Who Is a Hindu?

The title of Vamsee Juluri’s article (Who Is a Hindu, September 2014, India Currents)  immediately caught my attention. I was further intrigued by “that provocative question: what does it really mean to be a Hindu today?” in the very first paragraph. Are they really such pressing issues? I thought to myself as I read on. The major incentive of the article seemed to me to be a reflection of the rise of the Hindu Right, which culminated in the overwhelming victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP in the recent elections.

From the article, it may be inferred that Juluri is alluding to a religious group and its practices and not merely the inhabitants of a geographical area. I am no expert on the subject (being a humble Civil Engineer). So, I quote that according to Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu (more appropriately a follower of Sanatana Dharma) is one who believes in the infallibility of the four Vedas. In the same context, per late Prof. Bimal Matilal (ex-Spalding Professor at Oxford, a Chair earlier held by Dr. Radhakrishnan), a Hindu is one who is not a follower of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism or Zoarastrianism (neti, neti a la the great Shankaracharya!). This definition, I am told, is similar to that in the Indian Constitution.

Now, the provocative question: what does it mean to be a Hindu today? To me, a proud Hindu for all of my life of nearly 70 years, it means no different to me today than at any other time. Admittedly, there is suddenly all round me an increased consciousness (paranoia?) that we Hindus are under attack from all sides. Much of this, I submit, is the result of increased coverage of the media and our increased exposure to it. After all, in this age of explosion of information technology, much exaggeration and hearsays compete with genuine information. I am sure, as a professor of media studies, this is not lost on him.

I felt Juluri was somewhat unnecessarily uneasy about our Gods, epics and myths. Swami Vivekananda has said that all major religions consist of rituals, mythology and philosophy. So, “myth” does not need to be a condescending term when alluding to Rama or Krishna. We may perhaps find better understanding and some solace to this issue from the recent works of historians, most prominently Romila Thapar, the doyen of historians. Thapar goes on to show how history is subtly interbedded in our Puranas and epics.

There are some statements in the article that I am hard pressed to swallow. Unlike Juluri, I tend to agree that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and later the highly deplorable Gujarat riots are part of a Hindu fundamentalist uprising and that it would destroy India’s secular fabric.
Also, I cannot fathom how Emperor Asoka becomes a “non-Hindu” icon. Further, I find Juluri’s anathema to the “supposed liberal-secular vision of Hinduism” including their view of history rather disconcerting. History should not be subjective, though some interpretations may change with new information. Regarding history, Juluri is still fixated on the theory of the Aryan invasion of India, which has been discarded by mainstream historians for nearly 50 years. And there is some question regarding how badly India was hurt by the Islamic invasions. Muslims hardly ever ruled over a major portion of India and all the major Bhakti movements: Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya, Tukaram, Ramdas occurred during their regimes under their noses. I also disagree with him in that to me, Columbus did discover America at least for the Europeans who overwhelmingly dominate its population and culture.

Juluri shows great concern about the potential ill effects of poor textbooks in America regarding Hinduism on our children growing up here. He brings up the 2006 California textbook controversy. I totally fail to perceive any such ill effects on any of the many young men and women that I know, who were brought up in this country, including my two sons, who are presently well settled. To me it is essentially a non-issue raked up by some, who probably do not qualify to speak on the subject. This is not surprising, given that a large majority among us here are, as he says, in “safe” professions like me, thanks to “a major pitfall in the Nehruvian vision.”

In conclusion, I would like to strongly suggest that we Hindus should, within the times available to us, and our capacities, try to use our resources to further our knowledge of Hinduism and Indian history instead of giving in to popular media hype. There are excellent authoritative books on Hindu (Vedic) philosophy written by monks of the Ramakrishna Mission and other venerable organizations and individuals. There are also books on Indian history by eminent established historians like Romila Thapar and R.S. Sharma and others. Disregarding some of them as “Marxist” historians merely on the basis of propagandist literature would be foolhardy.

Partha Sircar, Concord, California

Vamsee Juluri’s attempt to review three books to find the answer to the question: Who is a Hindu?” reminds me of the folk story of three blind French men who went to “see” an elephant. One came back to say that it was flat, another said it was round  and the last one said it was very stinky. The answers for the question under discussion on Hinduism vary from fundamentalist right, secular  and passive, to urban cowboy. I feel more comfortable with the profile of the elephant.

Misunderstandings on a profound question of this sort, innocent or mischievously implied, are normal. As President of a temple board, some years ago, one of the public enquiry letters I had to answer was simple. Scribbled on a dinner napkin in pencil, after a name and a long serial number, the letter said: “I am in a prison in N. California. I love Siva and your temple, When I get out, I will visit the temple; What is the difference between Siva and Shiva?” Genuine, no doubt.

Ever since the assumption of office by Prime Minister Modi, the western media is relentlessly harping  on their old slogans like, contentious, controversial, fundamentalist et al.  They refer always to the riots in Gujarat but not the  brutal massacre of 62 Hindu pilgrims trapped  in a rail car in Godhra  by miscreants before the riots. It would be charitable and fair to add the prefix: “following the fire bombing” to any discussion of the riots. Juluri also is remiss on this omission.
Back to the question of Who is a Hindu? The conceptual Supreme Being of the Universe from Indian mythology does not discriminate among humans. All receive the same guidance, love and care.  The answer to the question therefore is:  All of us are Hindus. An oft quoted simple prayer in Sanskrit, “Akashad Pathitham Thoyam …” explains the philosophy. Just as the water from the sky that  falls on earth flows freely and  finds its way to the great oceans, so do your prayers to all  the  Gods get directed to me. Obviously, the question of proselytization does not arise because all humans are on the same side for the Supreme Being. It is not me or you but us. (I acknowledge the benefit of discussions on some of these topics with Garimella SriRama Rao of Cerritos, CA)

P. Mahadevan, Fullerton, CA

Part of the dissonance on “Hinduism” may arise from the differences between Dharmic religions and Abrahamic religions in how they approach spirituality as relationship vs. realization of the Divine.

Other than ontological differences we are also stymied by language. The Sanskrit language has a highly nuanced spiritual vocabulary that English is a poor match for.  Sanskrit words are often multivalent, with the same word having several meanings. So, much can be lost in translation in the hands/vision of the inept.

Language and world-view are intimately connected. As Indian-Americans we are uniquely positioned to build bridges, expand worldviews—both that of ours and others and yes, vocabularies.

Or maybe, we should all just meditate and experience the Truth behind all ontologies and languages!

Mala Setty, Long Beach, California

The answer to the question Who is a Hindu? is nobody and everybody. All religions anchor on two fundamentals—an imaginary God and an imaginary Soul. No religion can withstand scientific scrutiny or rational judgment. Based on Blind Faith (God, Soul), all religions are same or similar. The palpable differences are created through artificial rituals. It’s time to ban all Blind Faiths (religions) to build a better world for humanity.

Mohammed Shoaib, email

Spanking and the Bible

Bad advice is still bad advice, even if it has a Ph.D. after it. Alzak Amlan’s criticism of spanking (Spanking Children, India Currents, September 2014) is typical of any liberal educated in a post-modern culture, and the liberal view of child-rearing over the last 40 years has been disastrous in America. His statement “violence begets violence” is very simplistic and disingenuous. Spanking is not violence. Spanking, in an appropriate manner, is an act of a loving parent who doesn’t want their child to grow up violent, obnoxious and disrespectful to elders. King Solomon wrote in the Holy Bible 3,000 years ago, “He who spares the rod of discipline hates his child, and he who loves his child will be careful to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24). I have seen so many examples of parents trying to control their kids using the liberal approach that Amlani endorses, and the results are embarassing. Loud, out-of-control children are an embarassment to their parents who think they can run around all day telling their children “No, no, no, …”  hoping their two-year old will “listen to reason.” The idea that spanking is harmful to a child is total foolishness. Some of the most pleasant and respectful children I have seen come from parents who spanked them in a loving and Biblical manner.  I urge all Indian parents to ignore the degenerate advice of liberal psychologists and continue to spank their children. May I suggest an excellent resource on the subject: Dr. James Dobson’s work, Dare to Discipline, which can be found at Focus on the Family.

Ara “Lukas” Piranian, CA

The Imperative to Label

I found myself both in agreement with and shaking my head at the October editorial (Who Am I? India Currents, October 2014). It reminded me of a conversation about politics I participated in with my cousin and brother-in-law, at a time when I was a new immigrant to the States, and George W. Bush was still duking it out with Al Gore. That conversation started with my cousin stating “I would call myself a compassionate conservative,” and me thinking to myself, “That’s so American”—the imperative to label oneself. What sounds epiphanous to Jaya Padmanabhan, that identities are fluid, would be common intuition in most other places.

Especially in politics, when labels serve as a starting point for framing ideology or opinion, they can often do more harm than good. Hyphenated or not, they tend to be polar. Once you’ve decided a label fits you, it’s very difficult not to look for reinforcing facts or opinions. It prioritizes ideology over merit in elections. I hold this predilection at least partly to blame for the polarized state of political discourse in this nation. For all the rap that India might get for widespread corruption, caste- and community-based affinities and immaturity in general, there is greater sanctity afforded to individual opinion, and it is more widely accepted that they are malleable and changing.

 Sumit Kishore, website

Stepping Up

I would like to thank you for publishing my letter about the OCI confusion at the Indian Consulate (Letters, India Currents, June 2014). We were caught during the transition from BLS International to Cox & Kings for OCI issuance. Thanks to India Currents’ prompt response in the matter, the Indian Consulate issued our OCI a month later. It was a frustrating time for our family, as we were making travel plans, which would not have happened if not for India Currents’ email to the Indian Consulate, which helped us procure the OCI cards for our entire family in the span of one month. Kudos to you and your staff for listening to your readers and stepping up to help.

David/Maruska Desouza (OCI card holders and ardent readers of India Currents)

Vandana Kumar is a publishing executive with a 35-year track record in the industry. She leads the India Currents Foundation as President and CEO. As a new immigrant, she co-founded India Currents magazine...