.

Accessibility was also one of the criteria in finalizing her list. Shobha also lists “geography, history and the seasons. Going to these temples at the right time, being able to speak to priests and scholars about the food, having some sort of connection with the food so that I could actually write about it, and also ensuring that the multitudes of faiths present in the land that we call Bharat or India” as the other factors she considered. She had wanted to include temples from the Northeast but “ended up not being able to because accessing those temples and interviewing the priests proved to be very difficult.”

In each chapter, Shoba talks not just about the food and history of the temples, but how her faith identifies with the practices and what makes her uncomfortable (like caste segregation). There are lovely little vignettes like the mechanization of Palani panchamritam, how onions were sneaked into the Udupi masala dosa, and why copious amounts of ghee is used in the food at the Kashi Annapurna temple, revealing that no outsider is allowed inside the Jagannath temple kitchen except the 1000 male cooks who make 56 different kinds of offerings called the chappan bhog, that is served to the Gods, six times a day. 

Shri Jagannatha Temple (Image from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons License 4.0)
Shri Jagannatha Temple (Image from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons License 4.0)

I always knew that most traditions at temples always started with a logical reason, which then morphed into ritual. It was interesting to note that Narayan did dig deeper into the root of prasadam. The satvik food served at Udupi is what we tout as local and sustainable farming, the langar at Amritsar develops a feeling of community, that the strict food preparation practice at Puri is a tribute to the area’s tribal food habits, and the practice of drinking small sips of water before food was a way of activating the thyroid gland. A major instance of agriculture and the way it influences temple meals is during the Tamil month of margazhi, when vaishnavite temples serve ven pongal: “Hearty with rice and dal, with complete pepper for our ‘winter’ months and beneficent addition of ghee for heat.”

Apart from Hindu temples, Narayan also talks about experiencing “the layers of tradition” in a Goan Christmas, a dargah in Ajmer, where there was qawwali and kesari bhat, and being part of a Jewish Rosh Hashanah, or New Year with the Bene Israelis in Mumbai. “Each dish had meaning: a bowl of pomegranate signified bounty, there was head of fish and goat…,” she recalls.  

Narayan has a narrative, oftentimes self-deprecating style, that draws the reader in, transporting us with her to the Kashi, Ajmer, or Kerala as she explores the cultural heritage that is passed on through religions, especially through their unique practices and cuisines. Most of the book is based on Hindu temples and customs, which she delves into deeply. She stresses that religions in India are inevitably interlinked in many ways, and while she tends to delve deeper in the beginning, Narayan seems to be in a hurry towards the end of the book and glosses over sections in Goan and the Bombay Jewish faiths.

It is refreshing to see Narayan’s candor as she writes about her own spiritual journey, which in turn encourages us to explore our relationship with religion. For some of us, the notion of a God, faith, and prayer might be difficult. But when Narayan talks about her visit to Haridwar, the pomp of the Kumbh Mela, the long line of Naga Babu’s jumping into the Ganga to seek salvation…I see her point. We look at prayer as a way of connecting to nature. Prayer as a way to touch flowers, fruits, stones. By giving thanks to nature and its bounty, by seeing the universe in a grain of and God in a single rock.

We may pray to Jesus, Ram or Allah, “but at the end of the day, we are all children of God. We each have many identities. Religion is one, but there are others. We are each of us son/daughter, spouse, sibling, friend, and professional. I tend to identify myself through my work, and I would suspect that most of my readers are the same way,” concludes Narayan.


Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: mona@indiacurrents.com


 

The Tandon V. Newsom Lawsuit: Negotiating Religious Gatherings During a Pandemic

On April 9, The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ritesh Tandon et. al., plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the restrictions imposed by Governor Gavin Newsom on the people of California during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. One of these restrictions, detailed under the “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” implemented on August 30, 2020—based on a tiered evaluation of the number of positive COVID-19 test cases, ICU capacity, and a health equity metric—imposed limitations on religious gatherings at homes to three households at most.

The Tandon v. Newsom lawsuit stated that these restrictions violated the freedom to practice religion and increased economic hardship faced by some businesses. 

Indian American attorney and Republican party official, Harmeet Dhillon, partnered with the law firm Eimer Stahl to file the lawsuit on behalf of Ritesh Tandon, a Republican who lost to incumbent Democrat Ro Khanna in the last general election for U.S. House California District 17 on November 3, 2020 (28.7% to 71.3%). Dhruv Khanna, a winemaker at Kirigin Cellars, as well as nine others were parties to the lawsuit.

The Court’s Opinion on Removing California’s In-Home Religious Gathering Restrictions

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court stated that government regulations “trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause.” The court’s opinion was that some activities, like frequenting a hair salon or shopping at a hardware store, were treated more favorably than at-home religious ceremonies since there were no restrictions on the number of households allowed to congregate at any given moment at these places of business. The Court noted that by custom-fitting the restrictions, the state opened itself up for stricter scrutiny. 

In the Court’s opinion, the government did not make a convincing case that in-home religious gatherings were more dangerous than other allowable activities, like shopping in a grocery store.

The Dissenting Opinions

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented with the Court’s stance, and Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Kagan wrote that “If the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment. And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike.” 

When comparing customers frequenting a hair salon or hardware store to in-home religious gatherings, Justice Kagan in agreement with the lower appellate court found that “when people gather in social settings, their interactions are likely to be longer than they would be in a commercial setting,” with participants “more likely to be involved in prolonged conversations.” And “private houses are typically smaller and less ventilated than commercial establishments,” with social distancing and mask-wearing more difficult to enforce. 

Justice Kagan summarized the Supreme Court’s decision as a command to California to ignore its experts’ scientific findings, thus impairing the State’s ability to respond to an emergency.

California’s restrictions are likely what got us Californians through the toughest period of the pandemic. Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, in an interview with KQED, agreed with the governor’s strict regulations stating that it would be dangerous to have a surge that could deplete the supply of necessary health care resources. “And because of the stress on the health care system, I think what the governor did was both prudent and advisable.”

Lessons from India

A glance at India, at this moment, gives credibility to Fauci’s remark. India did not impose restrictions on religious gatherings, indoor or outdoor. Indeed, as the second wave of infections began to rear its head in April, millions gathered in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, for the Maha Kumbh Mela, and then boarded buses to return to their hometowns. Experts concede that this religious gathering, as well as mass political rallies, caused the pandemic to proliferate unchecked. 

Ads placed by Tirath Singh Rawat (Image from Caravan)

Knowing that an activity will endanger the public and yet choosing to pursue that said activity is morally reprehensible. The chief minister of Uttarakhand, Tirath Singh Rawat, ran front-page advertisements in newspapers across India, persuading Hindu devotees to attend the festival. And Rawat’s rejoinder, amid concerns that the festival could turn into a super-spreader event, was to remark that “faith in God will overcome fear of the virus.”

Would hindsight knowledge of India’s outbreak have altered the course of lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions in California? It’s not exactly clear. 

Lawsuits Galore

According to Ben Christopher of CalMatters, since mid-January 2021, there were 64 lawsuits filed against the state of California, and Governor Gavin Newsom in particular. From gondoliers, manicurists, barbers to a saxophonist, and even “a disappointed bride-to-be,” many have found reason to claim hardship due to the state’s stringent regulations. 

The representing plaintiff in many of these lawsuits is Harmeet Dhillon, who, according to Christopher, remarked that “We do not shut down our highways because people die in car accidents.” However, as Christopher pointed out, a contagion can hardly be compared to an accident. One has a high risk of spread, while the other does not.

These lawsuits are stress-testing government procedures during an unprecedented crisis. While, certainly, the restrictions did impose hardships on small business owners and essential workers, there is strong evidence to suggest that it saved the lives of many. 

Religious worship aside, even the consideration of economic hardship is a balancing act during a health pandemic. Since March 2020, government leaders have had to balance the loss of jobs against the loss of lives. Both cause extreme distress. Yet, in only one case is there the possibility for future earnings. 

Religious Precept

Especially during a crisis, religion is necessary, but at what cost? Robert Jones, Founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, articulated it best in an article published by U.S. News and World Report: “For most religious traditions, the idea of self-sacrifice in service to the community and common good are core theological principles. These temporary measures [government restrictions] are consistent with those beliefs.” 

The Tandon v. Newsom lawsuit, in arguing for the right to hold in-home religious gatherings, muddles the very purpose of a faith and belief system that places religion above human lives, politics above protection, and profit margins over safety.


Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of India Currents. 

Featured Image sources – 

Governor Gavin Newsom: Wikimedia Commons by Gage Skidmore

Ritesh Tandon: tandonforcongress.com


 

Love, Let Us Look At It Again

Love is supposed to be a generic term but we usually associate it with romantic love. Romantic love is distinguished from the rest of its cohorts because of the specificity of the age and stage of life when it arrives, its overwhelming tidal force when it takes over, the creative outflow it unleashes, and the subjective blindness it induces by a combination of myopia and presuppositions. There is no sense in fighting it since it holds our genetic reins.

Is it bad and harmful? The answer will depend on whether you are holding a knife by its handle or its cutting edge. Holding by handle implies your ability to master the hormonal storm by which the romantic love has besieged you, and tame it until your navigation comes under control. It is more difficult than what it appears to be because the tempest is blown by Mother Nature herself who wants you to multiply without any further procrastination. Delay for her is dangerous!

We still have a choice…

Our reproductive instinct has to be tempered by our long-term thinking. That perhaps is how we have learned to curtail unwanted pregnancies all across the planet. On the flip side, however, our divorce rate continues to mount even in our tradition-bound orthodox world. That conflict between the joy of procreation and the responsibility of reproduction continues unabated. The topic of LOVE, therefore, demands continued attention. Smart children, meanwhile, will not be trapped in this parental conflict but seek a profitable exit.

Can love turn into a redeeming experience?

The answer is a qualified yes.

“Love is whole, we are pieces,” said Rumi.

If the right, matching pieces come together, they will help towards building a possibility of wholeness. Love requires every person to strive towards being better than he/she is. Thus, the missing pieces are not pre-calibrated but indeed honed and shaped by deliberation.

The two most widely used expressions – “then they fell in love” and “then they lived happily ever after” – need to have a cautious halt. One has to be watchful not to “fall in love” simply by the force of gravity. Happiness is a learned behavior so the end of the fairy tales need to be modified as: “then they learned to live happily ever after.”

Love, at first sight, is not a falsehood if it does not supplement foresight and hindsight to ensure that love does not proceed blindly. 

Where is the help when you need it the most?

Parents are subjective.

Teachers could be harsh and instructive.

Friends, though supportive, are inexperienced.

Clergy, often, carry a religious bias.

Basically, you are on your own when you take the plunge, unsure whether you will swim or sink.

As a member of the faculty in a school with young and vulnerable people, I decided to take the plunge and cheer up those who will swim and help those who may sink. I was qualified to be a Priest so I started officiating weddings, same faith or interfaith. My mission was to create faith in love and marriage at a time when young people march away from it. They need to know that even a powerful love can perish and mighty marriages can melt when a tough time tests it. 

Premarital Counseling

I know about the premarital meetings required by certain religions and that it remains constrained to religious discourse. Among young people of today, identification by religion is somewhat thinning out. I, therefore, explore with couples, through spiritual and practical exercise, how to unfold their insights. I am told repeatedly how helpful they find this experience to be. 

Young people from a similar age group talking about their own experiences can furnish some acceptably useful hints. In all professional schools, seniors help the juniors. It is amazing how little help we solicit in this way. I have seen several examples of young people in college who have uprooted their social and educational careers when they reach the critical phase of Love. Shakespeare created Romeo and Juliet to highlight a tragedy of volatile love eclipsing young people. Parenthetically, I should add that Saint Valentine was beheaded for his uniting couples in marriage!

Nevertheless, I continue to support and guide young couples determined to tie their sacred knots.

Christian and Hindu Concepts of Love

C.S. Lewis wrote a classical book on The Four Loves to reflect a Christian and a philosophical perspective of this subject. He identified four loves: Empathy Bond, Philia or Friend Bond, Eros or Romantic Love, and Agape or Godward Love. 

It comes close to our Indian concept of love in some areas. Our concept of Romantic Love leading to Agape is best illustrated in Bilvamangal, the story of the famous poet Tulsidas whose Romantic love got converted into Agape. There are numerous stories in India illustrating the metamorphosis of Romantic Love into Godward Love or Agape. That is the very direction to which marrying couples are guided in a classic Indian wedding ceremony.

It is impossible to finish writing all about LOVE. I would sum up by saying that True Love does not divide, but unites and builds bridges rather than walls. I will therefore end by quoting Mother Teressa: “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come without being happier.”


Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a priest, poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada, and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at bmajmud1962@gmail.com. 

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: From Trinidad to America

Being newly retired, memories of my childhood bubbled up, as I finally had time to daydream. My father’s grandmother, Gangee Maharaj, arrived in Trinidad from Raipur, India in 1900. Many Indians came to Trinidad as indentured laborers eventually earning plots of land from the British. Thus, my great-grandparents received their own land, passing it on to my grandparents, on whose farm I grew up. I remember vividly our two beloved cows, Rani and Raja. We were often blessed with fresh and nutritious milk.

To become an eligible bride, one requirement was to be able to skillfully puff a paratha! Achieving the perfect architecture and weight of the delicious and well-known flatbread takes practice. Only then could you have your handprint painted on Grandma’s kitchen wall. This meant that you were allowed to enter her kitchen and prepare a meal under her supervision. My first painting had to be of this kitchen!

I also remembered the wonderful folklore of Trinidad infused by the many African immigrants. We heard many stories of mythical creatures. Moko Jumbie was invoked to protect the people during the long and arduous slave boat journeys from Africa. The Soucouyant is a vampire, popular in many Caribbean countries. I remember being very scared hearing some of these stories as a young girl!

My paintings are of memories from my childhood, which was steeped with traditional Hindu ceremonies, African folklore, the natural beauty of the islands, and the array of cultures of the diverse population.

The world is a family 

One is a relative, the other stranger, 

say the small minded. 

The entire world is a family, 

live the magnanimous. 

Be detached, 

be magnanimous, 

lift up your mind, enjoy 

the fruit of Brahmanic freedom. 

—Maha Upanishad 6.71–75 

The Yamas and Niyamas of Healing Patterns and Colors is the title of my newest painting collection.

Imagine that these ethical principles, the yamas and niyamas of the ancient Upanishads are embedded in all my paintings. The sage, Patanjali expounds on them in his Yoga Sutras. Sutra means “thread” in Sanskrit, which you can see represented by the many-colored line segments in this painting collection. 

Indra Persad-Milowe’s Art Piece, The Yamas and Niyamas of Healing Patterns and Colors.

YAMAS: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lists five yamas, or moral restraints, which apply specifically to how you behave outwardly toward other beings.

1) Ahimsa – Non-violence in thought, word and deed 

2) Satya – Truthfulness 

3) Asteya – Non-Stealing

4) Brahmacharya – putting the “path to the Divine” first and foremost in life 

5) Aparigraha – Non-hoarding, freedom from grasping 

NIYAMAS: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra lists five niyamas, or observances, which apply specifically to how you conduct yourself on a more personal level. 

1) Saucha – Cleanliness 

2) Santosha – Contentment 

3) Tapas – Self Discipline 

4) Svadhyaya – Self Study 

5) Isvara-pranidhana – Surrender: offering yourself completely as a vehicle of the Divine will 

My ten-piece paintings capture religious and cultural life in so many patterns and colors, just like our world is full of varieties of patterns and colors. They reflect many disciplines and ideals of life: faith, fortitude, sacrifice, respect, and love. Love and respect for all patterns (ways of life) and colors (global cultures) are a very important Hindu worldview – “VASUDHAIVA KUTUMBAKAM” (The world is a family).


Indra Persad Milowe is a visual artist living and working in Salem, Massachusetts. She is currently working on an extensive series of paintings, drawing upon childhood memories of growing up in Trinidad during the 1950s.

California Nani: A Video a Day Keeps The Doctors Away

In the pandemic of 2020, when the world went into lockdown, one Indian lady who is above 80 years of age, engaged herself in making videos on Indian culture, mythology, and literature from her apartment in San Francisco.

Her name is Mrs. Harsha Watts and she is my mother.

She learned how to record, upload and manage her YouTube channel “California Nani” on her own. Here, she has showcased about 500 videos made by her with more than twenty thousand viewers. My mother’s life holds a message that learning and following one’s passion can occur even after eighty years of age! Here are some excerpts from the life of California Nani, which is an inspiration to many. 

For a large part of her life, mom remained a reticent atheist. Yet back in India, she fulfilled her duties in organizing religious festivities for the family. Her greatest talent lay in cooking delicious meals. Without feeling exhausted, she managed all chores herself, after which, she would sit to knit sweaters for her loved ones! 

When I was growing up in India, I recall how mom would help all of us at home with our homework. She would help us understand meaning in literature, explain shlokas in Sanskrit, show us the tricks to memorize science and math. Several evenings, when the light would go off, mom would give a candle to us so that we may continue to finish our homework in a room full of darkness. 

Although mom couldn’t finish her own college, she aspired to see her children excel academically. She was the person who would attend the parent-teacher meetings at school in India. Now that everyone in the family is settled in the US, you might be thinking that my mother must be leading her retired life. 

Well, a few years back, my father had passed away. Mom began visiting temples each day. Soon after, she engaged herself in making jewelry and dresses for the deities. I was surprised to see this transformation in a nonbeliever. 

A few years back, she fell down, twice, when her feet got entangled in her saree causing multiple fractures on her knee and foot, and hands. Wearing a saree or keeping long hair wasn’t feasible anymore. Short hair and western attire brought another transformation in her leading to a miraculous phase. 

When mom turned eighty years of age, her granddaughter asked her, “what was life like in India in 1940, 1950, and 1960?” Mom began remembering her childhood during the partition in India, and beyond. We wanted to preserve the words of wisdom flowing out of her lips. With the help of her granddaughter, mom launched her own channel on youtube – CALIFORNIA NANI, in August 2019. Now she wakes up each morning with the goal of making one video each day. 

The beauty of this endeavor is the preservation of knowledge related to Indian culture and benefit to students of Indology.

More details at YouTube channel – California Nani! 


 Anu Sharma teaches, travels, writes, volunteers and lives in San Francisco, CA.

The Age of Religious Fanaticism: The Tonic

Newly released book The Tonic (Leadstart Publishing Pvt Ltd, 2020) is an intriguing story set in 1992, against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition and the Bombay riots. Shuttling constantly between the past and the present, the story shares some vivid imagery of the city of Mumbai, complete with its local trains, chawls, high-rise condominiums, and “cutting chai” culture. The novel’s 30-year-old author, Mayur Sarfare, is a Professor of Mass Media at Mumbai’s Usha Pravin Gandhi College of Arts, Science, and Commerce. Passionate about subjects of metaphysics and philosophy, Sarfare regularly hosts events and moderates panel discussions. 

The story runs between a diverse cast of characters. Raem Andrew, who lost his parents in the 1985 bomb blast of a Delhi-bound Air India flight arriving from London, stands out due to his unusually fair complexion and blue eyes. When he moves to a Muslim dominated locality, Raem befriends his neighbor, Masher P Bhasker, a young student with a speech disorder. Masher’s father was burnt by religious fanatics for being a Hindu who was in love with a Muslim woman. Further, due to his stammer, Masher is often bullied and mocked by his classmates. Raem and Masher relate to each other, as they are both outcasts in society, something that becomes a strong basis for their friendship.

Destiny begins to change for them when Raem’s uncle, Sam, gifts him a box of cryptic Bolivian chocolates. The chocolates work like magical pills, giving them extraordinary courage and confidence to do things that they normally could never imagine. Masher manages to correct his speech under their influence, and Raem wins over the girl of his dreams.

However, when Masher’s mother and mute Hindu girlfriend are killed in the 1992 Bombay riots, he is overwhelmed with grief and despair. Decades later, their lives collide with Reymerg D’Souza, a militant atheist cum media tycoon,  who believes that religion is an infection of the worst kind—it has crippled man, robbed him of scientific temperament, and stultified progress. Thus, his mission is to eradicate the malaise of religion altogether. Over the years he has been secretly masterminding the abduction of various celebrated spiritual leaders belonging to different religions in an effort to execute them.

“The foundation of faith is fear. If there is no fear, there is no faith.” The book is filled with several such philosophical outbursts, and could easily work as a racy script for a thriller film or web series. When Reymerg plans a wicked and twisted silver jubilee commemoration of the infamous riots, by scheming something so sinister that could endanger the lives of millions, and it is up to Raem to prevent this colossal damage.

 “The riots didn’t just take a lot of lives; it took with them a lot of hopes, dreams, and ambitions.” The book throws light on possibly hundreds of such untold stories about the notorious riots and the havoc they wreaked in the many lives that they touched. Overall, it is a passionate statement on contemporary religious fervor and the sheer power that it wields upon human minds.  


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’. 

Hinduphobia in the Academy

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

A Harvard Kennedy School academic had recently tweeted saying, “Hindus are sick people of India, it is their religious books who (sic) train the mind.” 

A couple of years ago, another faculty at Rutgers University’s history department had tweeted that Mata Sita, in Valmiki’s Ramayana, basically tells Bhagwan Rama that he is a “misogynist pig and uncouth.” 

Yet another faculty at the Uppsala University’s  Department of Peace and Conflict Research had made a “Gau Mutra” (cow urine, a common taunt against the Hindus by the jihadists) comment in his tweet.

  

These Hinduphobic comments are not an anomaly. We are used to hateful comments on social media from a part of the academy. Even within the elite academic peer-reviewed journals, Hinduphobic commentaries are often presented against Hindus, and disinformation is spread under the garb of the academic enterprise and free-speech. 

Western academia also produces a large amount of what Rajeev Malhotra calls atrocity literature. It is a body of literature “with the explicit goal to show the target non-Western culture is committing atrocities on its own people, and hence in need of Western intervention.” 

A Hinduphobic discourse, according to Jeffrey Long, “is a narrative which typically portrays Hinduism exclusively as an oppressive and regressive tradition inextricably bound up with social institutions like caste and patriarchy.” According to Long, a sniff-test for Hinduphobia in a critique of Hindus or Hinduism, academic or otherwise, is to ask the following question: “Is there a scenario, short of their complete renunciation of Hinduism, in which Hindus might address this critique in a way the critic would find acceptable?” If the answer is “no,” we are dealing with Hinduphobia. 

Why so much hate and disinformation against Hindus, one might ask? One of the reasons for disinformation is that Indians in general, and Hindus in particular, have lost agency in the exchange of information about their own culture, traditions, and texts. During the colonial time, the Western scholars started sharing information about Hinduism with other non-native scholars, and the modalities of exchanging information in the study of India became predominantly outsider to outsider. One of the schools that emerged from this outsider to outsider exchange was Indology, with roots in racism.

Indology is the academic study of India, its texts, religions, and culture. It holds a preeminent position in the western scholarly interpretation of Indian texts and traditions. The entire gamut of Indology study isn’t only premised upon Protestant theologizing, but it is also a product of racial prejudice. Indologists dismiss any native perspective as they believe that Indians lacked access to the “true” meaning of their texts. They also believe that Indians never developed “critical” and “scientific” thinking; hence Indian texts should not be read as Indians do. However, what evolved as “critical” and “scientific” in Indology, Vishwa Adluri points out, had emerged from “Protestant debates over scriptures.”

When Adluri sent in his academic work on the Hindu epic The Mahābhārata to Indology professors in Germany, he expected constructive criticism. What he received shocked him. Reviewing his doctoral research, one of the professors wrote: “What I was arguing against in my assessment of your work was your peculiar method to use ‘theology,’ that is, in this case, an Indian religious view of the text, not as the object of research.” 

Adluri, who holds doctoral degrees in Philosophy and Indology, was “traumatized” by the treatment. “The racism I encountered… was more insidious. It was scientific or scientized racism… Indologists enact this discrimination not because they are vulgar racists – obviously, they think they are cultured, enlightened, and cosmopolitan – but because their authority depends on it.” Adluri recounted in an interview.  According to Adluri, “The Indologists really believe it is their mission – as Europeans – to teach Indians to receive their own texts correctly and “critically”… Europeans are mündig (mature), whereas non-Europeans are unmündig and hence candidates for… (re)education.”

The centers of South Asian Studies, across the globe and certainly in the US, have kept the spirit of Indology alive, with Leftists and Marxists joining the bandwagon. These centers have their history in war and evangelism, and several prominent South Asia scholars were the US spies working in the region. Kushagra Aniket, a recent Cornell University graduate, recounted his story where a Cornell professor claimed that The Bhagwad Gitā was a manual of casteist morality that advocated the annihilation of one’s clan if required by one’s caste-based duties. 

When Aniket found out that Cornell offered a course in Philosophy of War that explored the “Just War Theory” in Western theologies, he decided to take it. When he submitted his research paper on “The Concept of Just War in the Gita,” he was challenged for not including any “academic” citations. In his defense, Aniket claimed that he knew Sanskrit and relied on “his translation of the original” for which he should get extra-credit.

The parallels between Adluri and Aniket’s experiences with their professors are indistinguishable.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.

What was 2020 About?

I struggled with 2020. What was it all about? All over the world this year people weren’t just fighting COVID-19 and lack of freedom, but were also standing up against violence and discrimination.

The year 2020 has been the first of many things:

  • The first time we experienced lockdowns and felt an urgency to grab every wet wipe in sight.
  • The first time people spent their holidays without family.
  • The first time people worked and studied from home, where the first twenty minutes of every Zoom interaction were spent discussing poor connections, muted microphones, and turned off cameras.
  • Someone’s first graduation or first year in school.
  • Someone’s first day at work and someone’s last.

All these firsts occurred so naturally that we became increasingly comfortable in them and they became our seconds, thirds, and constants. Most importantly, however, this year has been a space of growth for people, not just individually but as a community – something that perhaps a fast-paced, capitalistic society might’ve prevented in the past.

We experienced large movements all around the world, people came out to fight for each other and stand by each other. Black Lives Matter, Dalit Lives Matter, and Muslim Lives Matter were three such movements that were instigated by atrocities committed against these minorities in America and India. 

These movements highlighted that people are born human. It’s ironic that the biggest divides are made by people. We divide the day with time, divide people with everything we possibly could, and yet, believe that the solution to atrocities that occur from such divide is to further divide a community that is already disintegrating.

For once, in perhaps a long time, Black people were not alone in fighting their own battles against institutionalized oppression and racism. Teenagers and senior citizens walked on the streets to empower and protect a future that should be built on equality, regardless of skin color. But the BLM movement isn’t a trend, it didn’t ask people to post a picture once or twice on Instagram with captions like “Black Out Tuesday” and call it a day.

Instead, it created a space that supported black-owned businesses. It gave a platform for students and employees who were discriminated against in the workplace because of the color of their skin. It united people, as the privileged stood with black people and worked as allies. While all these events are a change in the positive direction, this movement isn’t close to ending. It has just begun. 

India also dealt with violence and inequality against minorities this year. In Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, a 19-year-old woman was raped by four men and her corpse was burned by the police while her mother cried in protest. The woman was of the Dalit caste (which is the “lowest”) while the rapists were from the Thakur caste (the “highest”). 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

To add to this, India’s nationalist government wanted Hindutva to prevail as the dominant (and only) religion. The government was and is vehemently against people who identify as Muslim. From crass WhatsApp jokes that highlight the ingrained discrimination against Muslims in India, to the police and government using violence against Muslim people on the streets, the divide and inequality reached a high this year. 

These violent crimes against Muslim and Dalit people caused rage all over the country (as it should). Caste-ism, sexism, and religious discrimination reared their ugly heads and Indians came out in hoards to globally speak out against it. Calls for equality were heard as thousands of protests were held to fight against the violence these minorities face. 

It irked me to say Muslim People, Hindu People, Dalit people, Black people. It irked me because it has come to a world where people are defined more by a part of their whole identity and less as just people. Rather than giving equal weight to ‘Dalit’ and ‘people’, we have begun to stress on the former and neglect the latter. It irks me because we take humanity away from humans. This year, however, it irked the whole world. These movements, these calls for equality forced people to stand up for each other. There is unrest still, there is discomfort, but what I learned this year is that we are tirelessly hopeful beings, even when we ourselves don’t see it. 

So while 2020 had some of the worst to give, the best part of it has been the people living in it. 


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

At 52 Hz, My Throat is Parched

The 2020 US elections were not just about differing political views. People’s lives were impacted on the basis of their skin color, their gender, their sexuality, or their religion.

It bred uncertainty and fear in people who had been targeted for years.

Human beings should be respected for just that, being human. There is no other clause or addition to that. 

Here is a poem dedicated to those that felt weak. Rather than offer a solution of light in the darkness, I offer a hand to hold in it. 

Oil painting by Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving) 
Oil painting by Author, Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving)

6th November 10:11 pm

I felt it in waves, that dissolve in the sand

Blue and red neon signs holding each hand

“Am I human enough?” 

My skin dipped chocolate and my heart of rainbows

I can’t seem to hide, in the hours that count down— 

I can’t seem to stop.

Maybe if my eyes could close, maybe if my mind switched off—

Maybe if red and blue-dyed into a plethora of purple, 

losing in color and gaining the “other”.

 

“In a world with its eyes closed, a person with their’s open

Isn’t it strange how now they are made blind?” 

Is that victory? 

Effortless rounds that never escape a cycle,

Drugged on more and living less.

If it never starts, it never ends.

People become collateral, waves become loose sand.

A gripping fist, shows an empty hand. 

My throat is parched, lungs need a break—

But I haven’t slept yet:

 

Waking up in this state. 

7th November 5:50 am


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Insider to Outsider: Reversing the Trend in Hindu Discourse

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

Late last month, days before the US presidential elections, a prominent media outlet published an article on Indian and Hindu-American politics. The piece, full of polemics, was an apparent attempt to promote the stocks of the Silicon Valley, CA, Democrat Ro Khanna. Besides singing paeans to Khanna, the article’s theme revolved around the terms Hindutva and Hindu Nationalism without much context and any nuanced exposition of those terms. The piece also attacked several Hindu groups and individuals alike for their advocacy.

The piece, written by an India-American journalist, drew strong reactions from the diaspora groups, including this tweet response from Saagar Enjeti, a fellow at Steamboat and Hudson Institute.

The piece in question, and the response to it, indicates a phenomenon, a turmoil of sorts, facing the Hindu community around the world. The dissonance stems from discord and disconnect between how the Hindu faith practitioners see themselves and how the media and academia dominated by Western scholarship present them. 

Hindu-Americans have also been fighting an on-going battle against the misrepresentation of Hinduism in American textbooks. Arvind Sharma, the Berks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University, in his paper “Dharma and the Academy: A Hindu Academic’s View” has taken up the issue of this turmoil that, according to him, “has come to be characterized by a sharp debate, which has also spilled over into journalism and the Internet.”

The turmoil Sharma talks about has been brewing for over a decade. It is part of the Hindu community’s ongoing awakening in post-colonial India that has gained considerable momentum since the election (and re-election) of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister. As the turmoil continues, Hindus have not only started resenting the misrepresentation of their culture, faith, texts, and traditions in media and academia, they have also begun to present vigorous disputations against those misrepresentations.  

To get to the root cause of misrepresentations, it is crucial to understand the modalities of exchanging information in the study of religions. Sharma presents a fourfold typology for such an exchange: insider to insider, outsider to outsider, outsider to insider, and insider to outsider. 

In pre-modern times, Sharma argues, most interactions in the realm of religious studies were from insider to insider. In the context of India, particularly during the colonial time, outsider to outsider became the primary mode of transmission for Hinduism. 

During colonial times, non-native Western scholars started sharing information about Hinduism with other non-native scholars (outsider to outsider). “The West, however, began to control the intellectual discourse in its colonies…and the insiders to these traditions began to be profoundly affected, even in their self-understanding of their own religious traditions, by Western accounts,” writes Sharma. This altering of the self-understanding was due to outsider to insider channel. The current tumult, however, is a byproduct of a vociferous attempt by the native Hindus to change the flow of information from inside to outside.

Sharma claims that with the Hindu-American community reaching a critical demographic mass in North America and India, its ‘response threshold’ has been breached. When a faith community crosses its response threshold, it becomes hard for outsiders to ignore the community’s response to misrepresentations. A response threshold is crossed, according to Erick Sharp (The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987), “when it becomes possible for the believer to advance his or her own interpretation against that of the scholar.” 

Sharma observes that protests aren’t necessarily about the facts but the interpretation of the Hindu tradition by academia and media. Indian Intellectual Tradition has a long history of disputation among native scholars. For example, Nyaya realism has a tradition of argumentation with Buddhist phenomenalism at both epistemological and ontological levels. In the present context, however, it is crucial to make a distinction between academic/intellectual work and polemics. Upon examination, many Western presentations of the Hindu tradition may fall into one of the various kinds of Hinduphobic discourses

One of the fascinating concepts in quantum theory is the observer effect, which states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality. One can apply this notion of observer bias to the study of Hinduism by Western scholars. According to Sharma, this principle “provides a basis for examining the fear of the Hindus that Western scholars may be altering Hinduism in the very process of studying it, and the change thus brought about is not for the better.” 

The current effort by the Hindu faith community must be seen as an attempt to reclaim the agency in representing and defining Hinduism. At the very least, non-native agents cannot be the sole arbitrators of the native traditions.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic Knowledge Tradition, and current affairs in several media outlets.

Padmavyuha: A Film Questioning Blind Faith

(Featured Image: Director, Raj Krishna, and crew on the set of Padmavyuha) 

The dedicated and outspoken religious studies Professor Shaki Ramdas is sitting in his university office one evening when he receives a mysterious phone call –  an unidentified voice tells him that a prominent journalist has gone missing, an obscure religious symbol left at the scene of disappearance. His interest piqued, Professor Ramdas follows up with the Detective on the case, Mark King, who at first is skeptical of Professor Ramdas but grows to trust him and value his inputs.

A still from the film, Padmavyuha.

Professor Ramdas works with Detective King and the unidentified voice on the telephone to decipher a series of religious puzzles, slowly uncovering a growing conspiracy designed to silence non-believers. But as the Professor digs in deeper, he finds himself descending the dark staircase of his own fractured psyche, beginning to question his own views on religion. As he deciphers the final puzzle and discovers the true villain, he will find his religious worldviews transformed – discovering a shocking, newfound purpose. 

After watching Padmavyuha and exchanging correspondence with the Director, Raj Krishna, I began to understand the importance of this film and am glad that it premiered at the International Indian Film Festival in Toronto on August 9, 2020 to a wide audience.

The purpose of this film is threefold:

  1. To introduce the central tenet of Hinduism: The dual concept of Jivatman which goes through several cycles of birth and rebirth to ultimately merge into Parmatman or the Divine source. This can be accomplished through careful observation of actions that are subject to the law of Karma.
  2. To unravel several myths about the origin, history, and core issues of Hinduism.
  3. To question the caste system. When was the “caste system”, which is linked to violent oppression by Hindus, created?

I was born a Hindu and raised in a household where my father, a highly compassionate soul was agnostic for a long time, and my mother was a staunch devotee of Lord Hanuman.  I grew up with a rich tapestry of Hindu culture, mythology, prayers, hymns, and am deeply rooted in my faith. We were taught to notice the atman in every living being and practice ahimsa or nonviolence.

India is a secular state and it was prevalent in my formative years and I think to some extent it is still a common practice for Indians of all faiths to visit temples and other places of worship including churches, mosques, and gurudwaras without restrictions. But recently there had been a rise in right-wing nationalistic sentiment in the West and it has percolated also to our motherland.

Raj Krishna implores the audience to examine the core values of their own faith and try to understand that “ negative” sentiments about faiths are intentionally tagged to many religions just to incite fear among the general population and to prevent them from living in harmony. 

The Director addresses the confusion created all over the world about the “civilizations from the East or the Orient.”  Who were the original Indians?

In fact recently, when Senator Harris accepted the Vice Presidential nomination for the United States of America, I received phone calls from educated Americans friends debating about the origin of the Indian race! Who are the original Indians? Did they come from the Middle East? Who were the Aryans and why did they create an intentional hierarchy amongst their citizens: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, and other miscellaneous outcastes?

But it is important to recognize whose prerogative is being used to theorize about other races.

I was lost in the shades of grey existing between the two versions of the truth, finding it more and more difficult to classify the current events as good or bad. The more I studied, the more shocked and confused I found myself on the core issues; is religion good? What is its true history? Who is right – the political activists protesting against the religious right, or the religious right themselves, who claim to have done far more in the name of equality than anyone else?,” interrogates Raj Krishna.

The film, Padmavyuha implores the audience to pay attention to the projected ambiguity about the Hindu faith and not fall in the trap created by right-wing nationalists. It behooves every practitioner to carefully examine the good and bad of their own religion before following anything blindly.

To learn more about what Padmavyuha means and to gain a glimpse into the history and mysterious annotations of ancient Indian civilization, watch the movie for yourself. I recommend it! 

Catch a viewing at these following local film festivals:

Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFesthttps://svapfilmfest.eventive.org/films – October 2-10, 2020

Orlando Film Festivalhttps://orlandofilmfest.com/ – October 15-22, 2020

Indian Film Festival of Cincinnatihttps://iffcincy.eventive.org/films – Oct 15-Nov 1, 2020

Show Low – White Mountains Arizona Film Festivalhttps://filmfreeway.com/ShowLowFilmFestival – Oct 16-18, 2020

Oregon State International Film Festivalhttps://dasfilmfest.vhx.tv/products – October 19-25, 2020

Louisville’s International Festival of Filmhttps://louisvillefilmfestival.org/ – Nov 5-7, 2020


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.