We belong to a moment in history when Hinduism is beginning to wake up, if not from a long slumber, then at least a long silence. We did not speak to the world, and to ourselves, as Hindus, in a very long time. For reasons of strategy and sensibility, we have been modest and easy-going about religion, despite some unpleasant encounters in history with forces to the contrary.
We prayed, no doubt, and we went to temples and we made deals with God. We enjoyed our festivals and sang our bhajans and watched our Ramayan serials. But we did not ask, until the present generation came of age really, that provocative question: what does it really mean to be Hindu today?
What is God? Who are our Gods? Why is it that nobody has been able to explain what all of this means? Were these Gods great human beings who lived long ago? Were they symbols of natural phenomena? Were they mere superstitions? If so, why do they still feel endearing to us? Why do our arts, sculpture, culture, science, philosophy, poetry, music, revolve so much around them? Why do we feel their kindness, protection and wisdom so palpably?
We must listen to these questions, for we probably contemplated them too, when we were younger. We probably made our own conclusions, but, for the most part, we went on praying, going to temples, fulfilling vows, without debating very much what it meant.
And then, there are the other questions too, questions not about our philosophy or our Gods, but about these strange times we live in, and the strange insults and lies they heap on our sacred sensibilities and values, the questions that our children who are growing up in the United States ask with ever greater urgency.
Why do movies depict us as turbanned snake-charmers, beggars, or snake-eaters?
Why do some people say our tradition is to blame for India’s poverty, or our religion for the caste-system? Or for violence against women?
Why is it that history books do not tell us the truth of who we are and what we are?
Why does this modern world seem so unable to recognize our inner world of tradition? Why do we not speak to the modern world as Hindus? Not as fundamentalists, not as apologists, but simply as intelligent observers? (Excerpted from my book: Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence.)
What Does it Mean to Be a Hindu?
This is going to be one of the most important cultural questions of our time. For a living spiritual tradition that is a few or maybe even several thousand years old, we are amazingly intellectually under-equipped today. We are free in our thought and practice, and yet deeply dedicated to core ethical principles, like any great spiritual tradition.
My father, for example, taught zoology and read Darwin, and he was deeply devout and religious. My mother acted in movies and later entered politics, and she was deeply devout and religious. I was less religious than them, and certainly less disciplined about rituals and ceremonies, but I could not reject belief completely either.
In any case, we were much like the other educated, middle class Indians we knew. We had our Gods in our homes and hearts, and from there we seemed to make all our deals with the modern world of science, engineering and careers. It was rarely the other way around. It did not even occur to us to think of our Gods using the touchstones of modern conversation, like history, or even philosophy, for that matter. We went on worshipping, singing, watching the old devotional movies, and that was that.
The challenge is that any attempt to answer this question today gets dragged into political questions about fundamentalism and secularism. We cannot avoid these questions, these are the realities of a postcolonial world, but we must learn to address them more intelligently now.
Doesn’t Hinduism Preach Secularism?
For a devout Hindu, and I suspect for a sincere spiritual seeker of any cultural idiom, the everyday ideals we associate with secularism probably come very easily. The idea of the Divine as one and many, of one God being known through various names and forms, is deeply rooted in our sensibility, and expresses not only a mystical insight, but also a simple social and political reality: this world is diverse, and we must learn to live together, well. This is part of a very old practice in the Indian subcontinent, and is recognized as such by many modern Hindus who respect a secular India with room for all, but feel marginalized by present intellectual and media discourses that portray mainstream Hinduism as fundamentalist.
Why Are Liberal Intellectuals Choosing to Explain Hinduism Differently?
There has been a fundamental misreading of Hinduism and India by secular-liberal intellectuals in the past two decades. They saw political developments like the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the rise of the BJP in the 1980s, followed by the Ayodhya issue and later the Gujarat riots, as part of a Hindu fundamentalist uprising that would destroy India’ secular fabric. Their concerns about violence, and the abuse of identity politics were understandable.
Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian sought to fight the Hindu Right’s view of India’s glorious Hindu past by celebrating non-Hindu icons of tolerant statesmanship, such as Ashoka and Akbar. Martha Nussbaum’s The Clash Within questioned the post 9/11 climate of Islamophobia in the United States through an earnest exposé of Hindu extremism. Other South Asian writers well known in the West like Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra wrote frequently about the evils of the Hindu Right. They came to stand, even if by default, for a liberal vision of Hinduism in opposition to that of the Hindu Right.
However, this position was neither honest nor well informed. The supposedly liberal-secular vision of Hinduism they proposed against the Hindu Right had little consideration for how Hindus themselves see their religion in the first place.
Consequently, a whole era of writing about South Asia ended up answering the Hindu Right’s claims on history not by engaging with Hinduism as it is lived and understood by Hindus (which would mean acknowledging at least some grievances felt by them), but by promoting its own normative fantasy about what liberal, secular Hindus ought to believe.
To the claim that India is a Hindu nation, they responded not against the exclusionary aspect of that claim, but went so far as to insist there is no such thing as Hinduism. To the statement that India was hurt by Islamic invasions, they responded that Hindus were invaders of India too (just like Nazis, according to one scholar). To the claim that our Gods and Goddesses mean something more to us than what sexualized academic theories propose, they responded that this is a puritanical fantasy which violates Hinduism’s rich erotic traditions like the Kamasutra and Khajuraho. And to the belief that Rama and Krishna are Gods, they responded that they are merely fictional characters, and that it is just as valid to talk about them as villains, because in some versions, they are depicted as such.
Simply put, there has emerged an outright—and outrageous—denial of the moral legitimacy of Hinduism’s place in India, and of course, Hinduism’s intellectual integrity as a whole.
Why is History Important For Hindus and Hindu Americans?
The way in which history is taught around the world is essentially a modern, colonial relic.
Until very recently, history was taught from the perspective of a small group of people, carrying over their prejudices, intact. For example, we used to learn that Columbus “discovered” America. Now, we know better. The old model, which is often described as a Eurocentric one, was challenged in the academy, and since the 1960s and 1970s, more perspectives began to be heard; third-worldist, feminist, Islamist, and so on.
Unfortunately, a Hindu voice did not emerge at this time. So today, we have a strange situation. We have scholars able to speak, produce knowledge proudly in the name of their identities, as feminists, gays, Islamists and so on, but one of the oldest living intellectual heritages in the world has no voice to speak of the world.
This is not to say we must simply rewrite history books with simplistic slogans to make us feel good (or others look bad). We must challenge historiography, the way history is narrated, itself. A Hindu history of the world, for example, could be about humanity’s place in nature, its engagement with animals, a lot more than present discourse perhaps can imagine.
Have We Fallen Behind Because of Our Enthusiasm for Science Over Arts/Humanities?
In some ways, we have, though we must acknowledge the fact that much of the energy in rediscovering Hindu history is coming now from scientists and engineers. The trouble is not so much that our parents pushed us into “safe” professions, but that as a nation, India neglected its arts and humanities in the early years after Independence. It was a major pitfall of the Nehruvian vision, which was commendably internationalist in some ways, but severely lacking in terms of respect for India’s own civilizational, and that does mean spiritual, heritage.
The important thing though would be to create better conversations across professions, and ways of looking at the world.
Academics, for example, really need to start listening to the Hindu community and its scholars, and reject old orientalist fantasy theories about Hinduism. The biggest change will happen only when more of us go into the arts and humanities.
What Are the Consequences of Misrepresentation of Hinduism in the United States?
It is in America, this bastion of privilege, and possibility, this dream of the world, that the real consequences of misrepresentation play out. American school textbooks contain condescending fallacies about Hinduism on a scale which would have been instantly seen as scandalous had these been about other minority communities.
On bookshelves, you will see no Hindus except by token of name perhaps. You will find top of the line seculars who will equate any critique of racism and orientalism against Hindus with Hindu fundamentalism. You will find, reflected back and forth in the words of the four or five authors who have been chosen to portray 1.5 billion people to America, the same malignant fantasy as the old colonizers about Hinduism. It is mitigated, perhaps, by a streak of anti-colonial idealism, a great anguish for the poor, the minorities, the oppressed of the world. But their view of Hinduism is limited. They either did not know it in their lives, or knew no affection for it.
The Hindu-American community was slow to recognize these issues perhaps, and when it did, got broadly tarnished by self-styled secularists as “Hindu extremists” for its efforts, as was the case in California in 2006. If law-abiding parents concerned about their children’s education could be branded as extremists, then the word truly has no meaning left. In India, the consequences of poor textbooks may not be as bad as it is for Hindu Americans who face certain challenges as minorities in this society.
What Does it Mean to Speak of Myth and History?
One of the biggest intellectual challenges we face today is in distinguishing between “myth” and “history.”
As a high school student in Hyderabad, I recall not being especially bothered by what our history textbooks said about our religion; most importantly, they said that our sacred epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were literature, and the gods, like Krishna and Rama were therefore not real. Our religion did not seem to need any sort of validation from the curriculum, or from school in general.
We got our religious stories, and our sensibilities, from our parents and grandparents and from comic books and movies. It didn’t occur to us that our modern curriculum was actually saying the gods didn’t exist. We took history, after all, with a pinch of salt.
“Myth,” on the other hand, was something we were steeped in, regardless of how much we believed in it. We believed that Rama and Krishna were real, that they were avatars of God in human form, and that they lived on this land long ago. But we also assumed that it was all really long, long ago, and that we needn’t bother looking for them in our history lessons. It was an accommodation between belief and the modern mind that had held in India for many generations.
Whatever new forms of understanding emerge in the future, it is important they stay true to the philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic sensibilities of Hinduism. In any case, it is perhaps best to slowly find better ways to describe our god-stories than the condescending term “myth.”
Why is Wendy Doniger’s Work Problematic?
One unfortunate fall out of the controversy surrounding Doniger’s The Hindusis that it has shut out serious discussion of the problems in her work. Enthusiastic supporters like Stephen Prothero hail her as the voice of liberal Hindus, and sweepingly dismiss her critics as fundamentalists.
To understand the problem, imagine the following situations: a book calledThe Women, written by a man who claims to be an expert on women, or a book called The Poor, written by a millionaire who read a few books on poverty (written mostly by other rich people), or a book called The Gays, written by a heterosexual who insists he loves them even if his subjects say he is quite homophobic.
Now consider a book called The Hindus. There is a problem in representation, and in privilege, here, and this is not to simply say a non-Hindu cannot speak for Hindus (there has been great writing on Hinduism from many “outsiders,” for a fact). The reality is this:
If you walk into a bookstore in America, or open the review pages of the New York Times, chances are you won’t find any other views about Hinduism or Hindus other than the likes of Doniger’s. It is not an “alternative” view in the sense of being marginalized at all. Though it tries at some level to speak for “marginalized” groups in Indian history, it is still, in fact, the dominant view; and more importantly, it is a mistaken one.
The real issue with The Hindus is not so much its gratuitously sexualized misinterpretations of Hinduism. The dirty jokes and poor puns aside, at the core of this book (and the current academic quasi-consensus on Hindu history) is a bizarre myth: that of some ancient genocidal conquest of a pre-Hindu India by a Hindu Aryan force. This claim is made perhaps with the good intentions of countering majority intolerance and assuring minorities in India that they have a place in India. Still, it is neither noble nor factual.
The real issue is that Hindu history—mainstream, alternative, call it what you will—is at the moment a profoundly imperialist and racist denial of the right of nearly one billion people to their sense of home, nature and God.
What are the Challenges Ahead?
One sign of hope is that young Indians are devouring history and mythology voraciously, even if in the world of popular culture and social media rather than the classroom.
Novelists like Amish and Anand Neelakantan, for example, have created a vibrant interest in the past and through it have raised very contemporary humanistic questions.
Bloggers and readers are daring to challenge canonized academics about Hinduphobia. I am excited about the fact that India, and its diaspora, is preparing to take on the question of who we are in a way that goes beyond the usual anxieties about secularism and communalism. We may have lived with all the funny stories we had to memorize on the night before exams as “our” history for many decades now, but no longer. Everything is telling us that we are moving now into a different vision of the past, and more importantly, into a different vision of who we are and who we would like to become.
Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book, Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence, will be published by Westland Books India later this month and can be purchased from amazon.com