Tag Archive for 'Hinduism'

Swami Vivekananda: Social reformer or caste votary?

In Outlook, an excerpt from Cosmic Love and Human Empathy: Swami Vivekananda’s Restatement of Religion by Jyotirmaya Sharma (Harpercollins):

If there is one phrase in the popular consciousness that effortlessly invokes the name and memory of Ramakrishna, it is ‘Ramakrishna’s catholicity’. Vivekananda, more than anyone else, helped construct the elements that constituted this carefully edited, censored and wilfully misleading version of his master’s ‘catholicity’. He used it to mean what he thought was Ramakrishna’s tolerance, generosity and inclusiveness in relation to other faiths while carefully glossing over the sources and influences that produced this ‘catholicity’. The continued use of the term has had a longevity independent of Vivekananda’s remoulding of Ramakrishna from a “religious ecstatic to a religious eclectic”, and continues to be used even to this day by perceptive and critical readers of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda story.

Faith is a creation and gift of god and it is beyond the jurisdiction of humans to tamper with it: “Suppose there are errors in the religion that one has accepted; if one is sincere and earnest, then god Himself will correct these errors…. If there are errors in other religions, that is none of our business. God, to whom the world belongs, takes care of that.” Ramakrishna does not stop at this, but goes further to warn against the triumphalism that sets in when individuals or faiths arbitrarily decide that they are right and all others are wrong. They think of faith in terms of winning and losing, where, invariably, they perceive that they and their faith alone have won and all others have lost. “But a person who has gone forward may be detained by some slight obstacle,” warns Ramakrishna, “and someone who has been lagging behind may then steal a march on him.” God’s ways are mysterious, and triumph and defeat too are in his hands.

If these are the foundations upon which Ramakrishna’s inclusiveness, universality and doctrinal generosity rested, it is also true that there was a complete absence in the Kathamrita of a clearly articulated Hindu identity. Even less so was the idea of a threatening, antagonistic ‘Other’ in the form of Islam or Christianity. Sumit Sarkar is right when he says that in Ramakrishna and in the pages of the Kathamrita “there is no developed sense of a sharply distinct ‘Hindu’ identity—let alone any political use of it”. There is, however, one exception within the Kathamrita that causes a mild dissonance in our total and categorical rejection of the presence of a cohesive Hindu identity in Ramakrishna. It must also be said that this exception is vastly outweighed by the overwhelming evidence that points towards Ramakrishna’s radical rejection of differences, hierarchies and claims of superiority among sects and faiths. More:

His Inclusiveness Is A Powerful Myth’ Read interview with Jyotirmaya Sharma here.

India: A Sacred Geography

In Mint-Lounge, Rachel Dwyer reviews India: A Sacred Geography by Diana L Eck:

Diana L. Eck, a distinguished scholar whose book, Banaras: City of Light, is rightly regarded as a classic, is an ideal guide. Wearing her immense learning lightly, she leads us gently but firmly through the contested nature of India’s sacredness. She focuses mostly, though not exclusively, on Hindu texts, taking the reader around the whole country, though rarely stepping beyond its 1947 borders. After the introduction and “What is India?” sections, themselves comprising a hundred pages, the book is organized around an overview of Hindu cosmography, the sacred rivers, then the landscapes of five major deities, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, Krishna and Ram. Eck travels from place to place, pausing to tell us stories before moving smoothly on to the next.

In Hinduism, the boundaries between humans, gods and animals are porous. Vishnu’s 10 incarnations include animals (kurma or tortoise, matsya or fish), half-animals (Narasimha or the Man-Lion) and humans (Krishna, Ram). Yet Hinduism does not stop with the animate, as gods are also manifest as shalagrams (stone symbols of Vishnu) and other svayambhu (spontaneously occurring) forms. These include signs of Shiva as lingas, notably the 12 jyotirlingas (lingas of light) as well as murtis (statues) and swarupas (true forms) or in mountains, rivers and forests. More:

The industrious god

Gautam Pemmaraju at 3quarksdaily:

The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yacht’s in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple. More:

Open season on owls in India

The period between Dussehra and Diwali (October) is the worst for owls; demand rises to a peak as they are sacrificed to ward off evil and ensure prosperity. Ananda Banerjee from New Delhi in Mint:

A spotted owlet disguised to pass off as a rock eagle owl.

For Hindus, Tuesday night, a full-moon one, is among the most auspicious of the year. In some parts of the country, it is the night people worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

Ironically, it is also the day they sacrifice the goddess’ traditional mount, the owl, a blood-letting that is supposed to ward off bad luck and ensure prosperity.

Which is where Baheliya, a fifth-generation bird trader, comes in. From his base in the back alleys of Kumar Mohalla in Meerut, Baheliya will sell a few owls on Tuesday, pocketing a few tens of thousands of rupees.

The period between Dussehra and Diwali, the two biggest Hindu festivals in the second half of the year, is usually as bad for owls as much as it’s good for people like Baheliya. He can expect to make up to Rs50,000 by selling two or three owls. Demand rises to a peak at the time of Diwali, which is also an occasion for the worship of Lakshmi. The catalyst for the owl trade is often the tagline Bengal ka kaala jaadu or black magic, which is critical to swaying customers. More:

The Hinduism of a Borneo tribe

In The New York Times:

Tumbang Saan, Indonesia: In this village near the heart of Borneo’s great, dissolving rainforest, Udatn is regarded as a man of deep spiritual knowledge.

Of all the people in this tiny settlement, he speaks better than any other the esoteric language of the Sangiyang, the spirits and ancestors of the upper world, known simply as “Above.” His is a key role in the rituals of Kaharingan, one of a number of names for the ancestor-worshipping religion of Borneo’s indigenous forest people, the Dayak.

“In the beginning, when God separated the darkness and the light, there was Kaharingan,” said Mr. Udatn, as he sat smoking a wooden pipe on the floor of his stilt home. (Like many Indonesians Mr. Udatn uses only one name.)

The Indonesian government thinks otherwise. The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country is no Islamic state, but it is a religious one. Every citizen must subscribe to one of six official creeds: Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism or Hinduism. Kaharingan, like dozens of other native faiths, does not officially exist. More:

A skeptic’s guide to reincarnation

Hartosh Singh Bal in 3quarksdaily:

The Karmapa sits cross-legged on a throne facing several rows of monks, mostly Tibetan and male, arrayed on the floor according to rank. The rows behind the monks are the lay deity, most Western and female, gathered here to hear him preach during his annual sojourn at Sarnath, just a few miles from Benares. A life-size picture of the Dalai Lama looks down on him, above and beyond golden against the vivid blue, yellow and oranges of the murals on the monastery walls a giant statue of the Buddha dwarfs them both.

He is speaking at the Vajra meditation centre, across the road from the centre is the boundary wall of the deer park where the Budha first preached the dhamma almost 2,500 years ago. I am in the audience because a series of ham-handed interventions by the state government of Himachal Pradesh, the state where the Dalai Lama has dwelt in India after his flight from Tibet in 1959, have managed to rather implausibly brand the Karmapa a Chinese spy, the others in the audience, pained as they are by the charges, are here because they believe the 26-year-old seated before them is seventeenth in the line of reincarnations that date back to the first Karmapa born in 1110.

Since then, they believe, each Karmapa has left a message foretelling where he would be reborn, and senior Lamas of the Kagyu sect (one of the four important schools of Tibetan Buddhism including the Dalai Lama’s Gelug school that attained political power in Tibet in the seventeenth century with some help from the Mongols) have set out in search each time a Karmapa has died. The idea became central to Tibetan Buddhism and was slowly imitated by other schools. The Dalai Lama lineage starts hundreds of years later, which is why the current Dalai Lama is but the fourteenth in the chain of reincarnations.

The system has given rise to an elaborate web of interrelated reincarnations comprising the important lamas of the various sects. When a young boy is identified as a reincarnation based on a set of signs and portents, he is brought to be trained at a monastery, usually by the very men who had been taught by his predecessor, and when they die it is he who will identify their reincarnations. Unlike a western observer, the concept is not alien to me, quite the contrary. Among my people, the Sikhs, it is the tenth guru – Gobind Singh who brought the line of living gurus to an end by vesting that spiritual power in a book that is largely a compilation of their writings. More:

The real roots of yoga

Yoga is a rich, multi-cultural, constantly changing interdisciplinary construction, far from the pure line that its adherents often claim for it. Wendy Doniger in The Sunday Times:

Some American Hindus have recently argued that Hindus should “Take Back Yoga”. The Hindu American Foundation insists “that the philosophy of yoga was first described in Hinduism’s seminal texts and remains at the core of Hindu teaching”, that yoga is the legacy of a timeless, spiritual “Indian wisdom”. Other Americans agree that the Hindus should take back yoga – from the many Christians who embrace it: R. Albert Mohler Jr, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, advises Christians to abandon yoga if they value their (Christian) souls. This fight evokes for me the Monty Python skit in which Greek and German philosophers compete in a football game (which ends with Marx claiming that the Greek goalscorer was off-side). Declaring the Southern Baptists (or at least the Revd R. Albert Mohler) off-side, we may still ask, why do so many American Hindus care so much whether yoga is Hindu? And is it?

One reason for the Hindu concern is suggested by the capitalist overtones of phrases used by Dr Aseem Shukla, a urologist who is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation: Hinduism has “lost control of the brand” of yoga and has been the victim of “overt intellectual property theft” by people who have “offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism”. In other words, yoga is a sacred cash cow: about 15 million people in America practise (and generally pay for) something that they call yoga, making it a multi-billion-dollar industry.

But a deeper casus belli lies in the two-fold historical claim made by activists of Hindu American identity politics: that yoga (a) was first described in the ancient Vedic texts of Hinduism and (b) has always been the core of Hinduism. Hindu Americans’ deep investment (to continue the financial metaphor) in these claims about history has its own history. For, given the human obsession with roots, those claims generally take the form of arguments about the origins of yoga, a quest for purity of lineage, for undefiled racial descent, here as always a mad quest, since the history of yoga is, like most histories, a palimpsest. More:

A village in a million

Shahabpur, a village on the Gangetic plain, is caste-addled and somehow cohesive. But modernity, fast encroaching, is changing its ancient ways. From The Economist Christmas edition:

AFTER a night of civil war, the feral dogs that live around Sarju Prasad’s mud hut in Shahabpur, a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP), have, at last, gone quiet. It is 5am. From a charpoy—a bed of sticks and string—set outside the hut, the boughs of the overhanging trees are dimly visible. Then a clumsy-footed crow awakes in them, stirring the branches and croaking mournfully. And with a creaking of its rickety string-bound frame, Sarju rises from the adjacent charpoy, steps between a dozen curled-up canine forms, and begins his working-day.

It starts early because he has two jobs. Sarju, who is around 45, mends shoes in Shahabpur’s bazaar, a rutted street lined with around 30 shops. Hence his nickname: “Mochi”, or “cobbler” in Hindi. He also disposes of dead buffaloes, cattle and goats. Using a small bicycle cart, now tucked securely between the hut and its flimsy stockade of thorn-branches, he fetches the carcasses, skins them and leaves what remains for the dogs. He roughly cures the skins and sells them and the bones to a local trader. This earns him somewhere between 500 rupees ($11) and 1,500 rupees a month, and no friends.

Working leather has been Sarju’s family profession for centuries. Hinduism has ordained it. The family is of the chamar, or tanning, caste, one of dozens traditionally dedicated to menial or “unclean” occupations, and therefore considered “untouchable”. This discrimination, suffered by around one in five Hindus, was banned shortly after India won independence in 1947. Yet it is to varying degrees still apparent in the countryside, especially here on north India’s vast and teeming Gangetic plain. More:

A debate over Yoga’s soul

A small foundation has generated buzz with a campaign asserting that “Hinduism has lost control of the brand.” Paul Vitello in The New York Times:

Yoga is practiced by about 15 million people in the United States, for reasons almost as numerous — from the physical benefits mapped in brain scans to the less tangible rewards that New Age journals call spiritual centering. Religion, for the most part, has nothing to do with it.

But a group of Indian-Americans has ignited a surprisingly fierce debate in the gentle world of yoga by mounting a campaign to acquaint Westerners with the faith that it says underlies every single yoga style followed in gyms, ashrams and spas: Hinduism.

The campaign, labeled “Take Back Yoga,” does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it, the Hindu American Foundation, suggests only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.

That suggestion, modest though it may seem, has drawn a flurry of strong reactions from figures far apart on the religious spectrum. Dr. Deepak Chopra, the New Age writer, has dismissed the campaign as a jumble of faulty history and Hindu nationalism. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has said he agrees that yoga is Hindu — and cited that as evidence that the practice imperiled the souls of Christians who engage in it. More:

Why Hinduism is science-proof

Dipankar Gupta in The Times of India:

God is often a witness in court proceedings the world over. This is especially so when statements are made under oath with a hand on a holy book. But only in India, God can be both witness and litigant. That Ram Lalla filed a case claiming property in Ayodhya would have surprised secular societies elsewhere, but in India it is routine and unremarkable.

From this it might be tempting to argue that Christianity is intrinsically rational while Hinduism is not. That is not strictly true. Both depend ultimately on faith and, indeed, this is true of all religions. If Christianity looks different today it is not because it is inherently more reasonable, but that science forced it to become so.

As Hinduism is an idol-centric religion, its core principles are of no consequence to science. Christianity is a creation-centric religion. This is why it had to oppose modern science which, too, is creation-centric. The latter has taken strong positions on how life began, how day became night, and how our beings are energised. This is what compelled science and religion to go on a collision course in the western world. From the 16th century onwards, they were like two monster trucks driving in opposite directions on a one-way street. More

Insaniyat over insanity

In The Asian Age, Suneel Sinha has a different take on the Ayodhya dispute:

It is a strong logic. The answer to a dispute from mediaeval India might eventually lie in a mediaeval practice. Simultaneum mixtum first came to be used in the Europe of the Reformation less than five years before the conqueror Babar, or his general Mir Baqi, raised the Babri Masjid in 1528 AD over an area where Hindus believe a temple to Lord Ram stood. The Latin phrase was used in Germany to denote a church premises used by more than one type of Christian for prayer after Martin Luther decided in 1517 that the Vatican’s sale of indulgences was really a chit fund scam, something we in India are familiar with, and nailed his objections, the Ninety-Five Theses, to a church door.

As a principle, simultaneum was used with effect down the ages when no other alternative presented itself. It has involved the peoples of three faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — in Europe and West Asia. Much later, even if they didn’t know the word simultaneum, Hindus and Muslims worshipped at Ayodhya at the same time. In 1859, the British put up a fence to separate the places of worships after communal violence. It was a separation; it was also a forced sharing.

Simultaneum, or forms of it, is still the practice at disputed sites in the Levant, at sites considered among the holiest by the Abrahamic religions. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is today administered by no less than six denominations of Christians and the guardians of the main door of the church are still the descendants of the same two 12th century Muslim families appointed by the conquering Kurdish general Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, in 1192 AD. Christians were permitted by a treaty between Saladin and Richard I (the Lionheart) to visit the holy site after the Third Crusade failed to wrest back Jerusalem from Saladin. The region of the eastern Mediterranean is filled with historical examples of the absence of tension, and even collaboration, between religious groups, without, of course, the intervention of later politics. There are examples of Christian, Jewish and Muslim voluntary pilgrimages (Ziyara) to pray where saints and prophets were born or died. Just like Ayodhya. Right here in India we have the tomb of the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer Sharief, venerated by all faiths. More:

What happens when BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi look down from heaven?

In Mint Lounge, Chandrahas Choudhury reviews The Flaming Feet, D.R. Nagaraj’s book of essays on the Dalit movement:

It is 1997, the 50th anniversary of India’s independence—an independence about which both men were, from the very beginning and for different reasons, sceptical. Ambedkar and Gandhi occupy adjoining rooms in heaven, and look down somewhat disconsolately on an India that has moved on. Ambedkar speaks of his immense antipathy to religious superstition and myth-making, and acknowledges that “my intimate enemy, that Gujarati Bania Mr. Gandhi, also does not like these things”, even if Gandhi is always seen as a man of religion. Gandhi, meanwhile, is found contemplating “how Hind Swaraj would be if my nextdoor neighbour, the learned Babasaheb, had written it”, and thinks that Ambedkar, a trained economist and the quintessential rationalist, would have found an enormous array of statistics to improve the argument.

Nagaraj, a great lover of fiction and its ability to tell the truth about the world even more powerfully than reasoned argument or autobiographical testimony— unusually for an analyst of politics and society, his work is full of references to Indian novels—is found here taking the fiction writer’s licence to compose “two imaginary soliloquies”. Perhaps no one in the pantheon of Indian intellectuals has earned this right more than he. Although clearly written from a Dalit perspective, Nagaraj’s essays repeatedly dramatized the epic clash between the two titans over the nature of a 20th century India that would finally grant Dalits a life of dignity and self-respect. More

The magestrial clout of two Indian epics

Even as it modernizes, India has carved a place for its mythic past, as witnessed by recent films — Raavan and Raajneeti — that draw on the two great epics of Hinduism. Somini Sengupta in the New York Times:

Can an epic poem, composed more than 2,000 years ago and transcribed in an ancient language that only a handful of people can read, thrive in the age of Twitter?

In India, yes. And not just one epic but two.

The most talked-about movies in India this summer are based on the two great epics of Hinduism: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

It isn’t just Indian cinema that is smitten with those two works. “The Difficulty of Being Good,” a recent book that uses the Mahabharata to examine contemporary business and politics, has become an unlikely best seller here. This year India’s law minister, M. Veerappa Moily, who has written a new reinterpretation of the Ramayana, credited its chaste, long-suffering female protagonist, Sita, with having inspired a women’s rights bill. In Bangalore, India’s technology capital, a contemporary-dance company recently performed a piece based on the principal women of the epics. The myths are retold too, in children’s cartoons and comic books.

Indian modernity is beguiling. In this fast-churning, seemingly Westernizing, increasingly English-speaking nation, the mythic past is also very much present. For ages the epics have been told, retold, fiddled with. They still resonate, in new but recognizable ways.

“The Mahabharata and Ramayana, they sort of permeate our consciousness,” said Bibek Debroy, an economist who published the first of a 10-volume unabridged English translation of the Mahabharata in April. “The stories are deeply ingrained in the minds of Indians.” More:

Julia Roberts now a ‘practicing Hindu’

Julia Roberts, star of the new movie “Eat, Pray, Love,” which tells the story of a soul-searching character, is now a practicing Hindu.

In an interview with Elle magazine, Robert says she worships with her husband, cameraman Danny Moder, and their three children.

She was born to Catholic and Baptist parents.

From New York Daily News: “I’m definitely a practicing Hindu,” says Roberts, adding that she takes her entire brood – including husband Danny Moder and their kids Henry, 3, and 5-year-old twins Phinnaeus and Hazel – to temple on a regular basis.

More here in Mercury News, here at Elle and in TOI

Hindutva terror

Jyotirmaya Sharma‘s column in Mail Today:

The debate about `Hindu terror’ requires, firstly, a serious rectification and amendment. Just as there is nothing called `Muslim terror’ or `Islamic terror’, there is also nothing that corresponds to `Hindu terror’. The events of Ajmer, Malegaon and Hyderabad that have been linked to individuals with affiliations to what we know as the sangh parivar are sangh parivar terrorists or Hindutva terrorists. Therefore, the phenomenon that we associate with individuals, who happen to be Hindus, indulging in acts of terror is Hindutva terror or sangh parivar terror. Having stated this, Hindutva terror is a greater threat than any form of terror facing the country. The threat from the al-Qaida or the Lashkar is easily identifiable, it is external and these organizations fashion themselves as jihadi outfits. There is no camouflage or pretence about their goals, aims and methods. In sharp contrast, the legitimacy for Hindutva terror comes not merely from members that are formally part of the sangh parivar, but from a cross-section of Hindus in Indian society, but primarily Hindus from the ever expanding middle class.

From the nineteenth century onwards, Hindu nationalists have argued that retaliatory violence is a legitimate form of dealing with the `enemy’. In doing so, they argued that in order to protect dharma, which was conveniently translated as religion, Hindus needed to resort to violence when required. The question of the legitimacy of resorting to violence was always arbitrary. Reverting to models in the mythological past, where the antagonism between devas and asuras inevitably led to the violent vanquishing of the asuras, Hindu nationalists `democratized’ the right to label their adversaries as asuras and abrogated the right to vanquish these foes to themselves. Retaliatory violence was seen as the true embodiment of manhood or manliness and the ideal of the kshatriya was celebrated as exemplifying this principle. The writings of Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, V.D. Savarkar and the ideologues of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS are replete with arguments about the inevitability and the sanctity of violence in the overall project of Hindu nationalism. From the nineteenth century onwards, revolutionary terrorism had a sanction under the guise of fighting the colonial rule and secret societies were organized in order to impart training in use of arms and in guerrilla warfare to its members. Continue reading ‘Hindutva terror’

Rush hour for the gods

William Dalrymple at National Interest:

Last year, on a trip in southern India, I met a man who makes gods.

Srikanda Stpathy was both a Brahman priest and an idol maker: the twenty-third of a long hereditary line going back to the Chola bronze casters who had created some of the greatest masterpieces of Indian art at the beginning of the Middle Ages. His workshop was in Swamimalai, near Tanjore, from where the Chola dynasty once ruled the southern half of the subcontinent. There he and his two elder brothers plied their trade, making gods and goddesses in exactly the same manner as their ancestors: “The gods created man,” he explained, “but here we are so blessed that we—simple men as we are—help create the gods.”

His forefathers, explained Srikanda, had settled in Swamimalai in the thirteenth century after one of them accidentally discovered that clay made from the especially fine silt at the bend in the Cauvery River on the edge of the town was uniquely well suited to making the molds in which the bronze idols were cast. This business has now kept the family employed for nearly seven hundred years. “It is with the blessings of the Almighty,” he said proudly, “that we have taken this birth, and are able to make our living in this way, creating gods in the form of man.”

In fact, added Srikanda, business was actually very good at the moment, and the workshop had a backlog of orders that would take at least a year to clear. There was a growing market for what he called “show pieces” for tourists and collectors; but the family’s main work was idols created in exactly the manner laid down by the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Shilpa Shastras, and specifically designed for temple worship. These days most of the orders were no longer from southern India, their traditional market, so much as from the new temples springing up wherever the Indian—and especially Tamil—diaspora had settled around the world, from Neasden to New Jersey. Their largest order ever had been from ISKCON, the Hare Krishna headquarters in California. More:

What a cover-up!

Belgium is planning to ban the burqua to “liberate” women. But coercion seldom results in change. Namita Bhandare in The Hindustan Times:

In large parts of secular India, Hindu widows, some of them no more than children, are constrained to wear white. Even if you’ve never been to Benaras where widows are reportedly dumped by the dozen in various ashrams, you have only to see Deepa Mehta’s Water or any of the dozens of photo-features that routinely pop up in newsmagazines, to see these women dressed in stark white, unadorned by jewellery, many with shaved heads, begging for a few rupees, a handful of rice, a rotting banana.

You know that they are widows by the talismans of their white saris. Just as you know that a woman in a burqa is Muslim.

Male-dominated society has for too long controlled what women should and should not wear. In Rajasthani villages, custom dictates what colour a woman’s dupatta should be if she is married, unmarried or a widow. In Kerala, lower-caste women fought for their right to cover their breasts. And in Punjab women routinely cover their heads as a sign of their modesty.

In 2005, an Islamic scholar issued a fatwa against Sania Mirza for wearing short skirts, un-Islamic according to him, while playing tennis. Sania refused to be drawn into the controversy, which in time blew over, with the venerable gentleman going back to the obscurity to which he belonged.

In urban India, even in the conservative north, many clothing taboos are breaking down. Where they wore saris a decade ago, they now wear salwar-kameez, where they wore salwar-kameez, they now wear pants, dresses, shorts even. Not everyone’s pleased: the moral police huffs and puffs about the ‘degradation’ of Indian culture. Regardless, women — even if they are a minuscule minority in urban India — are asserting their right to dress as they please.

Continue reading ‘What a cover-up!’

The rise of Islamo-erotica

Betwa Sharma in The Daily Beast:

One of Hanan Tabbara’s most provocative sketches is a charcoal and pastel drawing of blood pouring out of a woman’s vagina. She made it after a close friend was raped, and later uploaded it as her Facebook profile picture. For two years now, the 20-year-old, political science student from Brooklyn has been drawing nudes. “I’m aware that it is prohibited but it doesn’t bother me,” Tabbara says.

While the Koran does not specifically ban nude art, the almost universal opinion of religious leaders is that Islam forbids it. However, a handful of Muslim artists have been daring to depict nudity. “This leads to moral consequences that are against Islam,” says Imam Shamsi Ali, the leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. “There is no justification to say it is allowed in the name of art.”

The prohibition principally stems from the taboo against entertaining sexual thoughts that a naked figure might provoke. In this light, Imam Ali also explains that it is “not desirable” for Muslims to view nude paintings, even if they are considered masterpieces. “Islam sees the harms of such exposure outweighing its benefits,” he says. “An artist can have an important message in his work without drawing nudes.” More:

The Tantric sex in Avatar

Asra Q. Nomani at The Daily Beast:

A precursor to Hinduism and Buddhism, the ancient philosophy of Tantra dates back some 6,000 years to the Dravidian culture that flourished in the Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in modern-day Pakistan, seeping later into the religious traditions of India, Nepal, and other parts of the region. Its tenets of goddess worship, self-discovery, and spiritual liberation resonate in Avatar, from the Neytiri’s deity-like qualities to Jake’s journey of self-identity. Avatar’s climax is actually not the Tantric sex of their consummation, but a moment that comes later, when they do something modern-day Tantric sex experts call “soul gazing,” and racier sexperts call “sex gazing.”

The Tantric theme in Avatar follows a tradition of Eastern philosophy in popular culture. Consider Star Wars’ iconic line, “May the Force be with you.” Writing the script for that film, director George Lucas became influenced by 20th-century thinker Joseph Campbell, whose encounter with Hindu aesthetic Jiddu Krishnamurti years earlier sparked a lifelong passion for Hindu thought. More:

Spiritual awakening

William Dalrymple in the New Statesman:

On a foggy winter’s night in November 1998, Om Singh, a young landowner from Rajasthan, was riding his Enfield Bullet back home after winning a local election near Jodhpur, when he misjudged a turning and hit a tree. He was killed instantly. As a memorial, his father fixed the motorbike to a stand, raised on a concrete plinth under the shelter of a small canopy, near the site of the crash.

“We were a little surprised when people started reporting miracles near the bike,” Om’s uncle Shaitan Singh told me on my last visit. “Om was no saint, and people say he had had a drink or two before his crash. In fact, there was no indication whatsoever during his life that he was a deity. He just loved his horses and his motorbike. But since his death a lot of people have had their wishes fulfilled here – particularly women who want children. For them, he has become very powerful. They sit on the bike, make offerings to Om Singh-ji, and it is said that flowers drop into their laps. Nine months later they have sons. Every day people see him. He comes to many people in their dreams.”

“How did it all begin?” I asked. We were in the middle of a surging throng: crowds of red-turbaned and brightly sari-ed villagers gathered around the bike, the women queuing patiently to straddle its seat and ring the bell on the canopy. Nearby, two drummers were loudly banging dholaks, while chai-shop owners made tea and paan for the pilgrims. Other stalls sold plaques, postcards and statues of Om Singh and his motorbike. Pieces of cloth were tied to branches all over the tree and gold flags flapped in the desert wind. Everywhere buses and trucks were disgorging pilgrims coming to visit Rajasthan’s newest shrine. More:

God has left politics

There’s proof Indians are becoming more religious. Yet the days of politics based on religion seem to be over. What happened? Hartosh Singh Bal in Open:

Religiosity is on the ascendant in this country as never before. In the last five years, daily attendance at Hindu shrines has risen dramatically. At Tirupati, it has gone up from 20,000 to 35,000. At Vaishno Devi, annual attendance has gone up from 5 million in 2004 to 7.7 million in the first 11 months of this year. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stuck in New Delhi debating the Liberhan report in the backdrop of what could have been, has found its vote share in consistent decline over the past decade. In the Indian general election held earlier this year, it dipped to its lowest level since the party shot to prominence in 1991. If today the party is in shambles, offering little hope even to its most committed supporters, it is because it has failed to ‘harvest the souls’ that according to conventional wisdom should have been the saffron party’s for the taking.

This paradox, India’s increasing religiosity and a right wing in terminal decline, is uniquely ours. Across the world, the growth of middle-class religiosity fuelled by consumerism has strengthened right wing movements. Countries such as Turkey, which have seen a boom in the economy, have responded by voting in right wing governments to power, and in the US, the growth of evangelism has benefitted the Republicans. More:

The unending holiday season in India

Aakar Patel in The News, Karachi:

In India, secularism is inclusive. Europe’s secularism measures distance of the state from Christianity. Indians think of secularism as equal respect for all religions. This is supposed to reflect the Hindu belief in tolerance. One famous Sanskrit line is: Vasudhaiva kutumbakam. Vasudha is mother earth and kutumb is family and so the line means the whole world is a family. However, our recent record of religious violence shows that inclusive secularism isn’t always followed. Often unhinged views on religion are tolerated under this formulation of non-interference, and journalist George Verghese described Indian secularism as ‘equal respect for everyone’s communalism’.

But the doctrine of inclusive secularism is India’s constitution and perhaps at some point we will become good enough to deserve that fine document. Since the state tries to be inclusive, every religion’s celebrations are official holidays in India. Our calendar is the most colourful in the world.

Many urban Americans now greet each other this season with the words ‘Happy holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. This is typical European thoughtfulness of the feelings of others. The ‘happy holidayers’ want to share their joy but want not to offend Jews and others. Personally I like ‘Merry Christmas’ and see no reason why anybody should be offended that Christians are celebrating the birth of their saviour. In India, however, you couldn’t say ‘Happy holidays’ because we have them through the year. Let’s have a look. More:

Save the Maldives from fundamentalists

From the Guardian’s Comment is Free:

On his recent visit to the Maldives, Salih Yucel, a Turkish Islamic scholar and lecturer at Monash University in Australia, was rejected by his fellow Muslims who deemed his beard too short and his trousers too long for him to be a bona fide Muslim. The response to the former imam came as no surprise, being symptomatic of the puritanical Wahhabism taking root in the Indian Ocean archipelago, a favourite haunt of honeymooners and A-list celebrities.

The country’s legislative architecture entrenches this intolerance, in a constitution that recognises only Muslims as citizens and a Religious Unity Act that stringently demarcates the type of Islam to be practised. Nor are the country’s non-Muslim expatriates, largely Buddhist Sri Lankans and Hindu Indians, permitted to practise their faiths in public as all places of worship apart from mosques are banned. The intolerance does not end here: for Wahhabis, even other Muslims, such as Shias and Sufis, are apostates. More:

Sea of stories

Ananya Vajpeyi reads Wendy Doniger‘s capacious study of the diversity of Hindu tales and traditions (The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger, Penguin), which serves as a riposte to the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture by celebrating the multiple varieties of Hindu religious experience.

the_hindus_book1From ancient times men have dominated the world of Sanskrit scholarship. Originally those men were Brahmins; then they became Europeans, then Englishmen, and finally Indians. It is only in the past 50 years or so that women have begun to enter this esoteric field of study, and in this regard, Wendy Doniger has been a pioneer and a force to reckon with. Her new book, The Hindus: An Alternative History brings 30 years of her rigorous and innovative scholarly practice to a fitting climax – and I use the word advisedly. Doniger has studied Hinduism in its erotic, aesthetic and corporeal aspects, making her the target of envy as well as criticism from her colleagues. Her work, which includes a translation of the Kamasutra and extensive writing on Shiva, the Hindu god of cosmic destruction, who is worshipped in the form of a phallus (linga), is often seen to be titillating. She is interested in asceticism, but also in sexuality; in the spiritual, but also in the carnal.

Hindu traditions are diverse and heterodox enough to incorporate a number of parallel doctrines, theologies and belief systems, as well as an enormous repertoire of deities, symbols, rituals and concepts that contradict one another and yet coexist. Doniger’s openness to the varieties of religious experience permitted under the accommodating and multifarious rubric of Hinduism has upset all manner of people, from devout Hindus, to the votaries of Hindu nationalism (“Hindutva”), from American professors to German philologists. Nearly all of them misunderstand her work, particularly her creative ways of exploring how Hindu thought connects mind, body and soul, rather than placing them in conflict with each other. More:

Burger King apology to Hindus for advert


Fast food chain Burger King has apologised for running an advertisement in Spain that shows the Indian goddess of wealth Lakshmi with a Whopper burger. The caption of the ad read ‘La merienda es sagrada’ (The snack is sacred). Burger King quickly withdrew the advertisement from its stores in Spain after Hindus across the world complained over the denigration of their religion.

See also the Village Voice

A people and their karma

In The Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan reviews “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger (The Penguin Press):

book_hindusWhen I first picked up “The Hindus” — a tome seemingly rich with scholarship and, at 780 hardbound pages, as hefty as the legendary demon Kumbhakarna — I was struck most of all by the author’s name on its cover: Wendy Doniger. A mist of apprehension spritzed my Hindu soul. Could this lady (a professor at the University of Chicago) be the same Wendy Doniger who wrote last year — in one of the more batty commentaries in an election season replete with unhinged scrivenings — that Sarah Palin’s “greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman”? If so, could this author really be trusted with a history of my people, the Hindus?

I should report that it is the same Wendy Doniger. But in the book in question, Ms. Doniger has eschewed the pamphleteering arts — perhaps because there is no trace of the Palin tribe in any Sanskrit yarn. She has, instead, concentrated her prodigious learning on making modern sense of the texts and tales of Hindu society, as well as of the rituals and symbols of the Hindu people.


Passages from India

In The Washington Post, Michael Dirda reviews Wendy Doniger‘s The Hindus: An Alternative History:

Any of us might make the same mistake: I didn’t really notice the subtitle of Wendy Doniger’s massive study, “The Hindus.” I knew that she was an eminent Sanskrit scholar at the University of Chicago, author of many books about cultural, religious and folkloric beliefs, and a translator of several Indian classics, including “The Rig Veda” and “The Kamasutra.” Her annotations to the latter, that notorious manual of sexual practice, are, I can attest, as entertaining and informative as the book itself.

However, “The Hindus: An Alternative History” is probably too scholarly and specialized for readers looking simply for an introduction to Indian philosophy and religion. In its notes Doniger suggests that her book could be used for a 14-week course, and I suspect that it originated as a series of class lectures. She herself recommends some more conventional histories and guides, including Gavin Flood’s “An Introduction to Hinduism,” John Keay’s “India: A History” and that old standby, A.L. Basham’s survey “The Wonder That Was India.”


India, exporter of priests, may keep them home

As families have fewer children and the Indian economy offers more career options, the West may need to look elsewhere to fill its empty pulpits. Laurie Goodstein from Aluva, India, in International Herald Tribune:

Students at St. Paul's Minor Seminary in the Irinjalakuda Diocese in India taking a ministry trip. [NYTimes photo]

Students at St. Paul's Minor Seminary in the Irinjalakuda Diocese in India taking a ministry trip.

In the sticky night air, next to a grove of mahogany trees, nearly 50 young men in madras shirts saunter back and forth along a basketball court, reciting the rosary.

They are seminarians studying to become Roman Catholic priests. Together, they send a great murmuring into the hilly village, mingling with the Muslim call to prayer and the chanting of Vedas from a Hindu temple on a nearby ridge.

Young men willing to join the priesthood are plentiful in India, unlike in the United States and Europe. Within a few miles of this seminary, called Don Bosco College, are two much larger seminaries, each with more than 400 students.

As a result, bishops trek here from the United States, Europe, Latin America and Australia looking for spare priests to fill their empty pulpits. Hundreds have been allowed to go, siphoning support from India’s widespread network of Catholic churches, schools, orphanages, missionary projects and social service programs.


An artist in exile tests India’s democratic ideals

Maqbool Fida Husain’s case illustrates how freedom of expression has frequently come under fire in India. Somini Sengupta in the New York Times:

Maqbool Fida Husain in one of his homes in Dubai where he now lives. NYT photo

Maqbool Fida Husain in one of his homes in Dubai where he now lives. NYT photo

Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s most famous painter, is afraid to go home.

Mr. Husain is a Muslim who is fond of painting Hindu goddesses, sometimes portraying them nude. That obsession has earned him the ire of a small but organized cadre of Hindu nationalists. They have attacked galleries that exhibit his work, accused him in court of “promoting enmity” among faiths and, on one occasion, offered an $11 million reward for his head.

In September, the country’s highest court offered him an unexpected reprieve, dismissing one of the cases against him with the blunt reminder that Hindu iconography, including ancient temples, is replete with nudity. Still, the artist, 93 and increasingly frail, is not taking any chances. For two years, he has lived here in self-imposed exile, amid opulently sterile skyscrapers. He intends to remain, at least for now. “They can put me in a jungle,” Mr. Husain said gamely. “Still, I can create.”


Buddhist art

From the Guardian‘s series, 1000 artworks to see before you die:

One of Buddhism’s earliest artistic inventions was the stupa – a shrine in the form of a building that was not designed to be entered but to be beheld. The early Indian stupa evolved from Hindu burial mounds and took the form of a hemispheric dome surmounted by a column. The sculptures carved to decorate the great stupa at Amaravati between the first century BC and the third century AD are among Buddhist art’s earliest treasures; their proliferation of narrative scenes strongly resembles Roman and Hellenistic art from the same period. They depict scenes from the life of the Buddha in his incarnation as Siddharta Gautama, a scion of north India’s warrior class who rejected his comfortable life and became an ascetic for seven years, then a teacher who preached the ultimate goal of escaping the endless cycle of rebirth.

Among the key works:

• Sculptures from the Great Stupa of Amaravati, India, now in British Museum (1st century BC to 3rd century AD)
• Sculpture of Yakshi or river goddess from Begram, Afghanistan, now in Kabul Museum (circa 1st century)
• Parinirvana, reclining colossal figure in Cave 26 at Ajanta, India (late 5th century)


Also in the series:

All about Hindu sculpture

Shiva dances. He balances on his right leg, his left raised in a gesture that signifies Release. He gestures with his arms too — all four of them. Each arm is elegantly posed in mid-movement with the flattened palm in a different position, each of which has symbolic meaning — he is saying, “Have no fear.” In one hand Shiva holds the flame of destruction, in another the drum of creation. Around him is a great nimbus of fire, symbolising the cosmos.

Among the key works:

• Stone figure of mother and child from Tanesara in Rajasthan, now in LA County Museum of Art (6th century)
• Relief of Shiva holding a trident and a snake, Malegitti Shivalaya temple, Badami, India (7th century)
• Shiva with Nandi, open-air sandstone sculpture, Durga temple, Aihole, India (8th century)