Finding Middle Ground

American Academy of Religions/Dharma Association of North America Annual Conference
Nov. 17 - 21, 2006 - Washington D.C.
Presented by Suhag Shukla, Esq., Hindu American Foundation Legal Counsel

Two young women are at a potluck dinner. One is a biologist, who happens to have brought her homemade naan, to the potluck, and the other is a professional chef. As they are getting acquainted, naturally being at a dinner party and one of them cooking for a living, food is the topic of conversation.

“My mother used to make the best naan back home,” said the biologist.

“I learned the technique for authentic naan back in culinary school,” replied the chef. “ Though I’ve never made it or eaten it for that matter, I know it’s a complex preparation. You must prepare and knead the dough in a particular way, otherwise it just doesn’t come out right.”

“Well, I never learned how to make it from my mom” expressed the biologist, “but I’ve managed to piece together my own recipe from what I remember her doing. I must admit I make a pretty tasty naan. Even my mother wouldn’t know the difference. Would you like to try some?”

“No thank,” stated the chef. “I’m on a gluten-free, low-carb diet.”

I conjure up this silly and improbable scene to illustrate a point; the point is that of the critical disconnect that I have found to exist between practicing Hindus who have their perceptions and perspectives of the tradition they practice and those who are commonly assumed to possess the adhikaar to define and represent Hinduism in the Western world. This gap stems from one person defining naan, as illustrated in the earlier scene, after having made and eaten it while the other defines it from her understanding of how naan is made without necessarily ever having made or tasted it. Arguably the science and technique behind a recipe is important, but so too is the flavor of the finished product. When no middle ground is found between these two approaches, we end up with an incomplete, inaccurate and often times offensive definition of terms.

Through my role as a volunteer attorney for the Hindu American Foundation, as a practicing Hindu and as a mother doing her best to raise two Hindu boys, I have witnessed this divide first hand. One party attempts to define, in our context Hinduism, using a combination of several factors, including her familial traditions; perhaps her readings of venerated Scripture or interpretations of such; her understanding of discourses she has heard by a guru or learned swami who has experienced or at least come close to divine revelation; and of course, her own direct experiences. The other is attempting to define the same through a set of different factors, including her own subjective readings of scripture sans the veneration, but perhaps colored by her own biases; through knowledge gained from colonialist commentaries on the elements of the subject matter and possibly her observations and critique as a passive onlooker. Too often we see these two characters in what should be an amicable dialogue talking past one another.

No matter the scenario, whether it is practicing Hindus struggling to project the Hinduism they know and practice in school textbooks pitted against professors of linguistics, history and anthropology wanting to propagate their own pet research or a newspaper taking a “caste, cows and curry” approach to headlines dealing with Hindu topics, there is an increasingly tense tug of war for the adhikaar or right and authority to define Hinduism and evaluate the practices of Hindus. Hindus perceiving their traditions as that of a transcendent philosophy replete with affirming rituals and festivals with a pluralistic message critical to our times against those who see it as a mythical and exotic playground at one extreme, and an unchanging, chauvinistic and racist law on the other. For too long, those in the latter category have monopolized the right and very act of defining my ancient tradition, shaping the entire approach to Hindu studies at the collegiate level and beyond.

What is the solution, if any? With the monumental task of objectively defining something as personal as faith, particularly in light of the antiquity, complexity and diversity of Hinduism, who has the authority to define it as well as analyze and evaluate its practices? And more importantly, how does one go about doing so? We at the Foundation believe that in a few key instances, we have managed to strike a balance between objectivity and subjectivity.

I would first like to set a foundation from where my perspective emerges. To do this, I am compelled here to refer to what is oft considered a cliché that Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life. But I, and many others that I have come across in my line of work and throughout my life, firmly believe that it is. Sanatana Dharma…eternal righteousness. Hinduism is a tradition that has been demonstrably dynamic. It has continually evolved over its long and ancient existence, accommodating individual realization of certain Truths, capital “T”; assimilating to social and historical realities; and accepting a basic set of shared values and beliefs in the midst of unprecedented diversity; unprecedented diversity in the perception of Divinity, scriptural interpretation and religious practice. Despite this tremendous diversity, however, there is unity; a thread, so to speak, of four basic factors, that is a belief in dharma, karma, reincarnation and an immanent and transcendent God, upon which different beads, whether they be pearl, stone, glass or metal, are strung. Each resulting necklace has its own beauty, but the tying thread has allowed so many different people with so many forms of God and so many practical differences share in the religious and spiritual rubric we call Hinduism.

Let me clarify that when I speak of adhikaar here today, I am not addressing the authority and right each and every Hindu, or human being for that matter, possesses in seeking a path, discovering its Truths and making that path one’s own for her personal spiritual evolution. I am referring to adhikaar in relation to defining and evaluating Hinduism for the public at large; the adhikaar to participate as an equal in interfaith dialogue; the adhikaar to self-define in an increasingly shrinking world.

First, I will relay to you the disconnect we at the Foundation have observed between Hindus and many scholars. What we have seen over and over again are scholars whom, without any palpable, direct experience or without making a sincere effort to see through the “others” eyes, go about describing and defining Hinduism and Hindu practices from their privileged positions as “licensed” employees of a university, limited by their own cultural, social, civilizational and professional shortcomings. Some times the scholar views Hinduism through the lens of another religious tradition; other times it is from the vantage of political or social ideology or worst yes, it arises from a psychiatrist’s couch. What is the end result? It may be an analysis of Hinduism that is so far removed from how a Hindu perceives her tradition, that it is no longer recognizable as the familiar, comforting, enlightening environment of one’s own experiential, lived world. Or, it may over-focus on how the religion is as perceived from the outside, without taking into account from the inside, not only what the practitioner believes it to be, but also what she believes it ought to be.

In our recent lawsuit against the State of California over the presentation of Hinduism in school textbooks, unfortunately, we saw this phenomenon enacted in public and in the full view of a disbelieving and shocked Hindu community. For some background, every six years or so, the California State Board of Education accepts public comment on the coverage of the major world religions for sixth grade social studies. Public comment, which may consist of suggestions for conceptual clarification or word-choice, is then vetted presumably in an open and fair process by experts in the field and then adopted for use in the next edition of textbooks. Last year Christians, Jews, Muslims, who have long contributed in defining their respective traditions, and for the first time, Hindus, participated in the public comment portion of the process.

My personal observation, after having read the textbooks is this: For Christianity, Judaism, Islam and even Buddhism, we find more of a focus on how members of each respective faith believe their tradition ought to be. In other words, we learn of the teachings and lofty goals of each religion. More importantly, the actions of members of the faith are not conflated with the philosophical framework of the religion. For example, something like the practice of slavery is not conflated with Christianity or Judaism, even though historically, adherents of both faiths used religion to justify their right to it. In contrast, the sections on Hinduism emphasize, if not obsess upon, social constructs such as caste hierarchies and the exotica of bloodthirsty gods and goddesses. The philosophy and pluralistic message is lost amongst elaborate discussions of fringe practices such as sati and animal sacrifice.

While the majority of suggested edits were adopted for Christianity, Judaism and Islam, a group of academics in the social sciences and humanities dismissed the suggestions and comments of practicing Hindus. They did this by firing a broadside in the form of a scathing letter to the Board of Education. The changes and edits suggested by Hindus in California were “sectarian and politically motivated” charged the academic collective. But, as it turned out, most of these scholars admitted that they had not read the textbooks, nor had they read the suggested edits. Nonetheless, the school board did an immediate about face. The exclusivist agenda of this group of linguists, historians and anthropologists claiming adhikaar on Harvard letterhead and through the threat of “international scandal” swayed the school board enough to jettison accepted due process and equal treatment of Hindus.

In order to introduce an insider perspective to the debate, HAF first filed suit against the State Board of Education for due process violations. During the litigation, we contacted several sampradaya leaders and representatives to read the texts and suggested edits. Certainly if the Board was not persuaded by the input of practitioners, it would be by religious leaders. And to further evaluate the textbooks, we also contacted scholars of religion who we found to have, throughout their academic careers, shown an eagerness to sincerely understand Hinduism balancing objectivity and subjectivity; and who expressed honestly their personal observations with respect and humility. Some of these scholars identified themselves as practicing Hindus; others did not. But, the key fact is that they were all scholars of religion.

The scholars voluntarily read the textbooks and supplied the court their own commentary on the state of the books. Often times the scholars’ comments conflicted with, but many times reinforced, the perspective of practicing Hindus. It is very important to note that ALL the scholars agreed that the presentation of Hinduism was filled with insensitive stereotypes, inaccuracies and over-simplifications. After months of HAF’s litigation as well as the letter-writing campaigs of Hindus worldwide lodging their indignation and outrage with Board for its the unfair treatment of Hindus and Hinduism, more than 75% of the original suggested edits submitted by Hindus were incorporated into the new editions of textbooks and the State Board, which for years had acted capriciously and arbitrarily, was ordered to conform its textbook adoption process with California law.

It is interesting to note that of the original 50 or so signatories to letter to the Board, only two or three were scholars of religious studies; one third of the signatories were in fields of research having nothing to with either India or Hinduism. The lesson learned, in my humble opinion, is that the struggle for adhikaar does not rest squarely on the shoulders of practicing Hindus, but scholars of Hinduism as well. For Christianity, Judaism and Islam, scholars of each respective tradition were consulted; however, after repeated requests to the State Board by HAF for a scholar of Hinduism to be consulted and even after having been sent a letter from the co-chairs of the Hindu Unit of the AAR offering a delegation of experts, the Board allowed only scholars of linguistics and history to have the proverbial last word.

Another disconnect we have encountered is that between Hindus and the government, which is illustrated by our involvement in the widely-covered Ten Commandments case that went before the Supreme Court spring of 2005. The Hindu American Foundation spearheaded one of the first-ever efforts to introduce a non-Judeo-Christian perspective to the issue of religious displays on state property. In Van Orden v. Perry, an atheist attorney named Van Orden sued the state of Texas for its placement and maintenance of a six-foot by four-foot stone replica of the Decalogue on state capitol grounds. After conference calls with representatives from both the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, it became evident that participation from non-Judeo Christians was needed to facilitate a more meaningful national dialogue.

HAF decided that a joint effort between Hindus, Jains and Buddhist would best serve the purpose of the historical amicus brief. Conceptually the idea was easy, but when we actually sat down to express to the court an intelligible definition of Hinduism, all things came to a screeching halt. How were we going to adequately incorporate the multiplicity in belief and practice in words that were comprehensible to a bench of nine justices who were most likely unfamiliar with Eastern thought? We immediately enlisted the help of practicing Hindus from various linguistic and sectarian backgrounds, key sampradaya leaders and representatives and professors of Hinduism or religious studies. What we believe was the end-result of this effort was a nuanced explanation of Hinduism supporting the perspective of a Hindu American as a religious minority in this country. Incidentally, Justice Stevens cited to our amicus brief in his dissenting opinion and in a related case, now-retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated her concern of how such a display would impact members of minority religions.

Prior to the formation of our organization in cases dealing with religious freedom issues, a well-meaning legal organization may have added a line or two on the impact of the particular issue on Hindus. These lines would generally be crafted from the stereotypical knowledge they may have gained from, yes, their sixth grade social studies textbook, newspaper articles or over-simplified and tactless academic works. To cite a specific example, in an amicus brief in a case before the Supreme Court dealing with the pledge of allegiance, it stated that even Hindus would find reciting the pledge offensive since Hindus believe in many Gods, and the pledge states one Nation, under God, that is one God. Though probably well intentioned, the analysis missed an integral point regarding the Hindu conception of divinity. What it does make clear though is the need for Hindu-Americans to claim the adhikaar for defining their traditions. If we don’t, others will.

It is my hope that these examples illustrate the battle for adhikaar that we are fighting on a daily basis at HAF. We cannot ever claim sole adhikaar to be the voice for Hinduism, but we certainly have the adhikaar to be a voice, nevertheless. HAF is but one cog in the wheel of the Hindu Diaspora that is quickly gaining speed in asserting its adhikaara to self-define. Increasingly, Hindus are entering the academic arena of religious studies as well as funding university chairs and ultimately institutions within colleges to further Hindu studies according to Hindu understanding. Forums such as DANAM (Dharma Association of North America) and WAVES (World Association of Vedic Studies) are also gaining prominence. And just as African Americans, Native Americans, women and so many others have realized in the last century or half-century that if they did not claim their right to speak for themselves, someone else without the requisite understanding and respect would, so too are Hindus. Hindus have a choice: they can either remain bystanders as the narrative of their experience is determined by those outside looking in or they can claim their adhikaar to shape, evaluate and define Hinduism so that ultimately, just as is the case with Christian, Judaic and Islamic studies in this country, the teaching and understanding of Hinduism among academics will one day draw inspiration from, and reflect the Hindus in their midst.

The Hindu American Foundation is a non-profit 501(c)(3), non-partisan organization, promoting the Hindu and American ideals of understanding, tolerance and pluralism.