(adapted from notes and working draft of my upcoming Ph.D lecture exam at Union Theological Seminary entitled “Dharma as the Flood of Devotion, Justice, and Love: The Possibility and Necessity of Progressive Hinduism”)
I’m an ambiguous Hindu.
Well scratch the record and hold up a second: more accurately I’m a “Hare Krishna”, and more accurately than that I’m an initiated scholar-practitioner into the Gaudiya or Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition of the Hindu/Vedic spiritual tree. I am a member of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the global Vaishnava movement and community started in New York City in 1966 by the modern acarya (scholar, teacher) A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. My home temple, where I live for over three years, is The Bhakti Center, located in the East Village of NYC.
I spent over five years, from 2006-2012, living in Krishna temples in West Virginia and New York City, pursuing a monastic vocation, or what the Vaishnava tradition describes as the brahmacari ashram. Today, over five years into my studies of divinity, theology, and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, approximately halfway into my Ph.D program (with a halfway through my Ph.D program beard going), I identify as a Vaishnava scholar/practitioner with a side of “lapsed Catholic.”
All this is to say that these portions of my human and spiritual identity are those which I feel deeply rooted in. I am a devotee of Krishna, a member of the Vaishnava sangha, or community. (even if I find myself equivocating a bit when someone asks me if I’m a still a “Hare Krishna”-I still certainly am, but there’s both a bit too much casual colloquialism in identifying as such, plus a lot of loaded connotations and assumptions of somewhat justified historical cultism in the Hare Krishna movement, which obscures the depth of the tradition and the living practice)
All of this is included in identifying as a Hindu, but all of this is also very distinct from identifying as a Hindu. Within the Vaishnava sangha, there is a general hesitation, especially amongst non-Indian born and bodied Vaishnavas, to identify publicly also as a Hindu. On a more correct theological level, as it were, the Vaishnava traditions emanates from the teachings of the Vedas and such classical texts as the Bhagavat Purana (Srimad-Bhagavatam), Bhagavad-Gita and The Yoga Sutras. In none of these classical texts, in their original translations and commentaries, will you find the term “Hindu” or an systematic exposition of what Hinduism is. The term Hindu is a relatively recent historical and cultural modifier of the Vedic tradition that was used to signify the people living in the Indian subcontinent along the Sindhus, or Indus, river.
Nevertheless it is too easy, cheap, and aggressively postmodern to claim that Hinduism is a mere invention or obscuration. Hinduism is, more or less, now one of the commonly accepted religious traditions and communities of the global human diaspora. As ambiguous as I may always be about my own Hindu identity, as amorphous as Hinduism may be as a historical and theological layer, object, and label to describe and define the spiritual substance of the Indian subcontinent, nevertheless Hinduism is a distinct reality, a concrete yet fluid religious project, a project which is, as described by the theologian John Thatamanil, a desire for comprehensive qualitative orientation. Religion is qualitative, according to Thatamanil, “because human beings seek orientation in an affective as well as a cognitive key. The project of comprehensive orientation is an erotics-a quest to rightly and properly order our desiring to accord with the world as rightly interpreted.”
For Gaudiya/Chaitanya Vaishnavas, the question of the various levels and complexities of our social and spiritual identity can be understood on the levels of vyavaharika, or relating to ordinary, mundane reality, and paramarthika, or relating to the reality of spiritual, essential, eternal truth. The Gaudiya/Chaitanya Vaishnava scholar/practitioner Howard J. Resnick (Hrdayananda dasa Goswami) points out that “the Vaishnava devotees considered themselves Hindu in a vyavaharika sense, but never in a paramarthikasense. Indeed, from the paramarthika viewpoint, ‘Hindu’ is simply another upadhi, or worldly designation.” Yet this demarcation isn’t so clear or convenient in relation to the astoundingly bewildering challenge of understanding Hindu existence and identity, especially for someone like myself who is not born into the tradition, who has not emerged from the pitrabhoomi (born of and from the soil of the Indian subcontinent), and who dares to take part in the provocative challenge of saying Hinduism isn’t yet progressive enough for the great times of crossroads and chaos which is the 21st Century.
For the last couple of years as well I have been a board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. Sadhana formed, in large part, because many of us who work and live in the Hindu world, struggled to find fellowship and solidarity as Hindus with fellow progressives in spheres of interfaith advocacy. We didn’t see ourselves, by and large, in these spheres and communities, and Sadhana was created as a way to create a progressive Hindu community and movement to fight for the spread of justice, humanity, and love through the lens of our faith and sadhana, or practice, as Hindus.
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.
Hinduism is also certainly no less unique or intense than any other tradition in terms of the internal struggle to define what Hinduism is and who is a Hindu. Sadhana stands as a riposte and a vibrant, humanist alternative to the various forces of Hindutva and other elements of triumphalist Hindu fundamentalism. One of our board members and co-founder Sunita Visvanath writes:
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?”
There is no doubt in my mind that our work in Sadhana is deeply necessary and provocative in the best and most constructive way. However, from my own ground of identity, there remains the paradoxical feeling that the deeper I get into this work, and the more convinced I am of the importance and necessity of it, the more ambiguous my Hindu identity becomes.
There is always the fundamental ambiguity in relation to the paramarthika element of my Vaishnava identity. My ambiguity is amplified by the remarkably and bewildering contentious space Hinduism finds itself in within the religious/theological academy. The contours of the academic battleground over Hinduism revolves around the disputation from indigenous (i.e Indian-born and bodied) Hindu scholars and practitioners that non-indigenous scholars (and not necessarily scholar-practitioners) are misrepresenting, distorting, and destroying the Hindu fabric in their studies and publications. (There’s no easy way to condense this struggle into a blog-sized soundbite-I would suggest exploring the various perspectives and voices surrounding the controversy of Wendy Doniger’s work if you desire to become more familiar with the nature of the conflict)
In the volume Public Hinduisms, which explores the complicated dialogical and dialectical public arena of Hinduism, the religious scholar Shana Sippy deftly uses the ecological metaphor of the variety of natural shapes and tastes of the mango to argue, both in the academic realm and in the broader public realm of contestation, that all Hindu scholars and practitioners of various shades and persuasions would be of better service to each other if we refuse to claim there is only one kind of specific mango. She writes:
All sides have sought acknowledgement from one another. Scholars have been attacked, threatened and experienced suffering at the hands of Hindu groups. Many Hindus have been offended and hurt by scholarly interpretations and the representations of Hinduism found in textbooks, commodities and the media. Agreement may not always be possible but an acknowledgement of the emotions at stake and their validity would be a beginning. An engaged hermeneutics of indeterminacy need not contradict the idea that there is ‘truth’, but it resonates with the Vedic concept that people under- stand truth differently and speak of it in multifarious ways. Who are we to suggest that only we know what is authentic and truthful? Is not that the point of the phrase, Ekam sat viprā bahudhā vadanti ? Or in other words, can we stop fighting over the ‘real’ mango? For those of us who love mangos, there really need to be more than enough to go around.
The work of Sadhana is the work of finding this kind of humanist common sense within the diversity of the Hindu world. The more I think about my own ambiguity as a Hindu, the more that I see that a large part of it is rooted in the great everyday difficulty to find and express this common sense. Making a claim for a certain kind of Hindu expression and identity is never not a kind of titanic, intense, emotional, and often hysterical battle, and to be honest, amidst the many interrelated components of my own work, this battle, while no doubt providing plenty of grist for my doctoral mill, is also often a distraction to the kind of healthy clarity, solitude, and patience one needs to do scholarly work in a constructive and relevant fashion.
I am constantly asking myself: how much do I want to fight for Hinduism? A big part of this personal struggle also comes the fact that I’m not culturally Hindu. I’m a lapsed Catholic with Irish-Sicilian heritage from Detroit. There are many things about Indian/Hindu culture which I certainly resonate with and even adore (including cricket and Indian pickles), but on an everyday level of experience, I have no compulsion to mimic being a Hindu. Frankly the white Americans who maintain a public voice as “White Hindus” are well-meaning folks, but I do not find their example to be particularly nuanced or sensitive to the thin line between healthy pride in being Hindu and the kind of wounded pride which fuels Hindu triumphalism and fundamentalism.
Even within Sadhana‘s mission, we need to develop a more particular space to call in and call for non-Indian American Hindus to join us in our work. I would say in terms of my “white Hindu” identity is that I’m interested to see if we could develop something that reaches out more specifically to Americans who have come to Hinduism but who aren’t originally culturally Hindu. Also it’s not necessarily that I don’t feel “included” in any kind of negative way. Of course naturally our mission will attract anyone who feels aligned with it, but especially in the Bhakti Center community, for example, it’s a really organic mix of skin colors and upbringings and heritages. I think we all hope and believe that as Sadhana grows we would have a similar organic kind of mix.
So there is the reality that a large part of my ambiguity will be resolved as Sadhana becomes better organized, funded, and more inclusive. Yet there remains something much more horrific which fuels my ambiguity, and that is the ghoul of caste and casteism. I now find myself constantly returning and going deeper into the touchstone that is the Dalit reformer, scholar, and spiritual guide Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s most provocative and illuminating work, Annihilation of Caste.
The original text of Annihilation of Caste consists of a speech Ambedkar was meant to give in 1936 to the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Forum for Break-up of Caste), a group that in some ways is a historical and spiritual predecessor to Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. The Mandal refused this speech when they realized that Ambedkar was not going to just unpack the evils of caste and the caste system in a way that edified their own work and identity as the progressive Hindus of the time. The Mandal refused this speech when they realized that Ambedkar was going to make the argument that the annihilation of caste is irrevocably linked to the annihilation of some of the most established and accepted pillars of Hindu society, identity, and theology, including the very fundamental substance of the Hindu shastras, or scriptures.
It becomes very clear that progressive Hindus today need to do much better than this. We need to personally invite Ambedkar, without reservation, and full humility, into our very minds, hearts, and souls, and make our best attempt to answer the questions and challenges he poses to all Hindus, and especially those daring to make a claim for progressive Hinduism.
To call oneself a progressive Hindu and to refuse Ambedkar like the members of the Mandal did is to render oneself as an absolute joke. As Ambedkar himself writes in the opening stanzas to Annihilation of Caste: “I have criticized the Hindus. I have questioned the authority of the Mahatma whom they revere. They hate me. To them I a snake in their garden.” Ambedkar is actually no snake in the garden of the spiritual wisdom of the Indian subcontinent. Instead he is one of the greatest and most fragrant flowers, blooming from the soil enriched by the flood of devotion, justice, and love. If the progressive Hindu does not have the courage or understanding to listen to Ambedkar, to embrace his criticisms, and to admire the ferocity and brilliant clarity of his thought and call, as opposed to hating him and rendering him and his people further invisible, then progressive Hinduism is an impossible goal to achieve, and even worse, a vehicle for the furthering of the atrocity of the caste system.
A progressive Hindu should never feel comfortable about being a Hindu, because the stain and sin of casteism is still so deep and still so ever-present. A progressive Hindu should never be an uncritical student and practitioner, who believes in sastric inerrancy. As Ambedkar makes clear, it is these very shastras from which the evil of caste has emerged. Ambedkar demands of the progressive Hindu:
It is no use seeking refuge in quibbles. It is no use telling the people that the shastras do not say what they are believed to say, if they are grammatically read or logically interpreted. What matters is how the shastras have been understood by the people…You must not only discard the shastras, you must deny their authority, as did Buddha and Nanak. You must have courage to tell the Hindus that what is wrong with them is their religion-the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of caste. Will you show that courage?
The progressive Hindu must face this question and answer it. Do we have the courage to go this far? If, and only if, we take ourselves to this dark night of the soul, will we find the possibility of reconciliation with our brothers and sisters afflicted by the reality of untouchability, and the possibility of resurrecting a sadhana which carries the overflowing esprit of the love of God, of bhakti, into the world.
The dilemma of the progressive Hindu, facing this earth-and-faith shattering challenge head and heart on, comes in then framing a response which remains open to the possibility, the potential, that within the multiple universes of spiritual wisdom which have emerged and continue to emerge from the Indian subcontinent and global diaspora, there is something which can remain Hindu, which can be understood as Hindu, which can be trusted as Hindu, which can be a source of energetic, committed, uncompromising resistance against the atrocity of caste, as well as the interconnected evils of patriarchy and Earth-denying nihilism. The progressive Hindu has to hold this hope out, while also being in complete accordance with Ambedkar that there are elements of shastra, even seemingly cherished elements of the substance of Hindu religion, which if seen to be reinforcing and justifying caste, must be annihilated with complete and unyielding conviction.
This is in many ways just the tip of the iceberg in understanding the struggle of the progressive Hindu, and my own struggle as an ambiguous Hindu. It is a struggle which I cannot ever run away from, even as the question of my own Hindu identity will always lead to an answer of both Yes/No. The late Gaudiya/Chaitanya Vaishnava scholar/practitioner Tamal Krishna Goswami contends that “Hinduism characteristically resists ‘either/or’ approaches, being a religion of ‘both/and.’ One may both believe and practice self-consciously much that others equate with Hinduism and at the same time deny altogether one’s identification with it.” As clear as I can say it, I am always both Hindu and not Hindu. I am a devotee of Krishna fascinated with the power and presence of bhakti, as that which can tear down the walls we have built and want to build between each other and between ourselves and God.
This is the core of my spiritual identity, and this infuses those elements of myself which say yes to my Hindu identity. Yet this core also challenges any essentialist identification I may have with something as fluid and indefinite as what Hinduism actually is or ever could be. The only way I can honestly participate in a progressive Hindu project, or to even attempt to honestly and competently explore and unpack the theological and cultural potential and possibility of a progressive Hinduism, is to remain in this ambiguous space, is to remain always an ambiguous Hindu. To admit this to myself, and I imagine to my direct progressive Hindu colleagues, doesn’t make the work any less frustrating, challenging, and overwhelming. Without at least this sense of basic everyday clarity and honesty however, I cannot even begin to imagine having the courage and compassion to pursue this rocky road. The courage and compassion must come from the clarity and honesty, the clarity and honesty that I am as much of a Hindu as I am not a Hindu.