December 2, 2006

I think I am a Hindu, therefore I am!

[This post is motivated by a brief exchange that Suresh and I had on Sowmya's blog on "Militant Atheism & Religious Fanaticism". After agreeing with the notion that Hinduism is not a religion in the conventional sense of the term, I had asked rhetorically, "...if Hinduism were not a religion, who is a Hindu?" Suresh's response was that a Hindu, in his view, would be someone who called himself a Hindu.]

I think I am an Indian, therefore I am.

"No, you are not," declared Bonnie, frowning and hiding behind her mom.

"Yes, honey, he is. I told you that Krish is coming to dinner tonight, and here he is."

"But mommy, you said Krish is an Indian!"

"Yes, honey, I did. And, this is Krish."

Nonplussed, Bonnie exclaimed "But...he's not wearing any feathers on his head! How could he be an Indian?"

This happened thirty-plus years ago, when I was a student at a U.S. university. Most international students at that university had host families. I had one too, and on that fateful day when my identity was questioned, I was going to have dinner with them. I learned from their four year old Bonnie that discovering my identity would be a simple matter of choosing my headgear!

Years later, when I was visiting at Keio University, Tokyo, I was once again faced with an identity crisis. I held a U.S. passport by then, and was quite certain about my identity as an American. Unfortunately, the world around me disagreed. My colleagues would often question me about the fiscal reforms in India, but never about the welfare reforms in the United States. The Japanese receptionist at the local American Club would routinely ask for my passport, but never for that of John Doe, my bridge partner. The students always referred to me as the sensei from India. I did not verify it, but I am quite sure that the sex workers of Tokyo, most of whom solicited business only from the Americans and the Europeans, would have declined to work for me!

Another time, I was on a faculty recruitment committee for my department. We were screening the 300 odd applications, when we came upon one that belonged to er... Kumarikandam Subramaniam. In his application, Mr. Subramaniam had not responded to the optional question regarding his race. With a few decent publications to his credit, he was a well qualified applicant from a reputed university. We were unanimous (there were five of us) that he should be invited to present a paper. Compliance with the Affirmative Action Program required us to forward our recommendations to the EEOO (Equal Employment Opportunity Office), along with the racial classifications of the selected candidates. Even though Mr. Subramaniam had not identified his race, the committee guessed from his name that he was an Asian-Indian. They turned to me, the only one from India on that committee, for a confirmation that Mr. Subramaniam was an Indian.

We knew that Mr. Subramniam's application would have a smooth passage through the EEOO, as Asian-Indians were considered as a minority. I declined to confirm his Indianness, however, saying that I did not believe in either racial classification or affirmative action. What if Mr. Subramniam also held similar ideals, and did not want to be racially classified? The Chairman of the committee, a senior professor and well versed in these matters, dismissed my beliefs and Mr. Subramaniam's in this regard as inconsequential. "Krish, EEOO will return the application to us, if we did not write in Mr. Subramaniam's race. If we refused to specify his race again, the EEOO would find another Asian-Indian to confirm Mr. Subramaniam's race. Whether he accepts it or not, Mr. Subramaniam is a minority. And, in case you did not know, you are a minority in the EEOO books, too!"

Let's turn to the weightier question raised by the title of this post. John Doe thinks he is a Hindu. Is he or is he not one?

"Of course not. He doesn't wear a turban."

"No, he is not. Hindus are vegetarians, and John pigs out on hamburgers!"

"Only Indians are Hindus. John is not an Indian, so he cannot be a Hindu."

"Hindus worship a zillion gods, but John doesn't worship even one. How could he think of himself as a Hindu?"

"If John Doe is a Hindu, then is he Sikh?"

Well, whatever.

For the benefit of the philosophically disadvantaged, the title is a paraphrase of the seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher, René Descartes' famous pronouncement, Cogito ergo sum or I think, therefore I am, which etched the implied dualism in much of the Western thoughts to follow.
  1. Dear Fool

    I wish you could give me a suitable name with which i could address you.

    The identity crisis faced by a Hindu today, typically when outside of India, is a matter of concern for me personally. I was born in a Hindu family, went through the same idenity crisis in my teens and have found my answers in Islam (but not in muslims). I searched hinduism to make sense of life for me; but it seemed as if it was made vague deliberately so that the it could be controlled and administered by the swamis. Or the message lost its commoner's appeal in the debates on Advaita Vedanta. Even today, when I meet Hindus, I see them go through the same struggles of identity. I empathise with most of them and that includes my brother and father.
    To this day, my choice of islam has made my relations with my kith and kin a strained one. To this day, if there was one Hindu who could make sense of hinduism to me - its books, its creed (if any), its philosophers, its practices - I would return to Hinduism.
    I am not surprised to see most Hindus take to atheism today. Hindu youths outside of India struggle to explain their religious traditions and beliefs rationally to any outsider. There are very few Hindus who can name the four vedas, fewer who can place them chronologically, fewer who can summarize them, fewer who can explain the relationship betweent he vedas and the upanishads. There are just a handful who can name the dominant philosophy of Hinduism - Advaita Vedanta. Why am I ranting so much about the scriptures of Hinduism? Because the transmission of what they are and their contents is grossly inadequate in hindu society. Most hindus assume that a few aphorims such as Satyameva jayate, karminyevadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadha chana etc is what Hindusim is all about. Unfortunately, these aphorisms do not give them a world view and life view. Not that Hinduism does not have it, but that it is so lost that a Hindu does not even know where to start reading from. Important questions such as whether the bhagvad Gita has replaced/overwritten the Vedas, whether the Vedas have any relevance, the practicality of the rituals, the connection between the dogma and the everyday practice of hindus etc are painful to research for any hindu today.

    I myself would appreciate any hindu who can make sense of Hinduism for me.

    Meanwhile, I will stick with Islam (but not muslims).

  2. Krish,

    This is a very good post. The anecdotes, quite lucidly, point out the contrast between personal thought and external perception. This dichotomy extends itself to gender, sexuality, beauty and intelligence to name a few.

    It's very funny that you got the comment above. I don't know which part is the most ironic. That she couldn't rationalize one religion and he so chose another or that she identifies himself with dogma in the face of excessive freedom (at least in terms of religiousity).

  3. beg to intrude. I got a few crisp comments, all mine, no quotes -
    1. hindu is not a characteristic, e.g. determined by your color of skin, place of birth, family of birth etc., since hinduism - at its best, is a philosophy that encourages you to delve into the mystic and figure out the eternal truths. No patenting here. So when Mr. Anonym thinks that hindus-in-india must be scholars on hinduism/journals, he misses the point as well. John Doe - if he feels hindu, should be given the benefit of doubt. How does that belittle me/us/anybody in any form? After all, the question is not whether he is or not (for that is unanswerable just be examining the characteristics). The questions instead are (a) does it heighten my ego to see a white man embrace hinduism? (b) does it instill fear (of the unknown) on what happens if everyone starts claiming to be a hindu without following any tenet? (c) do I/we/anyone think they/you/I are custodians of this philosophy?
    If answers to any two of the questions above was yes for you, then you need to revisit the tenets of hinduism. Its not in the slokas/vedas/upanishads (though these are good tools to get you there). Basic tenets being - all existence is transitory, fulfilment of your duties without desire for rewards will always keep your mind's circuits simplified, truth is beyond debate.

    We often cramp ourselves in a foreign country by carrying the burden of having to explain/justify our tenets to every TDH who questions it.

    For the gentle(wo)man who converted to islam: it was the freedom of hinduism that you practiced. And the path that you chose was never restricted to you, even if not explicitly stated to you. Your social life must be a mess unless you live in the middle East, and were facing a glass ceiling at work.

    For the learned author of this post: The last two words (or was it one) sum up the questions best... "well whateva!"
    Frankly, you (or the gentleman who thinks he's a convert) are at the boundary of civilizations. Uninsulated. Unguarded. Vulnerable to moral/faith attacks. Susceptible to fall. But have you ever thought how the billion strong nation continues to carry itself with pride (not always, but mostly though) without having these so-called "faith-attacks?"

  4. (The comments have been "closed" for Sowmya's blog-post, so I'm posting my response your comment here. Hope you don't mind)

    @ TRF

    I'll not try to put-down your 'counterfactual' by saying "if there were no castes Mahmud of Gazni would probably not have won the 17th battle either. So none of whatever followed would have had the pattern that led to our current state".

    I'll instead rephrase the question to fit what (I presume) you actually meant: What if the idea caste is erased from everyone's mind? Will India have any fewer scavengers working under inhuman conditions and earning below subsistence wages?

    Probably not. But the "upper caste" farmers who commit suicide might take up those "menial" jobs and a few of those who are already doing it might commit suicide (ie, when self-respect is brought to a balance, decision making process is altered significantly). At least there will be diversity in who's doing what. Then again, given that we are now in a scenario where there are no castes, the idea of diversity becomes void.

    Although I contest its contemporary relevance, I will concede that Hinduism, whether it is/was a religion or a set of 'paganist' rituals or cultural mores, is at the root of the caste system (and the maladies that branched off from it). But I would not agree that Hinduism can be held responsible (more than being the root cause) for points 2 and 3.

  5. >>she couldn't rationalize one religion and he so chose another or that she identifies himself with dogma in the face of excessive freedom (at least in terms of religiousity).

    I made a choice to a religion whose tenets made sense to me and thereby also gave a purpose/direction to my existence and meaning to my everyday activities.

    >>For the gentle(wo)man who converted to islam: it was the freedom of hinduism that you practiced. And the path that you chose was never restricted to you, even if not explicitly stated to you. Your social life must be a mess unless you live in the middle East, and were facing a glass ceiling at work.

    Aren't you being prejudicially presumptuous? I don't understand the relevance of the condition of my social life in this. I am not in the middle east and my career is flowering.


  6. {{I made a choice to a religion whose tenets made sense to me and thereby also gave a purpose/direction to my existence and meaning to my everyday activities.}} - Fine just don't try to rationalize it. You like pink T-shirts? You think it will give a "purpose" to your life? wear them. It need not rationalized.

  7. Huh Suresh!! You seem to take offence at the fact that I made a choice to follow something other than hinduism. Though it did seem like I was trying to rationalize myself, that is only a secondary reading of what I wrote. The primary message of my comment is the fact that the difficulty of finding answers to questions in hinduism prevented me from getting a hindu identity. I'm afraid you are missing the point of my comment and its relation to Krish's intial entry.

  8. And Suresh, why the angled adhominems at faith? Pls be clear that my post was merely expressing my inabilities and problems in extracting a Hindu identity. I was not trying to prove the superiority of faith over atheism or of that of islam over ohinduism. Pls read my entry with an unbiased mind.


  9. I didn't take any offence because you chose one religion over the other but the reason you stated was rationality (or the lack of it).
    To quote you,
    {{Hindu youths outside of India struggle to explain their religious traditions and beliefs rationally to any outsider.}} - I don't know how rational Islam is? And yes it is rather disconcerting when one believes in a doctrine that claims that this Earth is just around 12,000 years old (several other drivel).
    But, since you claim your comment was to point to Hinduism's inability to ascribe you with an identity which you can "defend" (or explain), I'll deconstruct that too. I don't understand why a religious identity is essential for anyone. If rational explanation is what you're looking for, I think atheism (or agnosticism) would fit you well enough. Sure, it's not a religion, but it is an extra identity (apart from your nationality and gender). I don't even understand how one would "explain" faith. What is there to explain your belief on something that is based on unsubstantiated decrees?

    My arguments
    -> Religious identity is not essential
    -> No faith can be explained rationally
    -> Religious conversion implicitly conveys inequality

  10. Vinod, Suresh:
    I tend to agree with Suresh mostly, but will go further.
    (i) I believe that identity is not essential. We have ideas and values, no doubt, but identity is just a statistical fiction.
    (ii) Rational religion is an oxymoron.
    (iii) Religious conversion not only connotes inequality (?), but irrationality, too.

    I don't mind your comment on Sowmya's blog here, but because it's off topic, I'll refrain from responding. I hope we'll have an opportunity to continue the conversation elsewhere.

    I don't understand why you'd think that I am "vulnerable to moral/faith attacks. Susceptible to fall." I am quite safe without the "security blanket" provided by religious or any other identity, thank you. About the nation of a billion people, I wish I could give you an estimate of the capital and labor lost to religion!


  11. Suresh, Krish

    The point of my comment was not theism v atheism or islam v Hindusim. Yes, it was about deriving identity from religion and in the context of this blog entry, identity from hinduism. I wasn't making absolute statements about the success or failure of Hinduism as a source of identity. I was merely stating my experience of it and those that I have met. Nothing more nothing less.

    You may think that religion is not essential for an identity. I am not here to dispute that. Instead, I am saying that it does give identity to a lot of people and when queried about what it means to be a Hindu, the first thing to come to mind is what the religion has to say. And doesn't the word 'hindu' have religious connotations? Hence, my comment. I hope now you see where I am coming from.

    Folks, I do not want to engage in a faith v atheism debate.

    Suresh, as an aside, the 10000 year old history of the earth is a Christian thing and not a muslim thing.

    Peace and Regards

  12. Vinod, I don't care if you took up Islam or scientology as your religion, but please don't come up with half-baked comments such as I found my answer in religion X. I mean, I would have respected you for figuring out the BS in Hinduism, but boy, saying that Islam provides you with all the answers is just ridiculous. I mean, Islam has to be as dumb as Hinduism, isn't it ? What about denying evolution (Despite tons of evidence) ? The age of earth ? The constant rhetoric about ONLY women covering up ? The theory of sucking up to god twenty times a day (I mean is god such low brow ??), and I have not even started talking about the 72 virgins and unclean infidels. Now, you can try to come up with explanations and tell me all that is out of context, but even a Hindu comes up with such dumb arguments to support casteism.

  13. Dipesh

    Where in my post did I mention HOW islam answered those questions? Where did I try to explain Islam or get into any details of Islam or compare it with Hinduism? The mention of Islam was merely obiter in my post. The subject of my post was something else.
    To get the message of my post, feel free to replace the word islam with anything else.


  14. How about some mix of Hinduism and the western Pandeism (or is Pandeism really just a kind of Hindusim)?


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