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.
Mimicry, Mockery, or Mumukshutva?
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.