Mimicry, Mockery, or Mumukshutva? Jeffery Long's Response to Deepak Sarma
Now, to be sure, Sarma's argument takes the form of what people in our discipline call a "hermeneutics of suspicion" (despite his use of the phrase "in order to," which suggests a conscious motive on the part of the people he is critiquing). Sarma is arguing, in other words, that our conscious motivations are a delusion. And the more we clarify our intent, the more we confirm his suspicion that something else, which only he can discern, is what really lies behind our views and behavior. I can therefore argue all I like and Sarma can sit back and revel in the irony of it all: that this stupid white guy does not know why he has deluded himself into thinking he is a Hindu. No matter what I say, his response can be that I doth protest too much. Ironically, given his scholarship, which is critical of the concept of maya, he sounds like a postcolonial mayavadin. White Hindu converts are suffering under a deluded false consciousness.
The problem with such an approach is that it is unfalsifiable. Pretending I know the true motives behind others' words and actions frees me from any responsibility for engaging with them. It allows me to treat them dismissively. Sarma can lob his rhetorical barbs at white Hindu converts free from accountability for his words and the hurt that they cause while moreover claiming a moral high ground because of the racism from which he has suffered.
Although I therefore have no reason to expect that my arguments will move him, I write on in the hope that others who may be eavesdropping on this conversation might thereby benefit.
Back to the main point: the conscious intent of this white Hindu convert has not been to mimic those who were born Hindu. Indeed, I have been (mildly) critical of those Hindu movements that insist that their non-Indian adherents assume Sanskritic names and traditional Indian forms of dress (strictures to which even many who were born Hindu do not adhere). My desire has not been to Indianize myself in a vain effort to "color my life," as Sarma might say, but to practice my spiritual path as who I am: Irish American, raised Roman Catholic, Midwestern, sci-fi and rock fan, and so on. I would like to see Hinduism emerge (as it is emerging) as a global tradition, just like Buddhism, with many cultural forms and expressions. To the degree that white Hindu converts feel they must engage in cultural "mimicry," I may be just slightly less critical of them than Sarma, but for a different reason: not seeing such mimicry as mockery, but as simply unnecessary.
Mistake #2: Whose colonial history?
The second major error in Sarma's essay is his sweeping assumption that all white people are equally implicated in the colonial oppression of India. The very term "white" is itself deeply problematic, and an over-generalization. I was not involved in the colonization of India and neither were my ancestors. Indeed, most of them were busy being starved out of Ireland by the very people who did colonize India. Most ended up as poor farmers in West Virginia, Missouri, and Illinois. The exception was my great-grandfather, who was busy fleeing, there is reason to suspect, from anti-semitism in France.
I am of course blatantly engaging here in what Sarma might call a denial of my colonial history. Armed with his hermeneutic of suspicion, he can be confident in his knowledge that I do have a colonial history, whether the facts of my family history bear this out or not. My melanin-deficient epidermis is a sufficient basis for this charge.
Padma Kuppa is a writer, IT professional, community activist, wife, and mother working to build a more pluralistic society within a Hindu and interfaith framework. You can also read her blog A Balancing Act, at padmakuppa.blogspot.com. The views represented in this column are not a reflection of the views of any organization of which she is a part.