A few months back as I was laying out the table of contents for a magazine I publish on Asian art, culture and spiritual traditions, I inserted the names of two Sufi writers. On spotting the Muslim names, one of the volunteers, a white woman in her late sixties launched into an unhinged rant, claiming Sufi writers were in fact Jihadis in disguise, and accused me of enabling terrorists to invade and conquer Hindu lands.
Needless to say she did not last long with the magazine. Later I found out she had close links with various right wing Hindu nationalist outfits, had been raised in a strictly orthodox Catholic family and had been groomed to be a nun from a young age. Events had led her to convert to Hinduism later in life.
Even more bizarre was the fact that the woman had never set foot in India. She had been radicalized by prolonged interactions with Hindu nationalist hubs on social media – in a manner similar to how budding Islamists are groomed and recruited online.
A scholar of South Asian studies from a prominent university, who chose to remain anonymous, put his finger of the pulse: “The dynamic I observe is that the white Hindu craves acceptance from Indian Hindus, who are regarded as more authentic (“real” Hindus). Hindutva ideologues on the Internet latch onto these folks, who go to sites like Hindu Dharma Forums for advice on how to be a Hindu. The ideologues then basically bully them into parroting their views on a whole host of subjects”
“A lot of the white Hindus come from Christian fundamentalist backgrounds against which they have rebelled. So they eagerly pick up on the anti Abrahamic rhetoric not as anti minority (as it is in India) but as anti what is seen in the US as an oppressive bigoted majority. So you get Bernie Sanders supporting white Hindutva fanatics. That’s my analysis in a nutshell.”
A case in point is David Frawley AKA ‘Vamadeva Shastri’ – an well known American teacher of Ayurveda, Jyotish and Vedic traditions, who leads a double life as an enthusiastic promoter of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a nearly all-male cadre organization comprising tens of millions of active members that promotes a paramilitary ethos, hyper-masculine nationalism and a radical vision to reshape Indian society along authoritarian theocratic lines.
Like rightwing populists the world over, Frawley champions cultural purity and longs for a return to ‘traditional values’ ostensibly under siege by liberals, leftists, Muslims and Christians – with the implicit understanding that these ‘anti-nationals’ be given no quarter unless they submit to the majoritarian Hindu consensus.
Instead of working towards healing festering wounds and fostering communal harmony, Frawley further vitiates the discourse by fingering sensitive fault lines and fueling tensions between communities.
A strange twist of post-colonial irony: A white man, goading his mostly Indian followers to turn against their fellow Indians who are not ‘patriotic’ enough for his liking.
Hindu supremacist rhetoric is virtually indistinguishable from the white nationalism espoused by the Alt-Right. Working class white Americans are led to believe that ‘traditional American values’ are under threat by growing numbers of colored people, alien immigrants and conspiratorial Muslims and Jews. A similar message is being delivered in India: the country belongs to the Hindu majority, but it is being stolen – aided by compromised ‘secularists’ – by Muslims and Christians whose loyalty lies in foreign lands.
In his book ‘A Vision For Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism’, Jeffery Long, a scholar and convert to Hinduism, warns about the destructive and corrosive nature of Hindutva ideology and argues for an idea of Hinduism which is universal, inclusive and pluralistic. “I was drawn to the practice of a Hindu spiritual path largely because I became persuaded of the truth of a Hindu worldview. There are many Hindu worldviews; but the one I hold teaches the reality of karma and rebirth, is theistic (or more specifically, panentheistic), and includes a practice which, when cultivated, leads to profoundly transformative experiences for the practitioner”. Responding to a reader, he writes, “the universalism of this tradition has allowed me to keep those parts of the Roman Catholic Christian practice of my upbringing that have remained beneficial for my spiritual life, while incorporating elements of Buddhism and Jainism as well (and of course the wider Hindu tradition)”.
Westerners converting to ethno-religions like Hinduism, which are traditionally associated with the Indian subcontinent, raise some contentious issues. As the scholar Deepak Sarma notes, the select group of white Americans who ‘claim to have “converted” to Hinduism and concurrently mimic their imaginary (and often Orientalist) archetypal “Hindu” in order to reverse-assimilate, to deny their colonial histories, to (futilely) color their lives, and, paradoxically, to be marginalized’. He goes further to say, ‘reverse mimicry, ironically, merely reinforces existing hierarchies and paradigms. In fact, some claim to be more “authentic” than Diaspora Hindus and, in so doing, deny the voice of those they mimic/ mock’.
In her influential work Transcendent in America: Hindu Inspired Meditation Movements as a New Religion, Lola Williamson explores three hugely popular spiritual organizations centered around charismatic Indian Gurus which took root in America – Self Realization Fellowship (Yogananda), Siddha Yoga (Muktananda) and Transcendental Meditation (Mahesh Yogi). Williamson’s work provides insight into the way Hinduism is adapted in the US with it’s religious culture so deeply influenced by Protestant Christian values and practices, especially its privileging of direct religious experience. Transcendent in America also looks at the interplay between Hinduism and Christianity in these movements – e.g. in the teachings of gurus like Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of SRF, who came to the US in 1920 ‘to teach Yoga and harmony between Krishna and Christ.’
A recurring theme in the book is an effort to reconcile an appreciation for the manifold benefits the author and many others experienced through meditation and gratitude for the teachers who act as guides on the way, with evidence of widespread abuse and exploitation by leaders within these movements, including the supposedly enlightened founder of Siddha Yoga, Swami Muktananda.
A Bengali immigrant to the United States, Srila Prabhupada, single-handedly created the International Society For Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in the sixties – that turned Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a monotheistic sect of Hinduism, into a global phenomenon. Every major city and many small towns in Europe, North America, Australia and South America now feature Krishna temples, farm communities, schools, restaurants and shaven-headed, saffron-robe-wearing, dancing and chanting bhaktas, better known as Hare Krishnas.
In 1998 ISKCON published a candid expose on widespread abuse of children within its schools, leading to the creation of a Task Force and subsequently the establishment of the ISKCON Central Office of Child Protection. And in 2008 its Dallas chapter had to settle a child abuse case for $15 million.
The inherent wisdom of India’s spiritual traditions has benefited whole generations of Americans influenced by pop culture icons like the Beatles and their romance with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation. J.D Salinger, Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, Emerson and Thoreau were among those influenced by teachings of Vedanta and incorporated them in some of the famous works they authored.
However, a growing number of people, turned off by religious and cultural chauvinism, are defining themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Increasingly people are wary of allowing their worldview to be defined by competing political meta-narratives or by sectarian turf wars. In reaction to growing populism, they reject religious labels and are not willing to cede the freedom to partake freely from all the world’s traditions.
“Whereas, at the time, religion to me stood for constraint and repression, the Gita sang of that most American of values: freedom” explains Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda. “The entire tone, purpose and pedagogy rang with the chimes of freedom ﬂashing, to cite a Bob Dylan lyric of the time: freedom of inquiry, freedom of choice, freedom of pathway, freedom from suffering, freedom from ignorance, freedom from illusion, freedom from duality and above all the freedom of liberated consciousness”.