The follies of Hindu denial

By Vamsee Juluriprofessor, University of San Francisco I wonder if the followers of any other faith in America have to … Continued

By Vamsee Juluri
professor, University of San Francisco

I wonder if the followers of any other faith in America have to live with the absurdity of hearing constantly that their religion does not exist. Add to that an irony: you see images from the religion that supposedly does not exist showing up everywhere, as ornaments, as New Age paraphernalia, and, insultingly, even on toilet seats. Worse, there’s an exception to the general denial of your religion: when it does get talked about, it is only to get blamed as the sole cause of every evil in the land of your birth.

That is how it feels as a Hindu in America today, and that is the right context to see the debate between Dr. Aseem Shukla and Dr. Deepak Chopra.

The issue is not whether Hindus “own” Yoga as much as the growing denial of Hinduism in American media and intellectual culture. This denial exists in many forms; in bookstores, where we find shelves for Islam and Christianity but not for Hinduism, in academic writing, where the word Hindu is quote-marked into high degrees of concerned irony to imply that it is nothing more than a fabrication of fascist fundamentalists, and of course, in the booming new age culture of America where “Namastes” are heard but never the word “Hindu.”

this, like many Hindus, I believe in the plurality of Hinduism and its basic belief that all faiths lead to God. But as an academic who studies the causes and consequences of media misrepresentation, I feel that there is a growing culture of Hindu denial. Curiously, this culture has found its sustenance from opposite ends of the American political-intellectual spectrum. Religious conservatives condemn Hinduism as paganism, much as the first colonizers did when they set forth to save us. But what is new is that enlightened New Age liberals, American and South Asian, shun its mention as if every person who identifies as Hindu is a fundamentalist.

The reasons for this response lie partly in recent Indian politics. For many Hindus, identifying as such was once unimportant and perhaps even un-Hindu. I grew up in India in the 1970s in a devout family and being Hindu was not a subject of conscious discussion. That began to change in the late 1980s. Hindu identity became important in daily life (in large part because of television) and in politics (it was a time of identity politics in general and religious identity, just like caste and regional or linguistic identity, entered the political mainstream). The ideas of Hindu nationalism spread through the Hindu middle-class imagination in India and abroad by the 1990s, and so did opposition to it. On American campuses too, students were often divided, calling themselves either “Hindu” student groups or “South Asian” groups. This polarization has become so widespread now that any debate about Hinduism turns into a single-issue fight about fundamentalism.

What these debates often forget is the American context. America sees the world sharply in terms of religious identity (unlike in India where other identities also matter). It saw more Hinduness in Indian immigrants than even we ever did, and not always kindly. Over the decades Hollywood and Washington had made Hindus synonymous in the American mind with Indiana Jones-style depravity. Hindu children faced this contempt in school, and in time took it upon themselves as Hindu Americans to set things right, the civil way at that. Unfortunately, they now face a misplaced backlash against fundamentalism that dismisses even legitimate efforts to address concerns about Hinduism as a misrepresented faith in America.

Many great Hindu spiritual leaders have, in the best spirit of their faith, rarely enjoined the use of the term “Hindu.” However, we must also not unwittingly de-Hinduize them. It has become fashionable to “borrow” from one of Hinduism’s many traditions and then disavow it altogether, as if Hinduism only refers to the residue of undesirable stuff that got added onto some pristine preexisting spiritual condition like the practice of Yoga. If one does not like Hindu politicization, commercialism, or superstition, by all means one may and indeed one must reject those specifically, for these are all undesirable features that can sully any faith. But it is neither accurate nor ethical to speak of Hinduism as a reality only when criticizing it while denying its existence altogether when enjoying or exploiting, as the case may be, its gifts of wisdom to the world.

Vamsee Juluri is Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of three books, “Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television” (Peter Lang, 2003), “The Mythologist: A Novel” (Penguin India, 2010) and “The Ideals of Indian Cinema” (Penguin India, 2011). He has written previously about Hindus and Hinduism in America for Hinduism Today and the Huffington Post.

  • YEAL9

    Hinduism (from an online Hindu site) – “Hinduism cannot be described as an organized religion. It is not founded by any individual. Hinduism is God centered and therefore one can call Hinduism as founded by God, because the answer to the question ‘Who is behind the eternal principles and who makes them work?’ will have to be ‘Cosmic power, Divine power, God’.”The caste/laborer system, reincarnation and cow worship/reverence are problems when saying a fair and rational God founded Hinduism.

  • clearthinking1

    The misrepresentation of Hinduism is not just inaccurate and unjust. It is destructive and mean-spirited.Yes, Deepak, Yoga Journal, America Yoga Association,etc…Delink yourself from these two characteristics, instead of unfairly delinking Hinduism from Yoga, Meditation, and its profound philosophy.

  • bikuldas

    A very tragic story about one of the most ancient faiths in Earth.

  • Filibuster

    Well said! It’s tragic when all of the philosophical beauty of the Hindu faith is usurped and all that remains is the “caste, cow, and curry” stereotype. Hindus are as much to blame as the academics and new-age yogis.

  • Zahlen9418

    Thank you Vamsee for an insightful article! Hinduism is one of the oldest continuous living religions in the world with the largest body of texts than any religion (both in Sanskrit as well as other vernacular Indian languages from Kashmir to Kanyakumari & Gujarat to Bengal). The dharma shastras, ithihasas, puranas, tantras-(vaishanava, shaiva, shakti, yoga, darshanas…) are an integral part of Hinduism — still valid and still used today. There is so much material here that to deny all of this to Hinduism is to deny the history, belief system & faith of a billion people and it serves an excuse to insult, and to plagiarize and use all this valuable information without giving credit to Hinduism. The present Indian government (leave alone the academic divisions here) is playing an active role in promoting this denial.

  • YEAL9

    The caste/laborer system, reincarnation and cow worship/reverence are problems when saying a fair and rational God founded Hinduism.

  • Zahlen9418

    Followers of a fair and rational god have not always been fair – from crusades, to persecution of Jews, to slavery, priest and pastor abuses, scare tactics and demonizing of other belief so as to promote their business (religion).

  • Mortal

    I am quite happy being a Catholic, and have no intention to be anything else, but I’m on the record as saying that, if Catholicism didn’t exist, I’d probably be a Hindu. I have the greatest respect and admiration for the religion.

  • Zahlen9418

    -Mortal

  • haveaheart

    “…any debate about Hinduism turns into a single-issue fight about fundamentalism… Over the decades Hollywood and Washington had made Hindus synonymous in the American mind with Indiana Jones-style depravity. Hindu children faced this contempt in school…”I’m sorry to say that I haven’t been aware of this kind of oppression developing against the Hindu community.In my mind, Hinduism has always registered as the oldest continuous belief system in human history; Hindu people I’ve always thought of as gentle and unassuming (yes, a stereotype, I know). It’s never occurred to me to equate Hindus with the negative kinds of fundamentalism we see in the Christian and Muslim — and occasionally in the Jewish — traditions.Most of all, I don’t understand why many people of Hindu background attempt to conceal their Hindu identity. But then, I haven’t really been paying attention.I do know that mainstream religious America is violently allergic to faith traditions of the East. Non-Abrahamic, multitheistic religion is a place that Christians, especially, don’t want to go. Yes, they love all the “ayurvedic healing” from India and the “traditional medicine” of the Chinese — mostly because a shallow dip into these teachings allows them to focus (of course) on themselves and their health (which they like very much). But the spiritual complexity of not having a specific, defined deity and a set of laws or rules to follow (i.e., the bible) is way too threatening to try to comprehend.I am sorry to hear that Hindus face such disrespect in the U.S., and I can’t help but believe that much of this must result from the entrepreneurial successes of hucksters and frauds like Deepak Chopra, who have no respect for, nor feel any obligation to, the traditions they commercialize for personal gain.

  • clearthinking1

    Haveaheart,Your honesty, open-mindedness, and empathy is appreciated.Sadly, many (probably most) Hindus feel ashamed of their own parents religion & culture. This is the consequence of humiliation. A humiliation that lasted 200 years at the hands of the British Christian Colonists. The extent of this sometimes difficult to fathom. The British understand this psychology of ridicule. Here is an example today. Nobody likes terrorists so ridicule may be acceptable as a weapon in this case. However, the history of Hindus is full of unfair and malevolent ridicule and humiliation. Take a quick look at this article in the Financial Times from April 15:Ridicule is a weapon against terrorism

  • clearthinking1

    Secular,Does that make you a nobody. You are not only the smartest person on earth, but also the most caring, moral, & ethical.Relax. Life is meaningless & purposeless anyway. Otherwise, you’ll start sounding like a fanatical fundamentalist muslim who can’t control his emotions and needs to convert others to his belief system. Are you sure your way is better than all others? It may work best for you. Remember, Mao, Stalin, and Hitler were not religious and were secular. Nazis were quite scientific and methodical. Nazis killed 6 million Jews (methodically, rationally, and scientifically) & WWII killed 61 million total. Stalin & Mao get credit for about 20 million murders each.One could argue that a unique, pluralistic and tolerant tradition like Hinduism has something to offer humanity, beyond what science and prophet-centric religions have to offer.It’s not that simple, is it?

  • omprem108

    Life must be very different in the U.S. for Vamsee Juluri than it is for me here in Canada. I have encountered none of the conditions the author describes. Perhaps the U.S. is just more polarized and argumentative than Canada.If there is not a Hindu section in the bookstore it is because the bookstore is not aware of that market. Make them aware of it and the Hindu section will appear. It certainly appears in the Chapters bookstores in Canada. There may be a problem with people saying Namaste without mentioning Hinduism but that is likely the problem of having uncertified former aerobics teachers trying to teach what they call Yoga. These people have not a clue that Hatha Yoga is a deep spiritual practice and are just after money. But the students who go to these teachers are not likely to be interested in either spiritual development or Hinduism. This is a non-issue as far as I can see.And what is the difference whether someone picks up core elements of Hinduism and applies them to their lives without acknowledging Hinduism? To insist on such acknowledgment is an exercise in ego which is goes against all the tenets of Hinduism. To attack such people is to violate the cardinal precept of Hinduism, Ahimsa, or non-violence, and also to violate Asteya and Aparigraha, both of which deal with the ego’s covetousness and expectations. There is also a violation here of the Niyama of Santosha, contentment, and Tapas, austerities. All in all, such demands for recognition of Hindu spiritual practices as Hindu is anti-Hindu.

  • clearthinking1

    OMPREM108,You don’t seem to get it, but that’s OK.

  • omprem108

    Re: clearthinking1 | May 9, 2010 3:51 PMThe author’s rant has nothing to do with duty. He has violated the yamas and niyamas as I indicated and therefore is not doing his duty but rather is exercising his ego, which, again, is anti-Hindu. He is violating purusha-artha and estranging himself from Hinduism and Brahman. He needs to understand Hinduism itself in the practice of his life. Right now, he is the one who is denying Hinduism as a vital life expression. I could suggest you read The Raja Yoga Sutras 2:15 but do not want to get into a scripture war as that would be anti-Hindu as well. Vamsee Juluri is not practicing Dharma but rather Adharma. He is rajasic instead of sattvic.

  • mraghavan0128

    I would concur with the author that the problem of Hinduism lies in Western definitions of it. In the West, we wear religion, or lack of it, on our sleeve; it has become a part of our daily discussions, our family life, even our politics. What differentiates Eastern concepts of spirituality from Occidental versions is that the former sees spiritual growth as a natural extension or an improvement to life’s experience, rather than a dogma that one to which one must adhere, in spite of one’s life, in order to attain salvation. In trying to force-fit Hinduism to Abrahamic rules, we lose sight of this sense of abstraction and aesthetic that makes it such a meaningful and defining force in our lives.I think it is time that we begin to recognize Hinduism as a racial/cultural experience, rather than making it a dogma that we can argue for or against.

  • eternaltruth

    As soon as you show any disagreement with Deepak Chopra, Wendy Doniger, and their likes, immediately you are labeled as fundamentalist and supporter of extreme right wing. Further, you get this additional tag of internet hindu.So what exactly they want us to do, hear all their stories and never criticize it or expose the faults in it? Doesn’t sound much like democratic approach here. If one has right to offend then other should have right to defend.

  • mg222

    This is a WAKE-UP CALL for Hindus.Please let us ALL: Americans generally and Hindu Americans in particular pass the message that the habitual and ‘loose’ use of the term “Extremist Hindus” is Highly Offensive to the majority Hindus.[1] We also need to seek a judicial injunction to stop news media from using the term Mythology and Hinduim as Synonimous. It is so insulting, like religious racism.[2] Hindus do not go around killing people in religion’s name [with bombs or suicide bombers]![3] So, because we are the most peaceful religious community in USA, please let us wake up from our slumber and proudly and peacefully shout that: “Yes, We Are Hindus And We Are Proud To Be Hindus”.[4] If we want our children to really grow up as Hindus, then charity begins at Home – we ve to instill Hindu-ness and Hindu Pride in them.OM

  • siyer79

    Excellent article by the author. This was a colonial tactic to make Hindus feel ashamed of who they were. However the inherent strengths of the Vedic religion ensured that Hinduism continued. This is exactly why Hinduism has endured for 5000 years despite relentless assaults by haters.

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