Mimicry, Mockery, or Mumukshutva? Jeffery Long's Response to Deepak Sarma
One could of course argue that, despite my humble origins, I have clearly benefited from the phenomenon of "white privilege." This is certainly the case. There is no denying it. I have also benefited from growing up in a country that had the advantage of centuries of free slave labor at its command in developing its economy. But then again, so has Sarma.
Believing that one can predict—or even worse, dictate—how people will think, feel, vote, or believe and practice religiously based on the color of their skin is as good a definition of racism as any. I am not saying that Sarma is a racist. That is a very serious charge to lob at a respected colleague. I am cautioning him, however, that he has come perilously close to it in this essay.
Finally, I cannot help mentioning that if one takes certain kinds of Hindu philosophy seriously, this entire line of thought is mistaken. Ethnic and national identities, and even gender, are qualities related to the body. They are ultimately impermanent karmic effects that do not reflect the ultimate nature of self as pure consciousness. Not only, therefore, did neither I nor my ancestors colonize India; it may be that both I and they were Indian on many occasions (and that Sarma was the British Viceroy of India).
Judging others by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character is a basic error from both Vedantic and progressive secular perspectives. Avoiding this error does not require one to fall into the opposite error of "color blindness," naively ignoring the many ways in which race continues to matter in contemporary society. And if Sarma has felt patronized or offended by the behavior of some white converts to Hinduism, he certainly has a duty to name this truth and to start a conversation about it. But if he is offended by the very existence of white converts to Hinduism, he risks replicating the toxic attitudes of those who have marginalized him.
Mistake #3: The nature of religious belief.
In his essay, An Apology for Apologetics, philosopher of religion Paul J. Griffiths states the axiomatic claim that we each have an epistemic duty to strive to believe things that are true. In the comment thread attached to the Huffington Post essay that I am critiquing here, Sarma clarifies that nowhere in his essay has he made mention of the truth of Hindu doctrinal claims.
In ascribing motives to white Hindu converts to Hinduism—or converts to any religion—it seems a glaring omission to ignore the possibility that one reason, perhaps the reason, for many people to take up a religious practice is their belief that the worldview with which that practice is associated provides a true description of the nature of reality. I was drawn to the practice of a Hindu spiritual path largely because I became persuaded of the truth of a Hindu worldview. There are many Hindu worldviews; but the one I hold teaches the reality of karma and rebirth, is theistic (or more specifically, panentheistic), and includes a practice which, when cultivated, leads to profoundly transformative experiences for the practitioner.
I cannot (and have no desire to) un-persuade myself of these things in the name of political correctness. My main interest, whatever the historical genealogy of my access to these teachings, is in whether they are true. In deriding the practice of white converts to Hinduism as a form of mockery, Sarma commits the genetic fallacy. Is colonialism a deeply problematic part of the history of how Hindu thought and practice became available to people like myself? Certainly. Are white converts sometimes naïve about these historical issues, and would they do well to be better informed about them? Absolutely. Does it have any bearing on whether our Hindu beliefs are true? Not at all.
In another response to a comment on his essay, Sarma has written that his entire point was that the experiences of white converts to Hinduism are different from the experiences of diasporic Hindus. This is of course true. I am not sure if anyone would deny it and am also not sure why anyone would want to deny it. Perhaps what Sarma is really saying is that there is a sacred quality to the experiences of diasporic Hindus that cannot be replicated by white converts, and that he feels offended by what he sees as our attempts at such replication: such mimicry that is really mockery.
What I am saying is that I am not seeking to mimic, much less mock, anyone. I have my white Hindu convert experience. Sarma has his diasporic Hindu experience. Are one of these experiences authentic and the other somehow fraudulent? Or are they both simply different experiences and expressions of an ancient, diverse, yet emerging and ever new, religious tradition? I opt for the second of these choices, perhaps for reasons of which I am unaware, but which Sarma can perceive with his hermeneutics of suspicion. I affirm the sacred character of his experiences and my own. And I do not apologize for opting for universalism over tribalism, and an affirmation of all our experiences.
Dr. Jeffery D. Long is Professor of Religious Studies and Department Chair at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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.