Waking up to Wisdom: Rearming Hinduism
Hinduism perhaps is always better lived first, and then understood, like any path of wisdom and spirit. Hinduism is often described as a way of life rather than a religion perhaps, for that reason. We do not begin with a theory or doctrine that we then try to bend the world to conform to. We are, one might say ‘spiritual anarchists’. We are ever evolving, we are ever free…….in our philosophy we have no Others, no reviled category for non-believers. We can be atheists, and Hindu. We can be monotheists and polytheists. But in all our freedom, we do, still have a sense of YOU, Alone, around which we have created all our philosophy, culture, art, science, and indeed civilization too.
Juluri, Rearming Hinduism. Kindle edition
Last summer I read a book that neatly organizes what I have been feeling for over two decades, ever since I left India. Since I grew up in India, as a Hindu, a very middle class, grandchild of Punjabi refugees, I heard more stories about India’s partition and its emotional, economic and social impact, than praising one religion over another. I also never heard a word against Islam in my house – instead I was told that at the time of the partition, while there was much bloodshed, there were also people who risked their life to help their friends, even when India’s division had been rendered enemies. I also heard that a relative of my grandfather’s was left behind during the partition, when he came to visit after two decades, that he had converted to Islam. The story was told as a matter-of-fact with any no malice. Growing up, I myself had Muslim friends and we frequented each other’s homes like family members. But I was asked to name my religion for the first time when I left India. I was also divided into a ‘race’ which many forms designed in the US, often used to gather demographic data, could not clearly identify (Asian vs. Indian).
My first experience of witnessing how Hindus were much more open and respectful of different faiths came when during my first year outside of India, at a prayer held at my house, I offered the ‘puja thali’ to all those present, among who some who were not Hindus. I did it, as a part of courtesy to make it all-inclusive, because for Hindus, there is no proselytization. But the young American woman, who I assumed would be more open, since it is (wrongly) assumed that the west is more open than the east, refused to touch the thali. I understood and respected her decision, as we are taught in Hindu households, even though I had bowed in/to Churches, Mosques and countless Gurudwaras. To her credit, years after the incident, she admitted that she wished that she had engaged in that ritual. What was confusing was that alcohol parties, sporting one night stands, even dabbling in drug abuse was considered a part of growing up, even for the church goers, usually labelled, ‘getting it out of your system’. But, the fact remains that while there is religion, in the west, a degenerate behaviour both sexual and social is considered a part of ‘becoming an adult’. Does that not happen in dharmic countries? Especially since western way of life has been promoted as the universal way of life? Sure, but in a dharmic concept what we have acted on or even thought about cannot be erased by repenting. There is a clear understanding that every thought leaves an impression on our minds, which affects our future decision-making, and as a corollary others around us. For me such self-destructive habits are not against religion, but against dharma—all that upholds a healthy society. To avoid any anti-social, self-destructive activities, including indiscriminate physical intimacy, for us Hindus was not religious but cultural, and accepted social behaviour. One simple word explained it all—DHARMA. Engaging in those activities would destabilize a society by weakening the will power of the young, so we were all self-disciplined, self-regulated. That ideology was so strongly embedded in the Indian psyche that it was accepted as a cultural norm, across all religions in India, even those that believed that the slate of previous deeds could be erased by, repenting and surrendering to God.
Later, came a series of conversations where I was subtly called an idolater. Since, I was not opposed to attending churches and listening to sermons, I often tuned into television sermons, even attended some Sunday sermons in churches with friends. There was always an emphasis on exclusivity of both Christianity and the Church. Being open minded I even wrote articles about finding similarities between Jesus as a Shepherd and Krishna as a Cowherd. In a multi-media class I photo-shopped Krishna as a silent witness to the birth of Jesus. For I had grown up on stories that Jesus was a recent incarnation of Vishnu—again an indication of openness and inclusivity of the Hindu tradition.
But over the last several years I noticed that the campaign for maligning Hinduism has been getting stronger and meticulous, even as it is disguised under the idea of freedom and equality. There was little discussion of Hinduism as the most secular of faiths, since it celebrates both the believers and the non-believers, allows worshipping the divine in all forms, or without a form. Instead, in my encounter all I heard about Hinduism was that it was superstitious, and discriminatory. No links were made between Hinduism in secular fabric of India, or how Hinduism has contributed to the world through yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and mathematics. Instead, some televangelists, in the US, directly went on to say on Diwali, ‘India still lives in the dark, because they have not seen the light of Jesus.’ In 1999, the then Pope in his visit to India stated, ‘I hope Christianity takes root in India like it did in Latin America’, on the day of Diwali—the most sacred of holidays for Hindus. Other than being plain derogatory towards the oldest surviving civilization, it was a speech of aggression.
Two years ago, on the streets of Dublin, I was stopped by a man holding a placard that said, ‘Jesus Loves You!’
‘May I talk to you? He asked in his American accent. I nodded.
He was a kind looking, middle-aged man.
‘Have you felt the presence of Jesus today?’ He started.
Having been a student in the US, I was very familiar with the talk. ‘I know what you are going to say, but I am not the person.’
‘What religion are you?
‘Don’t know what to say, because I have been known to say that I don’t really believe in God. I guess I grew up in a system that does not excommunicate you for saying that, so it works.’
‘Where are you from?’ Since it is hard today for many of us to be identified by the way we look, talk or dress, it’s a question that I am often asked.
‘Oh, well, I grew up in India…but…’
Before I could finish, he said, ‘You must be a Hindu’
Since I was in a rush, I nodded.
‘But Hinduism is really not a religion, I mean it is many religions in one, it is not really one religion….’
Again, all this sounded familiar, and I had gotten in debates and arguments many times before. ‘Look, I have to rush, but if I find the time before I leave, we can chat over tea about your misinformation.’ I chuckled.
‘I’ll pay for the tea’ he said. I add this part here, to acknowledge that when these incidents happen, I acknowledge their humanity and their desire to be kind, no matter how driven by proselytizing.
He also told me that his son-in-law was in India working with a mission, ‘bringing equality in rural areas, and doing the work of God’
As I walked away, I wondered, what made him the authority on a religion that defines itself as Sanatana –without beginning and end. A life-philosophy that has survived the onslaught from religions of the book, communism and colonization for over a millennia! A life-philosophy that considers every grain of sand divine! A thought process that prescribes Karma Yoga, that can be the best anti-corruption tool, as one of the highest philosophies for our modern times.
Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
‘To work you have the right, not to the fruits thereof!’
Who made this man the authority to say that Hinduism is not a religion?
If this seems not enough evidence for the prevailing Hinduphobia, then here is another story. At one of the leading universities in the US, there is an organization, where nice and kind people arrange cheap tours around the US and sometimes as far as Canada and Mexico for foreign students. Sounds friendly and hospitable right? Well, they don’t tell you that often part of the package is ‘staying with a Christian family’ and attending Sunday church sermon. Many of these families are involved in going to ‘heathen countries’, especially India, which remains one of rare countries of unbroken civilization from 10,000 years ago. Still not harmful enough? Since only the word of ‘God’’ is being spread? Well, they actually have pamphlets about all ‘other faiths’ in their office. And the one on Hinduism states that ‘Hindus were colonized by the British, so they have an inferiority complex. And it is very important to uphold ultimate superiority of Jesus when engaging them.’ (paraphrased).
How do these views on Hinduism and as a consequence of India, affect understanding of India as a nation?
Shortly before 9/11, while lamenting US media’s narrow vision in covering democracies around the world, including their neighbouring Canada, when I mentioned barely any coverage was given to the world’s largest democracy, a student responded, ‘With all due respect, we are a republic and won our freedom, but India was ‘given’ its freedom by the British’.
Disturbed by the response, I devoted the rest of the lecture to Hinduism inspired, and Gandhi driven concept of ‘satyagraph’ on the civil rights movement in the US. A Hindu concept, satyagragh means ‘holding on to the truth’, which combined with ‘ahimsa’ remains till this day the most emulated method of civil disobedience and demanding human rights by such noted activists as Martin Luther King, Mandela and movements such Occupy Wall Street.
And to give an idea about the reality of Hinduism, here is another story of relevance, from when I was teaching. A Croatian-Canadian colleague who taught biology asked me very sincerely, ‘What is the Indian position on evolution?’
After looking at my knitted brows she explained, ‘Because when I teach, Indian students are ones without any issue with the idea of evolution.’
‘Oh yeah, that might be due to Hinduism. We have no issues with contradictory statements, the world is filled with those.’ I shrugged ‘both arguments are up for empirical testing’.
So, in that context of experiencing Abrahamic religions, struggling in my heart and conviction of ‘all religions being equal’ as we were taught, facing the reality that Abrahamic religions were not taught to see all religions as equal, living outside of India and constantly being treated as ‘those strange cow worshippers who are good at computers and math’, deeply respecting all faiths, but knowing fully well that there is an undercurrent of discrimination or else why would missionaries run to Asia, especially India to convert, why would new converts to Abrahamic religions refuse walking into a temple, being surprised and humbled by how in a Hindu dominated country we always celebrated Christmas with great pomp and show in every school and even had small Christmas trees at home, and being pained by the memories of those who had no qualms about getting drunk, but could not think of touching a ‘puja thali’ because it went against their faith—Rearming Hinduism, came as a saviour, as a tool for me to understand my own predicament, my own frustration and equipped me with a new pride at being a Hindu.
Rearming Hinduism reminds us of that sensibility that we Hindus have inherited– that wisdom whose worldview is vast enough to accommodate conflicting viewpoints. Because it is that openness, that Hinduism has upheld which allows for gathering information on topics that we may disagree with, contemplate on that information and turn it into knowledge (even if that comes in the form of neti –neti—‘not this, not this’—the process of elimination) and then move on to turn it into an applied form of wisdom in every aspect of life, from rituals for the living and those for the dead, for our regard towards nature or care towards animals, for the love of poetry and pleasure and veneration of renouncing the world.
Rearming Hinduism empowers us to question those whose purpose is to denigrate a philosophy merely because they cannot match or understand its depth and breadth. But more importantly Rearming Hinduism asks Hindus to reclaim their love for the murtis (not idols, as wrongly claimed), puja (not prayer as wrongly equated) and faith in experience of dhyaan (not just meditation) and mantras (Thank God, this one has not been mistranslated even though misunderstood).
Rearming Hinduism asks Hindus to wake up to the wisdom of their tradition that has on many an occasion lit the world with concepts such as Ahimsa (non-violence), and Tvemeva (only you, only one). It further
Authored by Vamsee Juluri, a Professor of Media Studies at University of San Francisco, the book comes at an apt time when Hinduphobia runs high, and unlike the pre-liberalization India, our popular media, often funded by foreign media conglomerates, has abandoned us. The result is a crisis that has not been defined yet, but is evident in a desecration of temples in the US, upholding Nazi rather than Hindu meaning of Swastika, and blaming all ills of contemporary Indian society on Hinduism rather than colonialism, and bland globalization that promotes values without any reference to the local and the national.
Although directed towards (young) Hindus, the book is clearly a response to the controversy that has surrounded Hindu studies in American academy. Juluri responds to Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, point by point.
The book is divided into two main sections other than a preface, which reminds the readers of antiquity of Indian civilization, and a conclusion, which gently points at the potential place of India in the world affairs. The first section of the book defines the myths and misconceptions of academia about Hinduism and the second provides an insider’s view.
Each chapter provides a practitioner’s view of Hinduism to main arguments posited by Doniger, even when it establishes that Hindus are enraged at how they have been portrayed by some established scholars of the academy. Juluri argues that a book titled, ‘The Hindus’ not only says very little about how Hindus view the divine, but also distorts Hindus’ understanding of nature. It is as if the book tries to lay down the foundation to denigrate Hinduism.
‘It (the book) conforms to their own preconceived idea that nature is savagely violent, and so, naturally our Vedic ancestors too. –It is set up fundamentally so as to bend the narrative to the rest of Hindu history too, to make it seem like what they think it is rather than what it is really is. This simply is the official story of how Hinduism ‘progresses’ in their view: In the beginning, Hinduism was nothing more than primitive superstitious nature worship, those Vedic cowboys saw fire and called it Agni They feared lightning called it Indra! Fearful of things they did not understand, lacking mathematics, foresight, scientific acumen, and a weather app, perhaps, they sought to control what we know now to be simple natural phenomenon through quaint customs like Vedic chanting and human sacrifice.’
Juluri, Kindle edition. Part I, 5, The Myth of Hindu History
Juluri points out that espousing the now defunct Aryan theory, Doniger’s book speaks from a colonizer’s perspective who wants to undermine a tradition, by labelling it violent until saved by non-natives.
‘Instead of acknowledging the common, persistent Hindu sensibility of God as one, but also known through many names and forms, they try to break up the internal coherence of Hindu thought through a series of funny steps. In what might be better described as the ‘first denial’ rather than the ‘first alliance’ we are told by Doniger that the Vedas are pretty much stories of social oppression coded as gods and ogres. The feeling of devotion, which is what we associated with sacred stories, presumably does not come till the ‘third alliance’, centuries later. We have to wonder then if the people who chanted the same words that inspire devotion in us now felt something radically different simply because the experts say so. Or perhaps this is once again the civilizing fantasy at work; If Hinduism, like any religion at its best, seems to be about love, then it must be a recent development, a gift of redemption from more advanced civilizations.’
Juluri, Kindle edition. Part I, 5, The Myth of Hindu History
The book’s main argument is that scholarship is welcome but not vilification, discourse is encouraged but there must be an attempt to understand how we feel as Hindus. We cannot be asked to suppress our voice in the name of secularism- that only makes us angry, because—we re the ones who invented secularism.
Blaming Christians and Muslims will not save us either. In fact, it is counterproductive and un-Hindu. It is true we maybe fed up with pseudo-secularism. But we cannot forget that we invented secularism in the sense of respect for all faiths long before other lands had even figured out such a thing was possible.
‘I do not become any less Hindu for offering my pranam to Yeshu or his mother, or Allah, or Yahweh or Guru or Buddha or Mahavira. It is our sense of devotion, our cultivated sensibility about what makes a god a god that makes us who we are.’ Juluri, Rearming Hinduism. Kindle edition
The book spoke to me, (as I am sure it will to others like me) who has felt isolated in today’s media driven world of half-baked secularism where contemporary global-mythology is based in non-dharma principles of individual at the expense of collective, secular (divorced from the sacred), at the expense of pluralism immersed in the sacred, and depicting lip-smacking violence as a way of promoting peace.
Points raised by Juluri range from the very title of the book, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ to misunderstanding of an Indian connection to the monsoons. If most of the bookstores on Hinduism are filled with voices from Doniger and her disciples, then how is a yet another book by her an alternative voice?
Juluri points the reader towards the contradictions within academic theories related to Hinduism—namely there is no such thing as Hinduism, however,
Hinduism is responsible for the caste system; in fact the two are identical. Hinduism is responsible for patriarchy and oppression of women. In fact, Hinduism was full of violence until Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity somehow civilized it. And before we forget, Hinduism isn’t an Indian religion. The Hindus were invaders of India.
Juluri, Rearming Hinduism. Kindle edition, Part I, 1. The Academic Mahasabha
To Doniger’s claims that Hindus associated monsoons with violence Juluri very eloquently asks the reader to see how monsoons have been depicted in the most popular mythology of India—its film industry. Were it something that Indians feared, would we be singing, dancing and romancing in the rains?
The author addresses many misconceptions that the world holds about Hinduism both because of academic untruths and media’s sometimes slight and many times skewed portrayal, and provides scenarios of how a Hindu sees him/herself.
Though written with respect for all, and with an intention of initiating a dialogue among the Hindus themselves, Juluri does not shy away from providing the possible western origins of this ‘Alternative History’, which makes for several passages that can make the reader smile, even as they make a point that has been overlooked so far. Each one of those arguments can be turned into a book.
After all, when Hindu phobia is conquered, and the academy resumes its pursuit of truth, historians might find one day that it wasn’t just the zero and numerals that went West from ancient India, but its many humanistic ideals too. It is surely more than a coincidence that they got over their dark ages and had their Enlightenment just around the time they met us, but we don’t hear much about that at all.
Juluri, Rearming Hinduism. Kindle edition
Rearming Hinduism is free from academic jargon as it is written to awaken pride in Hindus both academic and non-academic which has laid dormant for too long. Juluri has clarified in interviews that the ‘arming’ in this case has to be done of the intellect and the conviction. It is important to mention that in times when every act of taking pride in being a Hindu is associated with being a fundamentalist. The cover of the book is an image of Narsingha with a broken arm from, Hampi. It is, as the book roars, time for Hindus to write their own story.
Although written in simple, almost poetic language, to appeal to the lovers of Hinduism, the book can be used as a supplemental text for Hindu studies, inter-cultural communication and even international business. I personally think that the book will make an excellent gift for young Hindu children entering college. The book would re-arm the young adults as they leave home (or country) and enter a world that is known to be secular but is driven by the religion of profit and self-interest. It is important that the young and old Hindus alike start to assert their identity, even as we are being blamed for ills that we inherited from colonizers and invaders. Juluri makes it clear that the criticism of Hinduism comes under the guise of Hindu extremism –which is a mere tactic to make the practising Hindus feel ashamed.
The attack on Hinduism today comes not from those who openly differ with us on religious grounds, but to a very generous device; they said they are not against Hinduism, but only against Hindu extremism. Most Hindus are against extremism too, and would have probably been happy to agree with them, if only that position had been really against extremism alone. But virtually every book, article, and argument made by the world’s supposedly leading, important, and celebrated intellectuals today says the same thing: in the name of criticizing Hindu extremism, they salvage the entirety of our religion. If they’re not challenged intellectually and culturally, soon our names, gods, goddesses festivals, sacred Scriptures, virtually everything that makes us who we are will be defined by them is something that it is not.
Maybe a day will come when he will feel ashamed to bear our own names again, our worship are all gods and goddesses, freely. Maybe a day will come when Shiva’s trident can be easily interpreted as a weapon, or a Lingabhishekham at temples banned as a primitive act of sexual worship. Maybe a day will even come when even our breathing is deemed oppressive because it is saying ‘soham’ invoking the Swan of Goddess Saraswathi’ the last example might seem extreme, but the fact is that we almost lost a word like ‘Sanksriti’. We might lose a lot more too, if we do not recognize this.’
Juluri, Rearming Hinduism. Kindle edition
And the language of this war against Hindusim, Juluri points out, ‘is cloaked in the very language that guarantees us our rights today, that of freedom, equality, democracy and justice. It maintains one shrill, moribund position: if you are not with us, you are a fundamentalist’ (Juluri, 2014). In fact, any questioning of Hindu ideas, stories, festivals, and philosophy is labelled fundamentalism.
Reading the book was a relief, as if someone had underlined the reasons for my anger and frustration of the years. I often fluctuate between being in love with Hindu Gods and being an agnostic, but no one who does not understand or practice Hinduism should tell me how or what I feel when I bow my head to the Sun or a murti of Shiva.
When I finished the book I thought, if I were to meet anyone now who tells me that Hinduism is not a religion or without any coherence, or a religion of oppression, my very polite response would be, to start with a question ‘But who made you the authority?’ I would also declare proudly, ‘We are a living religion, –and we are growing¨.
And I would definitely, very eloquently recite the following sentence from the book—
Hinduism after all has never been about ‘us or them’, but only about us and them, and that ‘them’ includes not just people of other nations or religions, but also those living beings of different species too.
– The examples above are based on author’s personal experiences. Most of the quotes in the article are taken from Vamsee Juluri’s book Rearming Hinduism.