Tomorrow marks Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birthday. Vivekananda haunts me. He was a man who meant and continues to mean many things to many people. But for me, Vivekananda will always represent a limit or a boundary. When I started the research project that became my dissertation, I started with Vivekananda and then turned and looked backward. In American religious history, Vivekananda represented the beginning of Hinduism in America. He brought Raja Yoga and the Vedanta Society. His speech at the World’s Parliament of Religion was the dawning of a new pluralism in America. I wanted to know what happened before that. I wanted to turn Vivekananda into the ending. What did Americans think about India and Hindus and yoga and Brahma and Krishna before 1893–before the Swami came to Chicago? That has been the driving question of my research for the past seven years, across my masters and Ph.D. work, and through two universities.
As Hindus around the world remember and celebrate the life of the Swami, I celebrate as well, but for very different reasons. As I said, for me Vivekananda represents the end. He is the last figure in my dissertation. So, as I put the finishing touches on this dissertation, look toward a defense in a couple months, a graduation shortly after that, and eventually a book, I celebrate the life of Vivekananda. Because without him I would never have found this research topic. And without him it would not have an ending.
It is time to head to Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. This year I am excited to be part of an excellent roundtable discussion of transnationalism and religion in America. Here are the details:
Religion and the Social Sciences Section
Theme: Exceeding Boundaries: Approaches to Transnationalism in North American Religions
Pamela Klassen, University of Toronto, Presiding
Monday – 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
McCormick Place North 1st Level: Room N127
North American Religions is, in some ways, a category of wishful thinking. Much of the work that goes on within the category is still largely divided by national borders, whether only those delineating the big three of the U.S.A., Mexico, and Canada, or including the islands of the Caribbean. Transnational approaches to religion push scholars to see anew the ways that nation-states have circumscribed our own imaginative limits within the geographical space of “North America”. When immigrants, pipelines and revivals continue to cross North American borders amidst passionate, and even theologically-fuelled debates, scholars of religion require theoretical and methodological tools that highlight how these circulations are economic, political, symbolic, and embodied processes. While the idea of transnational North American religions is not new, this panel will further discussion about the theoretical underpinnings of that field of study and emphasize how important interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies are to advancing previous projects.
Justin Stein, University of Toronto
Michael J. Altman, Emory University
Elaine Peña, George Washington University
Heather D. Curtis, Tufts University
Beyond this panel, also check out the great line up of panels from the North American Hinduism Group. I’ve been elected co-chair of that group for next year but I’m starting my promotional duties now. Check out the mobile app or the program book for the details of those fascinating panels.
I will also be tweeting from the conference so keep an eye on my twitter feed and the #sblaar hashtag.
See yall in Chicago!
The Religion News Service has posted an excellent profile of Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat running for Congress in Hawaii’s 2nd district. Gabbard is leading in the polls by a whopping 52 points and should win in a landslide. Of course, her opponent, Kawika Crowley, lives and campaigns out of bumper-stickered white van. If Gabbard wins, she will be the first Hindu in the United States Congress.
In the RNS article, reporter Omar Sacirbey notes some of the push back non-Christian religions have experienced in Congress:
Not everyone would welcome a Hindu into Congress. When self-proclaimed “Hindu statesman” Rajan Zed was asked to open the Senate with a prayer in 2007, the American Family Association called the prayer “gross idolatry” and urged members to protest; three protesters from the fundamentalist group Operation Save America interrupted the prayer with shouts from the gallery.
Then-Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, said the prayer and Congress’ first Muslim member “are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.” Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum told supporters this summer that equality was a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.” Crowley, in an interview with CNN.com, said Gabbard’s faith was incompatible with the Constitution.
The AFA, Rick Santorum, and Kawika Crowley all sum up notions about Hinduism that have been ingrained in American culture since the early nineteenth century. When the AFA called a Hindu prayer “gross idolatry” they were invoking a view of Hindu religions that began with early European encounters in India and spread throughout America during the rise of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the missionary movement as a whole. British missionary apologist Claudius Buchanan’s image of the bloody “Juggernaut” (an Anglicization of the god Jagannath) was a popular image of Hindu idolatry in America and Britian. When the ABCFM sent missionaries to Bombay in the first third of the nineteenth century they sent back accounts of “Hindoo idolatry” to be published in missionary magazines. These images dominated the American evangelical imagination of India and the Hindu other throughout the nineteenth century and even to today.
Similarly, Santorum and Crowley’s claim that Hinduism has no claim on the Constitution or American ideas of equality also has roots in the nineteenth century. As a Protestant moral establishment took control of American culture in the nineteenth century they sought to imagine America as a land of white/Protestant/democracy. In this scheme India became a land of dark/Hindu (or heathen)/caste. American writers, in genres ranging form magazine articles to school textbooks, consistently represented India as the opposite of America. Where Hinduism encouraged a hierarchical caste system in India, Christianity encouraged equality in America. Needless to say, both of these representations of Hinduism–as either idolatry or inequality–tell us less about Hinduism and more about the people propounding them.
The RNS article does a great job of outlining Gabbard’s own Hindu belief and practice. She served in the National Guard and was deployed in Baghdad and Kuwait. In that light, I find it interesting that she singles out the Bhagavad Gita as central to her understanding of Hinduism, as that book is itself a meditation on war and the warrior’s duty. Gabbard’s reference to the Gita also reflects another longstanding image of Hinduism in America. Beginning with the first English translation of the Gita by British Orientalist Charles Wilkins in the late eighteenth century, the Gita has been central to more positive representations of Hinduism in America. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman all praised the wisdom of the book. Furthermore, in a culture dominated by logo-centric Protestantism, the Gita was often cited as the “Bible” of Hinduism and compared with the New Testament, with Krishna and Christ put alongside one another.
So, as Tulsi Gabbard runs for, and probably wins, a seat in the the U.S. Congress the earliest American ideas about Hinduism, both for good and ill, endure. Now, if only someone was writing a dissertation about this…
Reading the last chapter of Lydia Maria Child’s The Progress of Religious Ideas I came across this passage that seemed timely during our election season:
Little or no progress toward truth is usually made, because passages of ancient books are taken up hundreds of years after they were written, and are used in a sense altogether foreign from the original intention, in order to sustain some opinion, or tradition of the then present time. And the human mind is not free to pursue even this distorting process; but colleges of supervisors are appointed to instruct the young in what light everything ought to be viewed. One college covers the eyes of all its students with red spectacles, so that every object seems on fire. Another insists that blue spectacles are the only proper medium; consequently its pupils maintain that all creation is ghastly pale. Whereupon red spectacles rush to battle with blue spectacles, to prove that the whole landscape is flame-coloured. If one who uses his natural eyesight comes between them, and says, ever so gently: “Nay, my friends, you are both mistaken. The meadows are of an emerald green, and the sunshine is golden,” he is rudely shoved aside, as an heretic, or an infidel. One party calls out to him: “Did you ever look at the landscape through red spectacles?” Another shouts: “Did you ever examine it by the only right method, which is through blue spectacles?” And if he cannot answer in the affirmative, they both vociferate: “Then you had better keep silence; for you are altogether incapable of forming a correct opinion on the subject.”
Child is describing religious controversy during her lifetime. But it seems to me red and blue spectacles are easy to find in the fall of an election year.
I’m in the midst of the metaphysical chunk of my dissertation. In these two chapters I examine how American writers in the middle of the nineteenth century looked to India for sources to build religious alternatives to orthodox Protestantism. Thoreau, Emerson, Blavatzky, all the usual suspects are there.
Today I’m working on the writings of Lydia Maria Child. I was trying to track down a copy of her essay from The Atlantic “Resemblances Between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Religions” and I found it here. It was odd to read an article from 1870 as a 21st century webpage complete with sidebar ads. Scrolling down the page, I was surprised to find a comment on the article from 8 months ago. User hans_hassler decided he must correct Child’s argument that there is a resemblance between Buddhism and Catholicism. It is the only comment hans_hassler has made on The Atlantic website.
This is a fascinating situation. I’m not sure what to make of it.
I like what Per D. Smith tweeted about it:
Maybe we all need mediums on retainer. There is an odd spiritualist feel to all of this. When 19th century spiritualists channeled the dead there was a moment of chronological discord. The past and present overlapped at the table. As I sit at my desk and stare at hans_hassler reprimanding Lydia Maria Child I get a small inkling of that desire for spirits, for knowledge, and for the bridge between past and present.
And I can’t help but wonder if she can read it.
UPDATE- Yoni Appelbaum makes a great point: