The Confidence Of Hindus

by Aditi Banerjee - Jul 2, 2015 09:27 AM
The Confidence Of Hindus

Rambachan advocates ‘self-critical humility’ as the appropriate approach for Hindus; I say the days of being meek and mild are over.

“Brave, bold men, these are what we want.What we want is vigour in the blood, strength in the nerves, iron muscles and nerves of steel, not softening namby-pamby ideas.”
— Swami Vivekananda

In his new essay, Prof Anantanand Rambachan warns against the dangers of cultivating Hindu pride, advocating instead an approach of “self-critical humility”. Although Rambachan is careful to take a neutral tone, this essay appears to be somewhat self-serving. One wonders if this attack on “Hindu pride” is meant to conveniently thwart criticisms and voices from within the Hindu community that disagree with his scholarship and that are at odds with his Western academic and Vatican colleagues, without engaging on the substantive merits of these criticisms.

In any case, Rambachan’s arguments are misguided and ultimately wrong. In warning against “(being) careless with truth, (comparing) ourselves favourably with other traditions, (and becoming closed) to the wisdom that is available from religious sources other than our own,” Rambachan mistakes pride for chauvinism.

The two cannot be conflated. Chauvinism is self-promotion at the expense of others. Pride and confidence are self-elevation based on a celebration of one’s self, one’s uniqueness and an unshakeable belief in one’s intrinsic self-worth. That does not require the denigration of others or belief in one’s superiority over others.

Hindu confidence is very much the need of the hour. Rambachan himself notes that Hindus are still battling the legacy of centuries of colonialism, and those of us in the West also face the challenges of being a religious minority in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society.

Hinduism is the last major surviving religion that represents a truly indigenous sacred tradition. Hinduism sticks out as a sore thumb in the eyes of the West, a religion that is not “of the Book” and one that has not been elegantly sanitized into a politically correct package like Buddhism.

Through incessant anti-Hindu propaganda dating back centuries and continuous negative stereotyping in popular culture, media and academia, Hinduism has been branded as something exotic and archaic, a morass of caste, superstition and violence. For too many people, Hinduism brings to mind images from the Temple of Doom movie or notions of caste, sati and dowry, and, of course, cow worship—and that is what Hindu kids are taught about their own tradition at school.

There is strident anti-Hindu bias in the media—captured in headlines like this recent one from the New York Times, “Saving the Cows, Starving the Children” —and, of course, there is the stream of academic filth that gets produced by America’s top universities about Hinduism, with too many distortions and misportrayals to catalogue here. The kshetra of colonialism and Western universalism may have moved from the economic/ military to the ideological/ cultural, but Hinduism/ India is still a prime target. The stigma is so bad that many Hindus are reluctant to even call themselves Hindus.

Rambachan advocates ‘self-critical humility’ as the appropriate approach for Hindus in this context; I say the days of being meek and mild are over.

In the context of Hinduphobia, this unlevel playing field on which we are forced to compete, this negative baggage that others saddle Hinduism with, developing a strong, positive Hindu identity founded on pride and confidence is absolutely necessary. Confidence counters bigotry and gives us the courage and conviction to stand up for ourselves, our tradition and our identity.Confidence is what allows us to define ourselves rather than letting others define us.

So many times in my life, when there was the pressure to conform, it is my Hindu identity that has kept me true to myself and my heritage.When I was applying for college, I called myself a “devout Hindu” in my application essay. My mother worried about how colleges would react to that term whether it would hurt my chances. It was my belief in my identity that compelled me to keep those words in my essay, irrespective of the consequences.

It is confidence and pride in my heritage that has allowed me to dare to be different; that allows me to wear a bindi every day to work; that makes me feel free to describe my Himalayan pilgrimages when my colleagues talk about their beach vacations; that permits me to be a vegetarian who does not drink and still flourish in a profession where socializing and networking are key; that lets me have open and frank discussions with others about religion, about how many gods I worship, whether I believe in heaven, whether puja is the same as prayer (it is not); that makes me call myself a Hindu, not just an Indian-American, not just someone who is ‘spiritual’, not just someone who practices meditation and yoga.

Without self-confidence as a Hindu, the pressure to conform would be too great to resist.

Pride alone is not enough. Pride is based on past accomplishments and can lead to a certain type of complacency, the false illusion that just because dharma has survived for 5,000 years, it can survive another 5,000 more without us having to do anything about it. We do not need just proud Hindus; we need confident and assertive Hindus. Pride is about glorying in the past; confidence is about bringing dharma into the present and the future. However, pride—the knowledge, conviction and love for our heritage and traditions—is the necessary first step in building confidence and assertiveness.

Confidence does not mean fundamentalism or fanaticism; it does not mean violence or the issuance of fatwas. It means that we will fight scholarship with scholarship (but we absolutely do not accept that the only valid scholarship is that which is produced by academic cartels in the Ivy League and other elite Western universities); we will fight bias in the media through media channels of our own; we will counter stereotypes in popular culture and art through new art forms of our own; we will proceed with gharwapsi programmes of our own so long as predatory proselytization continues unchecked and unimpeded.

We will not let our traditions of yoga and meditation be looted, distorted, digested and appropriated by the West and we will not concede sovereignty over the definition and depiction of our dharma to outside interests.

Humility has its place, but not when it comes to the defence of dharma against attacks from various quarters.

Rambachan worries that “unflinching pride can make the interreligious dialogue very difficult”. On the contrary, pride is what makes such dialogue constructive and meaningful. Pride is what makes us rooted in our own tradition, and the more deeply rooted we are, the more meaningfully we can understand our tradition in comparison to others and dialogue about it in a tone of mutual respect and open-mindedness. This deep-rootedness and inner conviction are the cornerstones of the purva-paksha tradition of interreligious dialogue.

In the absence of self-confidence, there is an impulse to conform, an impulse to “me, too”, to find similarities and consistencies where they do not exist, simply to feel included and non-different. The type of interreligious dialogue that results is superficial and generates little insight or meaningful dialogue, and, in fact, harms us in the long run. Such interreligious dialogue results in further distortion of Hinduism by trying to make square pegs fit into round holes, by trying to explain Hinduism in the vocabulary of Christian or Islamic theology. This becomes a corruption of our tradition.

Interreligious learning and dialogue are essential and unavoidable in today’s world. What matters, though, is how these dialogues are conducted. “Self-critical humility” will compel us to accept unquestioningly the terms and rules of the debate as set by the other side, to adopt their language and terms when describing Hinduism, to conform and concede out of false humility. Self-confidence, on the other hand, would demand that any such dialogue be on equitable terms, in a kshetra that is neutral, and in a language and terminology that is appropriate to all.

Rambachan also worries that Hindu pride may stifle self-criticism, that there will be a tendency to ossify and a resistance to change from within the tradition. Here, again, his concern is totally misplaced. Because Hinduism is an open architecture system*, it allows for heterogeneity, multiplicity, a continuous evolution of diverse practices and doctrines, and it fosters creative and independent thought. There are robust mechanisms within the system of dharma itself to permit for evolution and change according to desha and kaala.

As an example, this very weekend, I was engaged in very thought-provoking debates and discussions with other “proud Hindus” of the concept of same-sex marriages in connection with Hindu Dharma. The discussions were lively and sometimes quite heated and contentious, but what was most noteworthy for me was the ability to move away from sloganeering and pat answers and wrestle with complicated, sensitive issues through looking at ancient texts and our traditional practices with fresh perspectives and incorporate the inputs from new discoveries in science.

Because ours is not a literalist, fundamentalist tradition beholden to a religious figurehead or confined to a single scripture, we can have open discussion and freedom of thought and practice in a way that other religious traditions generally do not.

Self-confidence here plays an important role in allowing us to say that just because something is dealt with one way in America/ the West does not mean that it is the only way of addressing the issue, and that we absolutely have the right and responsibility to look to our own traditions for solutions to today’s issues.

Pride means refusing to get trapped into the binary discourse of a Western framework that pits a Christian right against a secular left; instead, we have to look within our own traditions and find our own answers, answers that may not so easily be classified by Western notions of left/ progressive and right/ conservative. It means having the confidence to be different, to be unique, to not conform and play into others’ ideas of right and wrong.

The values of humility and self-criticism that Rambachan refers to are indeed laudable and they certainly have their place. However, what Sri Aurobindo once so eloquently and passionately proclaimed still holds true today:

What India needs especially at this moment is the aggressive virtues, the spirit of soaring idealism, bold creation, fearless resistance, courageous attack; of the passive tamasic spirit of inertia we have already too much.

We are continuing the struggle and fight that Sri Aurobindo described back in 1907. And so, today, we, as Hindus in India and abroad, still need to cultivate boldness, creativity, courage—and confidence.

*See Indra’s Net by Rajiv Malhotra.

Aditi Banerjee is a practicing attorney at a Fortune 500 financial services company in the greater New York area. She is on the Board of Directors of the World Association for Vedic Studies (WAVES) and has organized and presented at global conferences on matters related to Dharma. She co-edited the book, Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America, and has written widely on Hinduism and the Hindu-American experience.
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