Hindu Identity

Editor’s note: Below talk becomes even more relevant in the context of this Newsweek article (Click Here), putting a broader & deeper spotlight on Hinduism. 

Here is the transcript of a talk on Hindu identity by Rajiv Malhotra of Infinity Foundation at the 23rd Anniversary of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Saylorsburg, PA, USA on Sep 14, 2008.

Hindu Identity

Transcript of a talk given by Rajiv Malhotra

Over the past few months, I have conducted several brainstorms and workshops on issues concerning Hindus, both in US and India, including among the youth. Listening to a large number of people in these meetings, I have crystallized the specific issues that we Hindus face so that discussions can start in a very crisp way about these.

The central overriding issue that I have identified from these interactions is the issue of Hindu identity. I divide the issue of Hindu identity into three further issues. First is the very important question: “Why do we even need a Hindu identity?” This is a very important point that comes up over and over again. And I will focus on this but let me briefly deal with the other two.

Once a person has crossed the first hurdle of “why do we need a Hindu identity?” then the second question arises: “What is the Hindu identity? What does it mean to be a Hindu?”

We Hindus don’t have one historical event which is the defining event of our faith. We don’t have a canon that is frozen and fixed in time. We don’t have a canon as a definable concept.

But we have many sacred texts, not one. Some people ask me, what is your book? And I tell them, we don’t have a single book, we have a whole library! Because of the very nature of revelation, the experiences of our ‘rishis’ and idea of living enlightenment in our tradition, we have an inexhaustible supply of enlightened gurus all through our history. Hence, we Hindus have a huge corpus of spiritual knowledge.

So what exactly is my Hindu identity? Is it about a deity? Is it about a Purana? Is it about Vedas? Is it about Yoga? This is an important second issue that arises only after we have crossed the first hurdle of “Do we even need a Hindu identity?”

Once a person is sure he needs a Hindu identity and has gone through the second process of defining what is that Hindu identity, the third issue arises, which is “How do we project this Hindu identity in a respectable manner as Americans, as modern people, as post-modern people, and so on?”

So these are the three issues: Why Hindu identity is needed, what is the Hindu identity, and how do we project it? The ‘what, why and how’ of Hindu identity are the important issues that I feel Hindus have not dealt with enough.

The first of these three issues is “Why do we need a Hindu identity?” This is what I would like to spend a couple of minutes on. I find that there are three major blockages when you discuss with Hindus the Hindu identity.

The first blockage is: “Will Hindu identity be a source of tension and divisiveness? Will it divide us? Will it create a conflict in society?” In response to this, what I want to offer to you to think about is the following.

Hinduism Offers Mutual Respect, Not Merely Tolerance

There indeed are certain kinds of identities in this world which are divisive. This is because they claim exclusivity. If an identity claims exclusivity, it argues that: “For me to be valid, you cannot be valid. For me to be right, for my sacred book to be valid, anything that’s different must be invalidated. It has to be dealt with, maybe by violence, maybe by non-violence, but it has to be dealt with and it cannot be considered valid.”

Such an identity of course creates conflict. And such an identity can at best offer tolerance of others who are different. But ‘tolerance’ is a very patronizing term. It means that “I don’t really think you are legitimate but I will put up with you.” This is what tolerance is. Luckily, Hinduism does not have this problem because Hindus do not claim exclusivity. Instead, they offer mutual respect rather than just tolerance.

In fact, in many inter-faith dialogues that I have attended, they try to have a resolution where everyone says they will offer tolerance and that “we will tolerate each other.” And invariably I stand up and say let us edit that phrase, remove the word tolerance and put in the word mutual respect. It is amazing how much controversy this creates.

People are simply not willing to offer mutual respect because they believe “for offering you respect for your religion, I have validated your religion. And when I have validated your religion, I can no longer claim my exclusivity. And for no longer claiming my exclusivity, I am going to be blamed by people in my faith for violating one of my injunctions, one of my requirements.

So this business of shifting the discussion from tolerance to mutual respect can have a huge cascading effect. And I would like all of you to try it. Whenever you go to an inter-faith meet, talk about mutual respect and explain why it is not the same thing as tolerance. Because mutual respect means: “You are legitimate in what you are doing and I want you to consider me legitimate too for what I am doing in my faith.” And this is something that the Hindus can contribute to the world very proudly as one of the most important things that the world needs right now.

Hinduism has mutual respect to offer to other faiths, not merely tolerance. So this resolves the first major hurdle to having a Hindu identity. It provides the answer to the question: “Will Hindu identity be a source of divisiveness, tension and conflict?” In fact, with more Hindus claiming a Hindu identity which sets the example of positive mutual respect for each other, that would actually help reduce tensions.

Hindus can take the moral high ground and ask other religions to match us and do the same and offer mutual respect. If everybody in the world starts doing this, it would actually reduce tensions. So claiming Hindu identity that includes mutual respect for other faith systems is not a problem at all.

Hyphenated Identities are Acceptable

The second blockage among Hindus for having a Hindu identity comes up a lot in conversations. This blockage says: “We are all Americans. Why does it matter if we are Indians or Japanese or Chinese or Hindus or Muslims? It shouldn’t matter because we are all Americans now. So let us all be just Americans. Why do we need a separate identity at all?”

This is an important discussion on the nature of America. First of all, America respects and expects hyphenated identities. As far as national identities in America are concerned, there are Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Japanese Americans, Indian Americans, and so on. This is not considered a problem at all in the American society.

The hyphenated identity of American citizens actually constitutes the very fabric of America. This is what makes America distinct and unique. So, for Hindus to have a hyphenated identity as “Hindu Americans” is not a problem or contradiction at all.

Secondly, as far as religious identities are concerned, again America is very pluralistic. It expects people to have a positive religious identity. It is perfectly all right for a person to say “I am a Jewish American” or “I am a Buddhist or Muslim American or Presybitarian or Catholic or Methodist or Baptist.”

Therefore it is perfectly ok for you as a bonafide American to be a Hindu at the same time. It does not undermine your ‘American-ness.’

Assert Your Identity as a Hindu

A lot of my work involves engaging and correcting stereotypes and biases about India and Hindus. Many a times, I have come across very well meaning offers from Americans, such as from schools and media, to speak about the Hindu identity.

The Americans say that they are very happy to have finally fond a Hindu who wants to meet them to discuss what Hinduism means. They complain that there are simply not enough Hindus in America who want to claim their Hindu identity and explain to them what it is all about.

The problems in explaining Hindu identity to other people is not from the Americans’ side, but from our side because we Hindus shy away from asserting our religious identity. This is essentially a problem from the Hindu side. We have deliberately chosen not to talk about our identity with people of other faiths.

You should go to the local media, schools and colleges and participate in a religious dialogue as a Hindu. Take care to identify yourself very explicitly as a Hindu and not in terms of some generic universal spirituality and New Age stuff where you are really hiding because you are shameful or fearful of your Hindu identity.

Even if you positively assert that you are a Hindu and that is what you stand for, I don’t think in most cases you will experience any resistance from the Americans. In fact, you will be welcomed by them in discussions.

Is Hinduism Against Identities?

The third blockage among Hindus for asserting their Hindu identity that I come across is the most serious blockage of all because it comes internally, from within our own tradition. There are many Hindus who have this confusion and many Hindu ‘acharyas’ and gurus propagate this confusion. This confusion has to do with the following.

In a recent dialogue about Hinduism organized to involve Hindu kids, most of them raised their hands and asked: “But we were told that everything in this world is ‘maya.’ So why do I have to be a Hindu? I could be a Christian or a Muslim tomorrow. Does it matter? It is all a “mithya” and “maya anyway. This whole world is an illusion.”

An idea persists among Hindus that the Advaita philosophy has taught us non-dualism and therefore there is no such thing as my individual identity. We are told that this identity is a stumbling block and we should get rid of it. Indeed, we can quote Advaita to actually reach that conclusion. And the unfortunate thing is that a lot of Hindus do that. They quote the Advaita philosophy to claim that we should not have any worldly identity.

A lot of non-Hindus when they are discussing against a Hindu quickly put the latter on the defensive by saying: “Aha! But see, you are not supposed to have an identity because you believe in Advaita. So there is nothing for you to defend because you believe in the non-dualism of Advaita.” The Hindu becomes very nervous. This is a theological and philosophical issue that our gurus and acharyas really need to take up.

In response to this argument of “dualism means no identity,” the Hindus should argue that in the Gita, Arjuna is asked by Krishna to take claim of an identity. There are Kauravas and Pandavas. To carry out his dharma, Arjuna has to be a Kshatriya. All these are identities. Being a Kaurava or Pandava is an identity. Being a Kshatriya is an identity. Arjuna is in fact told by Krishna that you have work to do and you cannot run away from your work and duty in the name of non-dualism. This is the message of Gita.

Most Hindus I know are very competitive people in their mundane day-to-day lives. They do not tell their kids to flunk their exams because it is all ‘mithya.’ If a Hindu is a surgeon, he does not argue that whether the patient lives or dies does not matter because the whole world is an illusion! We do not say that it doesn’t matter if we end up in prison because the prison is just ‘maya.’ I don’t think that Hindus are such naïve or moronic people when it comes to their personal lives. In fact, Hindus are very competitive. They are very sharp businessmen. They are very skilful negotiators for their own personal stake. When it comes to his own personal interest, the Hindu is very clear about these matters.

The solution to this obstacle is that we have to bring our spiritual knowledge into our daily lives and perform a ‘lila.’ In a lila, you have to have an identity because you are performing God’s work in this world that is only possible through adopting a unique identity. Imagine that you are taking part in a theater and have been casted by the director to perform a certain role. You cannot get mixed up and say to him: “Well, I will perform all the roles or any role that I want.” It is understood that you have to perform only the role that you have been given by the director.

Think of this life as a lila (theatre) in which you have been given a particular role by God, the overall director.  You will realize that your role has a particular identity that you have to adopt and defend throughout. If we don’t get this point, we will simply turn into schizophrenic Hindus.

What will then happen is that you will be forced to restrict Hinduism to ashrams and turn off your Hindu self while operating in the real world. This is because you would think that to live and work in the real world, you have to be practical and be able to compete, which in turn requires taking up various real-world identities.

But since Hinduism negates all self-identities, you will conclude that you will have to switch off your Hindu self in day-to-day life and become somebody else. Then when you go back to an ashram or spiritual retreat, you will become a non-dualistic Hindu again who does not believe in any identity.

This confusion has created a bipolar type of society and a lot of Hindus suffer from this confusion. They think that having a unique worldly identity is somehow incompatible with Hinduism because of advaiata!

This issue involves living the full life, not only the spiritual life but also the social life. It involves carrying out one’s dharma, playing the lila in this world and performing a particular role which involves having an identity. There is an ultimate reality which is non-dual and there is also a provisional reality (material word) which is our kurushetra, karmashetra and dharmashetra where we have to perform roles and therefore we have to have an identity.

I think this is the central issue, the central source of confusion which is preventing a lot of people from claiming a Hindu identity. The sooner a conversation starts to clarify these points in the minds of the Hindus, the better.

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