I do not apologize for opting for universalism over tribalism, and an affirmation of all our experiences.
Note: I was recently at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual meeting in Chicago and had a chance encounter with one friend and a deliberate engagement with another. Both are what I am not: Ph.D.s, scholars in academia, experts in Hinduism studies. Yet we are all three Hindu. When I ran into Deepak Sarma, he shared with me his recent essay on White Hindu converts. I wanted to respond because pluralism, racism, and religious conversion fascinate me. Then I attended a session where Jeffery D. Long was a panelist, and requested him to share his response instead.
A Response to Deepak Sarma
by Jeffery D. Long
The first thing a respondent to Deepak Sarma’s essay, “White Hindu Converts: Mimicry or Mockery?” needs to do is acknowledge the essential core of experiential truth and the genuine pain at its heart. Racism against brown-skinned persons is real and pervasive in North America. Being married now for over seventeen years to a Bengali, I cannot help but be aware of it. Sometimes this racism is overt and brutal, as in the case when, shortly after 9/11, a fellow customer at a gas station pointed to my wife and asked aggressively, “Is she from Afghanistan?” At other times it is more subtle, and perhaps even unknown to its perpetrators, such as when my wife speaks in a faculty meeting at the college where we both work only to have her words met with blank stares and confusion, while I later make basically the same comment and am told what a brilliant and insightful observation I have made.
I understand. I get it. And I also realize that even with the close personal vantage point to which I have access, I will never know, really know, at least in this life, what it is like to experience this kind of prejudice.
The proper response of any compassionate and right-thinking person to Deepak Sarma’s anger is to say, in a spirit of empathy and solidarity, “Right on, man. I hear you.”
The same right-thinking person, though, especially if that person is at all familiar with the white Hindu converts of whom Sarma speaks, cannot help but wonder if, in his effort to direct his rhetorical barbs at their rightful targets—white privilege and racism—he has not caught some innocent civilians, and many friends and allies, in the crossfire. His anger is real and its source, racism, is a legitimate target. His aim, however, is poor. This is an unfortunate result of several mistaken assumptions that are built into his argument.
Mistake #1: That the intent of white Hindu converts is to mimic.
Sarma says of white converts to Hinduism, “They claim to have ‘converted’ to Hinduism and concurrently mimic their imaginary (and often Orientalist) archetypal ‘Hindu’ in order to reverse-assimilate, to deny their colonial histories, to (futilely) color their lives, and, paradoxically, to be marginalized.”
The error here is found in the words “in order to.” I had no idea at the age of thirteen, when I first felt the pull of Hindu philosophy, about the motives Sarma attributes to me. Having endured a series of family tragedies, culminating with the death of my father, my search was for a worldview that could make sense of all the suffering I was experiencing. Hinduism quite literally saved my life. This had nothing to do with the politics of race or colonialism and everything to do with my urgent existential need to understand certain deep truths, to find meaning, and to draw nearer to what I still believe to be the ultimate goal of life: moksha, or liberation from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. My motive is neither mimicry nor mockery, but mumukshutva: the desire for liberation.
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.
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.
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.