Tag Archives: Hinduism

“We are not against modernity, but we are against westernization”

Earlier this month, Penguin Books India agreed to recall and destroy copies of a book by American scholar Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Penguin did so in order to settle a four-year old lawsuit by a Hindu activist group, Shiksha Bashao Andolan, alleging that publication violated Indian law, which forbids insulting the religious beliefs of a class of citizens. In a statement, Penguin maintained that it had an obligation “to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be.” Doniger concurred, stating that Indian law is “the true villain of this piece.”

The main complaint seems to be that Doniger’s book presents a hypersexualized, distorted version of Hinduism. Here’s Shiksha Bashao Andolan’s president, Dinanath Batra, in a Time magazine interview, describing what his group finds objectionable:

Doniger says [in the book] that when Sanskrit scriptures were written, Indian society favored open sexuality. The jacket of her book shows Lord Krishna sitting on the buttocks of nude women. She equates the shivlingam, worshipped all over India by millions, with sex and calls it an erect penis. She calls Gandhiji strange and says he used to sleep with young girls.

What I find most interesting in this controversy is the incomprehension each side has for the other. The activists, with Indian law on their side, think they are striking a blow for cultural and religious freedom. They are standing up to tactless outsiders who mock sacred things. Most Western observers, by contrast, are simultaneously repulsed and amused at the notion that people would find Doniger’s book off-putting and actually try to stop its publication. The activists must be rubes and obscurantists. The condescension comes through very clearly in the questions Time put to Batra, including the last one: “Don’t you worry that your objections might seem outdated in today’s modern world?” Batra’s answer is revealing, too: “We are not against modernity, but we are against westernization.”

Once again, we see the conflict between the values of WEIRD cultures–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic–and those of more traditional societies. WEIRD cultures stress individual expression and fulfillment; traditional cultures value authority, community, and sacredness. To someone from a WEIRD perspective, it’s impossible to believe that serious people could be morally outraged by Doniger’s book, or think destroying the book a proper response. By contrast, people embedded in a traditional Hindu culture find Doniger’s interpretation disgraceful and foreign–an insult that should not be borne.

Of course, cultures aren’t uniform. Some Indians have WEIRD values; some Westerners are traditionalists. Some well-known Indian writers objected to Batra’s lawsuit; here in the US, the Hindu American Foundation issued a statement basically endorsing Penguin’s decision. But, on the whole, the WEIRD/Traditionalist divide is a useful way to understand our world. It explains many current controversies, like blasphemy prosecutions in Pakistan, proposals to ban circumcision in Scandinavia, anti-homosexuality laws in Africa, and the dispute over Doniger’s book.

As I’ve written before, it seems to me that three possibilities exist. First, WEIRD values will come to dominate worldwide. WEIRD culture has many benefits, and America projects it around the world relentlessly, through movies, advertising, the Internet, and so on. Second, Western culture will become less WEIRD. This could happen, too, especially if large numbers of people from traditional societies immigrate to the West. Third, and most likely, WEIRD and non-WEIRD cultures will continue to face off against one another for the foreseeable future, with inevitable clashes and occasional compromises. Buckle your seat belts.

Cook, “Ancient Religions, Modern Politics”

Next month, Princeton University Press will publish Ancient Religions, Modern Politics by Michael Cook (Princeton University). The publisher’s description follows.

Why does Islam play a larger role in contemporary politics than other religions? Is there something about the Islamic heritage that makes Muslims more likely than adherents of other faiths to invoke it in their political life? If so, what is it? Ancient Religions, Modern Politics seeks to answer these questions by examining the roles of Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity in modern political life, placing special emphasis on the relevance–or irrelevance–of their heritages to today’s social and political concerns.

Michael Cook takes an in-depth, comparative look at political identity, social values, attitudes to warfare, views about the role of religion in various cultural domains, and conceptions of the polity. In all these fields he finds that the Islamic heritage offers richer resources for those engaged in current politics than either the Hindu or the Christian heritages. He uses this finding to explain the fact that, despite the existence of Hindu and Christian counterparts to some aspects of Islamism, the phenomenon as a whole is unique in the world today. The book also shows that fundamentalism–in the sense of a determination to return to the original sources of the religion–is politically more adaptive for Muslims than it is for Hindus or Christians.

A sweeping comparative analysis by one of the world’s leading scholars of premodern Islam, Ancient Religions, Modern Politics sheds important light on the relationship between the foundational texts of these three great religious traditions and the politics of their followers today.

Yoga in Public Schools, American and Indian

Indian Schoolchildren Doing Yoga (NYT)

Last summer, I wrote about a constitutional challenge to yoga classes in California public schools. When a school district near San Diego added yoga to its elementary-school gym program, some parents complained. Yoga, they said, is a Hindu discipline, and including it in a compulsory gym class violates the Establishment Clause. A state trial court disagreed, holding that the school district had removed all religious references, so that what remained was simply a stretching class for kids.

It turns out that similar litigation is unfolding across the world in India, the place where yoga originated. But there, the courts appear to be taking a harder line. The plaintiffs in the Indian case want that country’s Supreme Court to order public schools to include yoga in the curriculum. They cite a 2005 study showing that yoga is important for students’ mental and physical health. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled yet, but has expressed concern about ordering public school students to take yoga classes. Why? Because Indian public schools are officially secular, and yoga is a religious practice. At oral argument this fall, the court said that parents from minority religions–Christianity and Islam, for example–might object to a requirement that their children engage in Hindu exercises at school. The court has asked representatives of the minority religions to appear in the litigation as third parties to state their views.

What explains the different reactions of the American and Indian courts? Much has to do with the different cultural understandings of yoga. Here in the US, most people who do yoga don’t think of it as religious. Spiritual, yes, in the sense that it creates a sense of inner peace, but not religious. Oh, people may understand that yoga has Hindu roots and that some elements, like the salutation to the sun god and chanting the word “Om,” have religious meanings. But these aspects of yoga intrude very little on their experience. “Sure, yoga is religious for some,” they might say, “but not for us. Maybe other people think they’re greeting the sun god, and that’s fine. But we’re just stretching.” So when a public school says it has removed the religious elements of yoga and retained the secular, most Americans would find that position plausible. 

The difficulty is that yoga, as traditionally understood, doesn’t work that way. In traditional understanding, yoga is itself a religious act. The postures themselves lead the practitioner to God, whether the practitioner intends this or not. In traditional understanding, in other words, one can’t separate the religious and secular aspects of yoga and one really shouldn’t try. Indeed, some American Hindus object to the way our popular culture treats yoga as a designer gym routine. Much as many American Christians seek to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” the Hindu American Foundation has mounted a campaign to “Take Back Yoga” for the faith.

Perhaps yoga means one thing in one cultural context but something else in another. You’d have to think, though, that judges in yoga’s home country have a pretty good sense of what the practice is all about. The parents in the California case, who have appealed the trial court’s ruling, might want to have a look at the Indian court’s ultimate decision. 

Adcock, “The Limits of Tolerance: Indian Secularism and the Politics of Religious Freedom”

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish The Limits of Tolerance: Indian Secularism and the Politics of Religious Freedom by C.S. Adcock (Washington University). The publisher’s description follows.

This book provides a critical history of the distinctive tradition of Indian secularism known as Tolerance. Since it was first advanced by Mohandas Gandhi, the Tolerance ideal has measured secularism and civil religiosity by contrast with proselytizing religion. In India today, it informs debates over how the right to religious freedom should be interpreted on the subcontinent. Not only has Tolerance been an important political ideal in India since the early twentieth century; the framing assumptions of Tolerance permeate historical understandings among scholars of South Asian religion and politics.

In conventional accounts, the emergence of Tolerance during the 1920s is described as a victory of Indian secularism over the intolerant practice of shuddhi “proselytizing”, pursued by reformist Hindus of the Arya Samaj, that was threatening harmonious Hindu-Muslim relations. This study shows that the designation of shuddhi as religious proselytizing was not fixed; it was the product of decades of political struggle. The book traces the conditions for the emergence of Tolerance, and the circumstances of its first deployment, by examining the history of debates surrounding Arya Samaj activities in north India between 1880 and 1930. It asks what political considerations governed Indian actors’ efforts to represent shuddhi as religious on different occasions; and it asks what was lost in translation when they did. It reveals that by framing shuddhi decisively as a religious matter, Tolerance functioned to disengage Indian secularism from the politics of caste.

Newbigin, “The Hindu Family and the Emergence of Modern India”

9781107037830This October, Cambridge University Press will publish The Hindu Family and the Emergence of Modern India: Law, Citizenship, and Community by Eleanor Newbigin (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). The publisher’s description follows.

Between 1955 and 1956 the Government of India passed four Hindu Law Acts to reform and codify Hindu family law. Scholars have understood these acts as a response to growing concern about women’s rights but, in a powerful re-reading of their history, this book traces the origins of the Hindu law reform project to changes in the political-economy of late colonial rule. The Hindu Family and the Emergence of Modern India considers how questions regarding family structure, property rights and gender relations contributed to the development of representative politics, and how, in solving these questions, India’s secular and state power structures were consequently drawn into a complex and unique relationship with Hindu law. In this comprehensive and illuminating resource for scholars and students, Newbigin demonstrates the significance of gender and economy to the history of twentieth-century democratic government, as it emerged in India and beyond.

More on Yoga in the Public Schools

Yoga Class at Encinitas School (NYT)

Last month, a California state court ruled that including yoga in an elementary school phys ed program does not violate the Establishment Clause. The program was funded by a half-million dollar grant from the Jois Foundation, a private organization that promotes the form of yoga known as Ashtanga. The court ruled that the Encinitas Union School District had scrubbed religious references from the classes, so that what remained was simply a fitness and stress reduction program for kids. To use the language of the so-called “endorsement test,” the court concluded that a reasonable observer would not believe the school district had impermissibly endorsed a religion–in this case, Hinduism.

This week, the Oxford University Press blog published an interesting interview with Candy Gunther Brown, an Indiana University religious studies professor who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case. Brown argues convincingly that Ashtanga yoga is in fact deeply religious. “Ashtanga,” she says, “emphasizes postures and breathing on the premise that these practices will ‘automatically’ lead practitioners to …  ‘become one with God’… ‘whether they want it or not'”:

Although EUSD officials reacted to parent complaints by modifying some practices, EUSD classes still always begin with “Opening Sequence” (Surya Namaskara) [a prayer to the sun god] and end with “lotuses” and “resting” (aka shavasana or “corpse”—which encourages reflection on one’s death to inspire virtuous living), and teach symbolic gestures such as “praying hands” (anjalimudra) and “wisdom gesture” (jnanamudra), which in Ashtanga yoga symbolize union with the divine and instill religious feelings.

It’s quite possible for people, especially kids, to be influenced by these religious messages, she says:

Scientific research shows that practicing yoga can lead to religious transformations. For example, Kristin is a Catholic who started Ashtanga for the stretching; she now prefers Ashtanga’s “eight limbs” to the “Ten Commandments.” Kids who learn yoga in public schools may also be learning religion.

Perhaps Brown overstates the difficulty of separating religious and non-religious elements in yoga, I don’t know. After reading her interview, though, the question I have is this. How could anyone not think Ashtanga yoga is religious, and that by sponsoring this class–especially with funding from an organization that promotes Ashtanga’s religious message–the school district has endorsed religion in a manner that current law forbids?

Perhaps, with our deeply Protestant religious culture, Americans simply dismiss the notion that physical practices can be genuinely “religious.” Religion is a matter of mind and spirit, not body; stretching is purely physical, just a nice way to relax. Stretching isn’t prayer, after all. Brown’s point, however–and it is a very important one–is that these practices are a kind of prayer. Ashtanga yoga purports to instill religious feelings and lead one to God, whether one intends it or not. (In fact, Hindus might find the claim that yoga is just a stretching exercise rather insulting). And the school district has students participate in these prayers, not just learn about them from a book. The Supreme Court has said the Constitution forbids even displaying the Ten Commandments inside a public school classroom, lest students feel pressured to read and meditate on them. But this is OK?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Orthodox Christianity has a tradition known as hesychasm, in which hermits discipline themselves to meditate, shut out the world, and experience God inside them. It’s a very difficult mystical practice, not for everyone–though some people like to dabble. Apparently it gives great inner peace. The key element is repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner.” Suppose some enterprising Orthodox Christian foundation adapted these practices, put the Jesus Prayer in an esoteric language, and proffered the package to a public school district as a stress-reduction program for kids. Would anyone think such a program constitutional under present law?

The plaintiffs in the case have indicated they plan to appeal. I hope they do, because this could turn out to be be a very significant case. As Eastern religious practices continue to seep into mainstream culture, situations like this are bound to recur. They may lead to a change in the way Americans understand religion.

Davis, “The Spirit of Hindu Law”

This month, Cambridge University Press releases a new, paperback edition of The Spirit of Hindu Law by Donald R. Davis Jr. (University of Wisconsin-Madison). The publishers description follows.The Spirit of Hindu Law

Law is too often perceived solely as state-based rules and institutions that provide a rational alternative to religious rites and ancestral customs. The Spirit of Hindu Law, first published in 2010, uses the Hindu legal tradition as a heuristic tool to question this view and reveal the close linkage between law and religion. Emphasizing the household, the family, and everyday relationships as additional social locations of law, it contends that law itself can be understood as a theology of ordinary life. An introduction to traditional Hindu law and jurisprudence, this book is structured around key legal concepts such as the sources of law and authority, the laws of persons and things, procedure, punishment and legal practice. It combines investigation of key themes from Sanskrit legal texts with discussion of Hindu theology and ethics, as well as thorough examination of broader comparative issues in law and religion.

California Court Rules School Yoga Program Does Not Violate Constitution

The Crisscross-Applesauce Position (New York Times)

An update on a case I wrote about in May: a California state court has ruled that including yoga in an elementary school phys ed program does not violate the Establishment Clause. Under current Supreme Court precedent, public schools may not endorse any particular religion (or, for that matter, religion generally). In yesterday’s ruling, the San Diego Superior Court reasoned that the Encinitas Union School District has scrubbed religious references from its yoga classes–the Lotus position has been renamed the “Crisscross-Applesauce” pose, for example–so that what remains is merely a fitness and stress-reduction program for kids. The court apparently did not find persuasive the testimony of an Indiana University religious studies professor, Candy Gunther Brown, who argued that yoga, a Hindu practice, is inherently religious. A lawyer for parents who brought the lawsuit against the school district says his clients will likely appeal.

Is Yoga Constitutional?

Last month, I  wrote about a controversy surrounding the White House’s inclusion of a yoga garden in its annual Easter Egg Roll. The problem is this: yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice. Arguably, therefore, state-sponsored yoga is a religious endorsement that violates the Establishment Clause under existing Supreme Court case law.

Yoga Class at Encinitas School (New York Times)

It turns out that very issue is being litigated this week in a California  court. The Encinitas Union School District has introduced yoga as part of the phys ed program in elementary schools. Some parents object that the program highlights yoga’s spiritual elements and amounts to religious indoctrination. The school argues that it has eliminated religious references and that what remains is nothing more than an enriched gym class. An Indiana University religious studies professor who testified at trial demurs. She says that that it would be odd, from a Hindu perspective, to separate yoga’s physical and spiritual elements.

Under Supreme Court precedent, government can separate “cultural” from “religious” messages and promote the former. That’s why official Christmas displays with reindeer and elves survive constitutional scrutiny, but not solo nativity scenes. The logic is that the secular decorations swamp the religious message and ensure that passersby don’t think the government is endorsing Christianity, as opposed to Christianity’s cultural accretions.

This logic has saved some Christmas displays, but offended some Christians. To them, the Supreme Court’s reasoning suggests an unfortunate hostility to their religion: Christmas is acceptable in the public square only if its spiritual associations are diluted. To be sure, the Supreme Court  has said only that official displays must avoid religious associations, but people rarely compartmentalize things so logically. Culture often follows law.

So here’s a question: if official yoga programs are allowed on the theory that they have been scrubbed of religious associations, will pious Hindus object?Will people start demanding to keep the yoga  in yoga?

Does Yoga Violate the Establishment Clause?

Here’s another item in the occasional series, “Does it violate the Establishment Ganesh with cupcakeClause?” whose last entry concerned werewolves and crusaders.  Given the state of Establishment Clause doctrine on this particular set of issues, I’m confident that I’ll be getting lots of material for it.

This story reports that the President (or those close to him, or something) really goes in for yoga, and so the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition is making a pro-yoga pitch, which included the introduction of a yoga garden during this year’s Easter Egg Hunt where one could receive yoga pedagogy.

But there is a problem.  Some believe that the official state promotion of yoga–in public school, for example–violates the Establishment Clause because it is tantamount to the government “picking religious winners and losers.”  The story reports:

[The lawyer representing objecting families] said many Americans who practice yoga want to be viewed as spiritual but not religious. However, claims that yoga is a mere physical exercise that doesn’t cross the line to Eastern religious beliefs and practices are dubious at best . . . . [Y]oga poses are worshipful acknowledgements of Hindu deities and have been shown to have a religiously transformative impact.

“Let’s be honest, if the White House was actively promoting a Christian-based exercise program, I am confident there would be a huge public outcry and they would change the program. But because yoga is based in Eastern mysticism, which is not well understood, many tend to try to disingenuously downplay its religious aspects[.]”

It’s hard to argue with the government’s response: whatever your religious beliefs, everybody benefits from “stretching, strength-building, and breathing.”  But the best line belongs to the judge assigned to hear the case, who is himself a devout yoga practitioner (or is that yogi?).  When questioned about his yoga activities, he is said to have responded: “Does anybody have a problem with that? . . . .If you think there’s something spiritual about what I do, that’s news to me.”

Easter Egg Hunt, take note.