By Cristopher Fici
This 21st Century is having a Hindu moment.
Yoga, meditation, karma — these are concepts which have entered American consciousness and life in many diverse ways, but what do they really mean and where do they actually come from? How does the rich spiritual culture of Hinduism inform the identity, ministry, and calling of those involved in Hindu practices? More problematically, how do we deal with the horrific history and reality of caste discrimination of Dalit and other “untouchable” peoples, which echoes the leaking sore of slavery and racial discrimination marring the social body of America?
How do we deal with a rise in Hindu fundamentalist arrogance that comes hand-in-hand with an increasing devotion to neoliberal principles — the same principles destroying indigenous wisdom and planetary integrity across the Indian subcontinent? This fundamentalist arrogance is the dark secret behind the romance of India’s willful self-assertion upon the global scene, a willful self-assertion that claims to be the legacy of Gandhi’s movement.
The global Hindu community, while inextricably rooted in the peoples and soil of India and their diaspora, can’t be superficially contained or constrained by boundary or ideology, or any kind of classification of race, gender, sexuality, or caste. Since the 1950’s and 1960’s, the seeds of Hindu culture, spirituality, and experience originally planted by the likes of Emerson and Thoreau have blossomed in the Western world, cultivated further by the bravery and determination of the potpourri of different Indian Hindu gurus who understood the potential of the moment at hand by extending their personal presence, mission, and vision into the Western world.
It is no longer unusual to meet a person raised in Western/Judeo-Christian culture who now identifies as a Hindu. I am one of these people, a Midwestern boy raised Catholic — now “lapsed” Catholic — who identifies as a Hindu in the Caitanya Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition.
I have danced in Sri-Mayapur-dhama in West Bengal, helping to fulfill the prophecy of the great Gaudiya Vaisnava saint and scholar Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, resonating with hundreds and thousands of others like me and unlike me the holy names of the Divine: Jaya Sacinandana! Gaura-Hari! I have been openly embraced by the most loving, just, and ecumenical peoples, teachings and vibrations of Hinduism — and I have embraced all of this back. But in this warm embrace I am beginning to understand that my idiosyncratic spiritual identification comes with a distinct and intense responsibility and obligation to respond with great compassion, courage and conviction to the presence of religious fundamentalism, the presence of bodily and social oppression, and the lack of concern for the health and well-being of the Earth herself which exists within my own Gaudiya Vaisnava community and within the larger Hindu community itself.
I find myself, as a budding theologian-scholar-practitioner, undergoing a kind of epistemological crisis. Hindu scholar Jeffrey D. Long, in his study A Vision For Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism, describes this as “a crisis which occurs when a tradition has to cope with new ideas and circumstances that call one or more of its constitutive claims into question.” Certainly my microcosmic experience of this crisis reflects the macrocosmic experience of the strange in-between space Hinduism finds itself in the 21st Century. The contemporary Hindu person and their community find themselves in between the home-spaces of tradition and the highways of the post-modern. We find ourselves in-between expectations of the dress, taste, and politics of our ancestors and the compulsions of a turbo-capitalist world that expects us to worship at the altar of consumption. We find ourselves between a past carved in eternal stone that gives us a fixed and perfect vision of reality and a future full of the anarchic uncertainty of a planet in the throes of climate change.
In this “third space” of personal, social, cultural, bodily, and spiritual hybridity — described by post-colonial philosopher Homi Bhabha as a space where the signs, images, and assumptions of our culture and faith can be “appropriated, translated, rehistoricized, and read anew” — many progressive Hindus wonder and agonize over how to translate the profundity of our spiritual culture and tradition to the urgent demands of social justice, love, and harmony which now enflame the bodies of the oppressed and the oppressed body of the Earth herself.
This is doubly complex for someone like me. As a White, Western Hindu, my critiques of the hierarchy of brahminical culture and my suspicion of the economic and religious opinions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi can easily be seen as cultural imperialism, the very trigger of all historical insecurities for India and her peoples.
The primary questions I face as a white Hindu-American in the 21st Century are concerned with how I can represent and embody the best of Hindu spirit and culture — without falling prey to my own biases, privileges, and misconceptions. How can my aspirational embodiment of the best of Hindu spirit and culture be of service for the twin and entwined pillars of material and spiritual liberation?
How, then, can I transcend the critique of those, who may or may not be accurately described as Hindu fundamentalists and/or nationalists, who would deny me my particular Hindu identity and the critical responsibility which comes from that identity?
In the following set of essays, I will explore the paradoxes, pratfalls, and potentials of being a white Hindu-American in the 21st Century. This exploration will be grounded in three specific contexts: my own identification as a Caitanya Gaudiya Vaisnava and my ongoing experiential study and understanding of the deep radical liberatory elements of the Vaisnava tradition.
My experience as an active member of Sadhana: The Coalition of Progressive Hindus will also enliven this exploration, especially from the active justice work that defines our experience of what it means to be a progressive Hindu. Last and certainly not least, as a student of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, I have the profound honor of participating in the Mahatma Gandhi/Martin Luther King seminar being led this semester by Cornel West and John Thatamanil, two of the leading contemporary theological/philosophical voices of our time. West and Thatamanil will lead our dissection of the relation between race and caste-based oppression and the liberatory and living inspiration of Gandhi and King.
I hope that the exploration of my identity and hybridity will help the reader to further and deeper understand their own identity, their possible hybridity, and the potential within that identity and hybridity to allow them to participate further in the ongoing creation of the “single garment of destiny” of justice, love, and harmony at the heart of the living vision and mission of both King and Gandhi.