‘Hinduism has been failed by seculars and the right-wing’

‘The real danger in India right now is that identity politics is being stoked in extremely dangerous ways.’

‘The narrative you get about churches in the mainstream Indian media and the narrative you get in the social media is very different.’

‘Many Americans today want to appropriate Indian culture. They want yoga, but they say yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism. They want Ayurveda, but they say it’s got nothing to do with Hinduism.’

A devotee offers prayers to a cow during a religious ceremony in Kathmandu, October 23, 2014. Hindus all over Nepal are celebrating the Tihar festival, also called Diwali, during which they worship cows, which are considered a maternal figure, and other animals. Also known as the festival of lights, devotees also worship the goddess of wealth Laxmi by illuminating and decorating their homes using garlands, oil lamps, candles and colourful light bulbs. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar (NEPAL - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY ANIMALS) - RTR4B9DO
A devotee offers prayers to a cow during a religious ceremony in Kathmandu, October 23, 2014. Hindus all over Nepal are celebrating the Tihar festival, also called Diwali, during which they worship cows, which are considered a maternal figure, and other animals. Also known as the festival of lights, devotees also worship the goddess of wealth Laxmi by illuminating and decorating their homes using garlands, oil lamps, candles and colourful light bulbs. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar (NEPAL – Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY ANIMALS) – RTR4B9DO

“I think my work is being seen as building bridges between generations of Indian immigrants and also between India and America,” Vamsee Juluri, author of Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence, tells Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com.

It is possible that your arguments that Hinduism had certain qualities and does not match the current discourse in the Western world, but you cannot ignore the ground realities.

Can you explain, taking the argument of your book as the base, this whole holy cow controversy? How do you look at this beef ban controversy with your understanding of Hinduism?

It is a tough question, but I am glad you asked. See, my understanding of the cow, fundamental in Indian thought, is through Ahimsa. There are two or three arguments being made today on the cow issue. The people who are against cow slaughter ban argue that Dalits have the right to eat beef and it is a source of poor man’s protein.

There is also the argument that cow slaughter is being used to attack or intimidate minorities. I totally understand that the cow issue has become about human identities and that is deplorable.

But to me the cow issue is more about Ahimsa, not causing more harm than necessary to living beings. My understanding of Ahimsa — and this is through my understanding of Gandhi — is that perfect Ahimsa is impossible, even while we breathe. But we have a moral obligation to minimise it and that is the great contribution of the state of Gujarat to the recent Ahimsa principles.

The cow, in India, has become a symbol of various identities. But we are starting to see the discourse growing out of it. So far the Indian intellectual point of view was so strongly caught in its own identity politics. They were looking at the cow with reference to the rights of some communities to kill and eat it.

The Left has its problems and the right-wing believes that banning cow slaughter or beef is authentic Indian culture. But it is the right wing’s simplistic way of looking at this issue.

I think the real issue — and I talk about this a little bit in the book — is to decolonise natural history. In my book I propose that if you really want to understand Indian history, the present, and want to take charge of the future, we have to decolonise not only the Wendy Doniger narrative about Indian history but also see how the bigger relation between humans and animals have been colonised.

The assumptions we have about our relationships with nature and animals today, and Western thought, which is a global thought today, is a product of a particular moment when human beings decided to assert their dominance over animals and objectified them.

In 1600, Descartes, the father of Western enlightenment, made the argument that animals were machines, they did not have life and senses the way we have. His disciples used to beat dogs to death on the road to prove it.

Then there is the old Christian thought about dominion over nature. So all these assumptions about our relationship to animals have entered the Indian discourse today where people are arguing for or against the cow through this Western colonial anthropocentric lens.

My argument is that we need to understand why there was deep respect in the Indian thought for the cow. Sure, some communities ate it, but I do not want to argue about that.

Should there be a beef ban?

I do not understand the beef ban from the legal policy point of view intimately, so I do not know what exactly the legal policy says. But in theory, I believe vegetarianism is very important from the point of view of not harming animals.

In your book I read that you are essentially trying to bring in the serene, calming and divine part of a broader Hindu thinking. But you must understand that even within India, like on the cow issue, people who want to ban beef may actually be in a minority.

There are a whole lot of people eating beef, there are many who believe that — okay, we had a background, we had a tradition of worshiping cows but we can’t take away the right of people who eat beef. So this tough Hindutvawallahs actually may be in a minority. I don’t have any evidence to prove it. However, doesn’t Hinduism also teach you not to impose anything?

I get your point. You are putting me in a spot. Fair enough. (laughs)

Image: A devotee takes a dip in a river on the final day of the month-long Swasthani festival. Photograph: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

When you say that for the sake of vegetarianism and for the sake of non-violence you may want to support the beef ban, my argument is that no thought can be imposed if you follow Hinduism.

That is post-modernism. How can you say that no thoughts can be imposed? That also becomes a weird thing if people say that in the name of freedom anything goes. I can kill people, beat up people and say I shouldn’t impose anything because ‘to impose’ anything is bad.

What I am saying is there is an emerging discourse. Am I saying that Hinduism’s philosophy is ‘anything goes’ and that we should not impose anything on anybody? I am saying Hinduism’s philosophy is to strike a fine balance between the desa-kala — the circumstances of the present and a yearning for the eternal.

The yearning for the eternal is obviously something that is very spiritual, poetic and personal. The way it emerges, the way the balance comes in, is through particularly inter-generational negotiations.

When my grandparents were children they had very bad ideas about caste. Caste was horribly restrictive. Three generations down we know in cities that socially, caste is largely invisible. Even on a national scale we have seen the rise of many formerly oppressed communities.

In my state (Andhra Pradesh), the most dominant caste in politics is not the Brahmins or even Kshatriyas. They are Reddys, Kammas, Kapus.

All communities have come up through democracy. So even on the beef issue, there needs to be dialogue between people. People should realise the issue is not about human beings, but about the right of an animal to not feel pain for the sake of our pleasure.

In your book you soften the colours and hues of deep saffron. One sees in the daily routine of Indian life so much more of ‘Hindutva’ and less and less of Hinduism. How do you see this with reference to your thinking?

That’s why I wrote the book! (laughs aloud). I wrote this book for anyone who feels the love about Hindu culture broadly. I wrote for those who like gods or its stories — be it Hampi, the Vedas, Bhajans, be it Amar Chitra Katha. The idea is to make a connection between the social and cultural discourse about the world today and Hinduism.

I want to make connections. Hinduism has been failed by political constituencies in India — seculars and the right-wing. You have the secularists who are talking about being tolerant and liberal. What, in my heart, I think Hinduism is all about.

Now the problem is, secular discourse has been so vitiated. The secular outlook on Hinduism is perpetuating 19th century racist Orientalism.

The right-wing Hindutva argument started in the 1920s and has essentially been a nationalist argument. Good or bad, we have to see it in the context that it spread during the colonial divide and rule era.

If you look at the evolution of Hindutva from the 1920s to the present, it had its really dark moments. But today the secular discourse has gone downhill. You see the Hindu discourse, at least in parts, is trying to enlighten itself.

So the way I see it, I want to build a bridge between the Right and Left through my writing. I think the intellectual community has got completely disconnected from ordinary Hindus.

It is argued that this entire secular-communal debate around Hindu identity and politics is actually a lesser conflict between followers of Islam and Hindus in India. It is much more among Hindus.

One section thinks Hinduism should be the centre-point of the nation and our private and public life. This thinking has all shades of people, starting from the Hindu fringe elements, and on the other end are the pseudo-secularists, with a large number of people in between.

Sober Hindus and many South Indians want Hindutva inside their homes, only in their private lives. How do you see it?

I am a South Indian, so I guess I am sober… (laughs). My understanding of Hinduism is that it is plural, tolerant and culturally rich.

The secular critics of Hinduism — like Doniger — all say Hindutva is too monotheistic, mono-vocal. Some of them claim it does not respect plurality and tolerance. It is not because of Hinduism, but the narrow vision because of other reasons like lesser cultural exposure.

There is a need to equip those who feel strongly about identifying as a Hindu. To understand the critical tradition, I want Hindus and others to understand from where critics like Doniger are coming. I want them to know the right reasons for disagreeing with Doniger and for disagreeing with the beef issue.

That is why the book is called ‘Rearming Hinduism’. Look at the cover. The hand of the Hampi statue is broken. For me the picture inspired the book more than the title. I saw the picture and said here is a picture of Narasimha, who looks like sitting down to write and his hand is broken. For me it is about essentially re-arming with a pen.

The pen is mightier than the sword. Rearm with a pen. Sit down. Write your history. Find a voice and thought. Forget the sword.

Is your book written for the NRI audience?

I really wish it will be widely read in India too. I just wanted to create some ideas about a better way to talk about Hinduism. NRIs obviously will like it. I am seen as acceptable both by new Indian immigrants and old ones. I think my work is being seen as building bridges between generations of Indian immigrants and also between India and America.

So what next?

I am saying, reject the American narrative. Now we need to have a more accurate understanding of what it means to be a minority and majority in India. Nominally we can say Hindus are a majority, they are 80 per cent, you can say there are concerns about majoritarianism.

Now, in the global context, in the global age, when migration and ideas and terrorism go across borders so easily, it is not easy to talk about Hindus as being an oppressive majoritarian force on the same scale as what Europe was before.

Hindus are not operating hegemonically as a majority — you yourself said earlier the majority of Hindus probably don’t support the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) on the beef ban.

I am just saying that the understanding of Hindus, Hinduism and Hindutva needs to be nuanced. The real danger in India right now is that identity politics is being stoked in extremely dangerous ways.

The narrative you get about churches, for example, in the mainstream Indian media and the narrative you get in the social media is very different.

The social media has really evolved, as far as the Hindu or the Hindutva community is concerned. They are not simply abusing people anymore, the way it was maybe 20 years ago. People are trying to create a discourse and they are getting better at it.

The discourse in the West about rape in India is so skewed. It is presenting it as an Indian/Hindu cultural problem, even though statistically rapes are more in some parts of the Western world. There they never say it as a cultural problem.

There (in the West) it is usually a law and order problem. But in India, a lot of the problems that are blamed on our culture are really law and order problems.

I mean, it is a miracle! If many other countries had such a strained infrastructure in terms of policing and streets, there would be civil war! For a country whose infrastructure is so strained like India’s, the reason most of the people still look happy and smile is probably because our culture is what helps us survive. It is not the other way around.

So the effect of the BBC documentary on the rape incident, I totally object. I object to the way the criminals were given a pedestal. The BBC has a way of trashing good news from India or positive figures from India.

It is tabloid journalism at its worst. Of course, the government did a foolish thing by banning it (the BBC documentary). The silliest thing they can do. But the problem with the global discourse today, when they made the documentary, they didn’t say explicitly, it is because of Hinduism. But in the world climate today it is immediately being connected with the stereotypes that are coming out of The New York Times, The Guardian, from Slumdog Millionaire, from some extremist Christian propaganda and some parts of the West that think the Hindu male or Hinduism is to blame.

Many Americans and many people in parts of the world today want to appropriate Indian culture. They want yoga, but they say yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism. They want Ayurveda, but they say it’s got nothing to do with Hinduism.

And what is Hinduism? ‘Oh, it’s just a caste’ and ‘being nasty to women.’

At one level my argument isn’t even about Hinduism. It is not about narcissistic pride, it is for the truth.

I teach media studies and we do research and talk about improving representation. We have studies of representation of Muslims, Arabs… there are hundreds of studies. But on Hindus, it is just not been done because we are considered the oppressor community in the academic discourse.

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