"Letter to a Young American Hindu"

From the Bhagavad Gita to California sixth-grade textbooks, a guided tour of the battle-lines defining Indian cultural identity.

Published May 25, 2007 4:32PM (EDT)

I was alarmed to learn yesterday that in 2005-06 a fierce battle, complete with religious and political subtexts, raged over representations of Hindu culture and India in California sixth-grade history textbooks. I consider myself a reasonably well-informed person, and it just so happens that my daughter was a sixth-grader in a California public school during that very year, but I did not have the remotest inkling of the struggle. I find this disconcerting.

But better late than never. I stumbled upon the California textbook controversy while reading a fascinating essay, "Letter to a Young American Hindu," by Vijay Prashad, posted to the Pass the Roti on the Left Hand Side blog two days ago. Prashad, a prolific author and professor of history at Trinity College in Connecticut, covers the incident in the context of a masterly exploration of the contemporary politics of Hindu identity.

"Letter to a Young American Hindu" is, more than anything, a passionate and eloquent broadside against right-wing Hindu nationalism and fundamentalism, forces that are as alive in the United States as they are in India. Prashad is a self-avowed Marxist, and his essay, although not overtly socialist, is very much suffused with a spirit of opposition to the reactionary forces striving to define Hinduism for their own "patriotic" purposes. How the World Works has encountered the intolerant Hindu right before, in their attempts to censor history they do not like: see, "In Karnataka, the Sword of Tipu Sultan Still Cuts" and "History and Hindu Nationalism: A Call to Arms." But until now I had yet to be introduced to someone who could connect all the dots -- from the Bhagavad Gita to Gandhi to California textbooks.

The essay is not meant for my eyes; it is aimed, as its title promises, at the young Hindu in America struggling to understand his or her own culture, and the forces attempting to shape that act of comprehension. But even for someone like me, it is fantastically useful, a key unlocking an entire universe of meaning. I understand that it is biased, and politically controversial -- the heated debate that immediately erupted in the comments section of Pass the Roti is all the testimony one needs to the lack of anything close to a consensus supporting Prashad's worldview. But that doesn't mean the "Letter" is a document that can be easily dismissed.

The full essay should be read in toto, but here are some excerpts that may inspire...

The genesis of Prashad's own sense of morality:

My morality came from elsewhere than religion, from recognition of the pain in the world. Religious teachers whom I encountered sometimes talked about this suffering, but they didn't seem to have more than charity to offer to those who suffered. It struck me that while religious festivals were beautiful, religions themselves were not adequate as a solution to modern crises. But religion, as I came to understand while reading Gandhi many years later, can play a role in the cleansing of public morality. In 1940, Gandhi wrote, "I still hold the view that I cannot conceive politics as divorced from religion. Indeed, religion should pervade every one of our actions. Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral government of the universe. It is not less real because it is unseen. This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. It does not supersede them. It harmonizes them and gives them reality." In other words, politics should not be simply about power struggles, but it must be suffused with moral concerns. It is not enough to win; one must strive to create, what Gandhi called, Truth in the world.

The complexity of India:

That complexity is something that Gandhi and others well understood. In 1992, the Anthropological Society of India published the first of an ongoing series of monographs with the omnibus title,"The People of India." In this volume, the late K. S. Singh laid out the basic findings of this immense study of the Indian people. There are, he wrote, 4635 identifiable communities in India, "diverse in biological traits, dress, language, forms of worship, occupation, food habits, and kinship patterns. It is all these communities who in their essential ways of life express our national popular life." Strikingly, the scholars working under Singh's direction discovered the immense overlap across religious lines. They identified 775 traits that related to ecology, settlement, identity, food habits, marriage patterns, social customs, social organization, economy and occupation. What they found was that Hindus share 96.77 percent traits with Muslims, 91.19 percent with Buddhists, 88.99 percent with Sikhs, 77.46 percent with Jains (Muslims, in turn, share 91.18 percent with Buddhists and 89.95 percent with Sikhs). Because of this, Singh pointed out that Indian society was like a "honeycomb," where each community is in constant and meaningful interaction with every other community. The boundaries between communities are more a fact of self-definition than of cultural distinction. This Gandhi knew implicitly. Unity was a fact of life, not a conceit of secular theory.

The grand conclusion:

The Hinduism that cares more for its reputation than for its relevance is no longer a living tradition. It has become something that one reveres from a distance. To keep it alive, Hinduism requires an engagement with its history (which shows us how it evolves and changes) and with its core concepts (what we otherwise call philosophy). "Every formula of every religion has, in this age of reason, to submit to the acid test of reason and universal justice if it is to ask for universal assent" Gandhi wrote in 1925. "Error can claim no exemption even if it can be supported by the scriptures of the world." Submit all faith to experiments, to see how they are able to assist one in the messy world we live in: to detach faith into self-indulgence is to patronize those traditions. That's the nature of experimentation, a far better approach to faith traditions than empty reverence.

The choice lies between giving over the traditions you love to the forces of hatred who might masquerade as the defenders of tradition; or to the force within you, and around you, a force of love and ecstasy, passion and pain to transform the world. What would you have?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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