Conversion vs Covenant: White Hinduism-a Religion of Its Own?

What does it mean to be a Hindu? Lately I have been confronted over and over again with the question if people who were not born into the Hindu Dharm can be true Hindus?

The fact of the matter is that Hinduism can hardly be called a “religion” is the first place. There is no central doctrine. No set of laws. No requirements of lifestyle or dress. It is a way of life, a broad philosophy, a wide cultural precept.

One can be an atheist and be a Hindu. One can worship multiple representations of God and be a Hindu. One can worship one God and be a Hindu. One can be a vegetarian or a hefty meat eater and be a Hindu. One can go to the temple regularly or not at all and be a Hindu. One can be a Vaishanvite, Arya Samaji, Swami Narayan follower, Shiv Bhakt, Hare Krishna or almost anything else…and still be considered a Hindu.

With this incredible diversity, is there any one string that holds the concept of Hinduism together? What makes someone a Hindu?

Dharm.

Hinduism is encapsulated in Sanatan Dharm. Many have defined Dharm as Duty, but this is a shallow definition.

I recently heard an enlightening presentation by a friend of mine, Tim Shultz,  who has been observing the South Asian community for decades. He suggested that we can look at Dharm as a COVENANT. And this covenant is something one is born into.

Is Sanatan Dharm a religion that one can convert to?

So why do we see bhakti yogis and celebrities like Julia Roberts claiming to be Hindus? Performing the rituals, chanting the Hanuman Chaalisa, reading the Bhagavad Gita or following a guru does not make someone a part of Sanatan Dharm. Its all about the covenant of dharm.

This “white Hinduism” is something else.

I am going to pick on the white people, since we are the people in the world that seem to want to adopt other people’s religions. When I see white people like Julia Roberts or Katy Perry who identify themselves as Hindu, I feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Julia Roberts and her Guru
White Hindu?

When I look at folks like the bhakti yogi movement.  Many of these people LEAVE their family and family traditions rather than draw closer to their family. The opposite of what Dharm truly is.

Some of the aspects embedded in Hinduism that I find that most white Hindus are attracted to are:

  • Non-violence
  • Vegetarianism
  • Worship of Mother figure (feminine aspects of God)
  • Anti-war/pacifism
  • Verbal and physical forms of worship

These people “follow” some principles of Hinduism, but the principles they choose to follow within Hindusim are the principles that differ MOST from white cultural Republican Christianity in America. What about family values? What about respect for elders? What about sacrifice? Essential parts of Dharm which are neglected in this brand of “Hinduism.”

Is “white Hinduism” merely a reaction to a decayed brand of cultural Christianity? An exotic escape? The newest religious fad?

Can we call someone a Hindu that does not embrace and embody dharm?

 

 

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Additional note: due to high volume of response to this blog, I feel the need to set some qualifying ground rules.


Any personal attacks or bullying against others readers or myself will not be tolerated. If you are looking for a place to discuss and share your thoughts on this topic, please submit comments for review. If you’re looking for a place to debate or bully others please find another blog, because your comments will not be published. This is a blog for discussion, not judging others.


“Dusro ki jaya se pehle khud ko jaya kare.” – “Before winning over others, first win over your self.”

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Nirmila

At my company, we were recently asked to write a story that motivates us to advocate for financially underbanked/underserved consumers. I wrote this story about an elderly Nepali-Bhutanese refugee woman as an expression of what motivates me.

Nirmila

As she sat in the apartment complex in Louisville, Kentucky Nirmila thought to herself “The streets in America are so lonely. Where are all the people?” Nirmila reflected on the refugee camps in Nepal and instantly recalled the musty smoke of the mud stoves, the sharp crackle of buffalo gobar they used for fuel, and the nightly trips to the market to buy fresh spices, beans and herbs for the evening meal.

She missed the smell of incense, the sounds of goat herds settling down for the night, the look of a light glow as the family sat on the floor to eat dinner, laughing, shoveling down handfuls of fresh hot daal-bhat (lentils and rice) and the neighbors stopping in to get coal out of the small pile they shared.

All of these things brought back the close feelings of community and love in the camps in Nepal. Louisville was so cold. The walls were so white. The glass windows in their apartment kept the sounds from the outside world far away and muffled.

Nirmila was born in Bhutan as part of an upper caste Brahmin farming family. She is a part of a community of 300,000 Nepalis who immigrated to Bhutan and were cast out due to a form of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan over the past few decades. Until recently they had been living in refugee camps in Nepal after having been stripped of their wealth, dealt with split families and experienced culture shock. Her husband died from tuberculosis in the refugee camp. She has 3 sons- all married with 6 grandchildren. They all came to Louisville, Kentucky in March of 2010 as part of the United States asylum agreement with Nepal to re-settle the Nepali-Bhutanese.

Nirmila lives in what is called a “joint family.” Grandparents, children, and grandchildren all live together by choice. Multiple generations under the same roof is what the Nepali Bhutanese have always been used to and have continued that same pattern in the US. Nirmila’s son Alok has works nights at a meat packing facility. Her other two sons are still searching for a job and hesitate working at the meat packing facility since they are Brahmin and for generations have strictly stayed away from eating meat, much less butchering a large animal like cow or pig. Only Alok has a car and they rely on him heavily to drive the family for groceries, doctor’s appointments, the 6 children to school, and for any other appointments family members may have while he is not working. The two other brothers are learning how to drive, but it will be several months before they are ready to take the drivers test from the DMV.

Any money they have left over at the month goes into visiting relatives in other states, seeing friends who were resettled in other cities in the US, and saving for the weddings of younger members of the family. Their big screen TV is a status symbol, and provides entertainment for the whole family.

The banking system in the United States was a brief part of their orientation, but access and practicality is lacking.

Wearing her jewelry is part of her daily routine. A large nose ring was a gift from her mother in law when she married her husband Vishnu at age 15. Part of the inheritance passed down from generation to generation. Nirmila also prizes her mangalsutra (a locket and chain) as well as gold earrings that were passed down. She has worn this jewelry since her wedding day and it is more of a marker of status than a matter of personal style. With the rise in gold prices in the past few years, the value of gold jewelry in their home probably adds up to about $15,000 USD. In her mind, the safest place for it is around her neck, and on her ears.

With only one family member with a car, and the bank hours only open from 9-5pm, going to the bank is a huge inconvenience. Often times the family keeps their cash in jars in the kitchen, under bags of rice, and stuff precious family heirlooms inside plastic bags in clothes drawers.

One of the aid workers that assists in resettling the Nepali-Bhutanese community suggested using a safety deposit box for their valuables, but Nirmila had no understanding of this. She thinks to herself “Why would I keep my jewelry in a box!? And what if we get called for a wedding last minute and need to wear my gold (as often happens in the Nepali-Bhutanese community)? How will I get my jewelry when the bank is miles away? I don’t trust anyone to keep my valuables outside the home. Last time we put our valuables in the care of someone else, the government took it away.”

People like Nirmila who have huge cultural boundaries to cross are an example of people who are good at managing their money, but whose needs are not met by the rigid structure and hours of a bank. Financial services that are easy to use, flexible, and accessible by families like Nirmila’s are much needed.

3 Reasons Why We Need to Change Our Minds About Bihar

As I am now a regular visitor of Bihar, I hear a lot of talk about Bihar being lawless and corrupt. The picture of the past is still lingering, but people either haven’t seen the new Bihar, or are unwilling to let go of the old dusty stereotypes. For too long, Bihar has been seen as that weak little brother that everyone likes to make fun of. I find a different and promising Bihar.


1) Language and Cultural Stronghold

While Bihar has a reputation for being uneducated and backwards, I find that preserving culture and language is a priority here. Unlike some other places in India, where kids are growing up with butchered Hinglish, I’ve been shocked with modern youngsters in Bihar who are comfortable with speaking high level “shudh Hindi” in normal conversation along with studying English in school. In places like Delhi, I hear youngsters who can only speak their parent’s mother tongue half-heartedly or revert to English entirely. I can’t remember the last time in Delhi where I heard someone give me change at a store and without thinking hand me over “ek sau teis” rather than “hundred twenty three” rupees. Its refreshing to see high scale malls unashamedly flaunting billboards in pure simple Hindi, rather than adulterated ads like “Drink Karo, Enjoy Karo.” Bihar is a Hindi learner’s paradise.Another complaint of urban Indians is that highly populated cities are becoming Westernized in all the wrong ways, but I don’t find that in Patna. I find the people very connected to their traditions while also moving forward for a better Bihar.

2) Tourist Attractions

Although Bihar might not be the first place you think of when you think about the sights of India, but Bihar hosts international tourists at spots like Bodh gaya. Between 2003 and 2008, the inflow of foreign tourists to Bihar saw a near-sixfold rise from 61,000 to 346,000. (Wikipedia) Who knows what else is around the corner?

3) Developing Forward

Nitish Kumar

While the memory of Laluji still lingers on, the legacy of Bihar belongs to progress. If one plans to carry on any intelligent conversation, you cannot underestimate the importance of knowing about Nitish Kumar. He is leading the way in development and showing other states how to do it.

In 2011, Bihar was actually identified as the “least corrupt state” in a study by economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari.

Most of the people I find who criticize Bihar are A) people who have never here B) people who only know manual laborers and gypsies from Bihar who have settled elsewhere C) snobs from other states who are trying to prove their state is better. The future of Bihar is promising. The tides have turned. The old stereotypes of a rough, backwoods Bihar needs to be unraveled and forgotten.

Why I’m OK Being White

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed that many caucasian people I’ve come in contact with are experiencing a growing discomfort with being white. Something within us feels a bit guilty, like we are the ones who have caused the world’s problems. We think of the Nazis, the British in India, slavery in the US, and remember all the times in history that white people have made non-white people’s lives miserable.

Authors Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp have so appropriately named this comfort “Great White Guilt” in their book Being White: Finding our Place in a Multiethnic World. This feeling makes us feel like somehow our ancestors were responsible for suffering in the world and that we today are responsible. We hear the voices from the from the outside world, and the more powerful feeling from within. Something that tells us that being white is not OK.

In my community, I spend time with a lot of non-white people, and the white people I do spend time with behave with some level of “brownness.” There are some people who I meet who it is so obvious they are trying to fit into a brown culture that they’ve totally lost themselves. And I don’t blame them, because it is very easy to. I lived in India for a number of years and there was a lot to pressure to “be Indian”. To dress Indian, to eat Indian, to walk Indian, to talk Indian. There was simply no other right way, and when nearly everyone in society corrects your “white behavior”, the pressures wear on you. Finally, you start to think less of yourself and question if being white is really OK. Then you feel that being who you are is wrong or shameful. Being white becomes not OK.

I’ve been told many times that I am a “white Indian.” I used to take this as a compliment as I had worked very hard to learn the Hindi language and adopt certain lifestyle changes in order to survive in India. They eventually became a part of me. Now when someone says that, it bothers me. Why?

There is a theory called the “Coconut Generation” where it has been said that some Indian American kids are “brown on the outside, white on the inside”. I find a growing trend of white people who somehow are striving for the opposite “white on the outside and brown on the inside.” Personally, I think it is a short-sighted and an awfully one dimensional way to look at a person or to view oneself.

Cross cultural change is good and important. We need to learn about each other’s lives. Adopt behaviors which come to us naturally, enjoy each other’s cultures and be comfortable in our own skin.

As we think about atrocities like slavery in the US, the British occupying India, and the holocaust, we have to consider that these atrocities were caused by white people who oppressed others out of fear because they were insecure in their own racial identity.

I’m writing this because I think that white people need to move past “Great White Guilt” and move into healthy reconciliation. There are lots of reminders and pressures in this world to make us feel guilty for bad things that white people have done in the past. We don’t have to deny this and disassociate completely. Realize that you can do your part in creating positive change in society, but don’t try to be someone else while doing it. Be yourself. Be white.

The New America at the Laundromat

There are a few places where I like to go to people watch and reconnect myself with the ever changing population of my urban neighborhood. There are some places that are thriving with life, freshness, and diversity. The Laundromat is one of these places where one can keep their finger on the pulse of “the New America”.

Few places in this country allow you to see the real grit and hardship of people. The fights they choose to pick in public, the dirty laundry they bring in, the things they keep themselves busy with while waiting for their laundry to spin…

A tragic but telling story unfolded before my eyes a few months ago. Dozens gravitated to the laundromat on a Friday night, slowly trudging in with huge bags of dirty laundry. A Pakistani mother in law/ daughter in law dragged a week’s worth of clothing, bedsheets and cloth diapers. A single African American mom fed her kids Cheetos and Mountain Dew for dinner while her hands worked almost disconnected folding clothes while keeping her eyes glued to the TV monitor above. Some brought in carts, while others dragged cotton bags across the busy streets. Around 10:00pm, two gang members rushed in chasing a teenage boy of a different color. The boy had no shirt and was running at full speed. He came for refuge, but what he got was a beating. Dozens of us stood in shock as the two boys beat this boy to the ground. Blood gushed from his nose and after about 30 seconds some other men stepped in and starting yelling. The two gang members sprinted off, banging the glass doors on the way out, and the rest of us stood in shock, some trying to mind their own business, while others looking wide eyed trying to memorize the culprits’ features so that we could report them to the police.

The Somalian woman across from me paused her phone conversation, as she stood motionaless in a purple polyester burkha with her phone tucked into the side of her hijaab next to her right ear. The Latino twins that were previously enamored with the telenovela playing at maximum volume on the TV mounted on the wall, stared at the bloody teen while their popcicles dripped on the floor, mouths hung open in shock. After about 20 minutes, the cops showed up, took the boy’s story, and took him off to a safe place. We all breathed a little easier.

Some call my community in Chicago a melting pot. I’d call it more of a stew pot. Everyone is thrown together, but people often keep separated. Indians over here, the Orthodox Jews over there, The West African Muslims over there. Living in a community where many people are FOBs (fresh-off-the-boat), sometime the FOB mentality never goes away. People recreate a community where their ethnic group is safe, protected, and free. When outbursts like this occur, you can almost feel the stereotypes of other ethnic groups being reinforced and prejudices forming. I almost wonder if our little ethnic communities are more harmful than helpful. Are they breeding grounds for prejudice, fear and stereotypes? I think about that boy and realize the impression he made on all of us at the laundromat. Will we harbor fear and anxiety about ethnic groups that we are afraid of? Or will we let it go?

Why I Found NBC’s “Outsourced” Irrelevant

A lot of people have asked me over the past year:

“What do you think of the show Outsourced?”
“Did Outsourced really depict India?”
“Is the work environment in India really like that”

In the beginning NBC had a lot of potential material to work with. Most Americans are curious about exotic India. A fascinating world of elephants, masalas, chaotic traffic patterns, and sarees…and almost every American has had the experience of call center frustrations. How are these two worlds compatible?

As frustrated as Americans are about calling a call center, most Indians who work in a call center are equally as frustrated. Long hours. working at night, dealing with rude ethnocentric people. There was A LOT of potential material that could have been used for the TV program.

Creative Downfall

I understand the “Office-like” concept of the show. Overstretching stereotypes to the point that everyone feels uncomfortable with the overly awkward dialogues. You laugh at the expense of the characters and ‘foot in mouth’ outbursts.

But the script writers ran out of intelligible content fast. Then the show digressed to blatant sexual humor, and overstretching some very untrue stereotypes. It simply became a trashy “America Pie” type of show.

I don’t know why, but I had a vague hope that this would be something that lightly poked fun at common stereotypes and helped people understand cultural differences.

Harmful Stereotypes Reinforced

From someone who lived and worked in India for a number of years….If anyone behaved like Charlie or Todd, you won’t survive.

Yes, we know that America is far more open with our lack of shame. But do we need to make each episode a moral debauchery of Americans?

Bachelor parties? An Australian mother and an American call center manager having a rendevous in plain sight on an balcony above a busy Indian market? Sleeping with the boss then bragging about it in the workplace? The blatant sexuality was too much. Even for American TV.  Americans already have to deal with some Indians assuming we are all morally inferior, un-spiritual, hypocrites. Why would we air a show that projected this harmful and untrue stereotype?

As in most declining TV shows, dirty humour is used as a sad replacement for clever witty interactions. Another cheap American show filled with filth to get ratings and attempt to entertain viewers with false stereotypes.

Character Flaws

Least Realistic/ Most Exaggerated Characters:

  • Charlie– The awkward American cowboy, perverted borderline sex offender. I’m met very few of them in life. And certainly none in India.
  • Tonya- Obviously she was a complete skank and too undignified to be believable. If a woman behaves like that in India without a support system, she will most likely have her ‘easy going’ attitude broken by perverts grabbers on the street, or possibly even become the victim of rape. The show portrayed her as a happy go lucky professional who seemed to bounce back from any situation. Not possible.
  • Rajeev — His character was far too articulate for someone who would typically be so closed minded and money hungry. Like an Indian Michael Scott, he was far too verbally abusive to be real.

Semi-Realistic/ Semi-Exaggerated

  • Aasha- You will find some confused Desi women caught in the middle of a modern and traditional world, but her Indian accent was so bad it was hard to ever believe her character. Sorry Rebecca Hazlewood. Stick to British films next time.
  • Todd– The football loving American boy that just wants to watch football and hook up with pretty women certainly exists, but don’t last long in India. Generally his open romantic relationships would have gotten him a lot of disrespect from subordinates rather than being the fun loving boss that the show depicted.
  • Manmeet– The awkward and womanizing cassanova definitely exists. Men who want to be a stud, but not sure how. Manmeet was too openly determined and eager. You will find sneakier versions of this character in real life. People who behave this week behind closed doors, but are ashamed to openly talk about it.

Most Realistic Characters/Least Exaggerated characters

  • Madhuri–The shy and naive woman is the fact that a lot of Indian woman like to put on. I found her to be one of the most loveable characters as she would occasionally let her fun side come out.
  • Gupta–His character was realistic to the point is that this is how some 14 year old boys behave in India, not 30 year old men. His charming sense of humor was the only thing that kept the show going for a few months. He was a partially embodied “Michael Scott” of the show. The man that refuses to grow up.
  • In short…

    I had hopes in the beginning….and was ashamed in the end.

    The show reinforced harmful stereotypes of Indians being bobbleheaded order takers. AND Westerns being moral bottomfeeders that slept around with every living breathing human available.
    This is not the message that our world needs today. Thankfully the American public is smarter than that, got bored with it, and the show got cancelled. One less cheap show with worthless content crowding the airwaves.

Cultural Values in Kids’ Movies

Movies reinforce ideas of family, culture, and societal expectations to kids, but especially they reinforce expectations of love and relationships. If I ever had doubts about this, they vanished last night as I watched “Shrek Forever After”. An innocent kids movie, as I watched it I realized how much these kids of movies subconsciously influence kids in their expectations of how relationships work.

In this movie, Shrek is trying to win back his wife Fiona after a confusing bout with Rumpelstiltskin. Due to a magic spell, she doesn’t know who Shrek is and he has to convince her that he knows her and in a previous time they were in love.

One dialogue goes something like this:

“Fiona I know everything about you.

I know that when you see a shooting star you close your eyes and make a wish.

I know that you don’t like the covers over your feet when you sleep.

I know that you only like grape jelly, not strawberry on your toast.”

Notice that every single statement is a very personal and focused on her as an individual.

My husband laughed out loud and made the comment: “In knowing so much about her, he didn’t say anything about her family, her upbringing, or her education.”

He was right. In America our love stories are based on affection between two people. A common understanding. The here and now.

Often times our view is, if you find someone who can understand you completely and that you get along with, those are real signs of a long lasting relationship. But is that a faulty expectation that comes out of our individualistic culture? These simple quote from a movie are small pointers to individualistic values communicating through film when it comes to love and relationships.

Imagine this same dialogue in an Indian (communal) context:

“Fiona I know everything about you:

I know that your mother made you moolee parantha every morning for breakfast.

I know that you got your family wanted you to go to IIT, but you did not get admission.

I know that your father had to take out a loan for your sister’s dowry that took him 13 years to pay back.”

Most likely, every statement would be family related!

I’m not saying that Indian culture is superior, just pointing out the differences in priorities and examining the differences in traditionally communal and individualistic cultures.

What do movies communicate about relationships?

After growing up in the US, I have been desensitized to see cartoon characters kissing. After several years of being immersed in Indian culture, I was very weirded out to see that they showed cartoon ogres kissing. Kissing was a central part of the story…and therefore a pointer to True Love. I never uncoded it as a kid, but now as an adult I can clearly see the message.

What kind of things are we teaching our kids with these movies? It is intended as an innocent fairy tale, but we need to be careful to make sure our kids understand that real love does not have to be wrapped up or expressed in physical affection.

And maybe we can learn to be careful what kind of values are being reinforced with film love stories like this. Is the here and now and personal preference all that matters in choosing a life partner?

Nomadic Professionalism and Living Cross Culturally