On 14 November 2012, Prof. Deepak Sarma posted an article on Huffington Post, titled “White Hindu converts: mimicry or mockery?” In that blog, he defines Hindus in America as an ethnic group animated by a memory of the colonized condition. It should, he argues, mistrust attempts by white Americans to convert to their religion. These whites only 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”.
Before we can begin discussing this thesis, we note that one word already stands out: “Orientalist”. Indeed, Sarma is one of those Hindus who take Edward Said’s theory of “Orientalism” seriously, even to the point of making their own whole work a footnote to Said’s magnum opus. But Said’s influential book has been refuted as both riddled with factual errors and being in essence a grand conspiracy theory. It is plainly shameful for an academic to be seen in Said’s company and to use the neutral term “Orientalism” in Said’s pejorative sense. But for a Muslim, at least, it is a form of championing his own cause: he merely quotes a Dhimmi (a self-humiliating “tolerated” non-Muslim, for that is what the Palestinian Christian Said was), a defender of Islamic interests, who found a new way of overruling all the scientific research that Western scholars (a.k.a. Orientalists) had done on Islam. But for a Hindu, it is sheer buffoonery to treat Said as a scholarly authority. It seems that Sarma never grew up to doubt the pious lies he was taught in school.
Now, to come to Sarma’s own thesis: we find that he does not mention the contents of Hindu tradition, eventhough therein lies the only interest that Hinduism has for its converts. Most white converts by far don’t care to join Hindu society as such, and know little about mundane Hindu reality. They only know their guru, maybe his ashram in India, and some pretty ancient Hindu scriptures. That is their limited view of Hinduism, and that is what some convert to it. In this, most of them have no consciousness at all about colonial history, known to our generation only through the history books. It is simply not true that they do it because they want to “identify with the subaltern group and can transform from the oppressor to the oppressed, from the colonizer to the colonized”. Oppression is not what people think about when they think of India, which has been independent for as long as 95% of the Indians can remember. Thus, if India suffers from widespread corruption, it was not inflicted by or inherited from the British, but is the doing of its own citizens, and everybody knows it. In his university’s ivory tower, Sarma may obsess over long-gone colonialism, but most people don’t.
Moreover, while for British youngsters colonial India is a dim reality they once heard of from their grandparents, for Americans it was never a reality at all, unless you mean that they opposed it. Like the Indians, the Americans saw themselves as having acquired their freedom from British colonialism. It was American journalists who gave a global platform to Mahatma Gandhi and cheered for his struggle against colonialism. I will not go into the complex situation of the continental Europeans, who were no party to India’s colonization but took it for granted (and of whose countries some gave independence to their colonies under American pressure), or to the Irish, who took part in the British conquest of India all while their own homeland was in a colonized condition for far longer than India. At any rate, it is bad history to identify American whites with colonialism. It may have escaped the racially-obsessed Prof. Sarma’s attention, but there were white anti-colonialists too.
The professor is badly informed when he claims: “Surely such an imagined transformation is only available to those who are privileged in the first place.” Can only “privileged” whites make a conversion across Christian/Dharmic boundaries? Not at all: a majority of Indian Christians consist of people from an underprivileged Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe background. That is the comparison which this subject calls for: if there are American “whites” (in fact, blacks too) who convert to Hinduism, there are many more Hindus (or whatever you want to call them; let us say “Indian religionists”) who have converted to Christianity. And against the hurdles which Deepak Sarma wants to throw in the way of Western would-be converts to Hinduism, brown converts are courted by and welcomed with open arms into Christianity. In fact, he need not even go back to his homeland to see this phenomenon: in America itself, many second-generation Hindus are eagerly converted by Evangelical Christians. Some of the most successful politicians of Indian descent are in this case.
Indeed, we see a strange alliance emerge. While American Christians have no option but to tolerate the conversion of some of their members to Hinduism, they do try to prevent this development. Indeed, after the seeming elopement of the children of Christian parents with Hindu gurus (or with Japanese Zen Buddhism, or with secular Leftism) in the 60s and 70s, the American Churches devised strategies to keep or to win back their flock, strategies which have been copied in other Christian countries. Now, they get the objective support of a born Brahmin who tries to limit entry to Hinduism to native Hindus, or at least to non-white people.
This is in fact a new form of an old phenomenon: Brahmins trying to limit the entry to Hinduism. A number of times, Hindu rulers have tried to reconvert populations that had gone over to Islam under duress or social pressure, but Brahmins prevented them. I am not in favour of the game of blaming the Brahmin caste, but here they really have committed an error which Deepak Sarma is now repeating.
Hinduism, as Sarma’s aged colleague Prof. Arvind Sharma has shown, was a missionary religion for very long. Indeed, this is how Vedic tradition spread from the Northwest of the Subcontinent: tribes in South and East India collectively joined, embraced the Hindu epics, employed Brahmin priests whom they welcomed and allowed to settle, and generally added Hindu culture to their own tribal culture, which largely survived in Hindu form. A difference with Christianity was that it did not require its newcomers to abjure any past religion. Most of the tribe’s ancestral tradition persisted under the aegis of Hinduism.
Another difference was that it was mostly tribes as a whole that joined Hinduism, while Christianity converted individuals. Sometimes these were followed by their families or communities, sometimes not. Sometimes this conversion split communities down the middle and pitted converts against non-converts – the very reason Mahatma Gandhi and many other Hindus have given to oppose conversions. Differences of “identity” were taken for granted, tribal life in the forests of Andhra was very different from the Vedic cattle-raisers’ life on the plains of Haryana or the urban life in the West-Panjabi town of Harappa; but Hinduism took all those differences along in its capacious bosom, just as it can give a place to white citizens of Los Angeles along with sun-tanned whites of Jammu or the dark brown natives of Chennai.
A third difference is that ancestral religions were followed as a matter of tradition, because people had learned it from their parents and the elders of the tribe, whereas many (though not all) conversions to Christianity took place because the converts were convinced of the truth of their newfound belief system. In the case of Indian tribes adopting Vedicism/Brahminism, this same consideration may have played a role for a certain elite though not for the masses, but in the case of Christianity it is really typical. It is ironic that a religion of which the core doctrines (e.g. mortality as a consequence of primeval sin; Jesus as son of God; his resurrection; its power to free man from sin and from mortality) are demonstrably untrue, put such an emphasis on its truth claim. This may be explained by the cultural milieu in which it came into being, the Hellenistic emphasis on truth claims, but that circumstance does not yet make the beliefs true. However, many people were convinced they were, and therefore converted.
Most Western converts to Hinduism follow the Christian model of conversion at least in this second and third respects. They convert as individuals, not collectively (though when you look at life in Ashrams, they end up intermarrying far more with each other than with native Hindus, thus forming a separate caste of Western Hindus); and they become Hindu because they believe the core doctrines of Hinduism are true. Prof. Sarma’s considerations of colonialism, identity or privilege don’t figure in this process at all.
American universities are deeply sick with a hyperfocus on sociological issues, most of all on “identity”. Last month I attended the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion, a forum which ought to focus on higher issues transcending the mundane problems of communal “identity”. But instead, the majority of papers dealt, explicitly or implicitly, with these question of identity. At least I met one (non-academic) Hindu scholar who soberly remarked that identity is just there, that it is a coincidental starting-point from which you embark on more engaging projects such as religion. But in Deepak Sarma we have an academic who, instead of playing the game while at work but laughing at it when at home, takes the new dogma seriously. He really believes in the salvific power of “identity”. He really thinks of himself as “colonized”, though he has never lived through the colonial period in his homeland, nor in America. By contrast, the question of the truth of Hinduism does not enter his mind (or at least his article) at all, even when it is all-important to the people he lambasts, the white converts.
Sarma does have a point where he observes that some Western converts “claim to be more ‘authentic’ than Diaspora Hindus”. Yes, and this is even more remarkable when you realize that most converts don’t know of the many inter-Hindu discussions where Hindus complain about their (or each other’s) decadence. Hindu society in India and even more in America does have its problems, and converts are free from that particular history. Indeed, they often totally ignorant of it. Thus, many of them are totally innocent of how Hinduism in its homeland is besieged by certain movements, including the Hindu-born secularists, and how the Hindus they meet are to various extents trying to live up to the standards set by their enemies (e.g. those Hindus who try to prove to the Christian missionaries, but firstly to each other, that Hinduism is monotheistic). They only know the ideal Hinduism laid down in ancient books such as the Upanishads or the Yoga Sutra, and judge the native Hindus they meet by this yardstick.
They should not do this, they should keep in mind a fundamental humility and willingness to learn. Whatever the situation of these diasporic Hindus, and whatever the compromises with modern society they have had to make, both in their homeland and in their country of settlement, they have lived the really existing Hinduism all their lives, and converts could learn a few things from them. But the Western converts’ attitude is understandable (not justifiable) when you compare it with the Western Communists of yore who met people from the countries where the really existing Communism was in power: they were disappointed at the corruption in the Soviet Union, the conformism of the Chinese, or the backwardness of North Korea. This reality fell short of the Communism of their dreams, or rather, the Communism of the textbooks. They wanted the Communism as it should have been, and now they want the Hinduism of the textbooks, as it should have been. Of course most real Hindus don’t live up to the standards of a Yajnavalkya or a Patanjali; but converts of whatever colour are inspired by Yajnavalkya or Patanjali and want to be like them, not like Deepak Sarma.