Trans-national Hindus: Seeking vicarious redemption!
by Sandhya Jain on 26 Dec 2010 52 Comments

A recently released report on ‘Caste’ by the Hindu American Foundation, a body of (mostly first generation) American citizens of Indian origin, has unleashed a raging controversy in India and the US Hindu community.


Indians question the ‘adhikar’ (locus standi) of American Hindus to pontificate on the nature of what they call the ‘caste system’; the conflation of caste with discrimination against so-called lower castes; and above all, the brazen insistence that Hindu Dharma in India must be ‘reformed’ so that the self-ejects have greater psychological comfort in the new homeland, free from heckling by missionaries and administration-backed journalists.


The old colonial agenda – the reins of which moved from London to Washington after the end of the Second World War – remains intact: to portray Indian society as a Jurassic relic, where jana-jati-varna continue to operate as social and cultural motifs and enjoy potency in the political arena.


The Portuguese gave the generic term ‘caste’ (casta) to the complex Indian social organism, which is the signature tune of the civilisation, so intricately interwoven with soil, society, and dharma, that while its unity and continuity can be readily discerned, none can say where it began…it just is. It proved amazingly resilient in the face of missionary attempts to deconstruct Hindu society and remould it as a rootless monotheism; hence the constant tirade to undermine it by foreigners, fellow travellers, and ‘dissidents’. The HAF report is just another missile in the White Man’s arsenal to annihilate Hindu civilisation in India.


As in the colonial era, the mischief pretends concern for sections of society designated as backward or disadvantaged. This obsession with a pecking order – of classes rather than of values – clearly derives from the classical Biblical notion of a ‘Great Chain of Being,’ where God (or Nature) organised the world so that all living things from man to insect could be classified and slotted into an appropriate hierarchy.


Crispin Bates, master deconstructionist of colonial race theories, observed that the Western racial claim to superiority made a far deeper impact on Indian society than is generally realised. He suggested that instead of trying to answer the question ‘what is caste,’ we should ask ‘who wants to define it?’ To this, one need only add: ‘and to what purpose?’


This brings us to the issue of adhikar/right and the nature of Hindu Dharma, which emphatically denies trans-national Hindus the authority they are arrogating to themselves in order to please their self-chosen White Masters. Hindu Dharma has an inalienable bond with the sacred geography of Bharat and Bharat Jana (people), an organic link that cannot be broken or disregarded without distorting or destroying Dharma.


The Jambudvipa of Bharat and Trans-national Hindus


Indians have from hoary times distinguished between natives and foreigners, a distinction not based on racial criteria (skin colour, ethnicity) but on the unique character of the Hindu ethos where the ‘Arya’ (pious, noble, cultured) was honoured in contrast to the mleccha or barbarian/outsider. The tradition arranged the primal identities of jana (clan, tribe, people or visah) and gotra (also clan, tribe) in a broad Varna system – a socio-ethical and ritual hierarchy. A place in the Varna system marked the Arya from the outsider. Social identity was thus associated with varnasrama dharma, gotra, janapada; this underlay social and ritual rights and obligations, adhikara


Hindu ritual begins with a resolve (sankalpa) in which one recalls one’s place in time (samay) and space/place (sthan). The traditional formula recalls one’s belonging to Jambudvipa or Bharatvarsa. It reflects the primordial unity of Hindu, Bauddha and Jaina streams; the Buddhas and Cakkavattis (chakravartins) can be born only in Jambudvipa; the Tirthankaras and Cakravartins are born only in the Arya janapadas of Bharat, one of the seven regions of Jambudvipa. In the Puranas, Bharat is the centre of the nine Varsas of Jambudvipa, centre of the earth and one of seven dvipas (regions, not islands). As the four-fold order, Caturvarnya, operates in Bharat, it is the only place where proper practice of religion is possible as Varnasrmadharma makes performance of svadharma (one’s own dharma) possible. Hence Bharata alone is karmabhumi.


In other countries, bhoga is possible, but not karma, as without adhikara, karma is not possible, and without karma one cannot tread the path of emancipation. The samkalpa-mantra recalls the obligations to which one is heir by virtue of being born in Bharatavarsa, and of the eligibility won by that place in moral and religious life. Bharat is thus a geo-cultural region where natural and cultural frontiers correspond in terms of the Himalayas and the sea; in the north-west and north-east, the natural frontiers merge into the lands of barbarians who do not use Sanskrit or follow the four-fold order.


Hindu tradition is thus unambiguous that Bharat alone is the punyabhumi where dharma can be practiced properly, because here alone karma can be expiated by Hindus living on the bhumi.


Today, (comparatively) rich and officious Hindus (aided and abetted by a handful of Dollar-enamoured Swamis) who quit Bharat for foreign soil, foreign money and foreign citizenship, are trying to re-cast Hindu Dharma in conformity with Western Monotheism and values. Ignoring the inalienable link between the dharma and the divine soil of Bharat, they are trying to remould the dharma as a trans-national faith – an oxymoron called Global Hindu – and in this guise serve the trans-national ideology and religion of their new masters. A previous attempt to promote a blueprint for re-casting Hindu dharma on Vatican-Church lines failed to take off; but the agenda to install one or other Dollar Swami as a kind of ‘Hindu Pope’ is intact.


Bhumi and dharma

The non-negotiable tie between land and faith is not based on a Hindu mental aberration, but derives from the organic growth of the civilisation in the hoary past, when myriad tribes (or sections of tribes) of hill, mountain and jungle transited to village life and made their tutelary deities the grama devata. These deities are deeply respected throughout the country by tribals and non-tribals alike. Grama devata is generally a female divinity, and goddesses are intimately linked with the earth in the form of soil and territory. The grama devata holds sway over a specific geographical area; it is believed that Devi ascends from the earth and unites her various earthly forms within herself. Bhudevi (Earth Goddess) is the divinized earth. Grama devata is mostly worshipped in the form of a stone (uniconical murti) placed under a tree, often accompanied by a pot and/or a trishul.


Hindu religious experience can be condensed into the sutra: ishta deva, kula deva, grama deva, sthan deva (personal beloved god; god of the clan/gotra; god of the village; and god of the land/region). The last holds special eminence in hilly/mountainous country and transports the devotee safely from one mountain-side to the next. When foreigners dubbed Bharat as ‘hindustan’, they meant only that this was the abode (sthan) of the gods of the Hindu people (people beyond the river Sindhu); the vulgar claim that we owe our identity as a people to this labelling by outsiders is wholly untenable. The presence of ‘sthan’ countries in our neighbourhood to this day testifies to the prevalence and power of primordial native gods.


Tribal society metamorphosed into castes; the proper term being ‘jati’, derived from the root ‘jaat’ (genesis). Hence the defining characteristics of tribe/gana and caste/jati is the same - common descent from a common ancestor (gotra), common language, endogamy and clan exogamy, tribal councils/caste panchayats, taboos in diet and marriage alliances, presence of hierarchy within groups, and limited self-sufficiency (inter-dependence and division of labour).


The idea of the nation was established in India as the distinct Arya culture spread through spiritual-cultural linkages and a community of worship, rather than political conquest. Geography is thus intrinsic with Hindu spirituality; this could embrace all tribes and groups, even immigrants, provided only that they embraced this spiritual unity, “for here culture and not race or language was the passport for admission”. Hindu dharma, as Sri Aurobindo noted, “observed the one truth from its many sides” and “is not a creedal religion, but a vast, universal, many-sided and unifying system of spiritual culture”.


In this system, caste or jati/varna became an agency of integration of diverse groups and a mechanism to resolve mutual conflicts. As the unity of dharma embraced all, caste proved the sole and sufficient glue of Indian society.


Consciousness of spiritual-geographical unity spread through an elaborate network of shrines and places of pilgrimage which wove the entire land into a cultural unity. Pilgrimage gave the people a geographical sense of the civilisation, and encouraged them to see India as a single immense entity.


Towards a Hindu Canon?


The HAF report seems to emanate from the deracination that comes from severing one’s connection to one’s bhumi, and transplanting oneself in an alien soil and culture, solely for material gains. This can be a fairly dehumanizing experience; hence the foreign Hindus’ desire to cling to some form of faith and culture is utterly understandable. What is not forgivable is the deliberate attempt to pretend that Bharat is/was merely a janmabhoomi (birthplace), when they know well that it is punyabhoomi and karmabhoomi.


Bharat cannot be equated with Abrahmic holy lands like Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Mecca, because these sites are just dots on the map of the regions from where these faiths burst forth; they are not even the spots from where the respective monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity or Islam were preached by their respective prophets; nor the sites where the first ‘kingdoms’ of the new monotheisms were established, and from where they permeated to the rest of the world. The Abrahamic faiths are nomadic and spread through conquest; their holiest sites belonged to the god(s) of an extant tradition which was re-cast as a new orthodoxy to which the prophet claimed sole copyright. Thus, Jews elevated Yahweh (a god of the Canaan tribe) and the Temple at Jerusalem; Christians accepted Yahweh and the sanctity of Bethlehem and Jerusalem though the powerful centre of their faith is the Vatican in Rome; Islam gave preeminence to Allah (a god of the Quraish tribe) and made his sanctuary at Mecca the centre of the faith.


To equate the divinity of the entire sub-continent of Bharat with what are essentially temple-complexes in arid deserts, is to cut the nose to spite the face. Possibly the HAF report is an attempt by American Hindus to redefine themselves, rather than reform Indian Hindus, because they have literally lost caste by losing their links with the bhumi, jati, gotra, kula, varna, and with it the chance to expiate their karmas. They need a monotheistic-like structure to which distant allegiance can be claimed and homage paid, and have found some globe-trotting swamis to play the game. If only it were that simple.


Hindu dharma is incorrigibly resistant to Canon (one authorized version). Nor does it perceive itself in terms of higher and lower strata – so how is HAF going to redeem the ‘blighted’ of this culture? The sanatana dharma is a living tradition and the earth (prithvi, bhumi) a living goddess. Abrupt curtailment of links with both by voluntary migration in search of greener pastures abroad does not create a Global Hindu Community with equal rights with Hindus living in Bharat, as already explained.


Indian society is a socio-cultural-spiritual continuum as also an economic-political spectrum, where exchange is dynamic and evolving, nothing is static. The HAF report appears to be a sort of colonial anachronism because it fails to comprehend the multi-layered tradition. The best allegory of dharma is that of a river: it changes, appears the same, and maintains the continuity of its flow through the ages. Hindu dharma has incredible capacity to adapt its metaphysical principles in consonance with social and historical needs without losing its essential character or sense of identity. It is called sanatana or eternal in the sense that it is perennial and always contemporary – it nurtures change and continuity… (K. Suresh Singh says a Dom was prince of Ayodhya in the thirteenth century; the history of India is replete with such narratives of the rise of the bold to exalted heights. Ms Mayawati today contends to be elected as Prime Minister of modern India; her chances are better than those of Mr Rahul Gandhi).


HAF seems to have mistaken the varna system as an immutable social hierarchy though it was merely an attempt to arrange the myriad jatis in some system in order to establish a hierarchy of values for society, and ensure that no single group could monopolise the empowering tools of knowledge, power, or wealth, much less misuse one form of power or prestige to subvert the harmony of society or state. In our contemporary era, the abuse of wealth and access to subvert the system to monopolise economic and political power has discredited our public life; hence this ancient Hindu concern is amazing. The Arthasastra owes its origin to a king siphoning off the wealth of his treasury to a secret location!


Finally, Hindus believe that grief is caused by the endless cycle of birth and death to which the soul is condemned on account of its ignorance of the purpose of life. The HAF report is rooted in abysmal ignorance. Worse, it believes that the barely-tolerated Hindu citizens of America will receive salvation through the Grace of the ‘true faith’ (which itself abounds in myriad ‘false sects’)! But vicarious redemption is denied to Hindus; HAF should have known that.


The writer is Editor,

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