Facing the challenge of American Pluralism on the future of NRI community

In years to come, the Indian community in the U.S. will face a major challenge from American pluralism. This is the first time a powerful community of pagans has to be accommodated within the American society. The NRI community is well-educated, well-to-do and proud of its cultural traditions. At the same time, the representation of the Indian traditions in the U.S. educational system shows a pathetic level of understanding. I will argue that recent events like the California textbook controversy point to a profound problem: the American model of pluralism is unable to accommodate these pagan traditions. This is the case, because its structure has emerged from a co-existence of Protestant denominations. Maximally, the resulting model could encompass other variants of the religions of the book: Catholicism, Judaism and Islam. Incorporating the pagan traditions of India, however, will require a fundamental rethinking of American pluralism.

The Structure of American Pluralism

Although it aspires neutrality towards all religions, the American model of pluralism is deeply religious in nature. The model takes its basic structure from Protestant Christianity. It combines specific notions of ‘religion’, ‘God’ and ‘church’ with a set of principles on toleration, equality and religious liberty–all of which derive from a particular theology.

The predicament faced by early American society was relatively simple: how does one build a viable state when the subjects are devotees of a variety of Christian denominations’ Since so many of the migrants were members of religious groups persecuted in Europe, no one church could ever dominate colonial America. After the revolution, the established churches that had existed in some states were soon compelled to give up their entanglement with state authority. They could no longer dismiss other groups as dissenters. Hence, the need and opportunity to create a new political system also involved a difficulty: how to house Presbyterians and ‘Papists’, Mennonites and Moravians, Anglicans and Baptists, Deists and Quakers, etc. without alienating any of these citizens?

The American solution drew heavily on the political thought of early modern Europe. The political thought in question, in its turn, was a sophisticated expression of a strand within the Protestant Reformation that also gave shape to American culture. Take John Locke’s theory of toleration. This theory was often invoked in revolutionary America, because it endorsed certain principles: the separation of civil and religious society; the voluntary nature of churches; and the liberty of conscience and worship, except where it poses a threat to civil society. These principles reproduced central notions of Reformation theology. More particularly, they built on the common belief that human existence is divided into a temporal or civil sphere, where all individuals ought to submit themselves to political authority, and a spiritual or religious sphere, where God alone could rule. Since this belief was part of the Protestant common sense of early America, the political principles that built on it would acquire the same status without much difficulty.

What happened in the decades and centuries after the American Revolution could be characterized as a secularization of this theological framework. This secularization, however, did not result in the emancipation of rational values from Christianity or the extension of secular tenets to humanity. Rather, it constituted the diffusion and in many cases, the imposition of Christian principles in a secular guise. Instead of defending this hypothesis in terms of historical evidence, I will indicate some of its consequences with regards to the nature of American pluralism: the basic properties of this model make sense only for (and to) the biblical religions.

1. Intrinsic to the American model is a specific notion of religion. In its original theological form, religion was seen as the duty and right of all human beings to worship their Creator in such a manner as they see fit. This Creator is none other than the biblical God: an eternal person without a body, who exists outside the universe and whose will creates and governs that same universe. Today, this notion of religion has become more abstract and less clear, but essentially religion is still viewed as the worship of God. The traditions of those people who do not follow any of the religions of the book are viewed as attempts to worship the same God.

True, liberal Americans have tried to open up this biblical notion of God so as to include the many pagan deities. To this end, they invoke the concept of polytheism. However, the conceptual opposition between monotheism and polytheism has a hitch. ‘Theism’ derives from the Greek word ‘theos‘, commonly translated as ‘god’. The question, then, is to which object the ‘theos‘ in ‘mono-theism‘ and ‘poly-theism‘ refers. If it refers to ‘God’ (the biblical god), the creator of the universe and the sovereign of the world, what does it mean to speak of ‘Gods’ in the plural’ Multiple creators of the universe and multiple sovereigns of the world’ Hardly. The ‘gods’ of the ‘polytheism’ then, must necessarily refer to entities other than ‘God’, who is the Lord of the cosmos by virtue of being its creator. What kind of other ‘gods’ could there be?  One possibility is that the many deities of the pagan traditions are false gods. That is, these deities are falsely believed by the pagans to be the governing forces behind natural events, while in reality ‘God’ (the biblical god) is the only sovereign of the universe. This is the classical story of biblical theology. In other words, the concept of polytheism makes sense only within a biblical framework.

The notion of religion of American pluralism has other important properties. It gives a central place to doctrine. That is, different religions are viewed as different sets of doctrines or beliefs. These doctrines are conceived as propositions about the nature of God (or gods), about His (or their) relation to humanity, and about the correct way of worshiping Him (or them). The practices of different religions are viewed as embodiments of doctrines: the followers of each religion strive to worship God (or gods) as its doctrine prescribes. Since they are propositions about the world, these doctrines also make competing truth claims.

2. The American model also entails a particular conception of churches or religious groups. These churches or religious groups are supposed to be united around the doctrines of some or another religion (or denomination). That is, the members of a church or religious group share core beliefs about God, His will and about human nature. Because of these shared beliefs, one individual or body can represent all other members of the church. They are given the authority to do so by the other members, because of theological proficiency or other capacities. In some cases, these individuals have the authority to represent others, because the doctrines of the religion in question impart them with this authority.

But this is allowed by the legal model of American pluralism only in so far as the members of this church voluntarily subscribe to the doctrines and to the religious authority of the clergy. In other words, a church is a voluntary association and cannot be coercive in nature. At all times, every member possesses the right to exit. Any group of members can leave its original church and set up a new one. One is not born into a religion, but rather chooses to become part of it, when one reaches the age of religious consent.

All churches or religious groups should respect the division between political and religious society or the separation of church and state. That is, they ought not to aspire establishment or the status of state church. Neither should they attempt to interfere directly in state policy. At the same time, they also should not expect the state to intervene in any of their internal organizational matters. Each church or religious group ought to respect the doctrines and practices of other religions. In the public sphere, they should treat the other churches or communities as their equals, even if they consider these rivals to be theologically misguided. They ought to respect the religious liberty of the members of other churches or religious groups and should never prevent the latter from worshiping God.

3. The various normative principles of the American model make sense because they presuppose and build on these notions of religion, God and church. Firstly, the principle of toleration presupposes that there is something to be tolerated. That is, only where different religions are conceived as competing doctrines, does the question of toleration emerge. From this perspective, the differences between religions indeed become matters to be tolerated, since they correspond to different doctrines or beliefs whose truth is contested.

Second, the principle of state neutrality also derives its importance from this understanding of religion as a question of truth. The different denominations or religious groups in society each hold a different set of doctrines to be true. Since the state ought to represent all of these groups impartially, it cannot subscribe to the truth of any of these doctrines. It should take a neutral position, which allows it to play the role of an impartial arbiter in the case of religious conflicts. In so far as the worship of each religious group is taken to embody its doctrines, the state should also not promote any one mode of worship over others. It ought never to interfere in any form of worship or religious practice, unless public order is at stake.

Third, the principle of religious liberty would lose its significance in the absence of this conception of religion. Each religion takes itself to be the correct worship of God, since it holds the true doctrine. It is of the utmost significance to the members of a denomination to worship God in the way prescribed by their religion, because their salvation depends on this. Since God alone can judge and rule in the realm of religion, each human being ought to be left free in that realm. Religion is a matter between each believer and God. Therefore, religious liberty is an inviolable right of all citizens.

Finally, all churches or religious groups should be equal in the eyes of the state. This also depends on the notion that a church is united around a common set of beliefs and therefore it can be represented by an individual or a body to whom has been given the authority to do so. Since the state cannot take a position on the matter of religious truth, public education should represent all religions equally, namely, as their followers want them to be represented. The textbooks and teachers of state schools should not disrespect the teachings of any religion or openly show signs of favor or disfavor. It is the duty and role of the representatives of each religious community to see to it that this principle of equality is not violated.

This model of pluralism make perfect historical sense: it addresses the problems that will always emerge where Protestant denominations co-exist. While each denomination believes itself to possess religious truth, all of them share a common understanding of religion, God and church. Together with a shared theological framework, the persistence of religious diversity compels them to endorse certain normative principles: toleration, state neutrality, religious liberty and the equality of churches in the public sphere. Since Roman Catholicism shares the same notion of God and religion, its followers are able to make sense of these principles. Once they agree to renounce the political authority of the pope and the coercive nature of the church, Catholics can be accommodated in this model without much difficulty. Mutatis mutandis, the same goes for Jews and Muslims. They might not endorse all of the above principles, but they can fit into the American model of pluralism, because their religions correspond to its basic theological structure. Historically, this is precisely what has happened during the formation of American pluralism.

The Nature of Pagan Traditions

What happens when pagans enter the picture’ Let us take the Hindu traditions as the example.

1. First of all, the Hindu traditions do not fit into the notion of religion of the American model. They do not in any way revolve around the duty and right of all human beings to worship their Creator. The concept of God (the way the Bible ‘conceives’ of this entity) is completely alien to them. Some theologians and scholars of India have undertaken clumsy attempts to argue that the Hindu traditions are aware of this God. They have tried to translate ‘Brahman‘ as ‘God’ and see in these traditions a misguided attempt to worship the biblical god. The notion of polytheism reproduces the same view. In reality, however, the notion of God is absent in the Hindu traditions: there is no eternal person, whose will has created and governs the universe and who has revealed His true will to sections of humanity.

Another problem is that the central place of doctrine in religion is as alien to the Hindu traditions. These traditions do not in any way revolve around propositions about the nature of gods or about their relation to humanity. There are no ‘doctrines’ here. There are many stories about the devatas and their interaction with human and other beings. There are all types of ritual practices or pujas. There is a variety of adhyatmic and other traditions that intend to help different types of human beings to become happy. These include instructions for action that may help certain individuals to attain happiness. But the validity of these instructions depends on the extent to which they are helpful to an individual. Therefore, they should not be mistaken for doctrines, which can be either true or false. Naturally, Christian theologians and western scholars have done precisely that: the only way for them to make sense of these traditions is to construe them as doctrines. Needless to say, many Indian scholars reproduce these unintelligible ideas as though they are parrots.

2. Consequently, a second mismatch occurs with the notion of church or religious group of the American model of pluralism. Since the Hindu traditions are not united around a core set of beliefs accepted by all followers, there is no one individual or body who can speak for all others. The question of religious authority is irrelevant here. Naturally, there are individuals who are highly respected because of their proficiency in a particular tradition or because of the distance they have covered on the route to happiness. These persons might speak for some tradition, but this is more like the way an excellent researcher speaks for a scientific domain than like the cleric representing his church. That is, the authority of the teacher of a tradition depends on several aspects: the extent to which his or her instructions help other people to progress on the route to happiness; the quality of his or her thought, speech, art, ritual performance; the level at which it resonates with others; etc. The authority of these individuals to represent a tradition can be challenged at any time, because it is not embedded in a shared set of doctrines or a fixed religious authority.

Given the nature of these traditions, the norm that churches or religious groups should be voluntary associations has no significance. They cannot but be voluntary. An individual joins a tradition and remains a follower only to the extent this tradition and its teachers are able to help him or her and satisfy adhyatmic and other dimensions. At all times, individuals can leave a tradition and look for other teachers and instructions that appeal more to them. From this perspective, insisting that a religious association ought to be voluntary generates only puzzlement or amusement.

3. Generally, the normative principles of American pluralism fail to make sense to these pagan traditions. The principle of toleration is comical at best. Try telling a Hindu that she ought to tolerate the fact that her neighbor does puja to another deva, that he has another ishta devata, or that he belongs to a different adhyatmic tradition. Since the Hindu traditions do not embody doctrines that can be either true or false, there is nothing to be tolerated. Different kinds of people have different ishta devatas, belong to different traditions and participate in different practices. That is how it has always been. Difference is not problematic here. Therefore, there is no question of toleration.

The neutrality of the state and the issue of separating politics and religion are more complex. The Hindu traditions revolve around the goal shared by all human beings: to become happy. They offer different roads and routes that appeal to different kinds of human beings. From their perspective, the only aim of politics is to create the conditions in which people can strive for and attain the goal of happiness. Therefore, the principle of state neutrality is as insignificant and unintelligible as that of toleration: it would be ridiculous for the state to impose one particular tradition on all its subjects, since the variety of inclinations and capacities among human beings necessitates a diversity of routes to look for and attain happiness. Such traditions do not claim truth for their routes, but let the validity of a route depend on the extent to which it works for an individual. Therefore, imposing one tradition is not a reasonable option.

It must be obvious by now that the principle of religious liberty becomes absurd in this context. In the absence of competing truth claims, what sense does it make to preach that all individuals ought to be left free to practice their own traditions? How would Hindus react if one tells them that they should not prevent their neighbor from doing puja to Ganesha instead of Krishna or from praying to Shirdi Sai Baba instead of Jesus Christ? The same sense of puzzlement and disbelief would return. It is true though that the rise of Hindutva in India has given a new significance to this issue. Should Muslims and Christians be free to propagate their religions as the only true ones and that all human beings ought to convert to Islam or Christianity? This question is important, but irrelevant to the problems of American pluralism. Therefore, it will not be discussed here.

The tenet that all religious groups should be treated as equals by the state and its educational system is perhaps the most relevant from the perspective of the Hindu traditions. These traditions have been depicted negatively in American textbooks and in higher education. The reasons are simple: Americans have viewed the Hindu traditions through the only perspective they have on religion and tradition, viz., that of the biblical framework. Therefore, these traditions cannot but be represented as pale and erring variants of biblical religion. In the explicitly theological view, they are false religions, idolatry or worship of the devil; in the eyes of its secularized alternative, they are ‘polytheism’ or ‘Hinduism’. The result is the same: the pagan traditions of India are transformed into inferior variants of Christianity.

The trouble is that the only way in which the American model of pluralism allows the Hindus to challenge this depiction presupposes the same theological framework. That is, the notions of religion and church of American pluralism compel the Hindu traditions to represent themselves as variants of biblical religion. They have to appoint individuals or bodies that represent all other members; they have to inform the American educational system about the true teachings of Hinduism; they need to make their traditions respectable in the eyes of American Protestants and their secularized brethren. The consequence is that the NRI community is compelled to cooperate in the transformation of its traditions into inferior variants of the religions of the book. But this takes us to the next question: what challenge confronts American pluralism and the NRI community?

The Challenge of the NRI Community

The structure of American pluralism and the nature of the Hindu traditions give rise to two options. These options present themselves as routes that can be traveled by the NRI community in the coming years. On the one hand, the pagan traditions of India could renounce their true nature and transform themselves into variants of biblical religion. Then they will soon fit in as well in the American model of pluralism as the Jews and Muslims. On the other hand, these pagan traditions can remain true to their nature and explicitly represent themselves as completely different from the religions of the book. Then they will turn into a major challenge to American pluralism: the very structure of this model will require rethinking in order to accommodate the Hindu traditions.

Currently, the NRI community is succumbing to the first option. It has accepted the American model of pluralism as the structure to which it should adapt itself. This could be seen very clearly in the California textbook controversy. A limited number of foundations have been appointed (or have appointed themselves) as the representatives of the Hindu traditions in the U.S.: the Hindu American Foundation and the Vedic Foundation are most prominent. These foundations play according to the rules of the notions of church and religion that are intrinsic to American pluralism. They challenge the unfair portrayal of the Hindu traditions in the American educational system. But they do so in a manner which advances the transformation of these traditions into inferior variants of Christianity. They intend to present the true doctrines of Hinduism and do so by making it look respectable to American Protestants. That is, the many devatas are transformed into different ways of worshiping the one true God. Hinduism becomes a proper monotheistic faith. A variety of pagan Indian traditions are excluded because they are embarrassing to the sanitized biblical model of American pluralism. These Hindu foundations have become the representatives of the ‘Hindu church’ in America: they will decide the true nature of the Hindu traditions for the American public. The way they are going, however, they will end up with a secularized variant of the old biblical understanding of the Hindu traditions as false religion.

We have to be fair to these foundations: they confront an extremely difficult task. During the last four centuries, the dominant way of describing the pagan traditions of India has conformed to the Christian framework of the West. The missionaries and travelers transmitted the ‘facts’ about these pagan traditions to the European common sense. But these facts were already framed within Christian theology: there had to be religion in India; these religions would worship many (false) gods rather than the one true God; these religions would be founded in a set of beliefs about these gods and their relation to humanity; the practices of worship would embody these doctrines; etc. The scholars and human sciences of Europe took these Christian theological descriptions as the basic material of their theorizing. Later, Americans reproduced the same assumptions and images. The result is ‘Hinduism’, the religion of the Hindus. Tragically, colonialism had the Indian pagans adopt this description of their own traditions. Today their intellectuals and educated layers also believe this ‘Hinduism’ exists. Consequently, the NRI community understands the predicament it confronts in a particular way: how should this religion of Hinduism be represented fairly and accurately in the American public sphere and educational system?

If the American NRI community desires to remain true to the nature of its cultural traditions and travel the second route, the first thing it will have to realize is that this is a flagrant misunderstanding of its predicament. Its real quandary is this: how to break out of the straitjacket in which American pluralism and its theological structure have imprisoned the pagan traditions of India?

This straitjacket has a long history. It is the framework through which the western culture has always looked at other cultures. It is the paradigm that still sustains the dominant human sciences of today and their understanding of non-western cultures. It effectively transforms the Hindu traditions into pallid variants of biblical religion. In case the NRI community decides to opt for the second route, it will require an alternative framework to approach its own cultural traditions. Such an alternative framework will study the pagan traditions of India in a different way. Some of the properties of these traditions have been reviewed in the previous section: they are instructions for action rather than doctrines; they offer a variety of routes to the human aim of happiness; the diversity of stories, practices, traditions, teachers and deities is intrinsic to their nature; etc. If the NRI community wants to avoid transforming its traditions into variants of biblical religion, it needs to promote and support such alternative approaches to the study of its cultural traditions.

Now is the time for the NRI community to choose its leadership carefully. It needs people who are aware of the depth of the problems. Otherwise, it will succumb to the demands of American pluralism. It will waste its energy on irrelevant concerns borrowed from Christianity: ‘Who speaks for Hinduism?’; ‘Who has the authority to represent our religion?’; ‘Should only insiders be allowed to do so?’; ‘What are the true teachings of Hinduism?’ Events like the California textbook controversy indicate that the NRI community is at a crucial juncture: either it will become a driving force behind the rejuvenation of the Indian culture and her traditions; or it will repeat the mistakes of three-hundred years of colonialism. In the last century, we have seen the endpoints of the latter route: a growing fanaticism in Indian society; intellectually superficial movements; the threat of bankruptcy of an entire culture. The other route promises to allow the NRI community to play its role: become a rich and vibrant challenge to American pluralism. Not so that pluralism and tolerance might disappear from the American society but so that a pluralism, worthy of its name and liberated from the biblical straitjacket, might come into existence. Perhaps it is time we explore this route!

  • Vivek Shah

    I have been reading this series of articles, and I was hoping to get to the end before commenting. However, I think that this is an important to stop and describe my reaction reading thus far.

    Firstly, I commend your sensitivity at both comprehending and presenting the situation in previous articles. Yes, Indians have experienced two colonial periods in direct succession, the former which disrupted the transmission of tradition and the latter which totally altered the traditions themselves so as to render them unrecognizable to the recipients of that tradition. Industrialism, Enlightenment values, and modernity have also taken their toll on the transmission of these traditions, as many of these practices were meant for pre-industrial societies. So, “Hindus” of the current modern age (or rather post-modern age) face the double-challenge of 1) reaquiring the traditions which have been lost as a result of colonial violence and industrial displacement, and 2) translate these traditions in a way that can be recognizable to the 21st century. Particularly, Hindus living in the United States face the challenge of transmitting their traditions to their children coherently, and the particular means of action they adopt may serve as a model to the rest of the world.

    You are also correct in your assessment of religion in America. Many different ethnic groups with differing religious constitutions have migrated to America, and all such groups have been more or less accommodated in the structure of American civil religion. The commonalities of Biblical origin is an obvious reasons, as well as the commonalities in praxis. However, Indians face a challenge in that their traditions do not trace themselves back to the Bible, and that difference does at times create complications. That much is true.

    However, where I depart with the description of Indian traditions above is the conception of Indian religion and doctrine. Yes, it is true that Indians did not traditionally use words like “religion” or “doctrine,” which have Latin roots. Yes, it is true that the Indians did not use words like “God,” or “church,” which have German roots. However, it is not
    the case that Indians are so different and so entirely “other” that they are absolutely unable to recognize commonalities of Abrahamic traditions within their own traditions.

    After all, there is the concept of a sampradaya, which is a well understood and utilized means of transmitting traditions in India. Often times, such as in the case of Vaishnava sampradayas, there is a very specific siddhanta or philosophical conclusion espoused and ascribed to each school. These sampradayas make their own truth claims based on scriptural interpretations, they congregate and pray in places of worship specific to their sampradaya, and they have rituals and marks specific to each sampradaya.

    Speaking of Vaishnava sampradayas in particular, I am shocked at the portrayal of Hindu conceptions of the Sacred. Yes, it is true that some sampradayas hold the Advaitic concept of impersonal Brahman to be true and sacred, but there are several sampradayas which do assert the existence of an eternal personal being responsible for the creation, sustanence, and destruction of the world, the concept of Paramatman, Parabrahman, Purushottama, Ishvara, and Bhagavan. I should also point out that this conception of a personal deity predated the arrival of Muslims and Europeans into India. Furthermore, the continuity of discourse between Vedantins who posited impersonal Brahman and personal Ishvara were not with other religions like the Muslims – the discourse occurred amongst themselves. There are even sampradayas besides the Vedantins who had the components of personal deity, doctrine, and religious community. Examples include Kashmiri Saivism and Saiva Siddhanta.

    Are there forms of religiosity in India beyond the bhakti-traditions? Certainly. While it is true that the Vedic tradition does not possess a definite deity or doctrine, the very fact that the transmission of Vedic tradition has been facilitated through different shakhas is evidence enough of religious communities with slightly different opinions of ritual procedure. Furthermore, all Vedic shakhas claim to be descended from the Brahma Sampradaya, as Brahma is believed to have been first in their lineage, save for the Shukla Yajurvedins, who descend from the Surya Sampradaya.

    Perhaps the hard work of reaquiring the Indian traditions is itself the first option you outlined. Islamic and European colonial violence has displaced Indians from their traditions, and the traditional means of acquiring these traditions – the sampradayic lineages. Perhaps the job is, rather than continue performing pujas to a wide variety of devis and devatas without any particular doctrinal concerns, to realign themselves with their traditional sampradayas, which is how these traditions have been transmitted historically in the first place.