Standing up for Hinduism doesn’t mean you are right-wing

After her latest public relations kerfuffle, stemming from her less-than-orthodox interpretation of passages of the Ramayana, Audrey Truschke, Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University, essentially characterized all those people offended by her tweets as right wing reactionary Hindus.

Let’s leave aside the details of Truschke’s analysis and comments on the Ramayana. Plenty of other people rightly have already taken Truschke to task.

All I’ll add on to that, is  I think her analysis of the text, as well as method of expressing her analysis seemed so far off the mark if her intent was persuasion and not simply goading an extreme public reaction, that I’m left shaking my head. If the goal was persuasion towards her viewpoint, the attempt was from a communications perspective, bluntly, incompetent.

I’ll also say that I’m not personal offended by her remarks. I just don’t get shaken in my beliefs every time someone expresses a viewpoint counter to them. However, I definitely get why other Hindus did get offended.

The Ramayana is a beloved story not just for Hindus, but for Buddhists in Southeast Asia as well. Here, murals illustrating the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Ramayana, line the walls of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Photo: Mat McDermott

What interests me here is the assertion that any defender of traditional interpretations of Hindu texts is automatically right wing

It’s an accusation that is often made whenever there is popular backlash against an academic interpretation of Hinduism. To be clear, it’s always presented as an accusation, not a neutral description of the political viewpoint of the opposition.

The fact is, though, you don’t have to be a conservative in either your political or social views to think she was off the mark in her analysis. I say this recognizing that some of the most vocal anti-Trusckeites are indeed politically right wing—and some made utterly deplorable remarks and threats against her, feeding right into her narrative.

Nevertheless, just because you don’t agree with readings of modern sensibilities into ancient texts, often accompanied by an undertone that this new interpretation is the ‘correct’ one, or that it is a presentation of what ‘really’ happened, doesn’t mean you’re right wing.

At the same time, it also doesn’t mean you’re opposed to academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of textual interpretation, or any of that.

It’s really just not as clear cut as that.

Case in point, myself. By Western definitions of political and social views, I’m pretty solidly progressive.

In Europe my ideas about the best relationship between the individual and the state is fairly center-left, but in the US I’m nearly as left wing as it gets

I’m a social democrat. I was a Bernie Sanders supporter in the primaries in the last election. I support treating everyone with dignity and equality before the law. I advocate for universal single-payer healthcare. I think reasonable controls on firearms are a good thing. I think the US political system and society has an unfortunate history of white and Christian supremacy. I am entirely for very strict environmental protections. I believe in women’s rights. I think we have a long long way to go to make up for embedded patriarchy in our society. I think we ought to strongly consider universal basic income. I am opposed to interventionist foreign policy and believe US neoimperalism is an entirely bad thing. I think, contrary to its rhetoric about welcoming immigrants historically, the US has actually treated anyone not of northern European heritage and Protestant religion very badly over the centuries. I could on and on. You get the idea.  

Virtually none of those stances can be construed as right wing (though the anti-interventionist part resonates with some right wing populism and Libertarianism).

The Dharmic traditions offer us great contemporary guidance in life

I hold all those views while simultaneously thinking that Hinduism (and the Dharmic traditions as a whole) are the greatest metaphysical exploration and linked spiritual traditions in the history of human thought. Though not spotlessly without fault, no human creation is, though ancient these traditions offer contemporary society great inspiration, guidance for living, and a roadmap for personal spiritual practice. I am proud to stand up and say that I am a Hindu.

These assumptions apply well beyond this incident. The common assumption I’ve witnessed is that if you stand up for Hinduism you are automatically considered right wing, reactionary, anti-modernity, and probably a bigot too.

Some Hindus do fit that characterization. Some members of every community do. But assuming that every Hindu who is proud of their faith and heritage is of an opposing political persuasion as yourself is sheer intellectual laziness.  


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