Aditi Banerjee’s Critique of HAF Report

Editor’s Note: This critique was issued in the form of an open letter (to Mihir Meghani, HAF President) in the immediate aftermath of the report that was published late Dec 2010


Dear Mihir,

I’m sure that by now you’ve received a barrage of emails re the HAF report on caste. I won’t be redundant by repeating criticisms that have already been issued, though I am in general agreement with the serious concerns raised by Rakesh Bahadur, Rajiv Malhotra, Dr. Gautam Sen, Dr. Kalyanaraman, et al. I did, however, want to express my personal comments on the report.

 

For the reasons given by others in their comments as well as the reasons set forth below, HAF must immediately withdraw the report and reissue it only if and when it substantially incorporates the revisions to be provided by a select group of scholars that address the community’s grave concerns and objections. There are many ways to achieve this, and surely we can find a way to structure such a process that would be satisfactory to you as well as the other concerned parties. This is absolutely critical and urgent for the sake of the Hindu community as well as for HAF’s sake, or else this may turn out to be a rift within the community that cannot be mended.

 

Here are my main objections to the report (to the extent not covered by the other comments):

 

(1) Despite being 160+ pages long, it is not at all clear what HAF’s position is on the issue of caste. There’s so much CYA language going in all directions that the report ends up simultaneously saying too much and saying nothing at all.

 

For example, the report states that it is the position of HAF that “We believe in equal religious and spiritual rights for all Hindus, including a priesthood that is open to all Hindus.” (p. 56) The report also refers to a 2006 press release by HAF, where HAF stated: “The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) welcomed [sic] the a order of the government of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu allowing all Hindus with the required training and qualification to become archakas (priests) in temples regardless of caste.”

 

Does this mean you (as an advocacy group) will openly call for the government of India to interfere (even more than they are already interfering) in the internal affairs of temples to enforce some quota or other variant of affirmative action for non-Brahmin Hindus?

 

If not, are you demanding that temples themselves do this? Are you arrogating to yourself the authority to tell temples how to conduct their internal affairs?

 

Let’s leave India out of it, since you are the Hindu “American” Foundation. Will you undertake such intervention for American temples? Also, since the report states ad nauseum that HAF opposes birth-based discrimination, I presume as a logical matter this includes gender. Is it HAF’s official position that the “priesthood” (which is an inaccurate term since there is no institutionalized “priesthood” in Hinduism but rather various sampradayas and paramparas and mathas that have their own rules) should be open to women? Will you call for governmental interference to ensure such measures are taken in individual temples?

 

If the answer is yes that you are going to undertake such interventions, then it is important for us to know this. Please address where you get the mandate or authority to make such decisions on behalf of Hindu temples / sampradayas / paramparas / mathas. (Citing the 13 statements appended to your report by various swamis does not count here as a CYA, as it is not clear that any of them had the opportunity to read your report in full before giving their statements.)

 

If the answer is no, that you are not advocating such intervention, and that the report instead is just intended as a general summary of HAF’s policy position on caste and recommendations for the community and various Hindu leaders and institutions to consider, then I have one simple question which is also my next objection:

 

(2) What was the point of HAF releasing this report? To the extent any internal reforms are urged by you to be undertaken, why not make these recommendations privately and directly to the concerned parties rather than rebuffing them publicly (other than out of a fear you wouldn’t get brownie points from the US government and other secular institutions / progressive groups you appear to be cozying up to in return)?

 

To the extent any position on caste had to be taken by you as an advocacy group in the public arena, there were many different ways the same effect could have been achieved without inflicting the severe collateral damage the report has unleashed.


You could have simply made a one-paragraph statement like the following:


We believe in the rule of law and that under law, each individual has equal dignity and must be treated equally, and therefore discrimination should be thoroughly prohibited by law (except to the extent required to undo past inequities). We believe the internal laws of India are robust enough to prevent birth-based discrimination along the lines of caste, and to the extent there are problems enforcing the laws, that is a matter of law enforcement and we support full prosecution of the laws in ending caste discrimination. While, in some respects, this is also a social issue, we applaud the efforts of those grassroots organizations that are working to eradicate social divisions and we will continue to support their efforts. To that effect, we particularly acknowledge the efforts of [cite groups] to banish the ills of social divisions and discrimination. We will work together with Hindu groups and acharyas to work towards the upliftment of the downtrodden.”

 

What does your 170-page report achieve in terms of elaborating a suitable policy position that the paragraph above does not? Why would such a paragraph not suffice for the same purpose of addressing people in debates, etc.? Why waste 100+ pages on copying and pasting news links and random quotes from the Hindu scriptures to offer some kind of mea culpa on behalf of Hinduism that is self-serving for your purposes and to make some unilateral and arrogant demand for the “rejection” of various Hindu scriptures? How was any of this at all required for the simple purpose of adopting a clear and appropriate policy position on caste discrimination? Which brings me to my next and biggest objection:

 

(3) HAF does not have the authority or competence to make statements about the position of caste in Hinduism; to demand that Hindu acharyas conform their teachings to HAF’s policy position; or to demand that Hindus actively reject portions of Hindu scriptures and teachings that do not conform to HAF’s whitewashed, politically correct preferred version of Hinduism.

 

Had the report been confined to an argument based on civil rights or law for more measures to ensure the prevention of discrimination against lower castes, I would not object to the issuance of the report. What I do object to is HAF claiming to definitively conclude that caste-based discrimination or birth-based hierarchy (whatever those terms mean) are not inherent to Hinduism and that to the extent any teachings or scriptures say to the contrary, such teachings and scriptures must be rejected.

In taking this position, HAF has crossed a line and seriously overstepped its bounds.

 

The report takes this position baldly: “HAF supports the reanalysis and subsequent rejection of any and all teachings that promote caste-based discrimination and birth-based hierarchy. … Hindu religious and spiritual leaders must take the lead in ensuring that those parts of the various scriptures that promote notions of caste-based discrimination and a birth-based hierarchy are explicitly denied any authority in the minds of their followers.”

 

First of all, HAF’s discussion of how caste is not inherent to Hinduism is shallow and grossly oversimplified. Stating that everything is Brahman and therefore birth-based differences are irrelevant is a disingenuous answer. Even the most Advaitin of Advaita Vedantins adhere to the principle that while the physical world has no fundamental reality it has transactional validity—or, as in the movie Inception, when in the dream world, the rules of the dream world are operative and have operating reality—and that when operating on the vyavaharika (mundane world) level, one has to take into account the world one encounters, the reality one sees.

 

Our rishis saw that people are not “born equal,” in the sense that we come into the world with different gunas (characteristics) and aptitudes and are born into a variety of circumstances in accordance with our karma from past births. We see this reality all the time. We see people born into vastly different circumstances—some rich, some poor, some healthy, some gravely ill. What our rishis recognized is that these differences are not random but rather are a product of karma accrued through past lives resulting in the current incarnation. One way of responding to and acknowledging these self-evident differences was through the social institutions of jati and varna.

 

HAF’s position that everything is Brahman and therefore no birth-based differences exist is extremely shallow and intellectually lazy. Such a position strikes at the very root of the core principles of karma and reincarnation that are foundational to Hinduism.

 

Does HAF reject the principles of karma and reincarnation when it eschews the concept of birth-based differences?

 

Acknowledging such birth-based differences is not tantamount to calling for discrimination; it is a metaphysical ontology that is fundamental to the Hindu worldview. One can have this worldview and still agree that there should be no discrimination as a legal and social matter. However, this worldview that takes into account differences at birth cannot be discarded just because it is inconvenient to HAF.

 

If one wants to say that there may be birth-based differences but that there should not be birth-based discrimination, that is easy enough to say without having to make all these verbal gymnastics of saying Hinduism does not believe in the relevance of birth-based differences—such a statement can in any case be contradicted in a number of places, not just in quotes from the scriptures but through the analysis of various stories from the Puranas which generally show that people are affected by nature AND nurture and that gunas inherent from birth do impact the development of an individual although are not necessarily determinative. Perhaps such a worldview does not conform to your Westernized mindset of inherent equality, etc., but just because you don’t like it, just because it may not be politically correct enough for you, does not mean you can arrogantly and unilaterally revise Hinduism to say what you wish it says.

 

Presenting a table of scriptures that tabulate what % (based on word or shloka count) talks about caste (which again is not mappable onto the scriptures as there is no equivalent word for “caste” in Sanskrit) is irrelevant and does not prove anything. Hinduism is not a religion of the book; it is a religion based on traditions transmitted through sampradayas and paramparas that are in conformity with the scriptures but not confined to them. Thus, such a verse-counting analysis is shallow and misleading at best. Nor is it at all necessary as the ills of caste-based discrimination can be wholly addressed through legal means and social reform without getting into these thorny issues.

 

I could live with all of the above had HAF not made the brash and unforgivable and totally unacceptable demand that certain portions of our scriptures must be rejected by our acharyas and by the Hindu community. That is a fundamental attack on Hinduism, no less an attack just because it happens to come from a “Hindu” organization.

 

It is true, as HAF states, that the Smritis “by their very nature and intent, are recognized to change with space and time and do not necessarily teach Hinduism’s eternal spiritual truths.” (p. 1). However, that does not mean one can cherry-pick among the texts to pick out verses they like and call them the real Hinduism and discard the others. Such reinterpretations are the province of spiritual giants such as Veda Vyasa, Adi Shankara, etc., who have the spiritual advancement and tapobala to institute such evolutions within Hinduism. It is not a grant of license for political organizations to selectively cherry-pick their favorite bits of our scriptures.

 

As described above, HAF has called for the rejection of any part of a scripture that promote notions of birth-based hierarchy. Again, it is not at all clear what constitutes birth-based hierarchy in HAF’s mind. Per Vishal’s analysis, at least some verses of various Vedas discuss some notion of caste. Is it HAF’s view that such portions of the Vedas are to be rejected by Hindus? Is HAF asking Hindu acharyas to reject Vedic shlokas, which are the very fountainhead, the most sacrosanct of the sacrosanct sources of Hindu dharma?

 

HAF cavalierly dismisses and denigrates the Manu Smrti, casually saying that since no one reads it anyway, it’s irrelevant and therefore can be safely dropped and dismissed. Presumably, HAF’s call to reject scriptures advocating for “birth-based hierarchy” would entail rejection of the Manu Smriti and other Dharmashastras.

 

I will not reject the Manu Smriti and I will not reject any portion of Hinduism’s sacred scriptures, whether Shruti or Smriti, just because it is not in conformity with HAF’s policy position. All of Hinduism’s scriptures are revered and venerated and sacrosanct. They are not dead texts to be surgically carved up with unfavored parts to be exorcised at whim.

 

In its arrogance, HAF has denigrated the faith of a billion people. It is not necessary to read the Manu Smriti to have faith and reverence in it. Being a Hindu is not a textual exercise—it is shraddha in our traditions, in our scriptures, in our rishis and forefathers through the ages. Hinduism hasn’t survived because of intellectual analyses. Hinduism has survived because of the faith of its people, the reverence of the masses for our scriptures, our rishis, our pantheon of devas and devis. HAF is trampling on the faith of traditional Hindus by brashly demanding that acharyas reject portions of the scriptures that HAF dislikes.

 

I will tell you who Manu is to me. He is our first law-giver; he is our first forefather; he and his descendants are the rulers of our universe. Every morning, when I sit for puja, I invoke the rishis and the forefathers, and I feel his presence in my shrine room among all the other great sages and rishis and divine beings who line the corridors of the Hindu pantheon. I have bowed before him in remote temples in the Himalayas, and I have felt his blessings fall upon me.

 

Perhaps for HAF the Manu Smriti is just an old book, Manu just an old dead guy. But for me, and for millions of others, the Manus, the rishis who gave us our scriptures, and the scriptures themselves, are living manifestations of the Divine. They are accepted as Divine, and we have abiding faith in their wisdom, in their divinity, in the blessings conferred by them. We will not turn our backs on them or on any part of them.

 

Anyone who attacks Manu attacks Hinduism. We fought against Doniger for attacking Rama and the Ramayana. I will fight anyone who attacks Manu or the Manu Smriti and calls for them to be exorcised from Hinduism. This does not mean that the words of Manu Smriti are to be applied literally; but it also does not mean that the Manu Smriti is to be rejected. There is a fine line between the two.

 

HAF has overstepped its bounds grossly, and if it persists in calling for the rejection of portions of Hindu scriptures, then it can no longer present itself as a Hindu advocacy group that speaks for Hindus or presents a Hindu voice. It is acting no differently than Doniger and others of her ilk who have also grossly distorted Hinduism to suit their own proclivities.

 

Many of us opposed Doniger when she attacked Hinduism; I have no hesitation in opposing HAF when it attacks the Dharmashastras and the Hindu dharma by maligning Manu, who was our first law-giver and the forefather of all humans and all Hindus, and various of our Hindu scriptures. We must have conviction in our own dharma. I will not apologize for our Shruti and our Smritis. I will not apologize for Manu. Let us live by the rule of law, certainly; let us not practice discrimination. But I will not reject a single word of our scriptures.

 

The issue here is bigger than one report about caste. It is about the soul of HAF. What does HAF stand for? Will it be an organization that stands for Hinduism and Hindus, or will it make the compromises it must to advance its own interests and to curry favor with the political and media mainstream? If HAF is willing to throw away parts of our scriptures to suit its purposes, what else that is Hindu will be discarded to suit HAF’s convenience? Where does the line get drawn? This is just one report on caste—but what will come next?

 

HAF with the issuance of this report has sadly pitted different factions of the Hindu community against each other. In this, you have shamefully divided the Hindu community. Not because anyone advocates caste-based discrimination but because the report has been so clumsily put together, so damning in the inconsistent and ill-defined positions adopted and the reasoning used, so politically lethal to the interests of Hindus here and abroad, that people are being forced to take an opposing stand in order to mitigate the damage to the causes dear to our hearts. If HAF is willing to work with the community, the damage can be somewhat rectified. But if HAF turns its back on the community, then we will have to turn our backs on you forcefully and explicitly.

 

As Rakeshji said in his email, it is hurtful to have to turn against one’s own people. We would all prefer to instead work together. But dharma is bigger than any individual or any organization. If HAF persists in distorting Hinduism and calling for the exorcism of certain portions of Hindu scriptures that you find inconvenient, then you are standing for adharma, notwithstanding the fact that you all may be Hindus by birth or self-identification. Dharma is bigger than any individual or organization. If, for the sake of dharma, HAF must fall, then so be it.

 

This is not a passing storm that will subside when tempers cool. Be assured that if you persist in this way, many of us stand ready to ensure that your funding is cut and that your ability to inflict such damage on the Hindu cause in the future is severely curtailed.

 

Sincerely,

Aditi Banerjee

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