Hinduism and its Culture Wars

Hinduism and its Culture Wars

By Vamsee Juluri

*Editor’s note: This is the complete text of Prof. Juluri’s essay ‘Hinduism and its Culture Wars’.*


There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about what the “myths,” or the stories of the gods, mean in the lives of Hindus. Suffice it to say that until the 1980s, when the Hindu nationalist movement entered the political mainstream, myth was more important to us than history. History was at best a subject one got through in school, and an unimportant one compared to math and science, which were the stuff of global careers in engineering and medicine. As a high school student in Hyderabad at the time, I recall not being especially bothered by what our history textbooks said about our religion; most importantly, they said that our sacred epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were literature, and the gods, like Krishna and Rama were therefore not real. Our religion did not seem to need any sort of validation from the curriculum, or from school in general. We got our religious stories, and our sensibilities, from our parents and grandparents and from comic books and movies. It didn’t occur to us that our modern curriculum was actually saying the gods didn’t exist. We took history, after all, with a pinch of salt.

Myth, on the other hand, was something we were steeped in, regardless of how and how much we believed in it. We believed that Rama and Krishna were real, that they were avatars of god in human form, and that they lived on this land long ago. But we also assumed that it was all really long, long ago, and that we needn’t bother looking for them in our history lessons. It was an accommodation between belief and the modern mind that had held in India for many generations. My father, for example, taught zoology and read Darwin, and he was deeply devout and religious. My mother acted in movies and later entered politics, and she was deeply devout and religious. I was less religious than them in those days, and certainly less disciplined about rituals and ceremonies, but I could not reject belief completely either. In any case, we were much like the other educated, middle class Indians we knew. We had our gods in our homes and hearts, and from there we seemed to make all our deals with the modern world of science, engineering and careers. It was rarely the other way around. It did not even occur to us to think of our gods using the touchstones of modern conversation, like history, or even philosophy, for that matter. We went on worshipping, singing, watching the old devotional movies, and that was that.

The story of what happened since those days is now well-known. By the end of the 1980s, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had brought Hindu nationalism into the political mainstream. In 1992, the Babri masjid at Ayodhya was demolished by Hindutva activists with the goal of building a temple at what was believed to be the god Rama’s birthplace. Throughout the 1990s, Hindu right-wing parties sought to redefine the nation’s secular, post-independence ethos. Artists such as M.F. Husain were hounded. Attempts were made to rewrite history books in India and, it was said, even in California. In 2002, one of the worst acts of mass violence since partition took place in Gujarat. Hindu mobs massacred around one thousand Muslims, supposedly in vengeance for the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. These incidents, naturally, led to grave concern about the future of our country, and specifically about the abuse of myth and history by right-wing forces. India, it was said, was on the verge of becoming a “Hindu fascist” nation, if it hadn’t turned into one already.

Since then, many important works on contemporary India have addressed these concerns. Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian countered the Hindu right’s view of India’s glorious Hindu past by celebrating non-religious Indian intellectual traditions and non-Hindu icons of tolerant statesmanship, such as Ashoka and Akbar. Martha Nussbaum’s The Clash Withinquestioned the post 9/11 climate of Islamophobia in the United States through an earnest exposé of Hindu extremism. Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History challenged the Hinduism of “Dead Male Brahmins” and offered kinetic counter-narratives about women, sex, subalterns, horses, blood and dismemberment in the Hindu tradition. In addition, South Asian writers well-known in the West like Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra wrote frequently about the evils of the Hindu right. From their writings, it seemed that a culture war was underway in India over the future of Hinduism. On one side were the Hindu right, the fundamentalists who couldn’t tell myth from history and sought to impose an intolerant idea of Hinduism upon others. On the other side were people committed to secularism, like the authors of these books, who had come to stand, even if by default, for a liberal vision of Hinduism in opposition to that of the Hindu right. (Two more recent titles might also be mentioned here, Offence: The Hindu Case, by Salil Tripathi, and Uncle Swami, by Vijay Prashad, both of which make a similar case against the Hindu right’s cultural politics.)

There is however one truly strange thing about the supposedly liberal vision of Hinduism that has been offered by writers crusading against the Hindu right. Their worldview seems to have little respect, if not consideration, for how Hindus themselves see their religion in the first place. Consequently, a whole contemporary era of writing about South Asia has come to answer the Hindu right’s distortions of myth and history not by engaging with Hinduism as it is lived and understood by Hindus (which would mean acknowledging at least some grievances felt by them), but by a narrow and selective promotion of its own normative fantasy about what liberal, secular Hindus ought to believe. On the face of it, the elements of this fantasy seem like logical responses to the positions advanced by the Hindu right, but in reality, they reveal something more insidious. To the Hindu right’s claim that India is essentially a Hindu nation, they have answered that there really is no such thing as Hinduism. To the claim that India was hurt by Islamic invasions, they respond that Hindus were invaders too, and they destroyed the shrines of other faiths too. To the claim that the gods mean something more to Hindus than sex-oriented academic theories propose, they respond that this is a puritanical fantasy which violates Hinduism’s rich erotic traditions like the Kamasutra and Khajuraho. To the belief that Rama and Krishna are gods, they respond that they are merely fictional characters, and that it is just as valid to talk about them as villains, because in some obscure versions, they are depicted as such.

The most troubling thing about these positions is not that they have proved offensive to the positions of the Hindu right, but that they insult, more broadly, the everyday sensibilities of devout Hindus as well. After all, if the only prescription for contesting the Hindu right is to disavow all feelings of sanctity for the gods and embrace a hollow postmodern academic view of Rama and Krishna as literary characters, then most Hindus have already ended up as Hindutva-extremists. It may not be an exaggeration to say that this has already happened, especially in the United States, where academic experts on Hinduism have fought numerous battles against people they describe as “Hindu extremists,” but who are for the most part law-abiding Hindu parents and children concerned about the lack of their own voices being heard in the American curriculum.

In recent years, serious questions have been raised by the Hindu-American community about errors, if not outright prejudices, in the work of many Western expert commentators on Hinduism (the book Invading the Sacred discusses these issues from a very different perspective from those mentioned earlier). At times, this process has not been civil, and has even escalated beyond angry emails and comment board chatter. On one occasion during a talk in London, a poorly aimed egg was thrown at Wendy Doniger by an audience member upset about her views on Hinduism: it missed not only its target, but perhaps also the point that Hinduism does not condone either attacks on scholars or the flinging of food! But apart from this spate of extremist fervor, the fact remains that a more fundamental, pressing, and valid set of questions has been glossed over in the writings we have seen on the Hindu culture wars. Can writers who fail to show the slightest sympathy, respect, and indeed understanding for the views of Hindus truly hope to influence Hindus against extremism? Or have they been merely talking to each other, unchallenged in the narrow realm of letters and publishing, unable to acknowledge that their normative fantasy has little to do with everyday, unprivileged reality, not just the mythic beliefs of the devout? Simply put, do writers who write about India and Hindus today feel accountable to the community that their readers, especially those in the West, believe they are representative of, or have they excused themselves from accountability for such a privilege?

Finally, since these views come in the wake of many centuries of colonial derision and mockery towards “Hindoo superstition”, one might also ask if the misplaced response to Hindutva actually constitutes the continuation of Hinduphobia by other means, and through other agents.


There are numerous themes that characterize the fantasy version of liberal Hinduism that has emerged in recent writing on South Asian religion. The broadest of these has to do with the existential validity of Hinduism and Hindus, and is closely tied into a narrow depiction of the Hindu middle classes as oppressive elites in contemporary India.

This may be seen to some extent as a response to the Hindutva claim that India is essentially a Hindu land, and has been since ancient times, and was only fairly recently invaded by Muslims and others. Though this seems like common-sense, scholars like Wendy Doniger and Romila Thapar have argued that it is a myth; there was never really a religion called Hinduism, or a people called the Hindus who lived in India since time immemorial (though they do accede to the convention of referring to certain groups of people in the past as Hindus on occasion in order to show that Hindus had a lot of blood on their hands, or in their minds at least, since they invaded parts of the subcontinent too, long before the Muslims ever did). Doniger’s weighty The Hindus: An Alternative History, for example, spells out numerous instances of the said blood and conflict, presumably to counter the celebratory and mystifying effects of a non-existent work entitled The Hindus: A Mainstream History. Important if not widely known figures in Hindu history, such as the prolific 13th century philosopher-saint Sri Madhvacharya, are presented not for their views on God and reality but for a few lines of invective that they may have written about their rivals. Well-known and much-chanted Sanskrit verses that celebrate the multiplicity of the divine are recast here as gory descriptions of mutilation and killing. Through hundreds of such pages full of dismemberment and would-be humorous punnery, Wendy Doniger demonstrates, finally, an important thesis, described in this excerpt from Pankaj Mishra’s admiring review of this book in the New York Times:

“… the first British scholars of India went so far as to invent what we now call ‘Hinduism,’ complete with a mainstream classical tradition consisting entirely of Sanskrit philosophical texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads… this British-Brahmin version of Hinduism… has continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex.”

The implication (or insinuation) here is that there really was nothing in common between the many sects and traditions that came to be classified as “Hinduism” under British colonialism. But what this now commonplace position on Hindu history seems to forget is that even if colonial scholarship invented the idea of a “classical tradition,” or a particular way of viewing our religious history, it does not quite mean that it invented the substance of that religion overnight (Diana Eck’s new book,India: A Sacred Geography, is a good example of more recent scholarship that demonstrates the obvious; even if there was no Hindu “religion” by that name in the past, there was a shared mythological imagination and practice that was deeply entwined with the physical landscape of the subcontinent for at least two thousand years.)

To modern Hindus, who are quite aware of the antiquity of their many places of worship, such a dismissal seems outlandish and lacking in credibility. It seems to make the case for them that eminent South Asian historians are out to vilify Hinduism. Such a reaction, in turn, appears to strengthen the self-perception among Westernized, secularist writers that they are somehow the authentic defenders of South Asia from Hindutva and oppressive Hindu elites in general. (It should be noted that the “oppressive Hindu elite” idea may stem from some commentators’ inability to understand India’s multiple identities, leading to a generalized branding of virtually any violence as “Hindu” even if the hostilities were really about caste, language, or regional identity. Sometimes, the “Hindu” analysis can be simply far-fetched, as we see when the famous religion-critic Sam Harris struggles to somehow present a “Hindu” metaphysics and “otherworldliness” explanation to present the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers’ suicide attacks as a Hindu phenomenon and not as a Sri Lankan Tamil one.)

The dismissal of Hinduism as an elite invention is an important argument to consider. It is part of a broader perception that has emerged on the subject of South Asia among writers who represent it primarily to Western readers, and which tends to demonize the Indian middle class in general, and the Hindu middle class in particular. Since 1991, when economic liberalization generated a vast new social class and some unabashedly aspirational consumerism in India, it has become easy to argue that such people have “seceded” from the real India of the poor and the oppressed. While no one could deny the existence of pressing issues of inequality, the picture that has been formed by recent writing is a strangely skewed one. It seems to view Hindus and the middle classes broadly as elites and everyone else as their victims. More unreasonably, it seems to view the violence of Hindu extremists as somehow rooted in religion (and in religious myth, specifically) and present the violence of others as a righteous struggle arising from poverty and marginalization.

This suggestion was in evidence in the aftermath of the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai when a spate of op-eds in leading American newspapers rushed to explain the economic and political causes of such violence, while ignoring the role of the foreign military and militant elites who masterminded the attack.

This assumption was duly popularized, ironically, in the same month as the terrorist massacre, in the Oscar-sweeping film Slumdog Millionaire, with its endless list of markedly Hindu and Hinduism-spouting villainous oppressors of an innocent Muslim hero – a vital change from the novel, where the everyman hero has a Hindu-Muslim-Christian name. (Coincidentally the plucky protagonist of Katherine Boo’s US National Book Award-winning study of a Mumbai slum, Behind The Beautiful Forevers, is also a Muslim boy.)

Rama giving a blessing with the wrong hand in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

The cruelest irony is that this skewed “anti elite” representation of India has been bestowed with all the aura of authenticity that privilege can offer, as if only those who have access to the edit pages of the mainstream Western media are able to tell or interpret stories of the “real India”. There have been very few challenges to this seemingly learned illusion. Ramachandra Guha has pointed out some of the extreme fallacies in the arguments over Hinduism, most notably the hyperbolic charge heard since the 1990s that India had become a Hindu-fascist nation (as he writes in India After Gandhi, a fascist party would not have stepped down after being defeated in the election). While Guha has been fair in his criticism of the false assumptions coming from both sides of the political spectrum, his own critics appear increasingly to be dilettante internet right-wingers. Often, though, those books about contemporary India which broaden the story, or attempt to tell it from the point of view of India, Indians, or Hindus as the case may be, seem to provoke a hostile reaction. One valid challenge to the didactic secular line on Hindus, Patrick French’s India: A Portrait, appears to have provoked considerable outrage among a section of reviewers. French questions, among other things, the presumptiveness of Amartya Sen, Romila Thapar and Wendy Doniger’s views on Hindus and Indian history (he wonders, rightly, for instance, if the condescension implicit in a title like “The Hindus” would be extended towards other communities like “The Muslims” or “The Christians”). It is apparent that an era of recent writing about India has missed the point of how religion has been transformed in the past two decades, because it is unable to see anything at all beyond Hindutva, and a renewed orientalist mythology of Hinduism as a religion of changeless superstition, and of course, remorselessly unilateral aggression.

The reality of course is that a good portion of India’s middle classes are not as far removed from the less privileged in terms of their history as critics have made them out to be, for the Indian middle class of today contains many first-generation entrants and its youth are far more optimistic about the future than their counterparts in the United States (on an anecdotal note, it also seems to me that most middle class Indians of my generation are far more prosperous than their parents ever were). Similarly, the Hinduism of the middle classes today is far more complex and diverse than has been described in recent writing, with many borders between Hindu sects falling away, and sometimes high-caste Hindus becoming followers of lower-caste gurus (as was the case in my own family). Given the rise of many formerly marginalized castes politically and economically, and the decline of whatever monopoly on privilege that Brahmins may have had in the past, it seems a fantastic exaggeration to reduce Hinduism as it is lived today to an elite project with no roots in popular religiosity. Anyone who has visited a temple or pilgrimage center in India with its teeming crowds composed of various class sections would be struck by the artifice of such an accusation.

Today’s Hinduism is often an accommodation not only between Brahmins and other communities, but also between philosophy and devotion, and most of all, between classical textual sources and more recent retellings through cinema and television. Yet Mishra, for instance, insists that: “Popular devotional cults, shrines, festivals, rites and legends that vary across India [and] still form the worldview of a majority of Indians” are somehow different from what he calls a “British-Brahmin” Hinduism of scriptures and texts. On the contrary, the singular obsession with texts (often through dubious and selective colonial-era translations) at the expense of the worldview of Hindus remains a characteristic not of the religious devotees but of the privileged academic experts of Hinduism. What they possess, in every sense of Edward Said’s phrase, is a textual attitude, and what their work has done, despite its many progressive aspirations, is to merely perpetuate orientalism. This orientalism, this sheer lust for power through meaning, has been played out in the stories of the gods and the myths.

Debates about the history of Hinduism and Hindus are an understandable terrain for interpretations from the left and the right to play out, but what is less understandable is the serious denial of Hindus’ right to their own interpretations of their sacred stories. This denial, of course, is not even acknowledged, because virtually any assertion by Hindus over what the gods mean to them is invariably condemned as a Hindutva conspiracy to impose a monolithic interpretation of religion upon South Asia’s pluralism and diversity. TheThree Hundred Ramayanas essay controversy is a typical example of this tendency. While A.K. Ramanujan’s essay is regarded as a classic in academic circles for its erudite discussion of the many different versions of the Ramayana that exist in South Asian literature, Delhi University’s decision to remove the essay from its undergraduate reading list after a protest by a Hindu student group was widely seen by secular commentators as one more attempt by Hindutva forces to deny religious pluralism. But there was one question posed by the Hindutva activists involved that is worth considering: it may be true that hundreds of versions of the Ramayana exist, but why would you want to teach the ones that depict our beloved gods as villains (and the invariable equal treatment question: would you teach The Satanic Verses, or worse, against the wishes of Muslims)? While political parties may have their own selfish interests in raising such concerns, and students and faculty are right to defend academic freedom, the Ramayana controversy should also serve as a reminder that the Ramayana is perceived, ultimately, in India as the story of a god. The real question to consider is simply whether the writers of the secular left have turned religious pluralism into an empty cliché.

The concern, and at times, the outrage, that Hindus feel about how Hindu gods and goddesses are misrepresented, especially by academics, has less to do with an intolerance of diversity, since diverse stories are the norm in everyday Hindu practice, than with disrespect. Secular commentators often assume a belief in the sanctity of these stories is tantamount to denigrating pluralism, without recognizing that a great deal of pluralism exists within the space of Hindu mythology to begin with.

It should be obvious to anyone familiar with India that most Hindus are quite aware that there are indeed numerous variations of the stories of the gods. It is not uncommon to encounter different forms of the same stories in the course of interactions with people from other regions and communities (even the names vary, “Rama” in South India, “Ram” in the North) and through the proliferation of dubbed TV serials and movies. Modern Hindus have been tolerant (I would even say uncritical) of a wide range of depictions of their gods in the mass media. A spate of animated TV shows and children’s movies have rendered the familiar characters of mythology into new genres, in which the child gods fight aliens, play cricket, and give each other high-fives. One of the biggest-selling novels of recent years in India is Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy, an unorthodox and humanizing take on the god as a troubled, intelligent human figure confronting everything from terrorism to untouchability in an ancient setting. The myths, it seems can be sacred, and otherwise. The mere fact that others may have different stories has rarely offended Hindus. After all, a popular festival like Deepavali can be about Rama’s return in some places, and about Krishna and Satyabhama’s defeat of Narakasura in others (and of course, some places may not even have heard of Satyabhama, and others, of Radha). I do not recall anyone attempting to silence these differences and impose a monolithic Hinduism at all. It is just that the organic pluralism of Hinduism around the world is very different from the elite postmodern one that permeates high academic writing.

The issue, in other words, is not that Hindus are unaware of the ancient varieties of Hinduism, as secular critics assume, but that they are unwilling to grant disrespectful readings of the epics the same value as other interpretations. It has however become a commonplace secular prescription to demand that all versions of the sacred epics be granted the same value, as if accepting that Ram was merely a fictional character were a prerequisite for citizenship in a secular democracy. No matter how much secular writers and historians insist that the Ramayana or Mahabharata are merely stories and the heroes in one version can be villains in another, the fact is that these are not perceived as merely works of fiction by most Hindus, but as stories of the gods. That, more than anything else, is the question that the commentators on the Hindu culture wars of the past few decades have failed to address. And nowhere does this failure speak more loudly than in the controversies about academic experts who sexualize the Hindu gods in their work.


The most intractable difference in perception between Hindus and those who merely write about them (especially in the West) concerns the appropriateness of depicting the gods and goddesses in sexual terms. Academic experts on Hinduism like Wendy Doniger have received a great deal of criticism and even some threats for their sexualized readings of Hindu gods and saints. The usual secular response to charges against academics who inaccurately sexualize Hindu gods and goddesses has been to insist that the Hindu right is in denial of Hinduism’s rich heritage of sexual celebration. Sometimes, even more is read into such objections. Martha Nussbaum, for instance, makes the following argument in connection with the controversy about the scholar Paul B. Courtright’s comparison of the god Ganesha’s trunk to a limp penis:

“What men of the Hindu right seem to want in their gods is strong muscle and warlike aggression. What they do not like to think about when they think about a god is the round belly of Ganesha, his soft elephant’s trunk; the mere suggestion that this trunk might symbolize a limp penis causes violent outrage.”

While it may be true that “men of the Hindu right” want strong and muscular gods (and the hypermasculine forms of Ram we now see in posters are indeed very different from the older imagery), what is truly bewildering is how oblivious Nussbaum seems to be to the fact that it is not just macho Hindutva men who would be outraged by such a comparison, but virtually every peaceful adult or child. Starting with the absurd assumption that the outrage was caused by the comparison of Ganesha’s trunk to a limp penis, she goes on to build a case for sex as the answer to Hindutva machismo.

The problem with this sort of missionary zeal is that it completely misses the reality of how Hindus actually think about the gods and goddesses (and I am quite sure no one has stopped thinking of Ganesha’s round belly and soft trunk and sensitive eyes even in this age of Hindutva). Once again, the arguments of the secular left have failed to do much else than to reveal how ignorant they are about the way devout Hindus conceptualize their gods. Even the widely proclaimed example of the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho hardly represents the forms or functions of the sculptures of the deities to which Hindus normally offer prayers to in their temples. Khajuraho’s fame is precisely because it is an exception to the thousands of temples that exist all over India. There is a vast difference between the occasional presence of erotically aesthetic sculptures on the exteriors of a few temples, and the more maternal, paternal, or child-like forms of the deities to which Hindus actually pray (the Lingam, a symbol for Lord Shiva may be held up as an exception, but even that is not quite seen by the practicing and devout as a sexual sign, as I discuss below).

Most devout Hindus have formed a picture of the gods in their inner lives long before they learn the facts of sexuality, and in this picture, the affection and reverence they feel for the gods is usually parental, and therefore non-sexual. We think of Shiva and Parvathi, for example, as parental figures; no matter how much scholars may argue that a Lingam is Shiva’s penis, or tourists think that a goddess sculpture looks hot, in our minds they are known only as our Adi-Dampatulu (Telugu for Primal Couple), and she, our Ammavaru (Revered Mother). It may be the case that there are ancient textual sources that suggest the Lingam is a phallus, and there are also other ancient textual sources that suggest otherwise. Scholars like Doniger, naturally, dwell on the first and dismiss the others in cocksure fashion.

Diana Eck, on the other hand, writes inIndia: A Sacred Geography that the phallus interpretation, while not completely absent, has been exaggerated widely due to a mistranslation and simply does not represent how Hindus think about it. As she writes, “the linga (in at least one interpretation) is an epiphany of such transcendence that it can hardly be considered a part, much less an anatomical part, of Shiva as he appears in embodied form.” The phallus theory is just that, one among others, and fails to do justice to how the devout think, and ultimately, how a culture seeks to represent its yearning for the divine. It is also helpful to understand why Hindus find it, and the sexualization of the deities more broadly, deeply offensive. As Bill Aitken writes, Hindu reticence in talking about sex is not because it is seen as dirty, but simply because it is recognized as “too sacred a mystery for idle talk.” Something dirty, on the other hand, is what Doniger’s invitation to her readers to peruse her endnotes like “dogs sniffing one anothers’ backsides to see what they have eaten lately” feels like. For readers used to revering all books as symbols of the Goddess Saraswathi, or for those of us who like to respect the social investment that goes into scholarship and publishing, that seems needlessly flippant, if not plainly barbaric.

This attitude towards the sacred has weakened whatever case these writers might have sought to make against the right-wing’s abuse of religion. Though one need not subscribe to belief in order to represent something with accuracy and civility, at the very least one might refrain from disdain. What has happened in the culture wars seems more like a backlash against Hindus rather than a mere critique of the Hindu right. It is, after all, one thing to argue that there is no historical evidence that a temple to Lord Rama was destroyed by Babar’s general to build a mosque, and another to insist that believers think in a certain narrowly prescribed way about their gods. No one could deny the need for introspection among Hindus, whether on the historic grounds of caste, or in terms of the new politics of anger against Muslims and some Christians. But to credibly state this case, experts on Hinduism and South Asia need to become less self-righteous and more aware of how their own backgrounds of privilege might distance their view from that of ordinary Hindus.

Much of the sexual argument, for instance, seems to be little more than a Freudian projection of a quarrel that some Western writers have with the puritanical elements of their own religious upbringing. And among South Asian scholars too, we see hints of a personal history that might have led to their own peculiar views of the situation. Amartya Sen, for example, refers to his own absence of attraction to Hinduism as a religion while growing up. As he writes in The Argumentative Indian, he was raised in a household where there were no religious rituals at all – a fairly unusual condition in India. His distinguished Bengali intellectual family background encouraged a skeptical approach to religion, but one might also wonder if all of this has made his arguments less appreciative of how religion appears to the majority. While religious belief need not be the only qualification to write about religion (and Sen is indeed a celebrated scholar of the texts), it would also be useful to also hear the views of those for whom Hinduism is not only an “object” of study but a living philosophy.

The celebrated rise of world-acclaimed South Asian writing in the past few decades has quite notably lacked a Hindu voice, let alone an outright Hindu-right voice to debate the one-sided argument that has taken place so far (for one thing, it seems odd to see mighty scholars like Doniger making their arguments not against other scholars and writers but mostly with eccentric internet Hindutva zealots and their dilettante theories). A whole generation of eminent Indian writers – writers for the West – has come to the fore, and they seem to have no interest in questions of faith outside of identity-politics; and when they do turn their eloquent pens to journeys of spiritual discovery, it is usually from other traditions than Hinduism. Collections of fine spiritual writing, like the Penguin anthologies published each year in the United States, for example, include many eloquent and insightful essays on everything from deserts in religion to the Dalai Lama’s American visits, but no Hindu voices at all. A Hindu’s account of a quest or pilgrimage has never, so far as I can remember, found a place in the New Yorker magazine.

When a Hindu issue makes the news, it is rarely afforded the honor of a Hindu speaking about it. It is as if Hindus need experts, and foreign experts in particular, to decode us, even for the intelligent literary reader in the Western market.

One reason for the absence of Hindu voices in general, or at least an accurate portrayal of Hindu thought, might be the professional polarization that seems to have taken place in my generation. Most of the devout Hindus I know of (and the Hindutva supporters I read on online comment boards) seem to be doctors, engineers, and scientists. Most of the writers, artists, academics and activists (of the left) that I know and know of seem to be disinterested in religion, if not hostile. Perhaps it was the middle class anxiety of my parents’ generation for us to become engineers and doctors that has led to such an overwhelming skew towards those careers. However, it also seems that a new generation of Hindu parents, and not just those in the diaspora, has come of age with a broader view of education. They may still want their children to have the career security of doctors and engineers, but there is, especially for those who have financial security and now want a meaning for life, a greater desire to explore, and to be engaged. So much of what we acquired as religion in our childhood seems unreflective now, our parents doing what our grandparents did. But now, as we become parents ourselves, we recognize that we are the first generation to have to deal with the new stories being told by globalization, diasporic experience, and of course, Hindutva and the related culture wars, and we perhaps feel more invested in shaping the story of religion as it passes on. Unfortunately, only the ideologues of the Hindu right have been successful in offering a language for engagement to my generation, and to those who are growing up in a distinct post-liberalization India.

If the secular left wished to speak to the wider Hindu community, it would be imperative to get over its own mythology. The solutions they offer do not resonate beyond their own privileged world of academic conferences and literary festivals (a propos Doniger, one might say that the comrades in the good fight should stop sniffing one another and smell the incense). I believe there is a liberal Hinduism, and that there are many devout, liberal Hindus who recognize the rights of minorities to coexist in India and equally wish to assert their own right to fight centuries of colonial and postcolonial racism, marginalization, and mockery of their faith. They are the true “alternative” to the nationalism of the Hindu right, and not the sanctified, subversive notions that have dominated the writings of the secular left.

There have indeed been many changes in recent years among devout Hindus in terms of how mythology is talked about, but one is especially important. Now, there is an anxiety about referring to the stories of the gods as “stories” that perhaps did not exist before. These new ways of speaking of religion in terms of history, scriptural and otherwise, are part of a confrontation between merely living in belief and finding modern ways of talking about it, a process that began largely in the 1980s, perhaps as a result of the phenomenal reception of theRamayan television series. The Ramayanhas sometimes been blamed for the rise of Hindutva, though its impact may have been more indirect and subtle than that (such criticism also forgets that Indian cinema has had a much larger tradition of mythological film-making, especially in South India, where Hindutva is not quite as prevalent). What it seems to have done, as Purnima Mankekar and Arvind Rajagopal’s studies suggest, is to encourage speaking about the stories of the gods in new ways, not just as devotion, but as heritage and history. It marked the beginning of a self-consciousness about Hinduism, an epistemic shift from a long-standing practice of silence, ambivalence, and “non-definition” as a colonial survival strategy (discussed brilliantly in Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy). Since then, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Hindutva movement to capitalize on it, a particular way of speaking about Hinduism as heritage and history has become increasingly pervasive among younger, middle class Hindus, both in India and in the diaspora. For them, the stories are no longer merely “myths” but “scripture.”

The new assertiveness about Hinduism and Hindu identity is however not based on a naively superstitious understanding of myth, as many writers have made it out to be. As Diana Eck shows in India: A Sacred Geography, there is a close connection between the landscape of the subcontinent and its religious beliefs. What is a useful lesson though for the skewed debate we have had so far is her fear “that somehow the image of a sacred geography enlivened by the presence of the gods and interlinked through the circulation of pilgrims would further feed the fervor of an exclusive new Hindu nationalism”. It is indeed a strange predicament that a truthful account of India such as Eck’s seems more poised to provide ammunition for right-wing appropriation than for a secular cause, and one reason for this might well be the ill-informed and reactionary manner in which South Asian (and South Asian diasporic) “progressive” society has come to deal with religion. In India, or at least in that hallowed space of India in which a small, privileged, anglicized elite freshly broken from its past (and the ever-religious present of its majority) live and fret about troubles with religion, it is no longer easy to be “religious” and credible. Gurcharan Das writes in The Difficulty of Being Good, for example, about how his decision to study the Mahabharata was met with surprise and scorn. “Good lord, man,” one distinguished friend of his exclaimed, “you haven’t turned saffron, have you?” An invitation to speak at a school, he writes, was withdrawn for fear that the topic (the Mahabharata) was religious and therefore potentially offensive to a secular school-board member. It is not surprising at all in India’s bustling literary-intellectual world where a fashionable skepticism has become the new sacred cow, oblivious, despite so many symbolic political salaams to the people, of the very culture of faith that animates them.

The reality is that many Indian Hindus feel more assertive about Hindu identity than perhaps previous generations ever did. While the reasons for this are complex, it would be a mistake to think of this as a breakdown in the secular project, and more incorrect to think that the only alternative to Hindu assertiveness is the narrow secular prescription advocated from the ivory-towers of India and the West. This prescription, after all, has been not merely a call to reject militant Hindu nationalism, but really a much deeper injunction to de-Hinduize altogether. Neither the British, in the era of colonialism and then partition, nor the Americans in the era of the Cold War, quite saw it in that way. It seems an amazing fantasy therefore that Hindus should reject something that the world has not. Hindu identity may be a more recent invention than Hindu belief, but it ought not to be dismissed. And the formidable battery of intellects and writers who are read in the West should turn their attention from battling the comments of angry message-board posters (who do not write op-eds anyway) to addressing some real questions that the Hindu community has legitimately posed. They could, perhaps, understand why they should have educated the Economist when it referred to a sacred Shiva-Lingam as a “penis-shaped lump of ice,” just as they pounced on the news media for their inaccurate views of Islam and the war on terror. They could, perhaps, acknowledge that they might sometimes be wrong in their own deracinated scholarship, and that sometimes Hindus do know better about themselves, and that a Lingam is only a Lingam. They could look inwards and admit that they do not comprehend the pleasure and religious ecstasy in Hindu spirituality. They could perhaps in their writing even begin to address Hinduphobia with the same zeal they show when they are fighting Islamophobia. That would really be secularism.

Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author, most recently, of The Mythologist: A Novel (Penguin India)


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