Courting controversy in the West

The sustained efforts by certain Hindu groups in the west to redefine and “correct” long existing Hindu traditions are perhaps reflective of their desire to put in place a cogent and structured religious system that is able to hold its own against other scripture-based religions. Concomitantly, American identity politics and European political correctness is also “forcing” minority communities to assert their separate “churches”, as a way of emphasising their own distinct religious or ethnic identity.

Last November, the Royal Mail of the United Kingdom agreed to avoid distributing a stamp which depicted a 17th century painting of an Indian pair revering the infant Jesus. The 68 pence Christmas stamp had provoked calls for its withdrawal by local Hindu organisations, because it featured “a picture of Hindus worshipping Baby Christ”. This event is not as insignificant as it may seem. It symbolises a dramatic change in self-image for Hindu traditions – a tragic decline, advocates of pluralism would say.

The sensibilities of most westerners would be awestruck at the tremendous variety of traditions, practices and stories which one encounters all over India. Even more so they would marvel at the consistent intermingling of these traditions in different regions: Hindu families praising the infant Jesus in the Bangalore newspapers; Muslims joining the celebration of Hindu festivals and Hindus funding the construction of mosques in Karnataka; ‘dargahs’ and ‘pirs’ being shared by different communities everywhere; Buddhism and Hinduism often being impossible to tell apart in Kinnaur; Hindu ladies kneeling to say a few “Hail Marys” in the Velankanni area; pictures of Ganesha, Mother Mary, Shirdi Sai Baba and E V R Periyar in the same room. The list is as endless as it is colourful. Of course, conflicts have emerged in India as elsewhere. But human diversity has perhaps nowhere flourished as it has here.

For ages, Hindus have celebrated this fact as an expression of the beauty of their culture. They have contrasted their own broad-minded indifference towards a variety of divergent practices and usages that Hindu tradition has found with the inflammatory dogmatism of Christians and Muslims. The British stamp incident stands in stark contrast to this long prevailing Indian attitude. As a local Hindu spokesman puts it: “Even if we accept that an artist in 1620 AD took the artistic licence to portray practising Hindus worshipping the baby Christ, we should be asking if this is politically and sensitively correct in the 21st century.” Certainly, something has changed between the 17th and the 21st centuries. This is not an isolated incident. Its counterparts are not confined to the UK. Globally, Hindus are becoming increasingly sensitive about the portrayal of their traditions. But what exactly is happening to the Hindu traditions in the west?

Let us have a look at a few striking cases to assess the nature of this development. Both in India and the west, Hindu organisations have expressed outrage at the trendy depiction of Hindu deities on bikinis, slippers and other items. In India, paintings of Saraswati and other deities in the nude have provoked riots. Recently, some Hindus were shocked by an American textbook calling Kali and Durga bloodthirsty. A third-rate psychoanalysis of Ganesha by an American scholar enraged the NRI community in the US. Many Bengalis, one tells me, these days decently dress up the earlier naked statuettes of goddesses before ‘puja’. No doubt some of these representations of the ‘devatas’ are in bad taste. A few are downright derogatory. But the reaction itself is more disquieting. It not only tends to deny the traditional character and depiction of Hindu deities – who often are bloodthirsty, playful, capricious, sensual, cruel, mischievous…; it also threatens to obliterate the sophisticated eroticism that also exists as part of these beautiful traditions. What is next? Are we to deny that Krishna seduced “16,000 gopis”? Denounce Khajuraho, the Kama Sutra and the Koka Shastra as aberrations alien to the true Indian civilisation? Perhaps we could even rewrite the songs glorifying the love between Radha and Krishna, Shiva and Parvati and recast the diverse devatas in a form that suits middle class morality?

These issues lose some of their weight, once we turn to the massive controversies and pamphlet wars presently raging in academia and beyond. Most of these incidents have particularly agitated the NRI community. Several NRI sponsored or organised foundations have launched campaigns to end the negative portrayal of Hinduism in American education. Many points of the critique are valid. The textbook descriptions of the Hindu religion carry a bias that reminds one of the Christian harangues against “the evil religion of the Hindoos”. Scholarly studies of the Hindu traditions often reproduce the judgments of European missionaries and colonials. Rarely does contemporary research on Indian society go beyond the colonial framework of previous centuries. Hence, we cannot but take seriously the impression that something is very wrong with the way in which the Indian culture has been described in the west (and, by connivance, in the Indian universities).

An ‘Alternate’ Hinduism

Yet, trouble rears its head once we take a step further. What is the alternative? How would these critics of the academia propose to go about studying the Hindu traditions? Usually, worn-out discussions about insider vs outsider perspectives dictate the responses. The negative stereotypes, it is suggested, will disappear once the insider perspective of Hinduism is given its rightful place in the academia. Is this really so? A recent case illustrates well what happens when the issue is made into one of “Hindus should speak for Hinduism”, i e, the California textbook controversy. In this case, two prominent Hindu foundations suggested improvements in sections of the California state textbooks concerning India and Hinduism. After the adoption of these “edits”, a conflict erupted between a group of Indian scholars and Hindu spokesmen, calling each other Hindu haters and Hindutva fundamentalists respectively. These polemics are of no avail here. It is the “alternate” view of Hinduism offered that concerns us.

Many of the corrections by one of the foundations, the Hindu Education Foundation, are reasonable, but hardly constitute an alternative portrayal. The Aryan invasion, it says, should be presented as hypothesis rather than fact. So far so good. A disquiet sets in when we come to the recommendations of the second foundation, the Vedic Foundation. Here is a different portrayal indeed. Firstly, wherever the textbooks say Hindu “stories” or “writings”, it wants Hindu “scriptures”. This may seem innocent, however, it transforms the Hindu traditions with their vast array of rich and complex stories, told and retold in many different ways, into a rigid body of canonical “scriptures” – much like Christianity or Islam. Consequently, these “scriptures” require protection, because they are no longer stories, but sacred doctrines.

Secondly, where the textbooks discuss “enlightenment” and the “enlightened” in the Hindu traditions, the Foundation wants these substituted with “god realisation” and “god realised”. “Brahman” too has been systematically replaced by “god”. Again, the implications go beyond mere words. Hindu tradition and its notions of Basrahman and enlightenment are not in any way related to anything like the god of Christianity – who is believed to be a person without a body who created and governs the universe, but exists outside it. Thirdly, it gets even worse when this Foundation denies that the Hindu traditions revolve around “multiple gods” and reverence towards these various gods. No, they claim, these many deities are in fact one god or at most various forms of god. Ancient Hindus did not go to temples to “connect with their gods”, but to “worship god”. Again, when American children and adults read god in the textbooks, they will obviously understand the Christian god and not something like brahman in the Hindu traditions. In fact, when one uses “god” in English, the one possible referent is the Judeo-Christian god – the creator and sovereign of the universe who demands from humanity perfect obedience to his will and exclusive worship of himself. In effect, the proposal of the Vedic Foundation makes this Christian god the main focus of Hinduism.

It seems these American Hindus have become ashamed of the Hindu traditions as they have existed for centuries in India. Here, one can select Ganesha as one’s ‘ishta-devata’, without acknowledging any one god whom he is supposed to embody. One can do puja to a variety of deities every day, while being unaware of some independent entity called god. One can strive for ‘adhyatmic’ enlightenment, but deny the existence of any god. One can live in complete ignorance of the Hindu “scriptures” and still be a good Hindu. One can tell one’s children the many stories explaining Ganesha’s broken tusk or Krishna’s love for ghee and invent a few new ones. According to the image of the Vedic Foundation, such Hindus – the majority of the Indian population – are all ignorant of true Hinduism, its scriptures and its god. Basically, this group is sanitising the Hindu traditions into a proper religion according to Judeo-Christian standards. It is neither continuing the traditions as passed on by the Indian ancestors nor critically reflecting upon them. Instead, it is transforming Hindu tradition into a second-hand Christianity.

Admittedly, this is an extreme case, but it illustrates a general tendency. The case of the 68p Christmas stamp comes back to mind. It shows that British Hindus feel a similar need to make Hinduism into a proper religion, with its own inviolable teachings and sacrosanct sensitivities – parallel to those of Muslims, Jews and Christians. Similar incidents have occurred in the recent past. A transformation is taking place in the representation of the Hindu traditions, to be sure. But where does it come from and is it a change for the good?

The easy way out is to rebuke an “alienated” NRI community for its uptight morality, its Hindutva leanings and its anxiety about losing its tradition. One could even lament the saffronisation of education. But such rhetoric will not do. Not all of the people involved are Hindutva fanatics or obscurantist prudes. Probably, the majority is not. As before, it may be the past that will help to understand the problems of the present. In the 19th century, the colonial inferiority complex of certain Hindu reformers inspired a massive attempt to transform native traditions into a Hindu theism – Protestant Christianity dressed up in Hindu garb. Thus, an era of evangelical propaganda and colonial education brought forth its fruits. Are we witnessing a similar dynamic in the 21st century?

Perhaps, but another factor is involved. These Hindus live in the west and are legitimately challenging its negative stereotypes of India. What we have to understand today is how the dominant framework of western societies compels them to reshape their traditions into a Christian mould while they are doing so. American identity politics and European political correctness seem to force each minority community to assert itself as a separate “church” with its own distinct religious or ethnic identity. Only in this way do western societies allow the local Hindus to strive for recognition and protection. This makes the conditions understandable, but it does not mitigate the magnitude of the tragedy. The Hindu foundations of today desire to fight the Christian missionary movement, but instead continue its work at an insidious level. They want conversion to be banned in India. In the meantime, they are themselves converting the Hindu traditions into a variant of Christianity.

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