Everyone’s religion

I happened to meet Gurcharan Das over the weekend, in connection with this book [More on the book and the author later, after I file the stories for Rediff and for India Abroad].

In course of a catching-up chat before the actual interview, we were discussing the time he went back to school, in a manner of speaking, some three years earlier to refresh his memory of the Mahabharat and other Hindu texts. He talked of how he found himself a worldly-wise septuagenarian among bright, inquisitive twenty-somethings, and of the kind of discussions he had with his class mates.

In particular, he recalled this boy of Jewish extraction who, in Das’s words, “argued vehemently” against the Bhagwad Gita’s central tenet. The thrust of the argument, Das said, was that if you take the concept of ‘dharma’, of ‘your right to the action only, leave the good and bad to me’ philosophy to its logical conclusion, you can then use it to justify any act no matter how evil — as for instance the Holocaust.

That debate apart, what intrigued me about Das’s experience was the kind of interest there is abroad about Sanskrit, about Hinduism and its literature [Das was pointing out among other things that the best faculty teaching and researching Sanskrit exist on US campuses].

Tangentially related, here’s a good read from a good friend: Salil Tripathi in Tehelka examines Wendy Doniger’s [wiki] most recent work, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Early in this impressive walk through Hinduism, Doniger notes the coexistence of apparent contradictions within the faith: “You could easily use history to argue for almost any position in contemporary India: that Hindus have been vegetarians, and that they have not; that Hindus and Muslims have gotten along well together, and that they have not; that Hindus have objected to suttee (sic), and that they have not; that Hindus have renounced the material world, and that they have embraced it; that Hindus have oppressed women and lower castes and that they have fought for their equality.”

And it is this plurality that offends Hindutva adherents, who believe it weakens Hinduism. Historically, Indian scholars and practitioners have viewed the faith on their personal terms, providing radical or conservative interpretations. Abroad, Hinduism has fascinated experts for a long time. But Hindu nationalists now want discourse to be only from within – external views, particularly critical, or unconventional (in their eyes, that is) interpretations, must be ignored, since they come from outside the faith.

While on the book, here from my archives is an earlier Michael Dirda review, which is where I first read of the book. And here’s Doniger herself on her blog [a large part of the comments that follow are illustrative of what Salil is talking about -- our lack of tolerance for external views]. From Doniger:

Myth has been called “the smoke of history,” and there is a desperate need for a history of the Hindus that distinguishes between the fire, the documented evidence, and the smoke; for mythic narratives become fires when they drive historical events rather than respond to them. Ideas are facts too; the belief, whether true or false, that the British were greasing cartridges with animal fat, sparked a revolution in India in 1857. We are what we imagine, as much as what we do.

Hindus in America, too, care how their history is taught to their children in American schools, and the voices of Hindu action groups ring out on the internet. Some of these groups, justifiably incensed by the disproportionate emphasis on the horrors of the caste system in American textbooks, and by the grotesque misrepresentation of Hindu deities in American commercialism, ricochet to the other extreme and demand that all references to the caste system be expunged from all American textbooks.

And so I tried to tell a more balanced story, in “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a statue of a Hindu god is set in its base, to show how Hindu images, stories, and philosophies were inspired or configured by the events of the times, and how they changed as the times changed. There is no one Hindu view of karma, or of women, or of Muslims; there are so many different opinions (one reason why it’s a rather big book) that anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, “The Hindus believe. . . ,” is talking nonsense.


The sky is falling

Indians are worried, says this story. Turns out, one Indian American is “worried” about whether the Hindu religion has will be properly portrayed. Guess who?

It is a splendid, pure, exalted form of worry, that exists in its own space. The worrier doesn’t need to read a shooting script, or have any clue what the film is about — but since when does any of that stop said gent from being “worried”, and from issuing statements highlighting that worry?

Oscar winning actress Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman) will reportedly be in India in the third week of September to shoot Eat, Pray, Love, and Hindus in the US are not too happy about it. Many are concerned about the authenticity of the depiction of the ashram and Hinduism in the film.

Indian American Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA), said that Hinduism and its belief system were quite often misunderstood and incorrectly depicted outside India and urged the filmmakers to stick to authentic traditions.

Based on Pushcart Prize winner Elizabeth Gilbert’s spirituality/travel memoir, the film is currently being shot in New York till the end of August. After a two-week stint in Italy, shooting will move to India to film ashram sequences. Some of the Indian crew of Slumdog Millionaire will be helping in the India part of the production, though the shooting schedule is being kept hush-hush, according to reports.

In the book, Gilbert writes about coming to India to learn the “art of devotion”. A critic has defined her depiction of the spiritual four-month quest as “the worst in Western fetishisation of Eastern thought and culture”.

Indians are anxious to see how perfectly Roberts does her job of cleaning ashram floors as a part of her devotional duty, reciting 182-verse Sanskrit chants, and going through gruelling hours of meditation while being feasted on by mosquitoes.

Religion and you

My post yesterday on the Burger King-Lakshmi idiocy appears to have sparked a tangential, and fascinating, discussion on religion in the comments section. Abhi, who started this, had asked some questions; I’ll reply later in what is proving to be a very busy day but in the interim, weigh in with your thoughts: What does religion mean to you?

Update: Incidentally, Burger King has pulled the ad in question. A company statement reads:

“Burger King Corporation values and respects all of its guests as well as the communities we serve. This in-store advertisement was running to support a limited-time-only local promotion for three restaurants in Spain and was not intended to offend anyone. Out of respect for the Hindu community, the in-store advertisement has been removed from the restaurants.”

Not enough, says the irrepressible Rajan Zed: Burger King should now form an in-house team to assess all publicity material. And as and when this team is set up, he is willing to educate its members on the intricacies of the world’s religions.

Oh well.