Tag Archives: Hinduism

Gold, “Provincial Hinduism”

This January, Oxford University Press will release “Provincial Hinduism: Religion and Community in Gwalior City” by Daniel Gold (Cornell University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Provincial HinduismProvincial Hinduism explores intersecting religious worlds in an ordinary Indian city that remains close to its traditional roots, while bearing witness to the impact of globalization. Daniel Gold looks at modern religious life in the central Indian city of Gwalior, drawing attention to the often complex religious sensibilities behind ordinary Hindu practice. Gold describes temples of different types, their legendary histories, and the people who patronize them. He also explores the attraction of Sufi shrines for many Gwalior Hindus. Delicate issues of socioreligious identity are highlighted through an examination of neighbors living together in a locality mixed in religion, caste, and class. Pursuing issues of community and identity, Gold turns to Gwalior’s Maharashtrians and Sindhis, groups with roots in other parts of the subcontinent that have settled in the city for generations. These groups function as internal diasporas, organizing in different ways and making distinctive contributions to local religious life. The book concludes with a focus on new religious institutions invoking nineteenth-century innovators: three religious service organizations inspired by the great Swami Vivekenanda, and two contemporary guru-centered groups tracing lineages to Radhasoami Maharaj of Agra.

Gold offers the first book-length study to analyze religious life in an ordinary, midsized Indian city, and in so doing has created an invaluable resource for scholars of contemporary Indian religion, culture, and society.

Oliver, “Hinduism and the 1960s: The Rise of a Counter-culture”

In January, Bloomsbury Publishing will release “Hinduism and the 1960s: The Rise of a Counter-culture” by Paul Oliver (University of Huddersfield, UK). The publisher’s description follows:

The West has drawn upon Hinduism on a wide scale, from hatha yoga and meditation techniques, to popular culture in music and fashion, yet the contribution of Hinduism to the counter-culture of the 1960s has not been analysed in full.

Hinduism and the 1960s looks at the youth culture of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the way in which it was influenced by Hinduism and Indian culture. It examines the origins of the 1960s counter-culture in the Beat movement of the 1950s, and their interest in Eastern religion, notably Zen. When the Beatles visited India to study transcendental meditation, there was a rapid expansion in interest in Hinduism. Young people were already heading east on the so-called ‘Hippie Trail’, looking for spiritual enlightenment and an escape from the material lifestyle of the West. Paul Oliver examines the lifestyle which they adopted, from living in ashrams to experimenting with drugs, sexual liberation, ayurvedic medicine and yoga.

This engaging book analyses the interaction between Hinduism and the West, and the way in which each affected the other. It demonstrates the ways in which contemporary Western society has learned from the ancient religion of Hinduism, and incorporated such teachings as yoga, meditation and a natural holistic lifestyle, into daily life. Each chapter contains a summary and further reading guidance, and a glossary is included at the end of the book, making this ideal reading for courses on Hinduism, Indian religions, and religion and popular culture.

Narayanan, “Religion, Heritage and the Sustainable City: Hinduism and Urbanisation in Jaipur”

This month, Routledge Publishing releases “Religion, Heritage and the Sustainable City: Hinduism and Urbanisation in Jaipur” by Yamini Narayanan (Deakin University). The publisher’s description follows:

The speed and scale of urbanisation in India is unprecedented almost anywhere in the world and has tremendous global implications. The religious influence on the urban experience has resonances for all aspects of urban sustainability in India and yet it remains a blind spot while articulating sustainable urban policy.

This book explores the historical and on-going influence of religion on urban planning, design, space utilisation, urban identities and communities. It argues that the conceptual and empirical approaches to planning sustainable cities in India need to be developed out of analytical concepts that define local sense of place and identity. Examining how Hindu religious heritage, beliefs and religiously influenced planning practices have impacted on sustainable urbanisation development in Jaipur and Indian cities in general, the book identifies the challenges and opportunities that ritualistic and belief resources pose for sustainability. It focuses on three key aspects: spatial segregation and ghettoisation; gender-inclusive urban development; and the nexus between religion, nature and urban development.

This cutting-edge book is one of the first case studies linking Hindu religion, heritage, urban development, women and the environment in a way that responds to the realities of Indian cities. It opens up discussion on the nexus of religion and development, drawing out insightful policy implications for the sustainable urban planning of many cities in India and elsewhere in South Asia and the developing world.

“Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right” (Doniger & Nussbaum, eds.)

In December, Oxford University Press will release “Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right”  edited by Wendy Doniger and Martha C. Nussbaum (both from the University of Chicago). The publisher’s description follows:

Wendy Doniger and Martha Nussbaum bring together leading scholars from a wide array of disciplines to address a crucial question: How does the world’s most populous democracy survive repeated assaults on its pluralistic values? India’s stunning linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity has been supported since Independence by a political structure that emphasizes equal rights for all, and protects liberties of religion and speech. But a decent Constitution does not implement itself, and challenges to these core values repeatedly arise-most recently in the form of the Hindu Right movements of the twenty-first century that threatened to destabilize the nation and upend its core values, in the wake of a notorious pogrom in the state of Gujarat in which approximately 2000 Muslim civilians were killed.

Focusing on this time of tension and threat, the essays in this volume consider how a pluralistic democracy managed to survive. They examine the role of political parties and movements, including the women’s movement, as well as the role of the arts, the press, the media, and a historical legacy of pluralistic thought and critical argument. Featuring essays from eminent scholars in history, religious studies, political science, economics, women’s studies, and media studies, Pluralism and Democracy in India offers an urgently needed case study in democratic survival. As Nehru said of India on the eve of Independence: ”These dreams are for India, but they are also for the world.” The analysis this volume offers illuminates not only the past and future of one nation, but the prospects of democracy for all.

“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.