In these dire times, here is my ardent prarthana (prayer) for 2018.
The eyeless machine continues, "Too often, we search and think we are pure. Unfortunately, this is the mind acting in accordance with its nature. One cannot blame the mind for thinking that it can exist in perfection. Know that perfection is the veil of barbarism, the eternal barrier to universal love. To be a perfect human is to merge the flawed self with every other flawed self, and in realizing that connection is to begin to understand how powerful the Self, the result of all selves in union, really is."
"On this occasion of Diwali, we gather in our homes, temples, and community centers to celebrate the victory of light over darkness."
"Diwali is not simply a festival for us to meet with our families, but also a time for us to reflect on the meaning of dharma. It is variously translated as “duty”, “morality”, “honor”, and “calling”."
"With so much suffering in the world, it behooves the Hindu community to help others escape suffering, to empower them to take hold of their destinies, and fulfill their own dharmas."
Its hard to imagine, in this day and age, and in a wealthy nation like America, that we are still under the mercy of Prithvi Ma (Mother Nature) and how quickly a few hours of rain can devastate an entire city. Hurricane Harvey is an urgent call to all of us, and not the first call of this kind, to do our part to protect our lands and seas, and to stem the tide of climate change. I live in a part of Houston which is completely flooded, but was lucky enough to be able to move to another neighborhood temporarily. I am including photos of the neighborhood I call home, Montrose, sent to me by my neighbors.
Understandably, one might say that we don’t invite non-Hindus and non-Indians to our festivals and celebrations because they might feel uncomfortable or out of place. However, there is a growing tradition of secular alternatives to and secular spaces within religious events, as seen in Diwali and Holi, both of which are steeped in traditional Hindu practices that might ordinarily turn off outsiders due to a lack of familiarity. Yet it is this lack of familiarity that prevents us from engaging in proper acts of solidarity. For more obscure, yet arguably more important events like my thread ceremony, there is little to no knowledge on how it impacts our culture or our practices
The work to create a movement of progressive Hinduism is equal parts always both deeply enlivening and deeply agonizing. It’s important, first and foremost, to clearly state that Hinduism itself is not necessarily more unique or intense than other traditions like Christianity or Islam in terms of the fluidity and diversity underlying the structures of the tradition and community itself, nor is Hinduism necessarily more unique or intense in terms of the presence of, and the need to resist, destructive, stunted fundamentalist elements which warp and box in the tradition’s natural flow.
I will never forget that cold and rainy day in New York in March 2011. I was part of an inter-faith vigil to support the creation of a Muslim cultural centre at lower Manhattan, close to Ground Zero of the September 11, 2001, attack. Just as I began to lament the absence of Hindus at the vigil (as is often the case), I heard a beautiful Hindu prayer over a megaphone. But to my horror, I realised the prayer was being sung by a saffron-clad man on the other side of the police line, who was protesting because he believed that to build a Muslim centre and mosque close to Ground Zero was to dishonour the hundreds that died at the hands of Muslim terrorists on 9/11.
Until then, my Hinduism had been private and my activism public. But on that day, I vowed to never again allow someone to use Hinduism to preach hatred in my presence without countering them saying: “Not in my name.”
But even as I write this piece, I come across news of yet another lynchingin India – this time of a 15-year-old Muslim boy died after he and his brothers were allegedly attacked by a group of 10-12 Hindu men on a train.
This is not the Hinduism I recognise, or accept.
In 2011, a few of us created the group Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, headquartered in New York, because we could no longer bear that there was no politically progressive Hindu voice in the face of a growing and rampantly Islamophobic and casteist Hindu nationalist movement. Sadhana’s founders and members are Hindus who were raised to believe that the heart of our religion is pluralistic. We were taught to embrace the teachings of oneness of all (ekatva), compassion and nonviolence to all beings and all the universe (ahimsa). We have worked hard over the years – writing, speaking, marching, organising events and holding Hinduism classes for children that are grounded in the teachings of social justice at the heart of Hindu texts – and have been recognised for our efforts.
In the years since we began, our numbers have grown, but not nearly enough.
What has, meanwhile, grown in monstrous proportions in this period is the movement of Hindu nationalists.
Amid the growing incidents of lynching, in recent weeks we have come across several articles by writers and intellectuals in India asking the same question in various ways: Where are the progressive Hindus?
In the Wire, Harsh Mander asked: “Where are India’s Dissenting Hindus?”
In the Hindustan Times, Ramchandra Guha wrote:
“Hindu liberalism, once so vigorous and on the ascendant, is increasingly besieged, as the leadership of the community passes into the hands of bigots and reactionaries. Having (to quote Gandhi) once lived in a house whose windows were kept open to let the breeze from outside come in freely, having once (to invoke Tagore) gloried in the illumination of a lamp lit anywhere in the world, Hindu leaders are now turning inwards, looking backwards.
And large sections of the community are following their lead. Thus ever larger numbers of Hindus ‘seem to have locked their sensibilities with a huge padlock and have thrown the key away’. Besides, ‘it has become difficult to open that lock. If you choose to break it open you are considered an enemy of Hinduism and an anti-Hindu person’.”
Ananya Vajpeyi, in a piece for Scroll.in, spoke of the erosion of public empathy and warned, “Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je peed paraai jaane re. Soon there will be no one of that description left in the majoritarian Hindu Rashtra.”
Also on Scroll.in, Samar Halarnkar wrote in the context of the response to recent lynchings: “But this is not just about the conservative Hindu Right. What is not in evidence among most Hindus is condemnation, sympathy for those lynched or public expressions of unity with minorities.”
Speaking up as a Hindu
In my experience, everyone speaking up for human rights in India, even if their name sounds Hindu, is loath to identify as one. And anyone identifying publicly as a Hindu, almost without exception, supports the idea of Hindutva.
I have reached out to numerous progressive Hindu-born Indian thinkers and activists, including some of those quoted above, asking if they would identify as a Hindu when they critique and condemn Hindutva. They either explain politely that they are not religious, or say that they are avowed secularists and to speak up as a Hindu in India would alienate minority communities, cause non-Hindu allies to mistrust them, and compromise their commitment to secularism.
Generally, Indian Leftists and progressives react to the notion of a progressive Hindu movement with respectful scepticism. I am sometimes told that Hinduism and Hindus are irredeemable because our scriptures are casteist and elitist at their core.
The result is that practicing Hindus who are against the violent Islamophobia of the Hindu right feel alienated from and unwelcome in the human rights movements in India. Keeping this massive group out strikes me as a strategic, ethical and practical blunder, if the desired goal is justice for all.
The response that many practicing Hindus have to the deep suspicion of Hinduism and Hindus on the part of Leftists and progressives is an understandably defensive one: all Leftists and progressives are accused of being anti-Hindu or Hindu-phobic. The anger that ought to be directed at Hindu nationalists ends up being directed at Leftists and progressives. Any critique of Hindutva is seen as a critique of Hinduism itself and of all Hindus.
Asking “Where are the progressive or dissenting Hindus?” and bemoaning the rise of violent Hindutva is no longer enough. It is imperative we work together to open the eyes of practicing Hindus. Many may be quietly living their lives, praying rather than protesting – perhaps too afraid, too apathetic, or just too worn out to rise up against Hindutva. I believe many are grieving the deaths of those lynched at the hands of Hindus, but just feel powerless. We need to include them, mobilise them, inspire them to take a stand.
When progressive Jews (both practicing religious Jews and those who aren’t religious) advocate for Palestinian rights and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, they do so as Jews who refuse to cede the public voice of Judaism to right-wing Islamophobic Jews who are committing human rights atrocities.
I call on every Hindu Indian who cares about justice, whether they are religious or not, to speak up as Hindu, and refuse to cede Hinduism and the Hindu public voice to those who want to make India a Hindu Rashtra.
In the words of a wise man from another faith, Rabbi Hillel, from 2000 years ago: “If not now, then when? And if not us, then who?”
Diversity of religions and cultures are no strangers to me. I grew up with a Muslim Father, and a Hindu Mother. I’ve heard melodious Adzans in Mosques, and harmonious Bhajans in Temples. When I left City hall that evening, the last performance of the Tabla, and Guitar lingered in my mind—two completely different instruments coming together to create this beautiful sound. At first glance, it might have seemed like the different sounds from these instruments would have clashed, but instead, they complimented each other, highlighting the beauty in each other’s own unique sound. People and religions are the same in that way. Our differences may at first seem like they will conflict with each other and clash, but a closer examination would show that they do more to highlight the beauty of our uniqueness.
We are clear in rejecting caste—and thus rejecting Brahmanism—as an essential component of our Hinduism. Like Sadhana advisory board member Prof. Anantanand Rambachan, we argue that there is a "theological vision at the heart of Hinduism", based on ideals of ekatva, ahimsa, and seva, "that invalidates the assumptions of inequality, impurity, and indignity that are the foundations of caste belief and practice."
Most importantly, we were determined not to build Sadhana in reaction to more conservative voices and forces in the world. Rather, we would root this work in our understanding of core Hindu teachings: the oneness of all regardless of race, caste, sex, sexual orientation, etc (ekatva); the notion that a life of service (karma yoga) is a valid path to God; the goal of ahimsa (nonviolence/minimizing of suffering and environmental degradation); and dharma (prioritization of righteous action without desire and attachments). We named ourselves Sadhana because “sadhana” means “the practice of faith,” and we want to be an organization of action rather than just words.
We wish for our oppressions to be recognized — post-election, we are reminded of how our brownness defines our experiences as Americans. We are affected by hate by the systems, institutions and policies of white supremacy, misogyny, racism, economic inequality, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. We are expected to speak perfect, unaccented English, even though for many of us it is not our first language. Our cultures and religions are appropriated and disrespected. Our cultures are considered “exotic” and “exciting,” though we fight to preserve them every day. We thereby reject this commodification, objectification and tokenization of our cultures and our bodies.
Two life-changing events recently happened to my body and consciousness, and both were unforgettable. First was marrying my past life’s soul mate, and second was shaving my head. I have never been given a smile and frown at the same time, so many times and by so many people ever in my life. “Congratulations! What happened to your hair?” See, many Indo-Caribbeans tie a person’s hair to their health, and to have little or none of it at my age means you must have a terminal illness. What was worse was the blame that my wife received for a choice I made on my own. It was shocking, but forced me to confront a power that when I understood it, created a clandestine persuasion of those who remained questioners. The more I began owning the new Rohan, the karmic propagandist, the more Rohan’s emerged from within it.
I’ve been called a “dougla” so many times throughout my life because of my hair. My hair gets a lot of attention – it is a massive fluff of soft curls. When relatives and friends used to refer to me as “dougla,” I thought that the term was synonymous with being of half-Indian, half-African descent. In Guyana, where my parents are from, “dougla” is a term used to describe those who appear to be biracial. However, like the word “mulatto,” “dougla” is often considered derogatory. In Guyana, even to this day, racial tensions exist among the two primary ethnicities of the nation. These tensions have run high for decades, in part due to political turmoil and in part due to competing migrant experiences; Africans migrated as slaves in the late 1600s and Indians as indentured servants in the early 1800s. Many Indo-Guyanese harbor deep seated resentment towards Afro-Guyanese and vice versa, stemming as far back as British colonialization. Calling someone a “dougla” therefore, can be akin to using profanity.
Sadhana is commemorating International Women’s Day by standing in solidarity with Radhika Vemula. We share her grief due to the loss of her son Rohith to casteist discrimination; we condemn the emotional and physical attacks on her integrity and person she has suffered at the hands of police more than once. Sadhana honors Radhika Vemula and pledges solidarity with her, and all those fighting against caste discrimination. We call on Hindus in India and around the world to join us in standing firmly against caste and casteism. If we are all one, interconnected and equally connected to the divine, then we all should have equal access to justice. Join us in declaring that it is unacceptable, unjust and un-Hindu to discriminate on the basis of caste.
The mind cannot begin to fathom how much chaos surrounds us today. As a nation grows weary with divide and mistrust, many of us can barely muster the energy to stand at the forefront of so many issues, let alone understand the depravity of injustice and what it is capable of doing. The nation that taught me growing up that pluralism is key to the development and prosperity of all people is now being challenged by the likes of a monolithic and fervorous nationalism that seeks to blame 'the other', hate 'the other', and hurt 'the other'.
Vandalism and violence have gripped many communities for decades, even centuries now, at the hands of ignorant and equally fearful people who misunderstand others while wanting their own safety and stability. The Jewish community has been one of many communities in 2017 to bears witness to such horrible treatment as over 100 synagogues and Jewish community centers have received calls of bomb threats that have led to evacuations and a sharp increase in the need for added security and intervention from federal agencies. As if this was not enough to show a clear message of hate-mongering towards a specific community, 2 Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia had hundreds of gravesites desecrated and damaged in what could be considered a blunt message...
Hate has left any stone unturned; the depravity of moral consciousness does not even let the dead rest in peace. Neither you nor your deceased loved ones are welcome here.
The level of cowardice and audacity that has emerged from the shadows has no place in a society as diverse and inclusive as the United States of America. More importantly, these harsh words and actions against innocent people defy our duty as Hindus and Americans.
Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus offers our most sincere prayers to the 75 men, women, and children who were killed and the hundreds who were injured earlier this week at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh, Pakistan.
Pakistani author Haroon Khalid writes, "While claiming responsibility for the attack, ISIS called it a Shia gathering. They couldn’t be more wrong. Religious devotees at the shrine of this 12th century saint cannot be compartmentalised into categories through which ISIS sees the world. To his devotees, [Lal Shahbaz Qalandar] is not a Muslim or a Shia saint. He is a peer, who cannot be constrained by confines of religious boundaries. To the Sindhi Hindus, forming the largest religious minority in the country, he is their peer as much as he is the peer for Muslims.
There is perhaps no other shrine in the country that captures the essence of religious syncretism like the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In his courtyard, it feels as if the riots of Partition never happened, as if Sindhi Hindus were never forced to abandon their land, as if Christian settlements in Punjab had never been burned after alleged cases of blasphemy. The courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents a different world, a world that once existed but has slowly disappeared … The attack is not on the shrine but on this worldview which does not divide humanity into simplistic separate categories." (https://scroll.in/article/829667/pakistan-suicide-bombing-why-isis-feels-so-threatened-by-sindhs-lal-shahbaz-qalandar-shrine)
Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus is participating in a collaborative interfaith effort today, February 9th 2017, to mobilize as many people as possible to call US Attorney Preet Bharara and ask for a full federal investigation into the murder of Mohamed Bah. The number to call is 212-637-2200.
I am a mother of three boys – two are grown and one is still a child. I know what it is to give birth to a boy and raise him to manhood.
On January 12th, I participated in a vigil for another mother’s son who was stolen from her, a woman whose heart is shattered. I hugged Hawa Bah tightly, and felt her whole body shake in my arms with grief.
When I was a toddler, my masi (mother’s sister) gave me a hard back of the Stories from Panchatantra, a book of moral tales where different animals, humans and some of the gods interact.
There is one story that is particularly relevant for our current times. The Four Friends is about a mouse, crow, tortoise and deer. One day, deer was missing, so the other three friends went in search of her, and found her trapped in a hunter’s net, so they helped her free from the net. As they were leaving, the hunter came back, and the four friends fled, however, tortoise was not fast enough to hide, so the hunter grabbed him, and put him in a bag.
This is the Thanksgiving after an election result which has opened the floodgates of hate crimes and incidents, and has filled our immigrant and minority communities with nothing short of terror. The reported hate crimes since election day are now numbered at 701, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Sunday after the election, a group of parents of kids attending Brooklyn Bala Vihar, a Hindu Sunday school where I teach along with other parents, were spat at by a man who said, “I don’t like Indians and Pakistanis.” And a Brooklyn Heights playground where my kids played often when they were small, was defaced with swastikas.
Reflections of a Humble Karma Yogi
Guest presentation by Sunita Viswanath in
“Religions in the City” class at Union Theological Seminary, October 26, 2016
My life’s work has been in women’s rights, but like most left-leaning social justice-oriented Hindus, for most of my life, I kept my work very separate from my religious life. I am not a scholar practitioner, but an ardent activist practitioner, and it is with great humility that I share my journey.