Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

November 10, 2012

Tulsi Gabbard is more Hindu than thou

Filed under: Hinduism,Tulsi Gabbard — Razib Khan @ 4:33 pm

Update: Mark has responded, and plans on exploring Tulsi Gabbard’s faith more in the future.

Mark Oppeheimer has an article up, Politicians Who Reject Labels Based on Religion. It’s good. But he says:

Hawaii, is the daughter of a Hindu mother and a Roman Catholic father. She calls herself Hindu, a first for a member of Congress. But it is not quite that simple.

“I identify as a Hindu,” Ms. Gabbard wrote in an e-mail on Thursday. “However, I am much more into spirituality than I am religious labels.”

“In that sense,” she added, “I am a Hindu in the mold of the most famous Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, who is my hero and role model.”

Ms. Gabbard wrote that she “was raised in a multicultural, multirace, multifaith family” that allowed her “to spend a lot of time studying and contemplating upon both the Bhagavad-Gita and the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.”

Today, her spiritual practice is neither Catholic nor traditionally Hindu.

“My attempts to work for the welfare of others and the planet is the core of my spiritual practice,” Ms. Gabbard wrote. “Also, every morning I take time to remember my relationship with God through the practice of yoga meditation and reading verses from the Bhagavad-Gita. From the perspective of the Bhagavad-Gita, the spiritual path as I have described here is known as karma yoga and bhakti yoga.”

Actually, I do think it is quite simple that Tulsi Gabbard is Hindu. I sent Mark an email, and I’ll post it below:


Great article. Though I have to say that many educated Hindus talk like that about their religion, and it doesn’t make their Hinduism any more complicated or less religious. In fact, she is identified as Vaishnava elsewhere. If this is true, then she’s probably *more* not *less* self-consciously sectarian than the typical Indian American nominal Hindu (i.e., many Brahmins come from notionally Vaishnava or Saiva lineages, but don’t give one fig). I take her assertion of non-sectarianism as similar to Born-Again Christians who say they’re not religious, or even Christian, but say they believe in Christ. It’s not a lie, but these aren’t ‘spiritual seekers’ in the way we really understand it.

Because of the philosophical monism at the heart of orthodox Hinduism they just sound “New Age” to Americans from Abrahamic backgrounds. It’s easy to say all religions are one, when you think all is one. But just because all is one, doesn’t mean Hindus don’t recognize distinctions and grades. Ask some Dalits about that :-)


In short, I would argue that Tulsi Gabbard is more authentically Hindu in a religious sense than the vast majority of Indian American Hindus, for whom the religion is more part of their cultural heritage, than a deep abiding devotional focus. The most religiously intense American Hindus are probably converts to devotional sects (e.g., Hare Krishna), and not the Indian American community.


September 25, 2011

The enemy of my enemy

Filed under: Hinduism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:31 pm

Borneo Tribe Practices Its Own Kind of Hinduism:

In this village near the heart of Borneo’s great, dissolving rainforest, Udatn is regarded as a man of deep spiritual knowledge.

Of all the people in this tiny settlement, he speaks better than any other the esoteric language of the Sangiyang, the spirits and ancestors of the upper world, known simply as “Above.” His is a key role in the rituals of Kaharingan, one of a number of names for the ancestor-worshipping religion of Borneo’s indigenous forest people, the Dayak.

“In the beginning, when God separated the darkness and the light, there was Kaharingan,” said Mr. Udatn, as he sat smoking a wooden pipe on the floor of his stilt home. (Like many Indonesians Mr. Udatn uses only one name.)

The Indonesian government thinks otherwise. The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country is no Islamic state, but it is a religious one. Every citizen must subscribe to one of six official creeds: Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism or Hinduism. Kaharingan, like dozens of other native faiths, does not officially exist.

Even in this village, a frontier where land clearing and mining is fast erasing ancient forest, people have long seen their faith under threat from officialdom.

“When I was in school I was a Catholic,” said Mr. Udatn. “For us, if someone wanted to keep going to school then they had to convert to another religion.”

Now, however, things are changing, and the missionaries are being held at bay. That is because villagers have seized on a strategy being used by many Dayak: They are re-branding. On paper at least, most of the people of Tumbang Saan are now followers of Hinduism, the dominant religion on the distant island of Bali. Few here could name a Hindu god or even recognize concepts, like karma, that have taken on popular meanings even in the West. But that is not the point. In a corner of the world once famed for headhunters and impenetrable remoteness, a new religion is being developed to face up to an encroaching modern world and an intrusive Indonesian state. The point, in short, is cultural survival.

In mainland Southeast Asia alignment with Christianity has also been a way that minorities can preserve their own customs and identity against assimilation into the Theravada Buddhist majority. Also, note that the Indonesian government mandates that all religious be monotheistic. So Hinduism, Confuncianism, and Buddhism, all espouse a monotheistic god in the islands nominally.

June 19, 2011

In thrall to Abraham’s God

Filed under: Buddhism,Hinduism,History,Religion — Razib Khan @ 5:51 pm

In reading Strange Parallels I am struck by the broad cross-cultural tendencies in mainland Southeast Asia to transition from a Hindu sacral state to a Theravada Buddhist sacral state. Granted, the latter does not seem to be at great rupture with the former, as is evidenced by the “Hindu” aesthetic resonances of Thai and Khmer culture to this day. There are still two customarily explicitly Hindu ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, the Balinese and the Cham Balamon of Vietnam. But even in Muslim Javanese culture there is still a strong undercurrent of Hindu religious culture (e.g., the popularity of the Ramayana). In other words, very few Southeast Asians are Hindu in name, but a far greater proportion are Hindu in cultural patrimony.

On a parenthetical side-note, I would encourage all readers of this weblog with a genuine interest in the intellectual aspects of human history to actually read broadly across various cultures, on not just their “own.” There’s a great deal of insight to be had, and you’ll sound a lot less like a moron. It seems that most people’s attitude toward history is like their attitude toward shit, they’re only interested in their own. That’s all fine if you’re a dull creature from whom rooting in your own dirt is bliss (that’s most humans, so I have no issues with that, but I don’t want to hear your bleating if you’re such a thing), but to understand the human condition one has to try and gain a sense of humans unlike oneself. Whenever I wade into new intellectual waters I’m struck by the startling generalities which become incredibly clear, as well as the melting of foolish visions enabled only by the narrowness of one’s lens.


My own preconception had been that the success of Buddhism outside of India proper, and the failure of Hinduism, had to do with the fact that the former was a fundamentally universal religion from its inception while the latter is suited only to a South Asian cultural frame. This was a stylized sketch, but even early on the legends of Ashoka imply the universal aims of the Buddhist sangha at that stage. If you can credit the veracity of these records then Buddhism was arguably the first universal creedal religion. Judaism shifted from henotheism to montheism at around this time, but its ambitions were not universal (arguably Christianity is the manifestation of Judaism’s universal ambitions, as it may be the heir to Hellenistic Judaism).

The standard history-of-religion sketch implies that Hinduism as we understand it today arose as a response to the shramanic sects which challenged the Hindu religion conceptualized as Veda oriented Brahmanical cults. Arguably the crystallization of Hinduism as we understand it today did not occur until after 1000 A.D., with the dominance of Vedanta at the elite levels, and the marginalization of Jainism and Buddhism in mainland South Asia, and the rise of Islam. Some historians suggest that there is a peculiarity of elite Hindu discourse during the period after the arrival of foreign Muslims as the elite political class across much of the subcontinent in that it operates as if the Muslims did not exist. I don’t think this is so exceptional actually, you can see the same tendency in much of pre-modern Judaism, which was embedded in a much more overpoweringly non-Jewish environment. Jewish thinkers created a world where naturally gentiles were marginal players, because their concern was their own people. Similarly, I see no reason why the same could not apply to Hindu intellectuals. A more explicit analogy might be St. John of Damascus, the last of the Church Fathers, who served in the administration of the Umayyads. Though there is some mention of Islam in his writings, his primary preoccupations are Christian, and interestingly his focus of energy after his retirement was a series of polemics against iconoclast Byzantine Emperors (in that that they sanctioned the destruction of icons).

And yet despite this neglect of the Other in the writings of Jews and Christians who were subject peoples, it would be foolish to deny that the milieu did not effect the Jews and Christians who lived under the rule and domination of the Other. On occasion this manifests explicitly, as Eastern Christians turned away from the sort of public pageantry which is still common in the Roman Catholic Church clearly to mollify the iconoclast sensibilities of their Muslim rulers. Similarly, the question of whether Christians are monotheists is handled with much more delicacy by rabbis who lived under Christian rule than amongst those who lived amongst Muslims (the point at issue is the Trinity, which both Jews and Muslims consider to be a violation of monotheism, and whether therefore Christians are pagans).

Even if Hindus “forgot” the power of Islam in the Indian subcontinent in the geographies of their minds, it seems implausible that over time they would not be influenced and shaped by the ideas of Muslims. Of course this is not a one way process, especially in light of the demographic heft of Hindus, or the collection of religious ideas which became Hinduism. In the earliest years of Islam there was a cross-fertilization between the two cultures, that of Islam and India, and there is some thought that the Sufi orders who arguably came to influence Indian devotional religion were themselves a product of the “Indian period” in early Islam, when Hindu and Buddhist monastic and ascetic traditions helped to shape the mystical sects of Muslims.

This sort of last dynamic, where it is “not even wrong” to tease apart the integrated whole of what history has become moves me back to Southeast Asia. My question frankly put is this: if Islam for some reason turned west and not east, would the world of South Asia look more like Southeast Asia, with a Buddhist elite ideology overlain atop a Hindu cultural substrate? The issue here is that terms like “Buddhist” and “Hindu” are old, but also only understood in a modern light. As noted by many Hindu was simply the generic term for Indians, before becoming imputed to the constellation of religious practices indigenous to India. In other words, India might be Hindu because all Indians would be Hindu, but the political structures of South Asia at the highest levels might have patronized a sort of Buddhism, which itself is an expression of Dharmic religious sensibilities.

What I’m getting at here is that many Hindus assert, somewhat hegemonically, that Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, are simply variants of Hinduism. This is not a universal assertion amongst Hindus, and even those who would bracket these religions under the umbrella of Hinduism would likely acknowledge the differences between them and mainstream Hindu thought (dominated at the elite level by Vedanta). But if we grant that the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism is quantitative, and not qualitative (as it is between the Dharmic and Abrahamic and Chinese religions), then I think we might imagine a world without a dominant Abrahamic reference where a Hindu religious ideology never develops in a coherent sense as it did under Islam. Rather, like Bon-po, Shinto, or the Hindu cultural substrate in all Theravada societies, Buddhism and Hinduism-that-never-was may have operated as two different cultural tracks within South Asia, ultimately in complementation and not conflict (the “defeat” of pre-Buddhist religious thought in Tibet, Japan, and Southeast Asia, often resolves itself in terms of assimilation and integration, not extinction and extermination).

I am not confident of this model, and need to read up more on the religious literature of medieval India, Hindu and non-Hindu, as well as the history of mainland Southeast Asia. Unfortunately the textual evidence is going to be a bit on the thin side, but I am sure there is much more to mine.

Book recommendations are welcome!

April 3, 2011

The fiction and fact of nationality

Filed under: Civilisation,Culture,Hinduism,India,Islam,Pakistan,Two Nation Theory — Razib Khan @ 10:19 pm

In the comments below I quipped that the “Two-Nation Theory” is obviously “made up.” By this I was pointing more to the importance of construction of identity and founding myths more than anything else. For example, in the United States of America I grew up with a founding myth of a righteous revolution against the British monarchy, predicated on taxation without representation. By “I grew up with,” I mean that in elementary school the myth was both explicit and implicit in the instructional materials. As I matured, and began exploring history with more texture and depth, I  came to conclusion that this is a myth in the most literal sense. There were many shades of gray. The revolutionaries, who never formed more than one out of three Americans even during the height of the rebellion, were operating more out of particularities of self-interest (though there was clearly a strain of idealism, as evidenced by Thomas Paine). It seems likely that much of their rationale was either false or fictional.

Nevertheless, I am proud of America and Americans. History is what it is, and whatever the justice of the founding myth (or lack thereof), on the balance the American republic has been a success. Even the child of rape can attain greatness.


Similarly, I think the idea of a Muslim Indian nation is clearly fictional in terms of a legacy from the past. Similarly, a Hindu nation is also a fiction which does not accurately represent the past. A maximalist argument would suggest that there was near total disjunction between the Turco-Iranian Muslim elites of India’s Islamic period and the large communities of artisans and peasants who shifted their nominal religious identity from India’s indigenous traditions to that of the rulers. Similarly, many would argue that a coherent Hindu identity is an recent artifact of the collision with confessional universal faiths such as Islam and Christianity. That the penumbra of religio-philosophies which we would term “Hindu” had almost no contact with the lived experiences of the vast majority of India’s peasantry. A cold materialist reading might argue that the old ashraf Muslim elite duped the Muslim masses into a communal identity which was congenial to their classic game of extracting rents. Similarly, the high culture Hindus synthesized a common Hindu identity from old and new ideas which bound South Asians together, also to further their own material interests by allowing for the formation of a macro-state which allowed for grand economies of scale and power projection.

I think there’s some reality to this cynical reading, but I think the idea that a Hindu and Muslim identity arose circa 1850 is too cute and ideological. It too is a fiction, often promoted by those with post-colonial leanings to whom white Europeans are the only Creators, of all that is good and bad in the world. A more neutral telling might argue that the nation as a concept was birthed by the French Revolution, and confessional identities gained coherency with only the Radical Reformation. I do not accept this.

We need to turn our backs to black and white certitudes. A certitude which my flip language below implied, but which I do not hold to. Clearly the Muslims of India, initially intrusive aliens, had an identity which made them distinct from the native religious practices. But unlike the magi of the Iranian world the Indian religious traditions did not whither in the face of these powerful superior Others; rather, Indian religion entered into a phase of involution, co-option, adaptation, and eventually reflexive counter-action. But this was only a phase in a long history. Islam did not create Hinduism. Many elements of Indian religion clearly have deep roots which go back to the initial conflicts between Brahmanism and Sramanism. One should be cautious of imputing to Hinduism a purely reflexive and responsive dynamic. Some have suggested that the Bhakti devotional stream in Indian religion was shaped by the interaction with Islam. To me this seems tenuous not only on chronological grounds, but the analogs to Bhakti are also clearly evident early in some strains of Buddhism during its late Indian phase (e.g., see the origins of Pure Land). This does not entail that the religious traditions of different faiths did not influence each other. But, it removes from any given faith a particular genius from which others had to borrow.

January 26, 2011

On Hinduism

Filed under: Culture,Hinduism — Razib Khan @ 11:33 pm

I have a very cursory interest in Hinduism. My paternal grandmother was from a Hindu family only recently converted to Islam, but aside from that I have no personal connection to the religion. As an American until Hindus commit acts of terror in the name of their superstition I will probably remain relatively disengaged from a deep interest in the religion. But I do occasionally read books on Hinduism. A few years ago I read Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. You can see Pankaj Mishra’s review in The New York Times. Personally the style was difficult for me, coming from a natural science background her “non-linear” narrative was sometimes exhausting. But I suppose that any work which angers primitive ideologues has to earn my respect, and it does. The big point is not to read one book or work as an introduction to a whole tradition, which by its nature is going to be multi-faced. This is a general maxim, not just applicable to Hinduism.

Powered by WordPress