The “White Hindus” Phenomenon

Hello readers,

Today will be a short post. On October 5th I’ll be speaking at Princeton University in the practicioner section of this event titled: The “White Hindus” Phenomenon: A Symposium on Sanatana Dharma, Race, and Identity. I’ll be discussing the tensions of multiple identites (Hindu, non-Hindu. Indian, white) and the problem with this sort of binary thinking.  My presentation is entitled: None of the Above: Moving Beyond the Binary. This link has all the information you’ll need. If you are interested in attending, please email the  Coordinator for Hindu Life at Princeton: vchander@princeton.edu

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Maybe I’ll see some of you there!

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4 comments on “The “White Hindus” Phenomenon

  1. paul says:

    hey, there. I wasn’t able to attend this. have you published any of your material on this topic, or is there a recording of the event? much thanks

  2. Vercetti says:

    Howdy, Nick!

    Long time no talk since our last e-mail exchanges.

    First, I would like to express my appreciation of the fact that you finally got around to updating your blog by posting more blog-posts. Yay! :P

    I would like to ask you if you may be kind as to share background of what was discussed in this event – how Western Hindu brothers and sisters see themselves, how they address misconceptions levied at Hinduism(s) by Western non-Hindus, how they feel about Indian Hindus, etc. etc. etc.

    I never knew there was any such phenomena going on. I have been confined to my study of the Purva Mimamsa Sutras, therefore: I have been away from researching the facets of Western Hindus and their lifestyles and religious and spiritual paths in Hinduism(s). I would be more than obliged if you could offer a short and briefly constructed response as to how the event went and what was discussed and if there are issues that concern our Western Hindu brothers and sisters.

    Thank you.

    -Vercetti

    • Thanks for the comment Vercetti!

      I admit that I’ve been avoiding responding to this comment. There is just so much to say about it and I fear leaving something out. There was such a huge range of experiences and opinions given that I’m very hesitant to make sweeping statements about what was said. But here are some of the subjects which came up which most interested me, and my filtered recapitulation of the discussion surrounding them:

      Adhikara: or the notion of “authority” or “qualification.” For example, it is interesting to ask the question “How do you know how to hold an aarati tray?” To an Indian Hindu they probably wouldn’t even know how to answer. Probably their grandmother held their hand while doing it as a baby, and it became a form of ingrained cultural knowledge. How do you know how to pronounce Sanskrit syllables? How do you know the plot of the Ramayana? Whereas for Indian Hindus, these things are “just known,” White Hindus, if they do want to pick these things up, need to put in concerted effort *as adults* to learn them, and often don’t imbibe them as fully as a result. Is this a problem? There are some Hindus who don’t take these rituals as seriously. So for them, “Adhikara,” the sense of authority, comes from knowledge of the philosophy, historical knowledge, etc. But for the majority of Hindus, ritualistic acts are taken very seriously. In any case though, White Hindus do seem to be held to a higher standard of Ashikara (especially if they are in an educational role) than Indian Hindus. There is this sense of “Oh? You are a Hindu? Prove it. Your Sanskrit should be *better* than mine if you are going to teach my kids Mahabharata.” Where does Adhikara come from? What do you think of it? How do different communities construe it? Is this a form of subtle racism, or is it a reasonable defense against insincere cultural appropriation?

      What sort of “Hinduism” do we have in the west?: This was a big question. One of the academics brought up that the range of beliefs which comprise Hinduism is far more diverse in India than it is in the west, for obvious reasons (number of people, diversity of social classes, castes, linguistic/ethnic/regional groups, etc.) In India there are Dalits who believe that the Atman (soul) simply dissolves after death. There are some Brahmins who eat meat. There are people who are Hindu and Buddhist or Hindu and Sikh. There are Bauls. There are people in Rajastan who it would be hard to discern if they are Hindu or Muslim. There are people who we would characterize as polytheist, dualist, monist, pantheist, atheist. But what sort of Hinduism do we have in the West?——— Well, a lot of it is derivative of Ramakrishna, via Swami Vivekananda, since he was the first major Hindu philosopher to come to the United States to teach. Which means that American Hinduism is largely Advaita Vedanta- or non-dualistic, Vedanta. Indeed, many American Hindus see Vedanta and Hinduism as being basically synonymous. As such, it is highly theoretical, abstract, and philosophical. Not much dancing, not much folk festivals, not thousands of deities. And it is derivative of a high-caste, high-class Hinduism, which is of course highly textual. This would be unrecognizable to the oral, folk, tradition based Hinduism which much of India practices. This is not to leave out the Hare Krishnas though. They are basically dualists, and are MUCH larger outside of India than within India. And there is some controversy amongst their ranks as to if they should include themselves under the “Hindu” umbrella. But they generally derive from a different social strata than the Vedantists. And they DO have a lot of dancing, and they even proselytize. There is also the strain in Western though of Hindu influenced thinkers, such as the American transcendentalists, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, the Beatles, Hippies, Hipsters, Beatnicks, etc. And THEN there is the wide number of Western Hindus (including many brown skinned ones) whose knowledge of Hinduism is almost completely textual, having not grown up in the tradition or experienced any cultural knowledge of it. Is this a sort of reconstructionism? Where does the Hinduism of White Hindus originate? How does it influence how they relate to the rest of the global Hindu Community? In what sense have White Hindus formed their own tradition or sub-tradition? How much of the Western emphasis on the textual tradition is a result of our being surrounded by Abrahamic traditions? Or the impact of British Colonialism on Hinduism studies? Or the dominance of Brahmins in the discourse on Hinduism? How have western values and thoght-structures like individualism, egalitarianism, and rationalism influenced how White Hindus, and Westernized Indians practice Hinduism? What about social class and geography? Which leads me into—–

      Jut to touch on three other subjects more briefly:

      Caste and community is another major point of difference. These things plays a major role for the majority of lay worshippers, and in India, caste is often the main constituent of a community. Where do White Hindus even fit into the caste system? They won’t be allowed in certain Indian temples because Hinduism does have a history of being a sort of ethnoreligion– a point I’ll touch on again soon. How does the community shape Hindu worship amongst White people? Are they welcome into Indian groups, or do they have to form their own? People generally report being welcomed, but that there is nevertheless as indefinable sense of “difference” which is difficult to overcome. Perhaps this will change as demographics change.

      Then there are interesting questions concerning the conceptualization of space. Indian Hinduism is strongly tied to local communities and local geography. In the West, where are the ancient festivals which have been carried on in the city/town/village square for centuries? Where are the pilgrimage sites? They don’t exist. But yet space is still a part of worship. The local American Ashram might be treated as a sort of holy place or minor pilgrimage. Going to India is often seen as a rite of passage, or a major pilgrimage in and of itself. It will be interest to watch and see how White Hindus conceptually modify their surroundings as the tradition develops

      The last point I’ll address is the sort of splitting between Hindu Ethnonationalism and Universalism. Hinduism is always splitting into a thousand different directions, but recently it seems to be splitting in two primary directions. There are those who are political conservative (on the Indian political spectrum,) and who don’t necessarily know or care a lot about Hindu philosophy, except that it is “superior” to Abrahamism. For them, Hindu is a political and communal label. This branch of Hinduism is getting somewhat similar to Judaism. For a set of ethnic groups, Hinduism is becoming an ethnoreligion, as Judaism is the ethnoreligion of the Jewish ethnicity. In this branch of Hinduism, belief matters less than practice and display. Do you stay vegetarian? Support the BJP, RSS, and VHP? Despise Pakistan and fear Muslims? Glorify a mythic Vedic Golden Age? Advocate some sort of mildly theocratic measures for the Indian State ie Hindu Rashtra? Then you are on “our team.” For obvious reasons, this group is comprised mostly of Indians. HOWEVER, it is very interesting to note that a few of the most prominent writers of this diverging movement are/have been in fact white. Savitri Devi and David Frawley come to mind. ———–But then there is the opposite trend. The Universalizing trend, where ethnicity doesn’t matter, and in fact the political situation in India doesn’t even matter. India is just the source of these scriptures. This can perhaps be analogized to Christianity, in this comparative framework (these analogies won’t stick if you press them too hard, but I’m only comparing a few sparse characteristics.) These are the people that care a lot more about spirituality, philosophy, meditation, etc, than about anything worldly. These two trends exist uncomfortably side by side. The ethnonationalists enjoy the universalists, because they aid in the glorification of the tradition. The universalists like the ethnonationalists because they provide resources and literature to aid in their spiritual development. But their temperaments and views on practical afford diverge wildly. I’m curious to see where this split will take us. Will White Hindus eventually feel strong enough in their identity to generally contest the actions of Hindutva bands in India? Will the ethnonationalists ever begin to see the universalists as a political liability and a “corruption”? Probably neither.

      Anyway these are some of the lines of discussion which came up, but like I said, if any two people were to write a similar narration it would probably come out completely differently.

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