Why Hindu-Americans Don’t Stand Up For Hindus

One of my earliest memories of my childhood is watching the Mahābhārat with my dad. After we dropped my mom off for her night shift at the factory, we would return home, and a black rectangle filled with film would catapult me into a confusingly wondrous world. From the magical arrows whizzing through battlefields to the terrifying image of Time, the narrator of the epic, transposed across a cosmic abyss, I was glued to a story I couldn’t truly grasp but loved at the same time. I could barely understand what the characters were saying (I spoke Gujarati at home, not the hyper Sanskritized Hindi in the serial) and was too young to read the English subtitles fast enough. I would constantly interrupt my dad, many times to his annoyance, but he would still lovingly explain these stories that would make an imprint on me for the rest of my life.

 

As my life passed, I would see so many of the stories from the Mahābhārat play out in my life and in the world around me. The blind love of a long-gone Dhritarāshtra came alive with my parents, who showed me love, despite my bad behavior, my failures, and my unending ingratitude, one of my greatest flaws. Their love was uncompromisingly unequivocal, and I was an unworthy Duryodhan. I saw the struggles and rise of “low-born” Karna with my own family, as we grew from a family who couldn’t even afford to spare money to buy a popsicle from the ice cream truck that taunted me every day as it passed by my house to slavishly building a motel business in the middle of nowhere to selling it and owning a nice single-family “American Dream” home with many fewer worries than we grew up with. And perhaps most importantly, I saw the devotion or bhakti of Rādhā through my family’s Hindu faith and regular attendance to our local temple – a tradition that grounded us through tough times and brought a sense of community, fellow “gopis” perhaps to share our lives and love with.

Those evenings watching the words of Vyāsa transform into images will forever be special to me. For those nights would fuel the dreams of my days as I grew up connected to a timeless culture and values. And they would doubly serve me when I learned of the nightmarish state of my fellow Hindu diaspora with regards to their views on Hinduism and Hindus.

In The Battlefield

To find the answer to the titular question, I did a bit of “field reporting” one weekend with my fellow Hindu-American friends starting off with a simple question:

Why do you stand up for Black, Hispanic, and Muslim people for the injustices they face, but not for Hindus?

The most common responses were along the lines of:

    • “What injustices faced by Hindus are you talking about?”
    • “I honestly don’t know what type of issues we face, besides normal ‘brown’ discrimination here.”
    • “I’ve never seen any from the media I consume” A general theme of genuine innocent unawareness was what I saw.

So I prodded further and mentioned the atrocities Hindus face in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and even parts of India. Yet Still, the answer was “I literally never heard this before.”

Then came a visible sense of discomfort, and I know why. My question then silently morphed to “Why don’t you stand up for your own people” in their minds. I didn’t need to spell it out, but it turned into those very cutting words – why don’t you stand up for your own…

Bangladeshi Population Statistics – 1971 Contained A Civil War Where The Pakistani Military Is Said To Have Conducted A Genocide Targeting Bangladeshi Hindus

The rapes, the forcible conversions, the killings, the discrimination, the demographic collapse all signaling horrors that didn’t have any similar magnitude of rivals in India. The initial response was denial or wishing away the numbers I gave them: “Oh how do you know all that happened to them?!” “Maybe they converted willingly!”

I mentioned CAA and the refugees begging to return to the land of Dharma. Denial then became equivalating.

“Well, this all probably happens in India too!”

I kept unpacking this. I ask them, “why do you think this way?” Note – I tried to avoid a confrontational tone as much as possible, just neutral questioning so as to not pry open any vitriolic reaction. They talked about their parents’ hysteria over Pakistan, their WhatsApp forward fueled hatred, etc… I tried to explain to them that the equivalence wasn’t there. That the magnitude of what happens to Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh is much worse presently and historically than what happens to non-Hindu minorities in India.

Pakistani Hindus Begging For Refuge To Immigrate To India.

But they just weren’t having it.

“I don’t believe you. India is just as bad”

Now, India is of course not perfect, now or historically. But it is a work in progress. It is diversity in action in a way very few countries (The United States and Brazil are the only ones that come to mind) can compete with. India is pluralism, both its virtues and flaws.

By this point, we linked up with a few other friends and the conversation dropped. But let’s continue this theme with a few other independent observations and anecdotes.

Misinformation Warfare

Modi equals Trump – this fantastically false idea is an atomic bomb on one’s perception of India. A very simple notion that has a number of externalities. Hindu-Americans are fairly “woke” from my personal experience, and Indian-Americans heavily lean Democrat. Standard diatribes against “45” are common when talking politics with my Hindu-American friends. I don’t really care as I don’t support him, but the Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) gets tiring after a while.

Policy-wise (you know, the actual actionable impact that changes people’s lives and futures), Modi has done more socialism in one term than Bernie Sanders will ever do in his lifetime. The comparison fails at almost every metric:

Right Wing, Left Wing, “nationalism”, “conservative” and other meaningless labels are even more irrelevant when thrown into the ocean of Indian politics. They sink into nothingness. They’re pointless.

But to many Hindu-Americans, “Right-Wing”, “Nationalist”, “conservative” are terms that immediately make them see red, and “RACIST” pops into their mind in big white letters. I don’t care about your 14 syllable ideology. People see things through simple lenses. It doesn’t matter what Modi and Trump actually do to a lot of people; it matters how they are characterized.

Fuck your nuance. Damn it to hell.

Hassan Minhaj told me what I need to know in a 12-minute 37-second segment on a now-canceled Netflix show. I trust the consistently wrong coverage of the New York Times – yes the same one that complained why more Indian people aren’t dying of coronavirus. Additionally, it’s quite clear that “South Asian” organizations in the US have explicitly blacked out mentioning these atrocities as it would hurt their respective lobbies.

With community organizations, media, and celebrities silent – how can Hindu-Americans be aware?

American Dharma

Now let’s talk about religiousness.

Hindu-Americans have some of the highest retention rates of religious identification in the US.

I can’t judge others’ religiosity, but from what I’ve anecdotally seen. Hinduism is many times a more aesthetic/background thing than practice for Hindu-Americans. Sometimes it seems samosa and chicken tikka masala have more weight in their culture than pujas and scripture. Now token ritual involvement happens every time Diwali rolls around, but to me, Hindu-Americans really just aren’t “self-aware.” Funny as Hinduism places so much emphasis on self-discovery and reflection.

Another thing – explicit politics is pretty far removed at American Hindu temples versus other diaspora places of worship. Political rhetoric that’s common at other religious places isn’t a mainstay in mandirs; and honestly, I am glad this is the case. Religion to me is more about immediate community and individual practice rather than political machinations across the Atlantic. I’ve seen firsthand how the ugliness of politics warps American religious communities where identity realpolitik replaces spirituality for many of these “religious adherents.” Where insulting the “Other” is more important than praising the Omniscient.

Ideally, religion would be separate from politics. But we can’t deny a battlefield once we’re on it. Hopefully, temples stay out of the fray of such rhetoric, but Hindu-Americans outside of it strengthen.

So in conclusion, the answer to the question:

1. Genuine unawareness of Hindu injustices driven by media, community, and political organizational blackout. 2. Right-wing and left-wing notions don’t translate well across Indian and American politics. Many Hindu-Americans see red once “right-wing” is mentioned. 3. Religion and politics don’t mix at Hindu temples unlike other religions.

The Craven

 

Now while we’ve answered our query, I want to add an addendum to a vile specimen I’ve seen recently amongst the diaspora. Aping their equally contemptible cousins back in the subcontinent, this emergence of Indian-Americans who speak in the poisonous tongues of India’s elites is now slowly seeping into mainstream American culture.

They seek to transplant American history and dynamics onto India just as blindly as India’s elites have over the decades. Equating Hinduism itself to white supremacy and fascism and defining it solely by casteism are standard affairs for this type. They have no ingenuity in their discourse. The blueprint of their commentary is amateur oppression Olympics. Their foundations are self-loathing. Their walls are an echo-chamber blocked off by the soulless skyscrapers of coastal elites on one side and the great blue filter of social media on the other. Their roofs are paid for by verbal prostitution. Their material is so common, yet they have a profound disdain for commoners. They are copy + paste. Many are essentially white progressives with a sprinkling of turmeric and cumin for empty color and scant flavor.

They are from South Asia, not the Indian Subcontinent. Their culture can be summed up into samosas, chicken tikka masala, a few “South Asian” outfits, and henna. Depth is an allergy to them so their roots are forever undiscovered but much-maligned. They will go out of their way to pin every misfortune and misery inflicted upon other minorities as purely due to economics or European imperialism, but will not hesitate to blame the downfalls of India solely on Hinduism and its indigenous culture. On the off chance that they navigate blame to the British, they will remain mum on the equally or even worse atrocities of the Mughals and their hate-filled predecessors. Their silence screams at the scars and ruins of their ancestors’ temples, all to preserve this mythic “solidarity” amongst fellow “South Asians.”

As they watch their fellow Indian-Americans break all barriers, their reflex is dismissal. When our minority becomes model, they relentlessly attack their own people instead of appreciating and applauding. Excuses for success rather than attributing it to hustle and immigrant sweat. They write paragraphs lamenting how every Indian-American has come to America with a silicon laced gold brick in their mouths, a silver stethoscope around their necks, or a platinum high caste thread over their shoulder. They wash away the struggles of immigrants with haughty commentary and exhibit a saffron-tinged white guilt. They seek to be the oppressed lamenting at the impending “fascism” that is perpetually 1 Republican representative away from arriving and simultaneously the oppressor as they claim Hinduism itself is oppression. They cloak their jibes in a mythic and undefined “Brahminism” where they attribute normal Hindu practices like vegetarianism, innocent rituals, and practices performed by all castes and communities as part of a grand conspiracy of “Brahminical supremacy;” the irony being that many of these commentators are Brahmins or high caste themselves! Due to their skin color and last name, they believe they are the chosen voice for over a billion other Indians and millennia-old civilization.

Essentially, they care about what India looks like, not what it is. They seek approval at any cost. But either way and in the end, why should they expose their necks in courage when they can swallow their pride, forever remaining craven?

Reposted from The Emissary. Follow me on Twitter!

On Ahmadiyyas and Jains

One of my favourite examples to demonstrate why Hindus and Muslims are like chalk and cheese (or cheese and chalk- no value judgment implied by the metaphor!) is their respective treatment of Jains and Ahmadiyyas.

We all know about the plight of Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a story in the media on Ahmadiyya persecution. To Indian eyes, this can be quite baffling. The Ahmadiyyas reserve a highly exalted position for Prophet Muhammad. By all socio-cultural markers: naming and dressing conventions, eating habits, praying patterns etc., they appear “Muslim”. Yet certain theological red lines are crossed- including the recognition of Indic icons such as Buddha and Krishna as prophets, but most importantly the perceived violation of the doctrine of Khatam-un-Nabiyeen: the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. A clear case of orthodoxy trumping orthopraxy. This hostility towards the Ahmadiyyas is not a recent phenomenon and can be traced back to the views of the founding fathers of Pakistan, such as Allama Iqbal.

From a Hindu perspective, this can appear bizarre- ethnic Punjabi “Muslims” who share so much in common in both cultural and kinship terms are so hostile towards each other due to some theological disputes. There are more consequential theological disputes within sects of Hinduism. For example, within Vaishnavism, there is the Dvaita Vedanta school founded by the 13th century scholar-saint Madhavacharya which believes that the Divine (i.e. Vishnu or the supreme being) is distinct from the individual. The better known Advaita Vedanta school founded by Adi Shankaracharya is Monistic (i.e. believes in the essential unity of the Divine or Vishnu and the individual). From a theological perspective, these ruptures are perhaps as radical as those between Sunni Muslims and Ahmadiyyas. Yet, the average modern Hindu, even someone who self-identifies strongly as a Vaishnavite, would find the notion of being hostile to other Vaishnavites on the basis of doctrinal differences to be bizarre and laughable.

Continue reading On Ahmadiyyas and Jains

On caste and a new Hinduism

Some of my Hindu American friends online engage in a defense of attacks on Hinduism by denying the necessary connection between caste and Hinduism. Since religion is made by men, this is true on the face of it. There is nothing necessary in any religion.

But, Hinduism is a religion strongly associated with the Indian subcontinent. Far more than Islam is necessarily associated with Arabia! (the greatest doctors of Islam were not Arabs, but more often Persians!) And caste is strongly associated with the Indian subcontinent. This is not a transitive relation, but the affinity is clear. It has hard to think about Hinduism without caste and jati, though it is possible (e.g., Tulsi Gabbard is a devout Hindu, but not Indian, while some Muslim Indians have their own forms of endogamous caste, despite not being Hindu).

Untouchable

Is this just a historical coincidence? Like many, I have read Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind. Though Dirks acknowledges the ancient origins of varna and jatis, he puts great emphasis on the rationalization of the system under the British. Additionally, he points out the rise and fall of jats. The Indian landscape is communally fluid in its hierarchy.

This is plausible. But I do not believe it is true on a deep and fundamental level. I have come to this conclusion because genetics is so striking.

  1. Though the correlation is not perfect, within regions there is a strong association between “steppe” ancestry and caste status (more steppe means higher status)
  2. Dalits in the South have almost no steppe. The non-Dalit but non-Brahmins have some. In the north, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh have the least steppe, and in some ways are genetically closer to Dalits in Tamil Nadu than non-Dalits in Uttar Pradesh.
  3. There are clear indications of 1,500 of endogamy in a village in Andhra Pradesh (elsewhere too).

When I first stumbled onto these facts they were shocking and bizarre. Totally unexpected. I assumed some caste stratification, but this was ridiculous.

These are the reasons that though I believe the new modern Hindus do sincerely abhor caste and jati, it is sometimes hard to take their protestations that the connection between caste and Hinduism is incidental. You are {{{Brahmin}}}, the product of several thousands of years of endogamy written all over your genes, the scion of the priestly caste of Hinduism, protest that caste and jati have nothing to do with the religion! Except that the priestly castes seem to be amongst the most punctilious adherents to endogamy of all!

So what’s the future? As an atheist of Muslim familial background I have some advice: make Hinduism less Indian, because that is the fundamental issue. Hinduism evolved organically within the Indian subcontinent with jati and varna, and like intertwined siblings growing up in the same house, there are some shared characteristics. Grow up. Leave the house. Be your own person.

Hindu Integration: Brahmanas and Gramadevatas

Annual Waari – Kalyani Bhogle

The pluralism in Hindu thought is often pegged back to the philosophically sophisticated एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति  from Rgveda – first mandala. While that message underlies a lot of Hindu thought as we know it, it’s often overstated as it sounds sophisticated to the scholars/amateurs studying it. On the other hand, some hymns from the family books, particularly the Rgvedic Hymns 7-82 to 7-89 give a fascinating peek into the mind of the Bharata purohit Vasishta after the Dasarajna Yuddha. The hymns which are very repetitive mostly praise Indra and Varuna for the help given to Sudas(Bharatas) and the Trstus in the Dasarajna where the enemies also worshiped Indra. The important point to glean here is the different functional roles for which these deities are evoked. Indra for war, Varuna for prosperity, Aditi for light, etc. Varuna who is often paired with Mitra or Aryaman, gets paired with Indra here – which scholars (RN Dandekar, Michael Witzel, etc) see as conciliatory.

According to Dandekar, it was out of this experience of bhakti that Vasistha became essential in the conciliation of the Indra- and Varuna-cults and especially in “averting a schism in the Vedic community” by demonstrating “that Varuna and Indra were not antagonistic to each other but… essentially
complementary. ‘Indra conquers and Varuna rules.”

It is fair to speculate that such a conciliatory approach would go on to shape interactions the mainstream Vedic thought would have with non-Vedic deities as these hymns are the victor’s recollection. This conciliation and integration (A) appear much more pragmatic and economic than abstract ideals (B) espoused by एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति or other sophisticated thought from Upanishads or Gita. For B to emerge and sustain, A appears essential. With A established, B in some form or other would follow as evidenced by other Eastern faith systems which also tend to be inclusive. It is fair to say a combination of A and B lays the foundation for the emergence of quintessential pluralism of Hinduism.

Let us segway into a short story: 

  • In a village in Vengurla (South Konkan), there was a local Saint/Warrior (non-Brahmin) who was extremely popular with the masses. 
  • He passed away and his devotees wanted to make a shrine/temple for him. A Kaashyap Brahmin who was a respected man in the village objected. His objection stemmed from the deification of a man (probably Shudra) and placing him on the same pedestal as the Devas. 
  • The Brahmin (who had quite a bit of clout in the village) opposed this Adharma with all his might but was almost overpowered by the “uncouth masses” in the story.
  • The landed or Kshatriya(ish) castes sided with the masses instead of the Brahmin and as a result, the Brahmin couldn’t prevent the deification.
  • Additionally, the humiliated Brahmin was expected to condone the practice and give the shrine his blessings.    
  • He couldn’t be part of this Adharma and hence left his lands, wealth, position, and went northeast and settled in Ichalkaranji near Kolhapur preferring his descendants living in abject poverty over condoning Adharma.
  • The replacement Gaargya Brahmin was happy to support the deification of the Saint. His descendants flourish economically in the village with large lands and respect but suffer spiritually.    
  • The shrine/temple remains popular to this day and most villagers have forgotten about this tale around the origin of that particular deity. 
  • The spiritual suffering of the current Brahmin was removed by the forgiveness of the descendent of the Kaashyap Brahmin some years ago.

Ravalnath

This is the fanciful tale of my great-great ancestor as told to me by my Chachera uncle (first cousin once removed). The Gotras are not important to this piece but the emphasis and obsession on Gotra is a salient feature of Brahmanism which deserves some attention. This tale is not very atypical. There have been other documented cases of such squabbles between village Hinduism and Brahmanism. This tale echoes many other tales from South Konkan – those of Ravalnath, Betal, etc. I am unsure if the deity in the tale of my ancestor is Ravalnath or Betal or something else entirely. But the contours of the tale are very similar. In both the cases of Ravalnath and Betal, there was initial resistance to these deities from local Brahmins in the medieval times – especially due to local traditions that involved blood sacrifices and other things frowned upon by Brahmins, but over time these deities got wider acceptance – even among local Brahmins. BetalWhile Ravalnath is a Kuladevata for most Goans (all castes), Betal is a Gramadevata of some local communities. Vithoba, the popular God of Pandharpur( the annual Waari) is a very important figure of the Bhakti movement. Religious scholar and Sahitya Akademi winner RC Dhere who extensively studied Vithoba also hypotheses pre Vedic origins of Vithoba. Khandoba is another deity whose origins are similarly muddy with a range of theories explaining him as the fusion of earlier deities including Kaal Bhairav. Interestingly in the Puranic tale of Kaal Bhairav “his struggle for the atonement of Brahmanhatya” is central. Khandhoba of Jejuri remains a deity for not only the Sudra castes, but Brahmins, Jains, Lingayats, and even some Muslims including the patronage of comparatively tolerant Bijapur Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah. While it would be tempting to dismiss this as some tenuous Donigerish take, the sheer numbers of such stories spread across the country strengthen the hypothesis.

Coming back to the descendants of the uncompromising Brahmin from Vengurla. Today my extended family proudly worships all the Gramadevatas from Ichalkaranji whose origins may be very similar to the one whose foundation my ancestor had objected to. Ironically most of my paternal family follow a plethora of local Saints (in addition to the popular Bhakti Saints), whose tales of the origin have occurred within living memory and hence are far easier to negate. I would not go into rants about these Saints (esp Gajanan Maharaj) whose followers number in millions. While some traditional elite Hindus (especially Urban) are known to have disparaging views of Saints & local deities, mostly these distinctions have weathered away. It is not unlikely to find Hindus who fast on Mondays for Shiva also fast on Thursdays for some local Saint (who mostly claim intellectual or avatarish descent from Dattatraya).  Despite some initial friction, the Brahmanical thought has made its peace with such traditions. Most scholarship refers to this as – the local traditions (non-Vedic) being co-opted by Brahmanism. IMO this is an incomplete way of looking at it as it conflates organic integration which typically occurs over generations with the realization of some highly foresighted plan. Typically humans are not foresighted enough to pull off multi-generational machinations. From a multi-generation evolutionary paradigm, these would make sense but not if you take a snapshot at any particular moment in history.

With this background, we go into realms of pure speculation and come to the Post Vedic deities in Hinduism. The origin of some of these deities is highly contested – especially that of Shiva. While the Rgvedic Rudra is often said to be the precursor of Shiva, the meaning of Shiva is certainly in contrast with Rudra. Whether the Pashupati seal from IVC or other Proto-Lingas are Proto-Shiva or not will likely not be resolved till we decipher the IVC script, but these speculations seem very plausible. Even Parpola doesn’t dismiss them in his Roots of Hinduism. In addition, Parpola makes a good argument in the IVC origins of Durga with seals of Tiger riding goddesses from Kalibangan. Similarly, we can say the Dravidian Murukan and the Vedic Skanda gave rise to the Karthikeya we know today. We still don’t have any intelligent speculation about the origins of Ganesha (other than some references to Gajapati), buts it fair to assume the elephant-headed god is a pretty late addition to the Hindu pantheon. The aim here is not to discuss and speculate the origins of these deities but to guess the mechanisms of integration of these deities and customs into Brahmanism. Brahmins had a huge ritualistic/moral capital, but given the tenuous or conflicting relations they had with the Kshatriyas and other dominant castes (as seen through numerous puranic stories especially those of Parshuram) it is fair to assume Brahmins would not often get their way with subtracting traditions they found Adharmic or uncouth, yet they could continue to shape these traditions from inside with participation. Pressure both from the masses and Brahmins would’ve actively shaped the integration of these traditions for centuries to the point where it’s often hazy where Brahmanism ends and where “Non-Brahmanical” traditions begin. (This probably happened with Sramana or Proto-Sramana traditions competing with Brahmanism but that is a different discussion)

IVC goddess riding Tiger

While it is generally said Brahmanical thought absorbed the local traditions, it is equally or more appropriate to say that the village Hinduism made space for Brahmanism & tamed it – into the diverse and plural fold and this process was not complete for the entire subcontinent when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Somnath. Scholars like to emphasize Adi-Shankara’s Advaita and Mutts, Upanishads, Rgvedic “एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति” as it appears sophisticated and intellectual. However, the tendency of humans to pragmatically negotiate the boundaries of their traditions (in absence of exclusionary universalist ideas) when they already have multiple modes of worship tends to be underemphasized as it appears uncouth or folk. Roman religion easily absorbed Isis and Cybele into the Roman fold but couldn’t absorb the God of Abraham. In contrast, when Christianity conquered Europe it absorbed the old gods into the Christian fold as Saints but kept them subordinate to the one true god. However, Shiva and Ganesh did not bow done to Indra, and by the time of the Puranas, the mighty Vedic Indra was reduced to an insecure and somewhat petty King of Gods.

Maybe the Brahmin elites & Sanskrit managed to maintain a cohesive identity-based on sacred geography only because they themselves were tamed in similar mechanisms by the natives of the geography. If yes, then Hindu Pluralism and Syncretism is as much a legacy of numerous lost stories as it is of the philosophical moorings of the Vedas, Itihasas, and Upanishads. 

Postscript:

I had been thinking along these lines since my discussion with Mukunda and Omar on the Brown-cast about the roots of Indian pluralism. While commenting please stick to the topic and be civil & constructive. I will delete off comments for this piece.

Their Muslim Problem—And Ours


Every now and then there is a controversy on Indian-Twitter which bleeds over into my timeline that I have to notice.

Some quick observations:

– There are those who lambast the critics of this ad. Many of the critics are low-IQ vulgarians. So the criticism is not without foundation. But, most of the responses dodge the gendered nature of the objection. The fact is that in Islam it is understood that Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women. It is also tolerated for Christians and Jews to retain their religion after marriage. The children are considered Muslim. This practice in a patriarchal society was seen as a boon to the Islamic nation.

The advertisement plays into this Islamic trope. The converse of this is that most interpretations of sharia ban the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men. Again, the rationale for this is straightforward: the children inherit the religion of the father, and therefore the children are lost to Islam. If the supporters of the beauty of the advertisement of interfaith marriage believe in this custom, then they should support more speech. In particular, they should support an advertisement where a Hindu man marries a Muslim woman in a Hindu ceremony to show that there is nothing wrong with this act so long as the people consent freely.

Continue reading Their Muslim Problem—And Ours

Playing with fire ?

Unless you are living under a rock, you will have noticed the Babri demolition conspiracy verdict. All 32 accused including the firebrand Ashok Singhal and Uma Bharti were acquitted of the conspiracy charge. A conspiracy charge is notoriously difficult to prove in Indian court even with Political will, in this case from an objective perspective, the charge was unlikely to stick owing the excessive burden of proof required to prove conspiracy.

I came across this interview of Advani with Prannoy Roy from 2000.

After six years of Modi Shah, Advani appears like a fresh of breath air (to my liberal ears). Notwithstanding his role as the prime mover of the Ram Janmabhooni movement which left trails of blood across the country, Advani appears significantly liberal to my eyes in 2020. The willingness to talk to the enemy (as seen in a range of interviews given to aggressive media), comparatively more respect to democratic ethos and institutions, and an overall soft spoken-ness.

However, the interview leaves us with the question – Is Advani telling the truth?

There seem to be three potential chain of events which led to the culmination of the demolition of Babri Masjid.

  1. The aim of the Rath Yatra by Advani was always to demolish the mosque and the previous years were spent in raising support for the demolition of the mosque. This was the narrative the most far left and far right in India believe.  In other words, the whole movement was a conspiracy under a facade of Rath Yatra.
  2. The leadership of the movement – namely Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, and to a lesser extent Vajpayee under the umbrella of RSS (this included the current Prime minister) never really planned to break the mosque. Their aim was to mobilize the Hindu over and above their caste boundaries. The mobilization has political benefits as well as social benefits in response to Islam. However, during the movement, a small group actually conspired to break the mosque. That means if there was a conspiracy, either the top leadership was kept in dark or the top leadership turned a blind eye towards it. This seems to the claim made by Advani and Vajpayee where both of them on record called the demolition of the mosque as the saddest day of their life.
  3. The mass movement got carried away in hubris. After years of chest thumbing, for the karsevaks – this was the moment to go down in the history and they did.

If either of 2 and 3 is true, it is fair to say the BJP and Sangha Parivar leaders were playing with fire and when the fire got out of control it burned every one to a certain extent. Though today even if the fire was unintended, the fruits of the fire continue to be reaped.

Brahmanism Versus Brahminism

Yes – read the title twice.

Was inspired to write this due to Gaurav’s interesting post on Brahmanical Patriarchy. Note – I am a non-Brahmin Hindu.

I’ve always been pretty aware of the difference between Brahman – a word for the metaphysical supreme Godhead/substance in Hinduism and brāhmin – the priestly caste in the varna system. But many times, I see people using the 2 interchangeably as if they are one and the same. Ditto for Brahmanism and Brahminism.

Now if you’ve followed my writing, you know I’m pretty critical of academic takes on Hinduism and academia in general. I generally think both Brahmanism and Brahminism are frankly bullshit IYI terms coined by outsiders and unfortunately adopted widely nowadays.

However, Gaurav’s take on “Brahmanism” (all Hindu practices & rituals which have a basis in scriptures like the Vedic Canon, Puranas/Itihasa, Sutras/Shastras as Brahmanism) is a fair description to me of core Vedic or Hindu thought. A Hinduism rooted to the Upanishadic Brahman that contrasts (but more or less doesn’t clash with) many local or Agamic traditions. A tradition that really does bind the diversity of Hinduism together by common roots and cause. I’d prefer to call it Vedic Dharma or Vedic religion (because I don’t like the Brahman/brahmin casual mixing) but that’s beyond the point.

Onto Brahminism – now this is a term I loathe. To my knowledge, this term was coined by Jesuit missionaries visiting India to convert heathens to the one true faith. These days, the term is honestly just a cover for Brahmin bashing and even more so Hinduism bashing. Brahminism = Brahmanism = standard and core Hindu faith and customs. Basically, the shtick is, all of Hinduism is for and by Brahmins and is solely used as a tool for oppression. If that core description of Vedic (or according to them – Brāhmin) thought and ritual is scrapped away, the link of diverse Hindu traditions is gone and an ideological balkanization occurs. This is a very pretty picture if you’re in opposition to Hinduism. See the monstrosity that is Dravidianism for an example today.

A casual scroll through social media will have people criticizing innocent/non-harmful Hindu rituals and customs such as doing puja for a puppy or vegetarianism and label them as “Brahminical/Brāhmin OPPRESSION!” Yet many of these practices have nothing to do with Brāhmins in this day and age or even in the past (depending on time and geography of course).

While I agree that ending caste discrimination should be a paramount cause of Hindu sampradays and Hinduism in the present, the “Brāhmin Boogeyman” is increasingly just a cover for criticizing Hinduism as a whole and removing agency/tradition/history from non-Brahmin Hindus.

What is “Brahmanical” in Indian Patriarchy ?

In December 2018, Jack Dorsey had a photo-op with a section Indian feminists (left-leaning) holding a placard that read Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy. Naturally, Hindutva supporters took umbrage to the reduction of Patriarchy in India to Brahmanism & “supposed” targetting of Brahmins. The “Liberals” appeared consistent with their ideological framework, though the framework can be accused of being myopic. Here are some essays from both sides of the ideological spectrum – Wire & Swarajya.

When words become labels, they tend to deviate from their original meaning and end up serving just their political purpose. The word Brahmanical is in danger of becoming a catch-all term on the left to not just to attack Hindutva but also to indulge in some masochism. Like all terms in Hinduism, Brahminism is difficult to define. For the purpose of this essay, I would refer to all Hindu practices & rituals which have a basis in scriptures like the Vedic Canon, Puranas/Itihasa, Sutras/Shastras as Brahmanism. (I would welcome any better definition of Brahmanism. It is often easier to negate a Hindu practice as Non-Brahmanical than the other way around)

Similarly, the word Patriarchy is likewise used loosely as an amalgamation of the words patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, and male chauvinism. Patriarchy is a hallmark of human civilization, especially post the agricultural revolution. Just a handful of cultures have been exceptional. As a result, all strands of patriarchy in a society cannot be blamed on the predominant religious current of the culture unless there is a logical & direct link between the two – correlation is not causation. Coming to India lets focus on the different strands of Patriarchy present in the country and try to entangle each strand and investigate its potential origins in Brahmanism.

MARRIAGE

In Brahmanism, marriage is a sacred bond between man and woman(women) and hence unbreakable. As polygamy is allowed under Brahmanism, Men could move on to newer women without breaking the sacred bond and continue to lead a Dharmic life. Women had a lot of patriarchal restrictions placed on them. It is interesting to note that the Hindu marriage act of 1955 has transformed Hindu marriage customs in Hinduism. Hence wrt Marriage – Smashing Brahmanism would be equal to beating a dead ARYA horse in 21st century India. All these strands of “patriarchy” exist to almost the same extent in other native India “Panthas” in -Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism. No need to explain how Muslim personal law is way worse wrt marriage today and needs immediate attention from Feminists.

INHERITANCE

Brahmanism did not support the rights of women to inherit property, but the 1956 act meant that equal inheritance rights were awarded. On the other hand, Muslim women don’t get equal rights under Muslim personal law.

WIDOWS

The conditions of widows in Brahmanism was arguably worse than most other cultures. With Remarriage out of question (unlike Islam and Christianity), widows were treated inhumanely in Hinduism – especially in Brahmanical orthodoxy. The Brahmanical obsession with abstract concepts of purity and consequent “bad luck” blamed on the widow meant that widows were sentenced to social boycott in Hindu societies (social murder). The other option – Sati is also uniquely Brahmanical. (though its prevalence in olden times is debated). Even today, widow remarriage is less common than widower remarriage. A lot of regression and inhuman attitude towards widows continue to this day even among elite and liberal Hindus. Hence wrt Widows Brahmanical Patriarchy is still alive and needs SMASHING. 

Eg: Widows are still considered inauspicious. Even today a widow cannot predominantly partake Brahmanical rituals on her own, she always needs a male/couple (pure and auspicious) helping hand/s to carry out rituals. Typically Marriage/Upanayana/other rituals are carried out by the Uncles of her children. Though Hindu society has moved beyond the Social ostracization of earlier times, the position of widows is far from equal. 

Having said that, the overlap of these practices with Varna oppression isn’t wide. These practices are particular to the Dvija Varnas. Conditions of widows in subaltern castes & tribes were historically significantly better – with remarriage/separation allowed in many subaltern/tribal communities.

DOWRY

It is difficult to pin down the custom of Dowry on Brahmanism. By accounts of most experts, it is a sociological custom not unique to India.

FEMALE FOETICIDE

A Direct consequence of Dowry and Two child policy (along with economic hardships and some other factors) Female Foeticide – arguably the worst Anti-Female practice in India is also a deeply sociological practice with very tenuous or no links to “Religions”. (Though Christianity actively condemns all abortions and hence Female Foeticide has no existence in Christians)

RELIGIOUS ROLE OF WOMEN

All religions present in India are deeply sexist and Brahmanism (Hinduism) doesn’t stand out as a particularly bad. However, the impurity attributed to menstruation is directly an outgrowth of the Brahmanical obsession of ritualistic purity. From practices of untouchability for menstruating women to the temple entry conflict, these customs can be attributed to Brahmanism though other faiths aren’t doing a particularly great job. Even Buddha’s teachings and the role of women in Buddhist Sangha are not remotely equal. However, the position of women in a lot of Brahmanical rituals is secondary/inferior to men. One could make a logical argument from Brahmanism to the demoted the role of women in rituals. (same as other faiths)

Sabrimala – though people claim the issue in Sabrimala is due to the Celibacy of Lord Ayyappa & not ritual taboo of menstruation- the priests of Sabrimala carried out a purification ritual after the women visited Sabrimala.

SEXUAL VIOLENCE

No correlation. This problem is worse in India than some regions of the world but no coherent link between this and Brahmanism exists.

CASUAL SEXISM & MISOGYNY

Is a universal societal problem. There is an argument that some aspects this is an overreaction to the overreach of some aspects of feminism (from conservative POV- I don’t hold this view)

ENDOGAMY

While caste endogamy is often blamed on Brahmanical doctrines – and especially the notorious Manusmriti, on a deeper investigation of the texts, the link is found to be not very robust. While the DIKTATS against the mixing of Varnas is a very important part of Manusmriti (and other texts too), the jati endogamy practice in India doesn’t have many sanctions in Brahmanical texts. Getting deep into the nuances around Jati and Varna is beyond the scope of this essay. Given the fact that Varna is a salient feature of Brahmanism and Jati is an outgrowth of Varna in a sense, we can logically argue that the origins of Endogamy are Brahmanical.

However its sustenance in 21st century India is due to tribalism, pressures of families (larger caste groups) and Compatibility correlated with Jati.  

HONOR CULTURE

Honor culture is a salient part of most caste conflicts in the country, but given the preponderance of similar conflicts in other cultures (Islamic), this practice cant be blamed on Brahmanism.

CHILD MARRIAGE

The universal practice in medieval and early modern times. On the contrary Vedic canon advises post-puberty marriage for both sexes. 

EDUCATION AND OTHER FREEDOMS

Like most religions wrt education and other freedoms, Brahmanism was harsh on women. But it doesn’t stand out. Even though subaltern women faced harsh Brahmanical opposition (Like Savitri Phule), the same is true for upper-caste women reformers as well. Sub Altern women faced the double combo of Brahmanical Casteism and Patriarchy, hence the blame of this strand can be put mildly on Brahmanism wrt Christianity but not wrt other faiths.

MODESTY (PURDAH)

Practiced in North Indian Hindu cultures, but most experts believe these practices were imposed on women after Islamic Turko-Afghan invasions of 11th century.

There may be some more strands of “Patriarchy” in India which are not covered here.


Out of the 13 strands identified above a modest 5 practices can be partially blamed on Brahmanism. Even out of these 5, 2 are addressed legally and are inconsequential today with 3/13 Brahmanical strands remaining (though these aren’t the biggest problems for 21st century India). If the aim is to Smash All Patriarchy – smashing Brahmanical Patriarchy which achieves only a fraction of the aim, can’t logically be the primary objective. In other words, wrt Feminism in India there are bigger fish to fry.

Some have argued that “Brahmanical patriarchy is a conceptual framework” that has a wider meaning. But it has been a word (Brahmanism) which means something specific for almost over a century and its definition was never as broad or loose as Hinduism.

Another issue I had with the “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy” was the lack of understanding in the general population of the term Brahmanism. Any political point being made has value only if it resonates with the masses for whom it is coined. That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case here. As a result, such a sloganeering can be viewed by a considerable population as bigotry against Brahmins (As lots of people pointed out). Having said that, had the slogan been analytically watertight it wouldn’t matter IMO.

Next time there is ideological virtue-signaling – let us hope there is robust elucidation instead of attack with language meant as a catch-all for what one opposes. (Like calling your opponent fascists)


Ironically brahmin communities (mostly due to early exposure to education) are some of the least patriarchal communities of the country. Most women wouldn’t mind freedoms enjoyed by women in these communities (especially MH and WB). Though this would be explained as Brahmanical patriarchy which aims to oppress Bahujan women while emancipating Savarna ones. An incredibly contrived discussion arguing this can be found here with which I profoundly disagree – but that argument is for some other time.

Browncast: Shrikanth Krishnamachary, “Traditional Hindu”

Another Brownpundits Browncast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

In this episode Omar, Akshar and Mukunda talk to Srikanth Krishnamachary.  Krish is an active presence on Twitter at @shrikanth_krish and mostly tweets about Hinduism and Indian history, but has a variety of interests (his intro says he is   “a data scientist in financial services based out of New York City, whose interests include economics, political philosophy, Hinduism, American history, and cricket”). We asked him to define ImageHinduism and give us his opinion of what it was and what it is today. And of course, we asked him about caste. And we hope to have him come back in the future to touch on topics we did not get to today.

Krish also writes on various websites and some of his work can be seen at the following links:

swarajyamag.com/author/545613/ indiafacts.org/author/shrikan indictoday.com/author/shrikan firstpost.com/author/shrikan

Are Hindu Atheists more Plural ?

Most Hindu believers don’t have problems with bowing down before the next idol/guru in addition to their existing ones. One only has to visit Goan Churches to see devout and traditional Hindus praying to Jesus with all their devotion without any dichotomy. There appears to be no conflict between going back to their traditional lives while asking favors/ paying respects to the supposed Son of God. The violent history of how Christianity got into Goa has very little bearing on how Hindus interact with Christian pockets of Goa in contrast with the case with Islam. (This may not be the case in other areas where there is more active proselytization). While this pluralism which is a salient part of Hinduism is often traced to the Rgvedic “एकम सत विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति” form the First Mandala. However, as Michael Witzel points out in his analysis of Rgveda, pluralism can be found even in the Rgvedic family books (mandala 2-7 which is often to be earlier texts, with scholars putting them as at least 1500BCE), especially the 7th Mandala attributed to Vashishta. Thus it’s safe to argue that Plurality is a quintessential attribute of Hinduism.

From ages 22-25 I was hooked with the New Atheism worldview – which rarely had the representation of Ex-Hindus or Hindu-Atheists. Even then I could not fully agree with New Atheist criticism of Eastern Faith systems (I found the chapter in Hitchens book to be a strawman). More reading of history and politics since then has meant that I have come out of what Razib Khan calls the Nerd understanding of Religion. While the number of Ex-Muslims in the New-Atheist movement was low in the early 2010s, by 2020 the Ex-Muslim movement has gained a lot of momentum with many names becoming popular. I had avoided the whole Ex-Muslim internet sphere which seems to have exploded these last few years as I did not want to enforce my own confirmation bias about the ills of Islam. However, this Armin- KaliMaa fracas has meant that I have followed the works of these Ex-Muslims a lot over the last week.

Having read and listened to these guys, I can’t ignore the glaring differences between Hindu Atheists like myself and Ex-Muslim or Ex-Christian atheists. While surveys point to less than 1% of Indians self designating as atheists, I really doubt the number as most Hindu atheists continue to identify as Hindu unlike atheists coming from other faiths. In my experience, Hindu atheists spend less time arguing in the abstract about belief in the supernatural or the validity of scriptures and are more focused on concrete problems – viz rituals/traditions which they find illogical or abhorrent. This may be a function of Hinduism, which is less scriptural and much more ritualistic (at least this is true for the Brahminism which I am most familiar with). Over these particular issues, there is only a minor difference between the positions of the Reformist yet believing Hindus and Hindu Atheists. On the other hand, the New-Atheist position is glaringly similar to the Monotheistic position – with all the certainty and condescension but no coercion and violence.

This difference could be for two reasons:

  • For most Hindus being atheist is not a big deal. There is very little penalty on being non-conformist as long as atheism isn’t confrontational. As a result, Hindu atheists don’t feel like aggravated victims and are reciprocally less confrontational. This neutral feedback cycle keeps most Atheists in the larger Hindu fold.
  • Being exposed to numerous faiths and worship systems since childhood, Hindu atheists like Hindus don’t find it tough to respect the behaviors of other believers (however ridiculous) which New Atheists condescend at much more polemically.

That being said, a lot of unnecessary condescension at Hindu practices does exist in India – particularly on the left. But even that doesn’t necessarily overlap with Atheism but with the Indian “Secular” framework. I don’t mean to imply that all Hindu atheists are plural or even liberal. But for most Hindus, atheism is an epistemological position and not an absolutist belief system. Finding a Hindu atheist being as confrontational as an atheist from Monotheism is rare thought there must be numerically significant exceptions.

I personally would rather spend most of my energies fighting Homeopathy than religion. IMO both are demonstrably false but only one of them pretends to be scientific.