Exclusively Inclusive: Holy Contradiction in a Hindu World {Guest Post}

Exclusively Inclusive: Holy Contradiction in a Hindu World {Guest Post} July 7, 2015
Today I have a wonderful pep talk for you from Mahanth S. Joishy, the creator of the blog US-India Monitor (find him on Twitter at @usindiamonitor). I’m over at his blog for an interview as well! 

MJ baby elephant

I was glad when Ambaa graciously asked me to write a guest post about Hinduism and inclusiveness for the readers of this site.  I am one of those Hindus who believes quite forcefully that Hinduism should be a wide open, welcoming gateway for all those who live on this earth.  The religion and way of life are, at their very best moments, gifts meant for all of humanity to share and enjoy regardless of one’s ethnic, religious, or geographic background.  This belief comes from a very basic Hindu tenet many of us were taught as snotty-nosed children: that all minds are part of one single and massive mind or consciousness, that all are one and one are all.  All souls are part of one great soul.  We are all on this small round spaceship, speeding through the universe into whatever comes next, together.

One single mind is a mysterious concept and difficult even for most devout adult Hindus to mesh into the realities of life.  For too much of its history, practitioners of the world’s oldest existing major religion have engaged in chauvinism towards other religions that cropped up over time.  Arguably, an even worse stain on Hinduism’s record is the centuries-old caste system. This stratified Hindus into four distinct social stations, with clear winners and losers, layered on top of a fifth category of “untouchables” who were treated by those of higher castes as sub-human life forms. These community separations were considered iron-clad and often based on one’s birth instead of one’s merits and proclivities as castes were originally envisioned to embody in religious and political literature.

Despite those Hindus that would advocate for exclusion both within and outside the religion, there has always been a strong legacy of leaders in the flock who strove to be more inclusive.  Their influence has happily grown stronger over time, as the caste system is steadily losing its grip on Indians around the globe to make way for merit based pigeon-holing.  Now, it is medical doctors and scientists who sit atop the food chain of respect in Indian society both at home and abroad, and this respect has to be earned the hard way.

An interesting journey is taking place for Hinduism in the Western world.  Among those great Indians who brought Hindu culture to America and embodied that Hinduism is meant for all, are Swami Vivekananda, Paramhansa Yogananda, and Mahatma Gandhi, each in their own different way.

Gandhi is recognized as one of the spiritual rocks of the US civil rights movement, influencing events in the American Deep South decades after his own death and despite never setting foot here.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was Gandhi’s disciple of sorts, and re-purposed a brand of non-violent protest that helped defeat the British Empire to effective use in crushing the different demon of inequality in America.  Centuries of injustice were ended largely by peace, love, and turning the other cheek in both cases.  Just this month in Charleston, South Carolina we were treated to the tear-inducing, amazing grace of family members of those nine souls slain by a white supremacist at church: a direct legacy of King and Gandhi that survives today in the South (a grace I regrettably and surely would not have displayed in the same situation).

Meanwhile, Vivekananda and Yogananda brought two other powerful seeds to America that have blossomed here and also around the world: yoga and meditation, along with related cultural imports such as vegetarianism, veganism, and classical Hindu music traditions.  If one hears a tabla or sitar in modern American music, or sees an all-vegan restaurant, or lives above a yoga studio, it’s no longer novel. Both Vivekananda and Yogananda were inspired to come to America by strong personal visions, bolstered by their own respective and formidable “Gurus.”

Meanwhile, (white) American thinkers such as Jonah Blank and Robert Svoboda have spent a great deal of time in India and elsewhere studying and writing about Hinduism, and from their uniquely American point of view helped explain deep philosophies not only for a Western audience, but also an Indian one.  For example, Svoboda has written a book on Ayurveda that was considered a textbook in my Hinduism course at Georgetown.  Your very own blogger on this site, Ambaa is a part of this great tradition.

Because I consider some aspects of Hinduism to be largely positive, I applaud these cultural imports even when they are pursued with low or no understanding of their origins.  Many Indians make fun of foreigners clumsily trying to do the “downward dog” yoga pose or speaking about their “chakras” or tattooing the “Om” symbol on the small of their back as if they had any idea what these really mean (they often don’t).  But the attitude of these Indians bothers me and I can’t join in the fun.  If the human heart yearns to learn something new, then who am I as a Hindu to stifle that yearning heart on the outside looking in, just because I was fortunate to have already been born and raised inside?  Not only on the inside, but descended from a long line of Hindu priests and scholars stretching back for centuries of South Indian history.

I do not believe that God prefers for some people, just because they are brown, to own a monopoly on Hinduism. I would like to be on the side of those Hindus who are responsible for welcoming in those curious strangers from near and distant lands with open arms, instead of making fun of them.  And I believe that my side will ultimately be the winning side.

It doesn’t matter who you are.  You may go to any Hindu temple across the United States or around the world, observe the idols and rituals, and in most cases enjoy delicious food too.  Some people will look at you funny.  Others, as in those on my team, will be glad you came.

Welcoming gestures should not be confused with proselytizing, forced conversion, or missionary zeal as we see too much of in this world, among Hindus or any other religion or cult.  Like all good relationships, I believe a person’s spiritual journey should be consensual.  Any truly enlightened soul understands that multiple religions can have something to offer each individual.  Hinduism at its core, is supposed to recognize that one can practice anything they want, including agnosticism and atheism, while still remaining part of Hinduism.

Therefore, I am here to humbly welcome you to learn more about Hinduism if you so desire.  Visit India if a part of you wants to see it.  By being on this page in the first place, you’ve already got a foot in the door if you aren’t indeed all the way in.  Do not let anything or anyone tell you that you must convert formally, give up your other religious beliefs, or God forbid, be a purebred Indian to practice Hinduism. Any roadblocks you encounter on this journey will be more than compensated for by the sign posts and lamps to guide you in the right direction.  By no coincidence of your own fate, this whole thing called the Internet has made the journey easier to traverse than at any time in human history.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • George Thomas

    All the so-called modern religions still practiced today were developed and promoted centuries before the advance of modern science, technology and engineering. They include Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam,

    All these religions should be considered illogical, immaterial, irrelevant and obsolete. They were all created, built and promoted on ancient human beliefs, imaginations and fantasies. Not a single religion has been created, built, developed, and promoted in the modern advanced age of science, technology and engineering; and in the age of our present politics, perceptions and philosophy.

    All these religions today are illogical, irrelevant and immaterial. All these religions are now impracticable, obsolete, and undesirable, and should be unacceptable to all human beings.. Reject, abandon and abolish all these ancient pre-modern religions. Let only Agnosticism and Atheism prevail on the planet Earth. We will survive without accepting the fiction, fantasy, and existence of an imperceptible Almighty GOD. To Hell with God!

    • KhawarNehal

      You are invited to have a look inside the contents of the book yourself instead of having others tell you what it means. If you want to perceive a single Almighty God, then you need to “sincerely” think and then read.
      Take notes because God teaches with the pen. Science and Technology are promoted as religious duties which are obligatory. Since you are able to ponder, you might be provided some more knowledge than others.
      Have a look and then ask questions. http://quran.com

      Do not refer to other sources which misinterpret to maintain the unfair orders of politics, society and governments.

      • Ambaa

        I appreciate that you’ve put this in not inflammatory language, but I think you may want to click on that link for How To Explain Hinduism to see why I will never be Muslim.

        • Raju

          Which link are you referring to? This link “http://quran.com”
          is about Islam.

      • George Thomas

        Khawar Nehal,

        What Book are you referring to? To what religion do you belong? I cannot make out what religion you are from your name. What ethnicity and nationality are you?

        George C. Thomas

        rgcthomas40@gmail.com

        • KhawarNehal

          Did you see inside the book or want to still comment on me as a topic of distraction ?

    • Ambaa

      I respect atheism a lot but I don’t agree with your stance that you should take religion away from others. I respect your freedom to believe the things that get you through life. I ask for that same respect.

      I cannot function without my religion and that may be sad to you but it brings me joy and makes me a better person.

    • Raju

      Hinduism recognizes atheism too. Only in Hinduism you can say “To hell with god” and still be a Hindu. Other religions will try to intimidate you with the fear of you burning in eternal hell.

      You can’t abolish Hinduism because after all, “right to opinion” is Hinduism,
      The Sanskrit and Tamil (two classical languages from India) the word for religion is “matam” and that means “opinion”. WHen you claim to differ you are exercising the freedom that Hinduism provides. This is how our Hindu ancestors differed with each other and created a voluminous body of literature that includes everything except exclusivism.

      It is likely that atheists like you and me are Hindus. We cannot be classified as a Christian or Muslim for sure because these relgions have some basic tenets.
      In Hinduism the only tenet is “right to opinion” and as long as you agree that others too have a right to opinion, you are a Hindu.

      • George Thomas

        Raju,

        I appreciate very much your profound knowledge, observations, views and analyses of India.

        I am the author/editor of several books and articles on the politics of India, including the main contributing editor of the 4-volume Encyclopedia of India [Macmillan-Gale Press], and the author of Indian security Policy [Princeton University Press]

        Let us communicate with each other on Indian government and politics more extensively. My email address is below.

        rgcthomas40@gmail.com

        Raju / George

        Raju G. C. Thomas, Ph.D. [U.C.L.A.]
        Allis Chalmers Distinguished Professor of International Affairs [Retired]
        Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

        • Raju

          Thank you Raju,

          for the kind words.

          I definitely would like to learn more about your thoughts esp. on development. How has the growth been in the last 25years in India.

          Raju

  • kiran2

    [[Hinduism at its core, is supposed to recognize that one can practice anything they want, including agnosticism and atheism, while still remaining part of Hinduism.]]

    But in my humble opinion this is not to be encouraged otherwise the Hinduism we
    know (the one that gives us freedom, humility, spirituality, the wisdom which is not
    merely spoken about but practiced etc ) will cease to exist in that line of family
    (ie perhaps they will no longer reads the Hindu scriptures and practice the culture which are so important in its preservation of all that is good in this world.

    Lovely article.

    Kiran
    3~’

  • Confusedbunny

    We’re not part of one mind. We’re not a hive-mind like the borg of star trek or the cybermen of doctor who. We are all individual minds and spirits with different histories and paths.

    • Raju

      The collective consciouness is just one of the theories and we do not need to buy it. We should do your purva-paksha (debate) and determine its applicability.

      I have a querry for you: do you think the millions of cells in our bodies realize that we are part of one single being?

      • Confusedbunny

        You can’t compare single-celled organisms with no higher brain function to us. They don’t have a complex neurological structure like we do.

        • Raju

          My querry is not about single-celled organisms. Consider the cells in our bodies say one single skin cell or single liver cell. Is it aware that it is part of a bigger picture?

          • Confusedbunny

            You are pondering upon the nature of single celled organisms here. They are not developed enough to be able to consider the bigger picture. We humans are, however, and do so frequently. We are aware that we live on this planet and need to take care of it, otherwise global warming wouldn’t be such a big issue. A single celled organism can’t do that.

          • Raju

            No I am not pondering about any single celled organism. I am pondering about single cells in our own bodies. Take a single cell from our body say from the finger. We (human beings) are aware that this single cell is part of a bigger picture called human beings. Is that single cell aware that it is part of a bigger picture?
            All that I can say is we are talking past each other. Perhaps someone else can step in and explain each others perspective in a different way

          • Confusedbunny

            And I’ve been saying all along, it’s not aware, because it can’t be aware. It doesn’t have the capacity TO be aware. But we, on the other hand, DO have the faculties to not only be aware, but also to discern between this and that.

          • Raju

            OK, I guess I got it that you answered “no” and added an explanation.

            Are subatomic particles aware of they being a part of the atom?

            Probably not

            Are atoms aware the bigger picture of compounds and crystalline structure that they are part of?

            Probably no.

            Are compounds/crsytalline structures aware that they are part of cells?

            Probably not

            Are cells aware of the bigger picture of being part of an organ?

            Probably not

            Are organs aware of the bigger picture that they are part of an animal (one eg. is human beings)?

            Probably not

            Are human beings aware of the bigger picture of ‘collective consciousness’?

            ……………….?

            For the comments up to now, I have taken the ‘for’ side.

            Now I will switch hats and take the ‘against’ hat.

            *) Collective consciousness is a hypothesis based on these observations.

            1) Is it possible to test it?
            No.
            1) Even if a higher state is present, what use it if we have no way of either disproving it or proving it in a repeatable way?

            2) Finally, that ‘earth is a limited resource’ is sinking in.

            When one damages it, it affects others and vice versa.
            In that sense we do have some collective consciousness.

            3) But we do need more research on how consciousness sets in.

          • Confusedbunny

            Yes, we know what a collective consciousness looks like. The perfect example would be an ant colony. We humans are not a part of a collective consciousness.

  • Raju

    Kiran,

    You mention that Hinduism gives you the freedom to practice whatever you want. True and that is something I cherish a lot.

    You need to confront your fear of why you think this freedom will cease to exist.
    This way we can learn valuable lesson instead of being merely afraid.

    Raju

  • Raju

    Mahanth,

    you state that “Arguably, an even worse stain on Hinduism’s record is the centuries-old caste system. This stratified Hindus into four distinct social stations, with clear winners and losers, layered on top of a fifth category of “untouchables” who were treated by those of higher castes as sub-human life forms. These community separations were considered iron-clad and often based on one’s birth instead of one’s merits and proclivities as castes were originally envisioned to embody in religious and political literature.”

    Can you show religious texts that set up such a system, along with exact page numbers so that I can verify? I haven’t seen any such literature. ThiruValluvar defines a Brahmin as “one who doesn’t harm others”. He then goes on to state that “All are equal at birth but the respect we get depends on our occupation”. IS this any different from the situation here in USA in 21st century? Imagine that 2500 to 3500 years India was as progressive as what US is today!

    • Raju

      Contd from previous post:
      No major technology, yet a mostly democratic society in which the king is like today’s British King – no power to change the decision made by the elected councils.

      India was the land of milk and honey and people did immigrate from all the 3 known continents. Students from all these continents attended the first universities in the world: Nalanda and Taxila.

      This diversity combined with a lack of technology to lead to a social stratification based on one’s occupation. What was the role of Hinduism? Well, Hinduism formed the building bridge. Rg Veda is clear that God doesn’t pick any favourites. Let’s recall the story of Satyakama. He is the son of a prostitute and he approaches Gautama to join his gurukul. Gautama asks for the boy’s father’s name. He returns to her mother Jabalya to find out and comes back to report truthfuly that he does not know the name of his father. And Gautama remarks ” you spoke the truth even in an adverse circumstance – so you are a Brahmin”.

      If Hindus do not follow Hinduism, should that be blamed on Hinduism?

      • Raju

        You mention caste stratification as a “system”. If it is a system please let me know who administered such systems? Please show me the rule books used in courts in independent India. Clearly the Hindu priests couldn’t have administered it because Hindu priests have no power – they cannot even provide a sermon or pronounce a couple as husband and wife. This is the reason we have the freedom to practice what we want.

        IN any case India has been ruled for a 1000years (until 1947) by Muslims and Christians. Did they administer a caste system? Do present day (post 1947) governments administer a caste system?

        People failed to read up and follow Hinduism and you blame Hinduism for that. Is that reasonable? You appear to be restating “invader history”.

        • Raju

          If your claim of ” Arguably, an even worse stain on Hinduism’s record is the centuries-old caste system”

          to modified to something like

          “Hindus brought a big stain on themselves by not following Hinduism”, then I would be in agreement.

          • Raju

            Over the last 2000 years, many different castes flourished and many were suppressed. It will be great if we can eliminate the suppression.

            But the suppression is not triggered by Hinduism.

            We also need to quantify this suppression and measure it and compare it against other societies.

          • Raju

            What are your thoughts on the suppression that Hindus faced at the hands of Muslim invaders and White Invaders?

  • Raju

    Mahanth,

    you claim “For too much of its history, practitioners of the world’s oldest existing major religion have engaged in chauvinism towards other religions that cropped up over time”. Please provide examples.

    Despite being beaten up by invaders for a 1000 years, Hindus have had very minimal violent reaction towards non-Hindus. This is a remarkable feat and only you feel we are chauvinistic. Please show me a single Hindu who says others do not have salvation.

    I can provide you examples of chauvinism but from other religions: people like Martin Luther who wrote that Jews should be driven out, they cannot own property etc.

    India is absolutely the most inclusive society in which almost everyone including tiny communities like Parsis have flourished. Your claims are baseless: we were so non-violent that when Mohammed of Ghori attacked western parts of India, we were contended with mere defending. Not once did our ancestors go after that invader when he was defeated many times and when finally when the invader won he ransacked whatever he could.

    The problem our ancestors was this: too much of non-violence got us enslaved for 1000 years.

    • Raju

      And in indepenent India all non-HIndu communities (except Jewsih community because they chose to migrate out of India), have increased in both numbers and percentage.

      Yes media makes a lot of noise. But finally when the truth comes out media doesn’t report it with the same vigor with which they blamed Hindus: for eg. The rape of nuns in MP in 90s and the rape of a nun in Kokata recently were alleged on Hindus : then it turned out that the rapists were either Christians or Muslims and media never apologized to the Hindus.

      • Raju

        And during recent visit of Mr. Obama, allegations of attack on churches sprung up. You take the total number of such attacks and divide my the population of Christians and likewise do that same for Hindu temples in Delhi : it turns out Hindu temples were attacked much more on both per capita basis and absolute number basis in the Delhi region. I hope, they do find the perpetrators and punish them. Did the media report even a single incidence of attacks on temples? Have you ever condemned the media bias in not reporting attacks on temples?

        Here in the US, no Hindu attacked any church. But several temples have been vandalized by non-Hindus.