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.