One of the nastiest campaign tricks in recent memory was the Louisiana Democratic Party’s attempt to derail the candidacy of Roman Catholic Bobby Jindal by quoting — out of context — statements he’d written about Protestantism. The thing I remember about the attacks is that Jindal seemed surprisingly theologically literate for a politician. Jindal explained his adult conversion from Hinduism in the New Oxford Review and the Democratic Party quoted some of it to give the impression that Jindal was a bigot. I know it’s Louisiana and all, but that’s cold.
Robert Travis Scott, writing in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has a really interesting and well-researched story on Jindal’s religious conversion. It also has a really weird angle, although I think it works: what Jindal’s Hindu relatives in India think of his conversion. The gist of the piece is that Jindal’s conversion was aided by the open-mindedness of Hinduism combined with the lack of a significant Hindu presence in his home state of Louisiana:
His relatives’ perspective reflects a tolerant side of a religion that for thousands of years has survived philosophical transformations, rebellious counter-religions and numerous sects, only to claim them all in time as part of the infinitely flexible cosmos of Hindu faith.
“If you find and see that you get more peace of mind, more solace, in that religion, then why not change religion?” said Jindal’s uncle Subhash Gupta, a practicing Hindu. “In India, many people change to the Christian religion. And I can understand that some people maybe find Christian religion more satisfying to their needs.”
One of the religious aspects that Scott gets is that Hinduism is sort of an umbrella for differing belief systems. But I’m not sure that he accurately portrays the variety contained within Hinduism. India is officially secular but overwhelmingly Hindu. For the most part religious minorities are tolerated by Hindus. However, Hindu nationalists — who control some of the regions of India — are violently opposed to religious conversion and persecute Muslims and Christians. Not all Hindus are equally tolerant, in other words. But for a feature in a mainstream newspaper, Scott does a great job of introducing readers to some of what distinguishes Hinduism:
Jindal’s parents, Amar and Raj Jindal, are practicing Hindus and emphasize that they are monotheists. Hindus say they believe in one God, who also takes the form of a trinity.
In addition, Hinduism recognizes thousands, and by some counts millions, of deities who are considered incarnations, or avatars, of the one God, sent to Earth to right some wrong.
Few Hindus worship Jesus Christ, but they might easily accept the idea that he was an avatar. Or they might draw a parallel between their worship of various Hindu deities and the prayers that Catholics say to saints as couriers to God.
Scott describes various pieties, including choosing deities as personal guides to understanding spiritual truths and the reading of Vedas. Then he questions whether the variety of scripture in Hinduism and the lack of systematic theology influenced Jindal’s departure from Hinduism. Further, Scott suggests, Jindal may have never left Hinduism if it were practiced more widely in Baton Rouge:
Like his parents, Bobby Jindal grew up in a world in which Hindu religion was presented as a meaningful but broad-minded system of faith. But unlike them, Jindal did not grow up in a world where Hindu temples abound, where the home of almost every neighbor contains a small shrine and where typical conversations about weddings, food and social graces are laced with the vocabulary of the Hindu belief system.
The article limits its scope to how Hindus in India feel about Jindal’s conversion. It might have been interesting to have gotten more perspective from Jindal or other converts to Christianity — particularly to provide a bit more balance to Scott’s suggestions. Still, a very interesting article and much more substantive about Hinduism than we normally see.