“Diverses Pagodes et Penitences des Faquirs.”

“Native” is not a native term

A colleague on categories of practice and categories of analysis:

That this distinction between practice and analysis is itself a form of identification for that thing we come to call the academy is certain (for we can indeed study the social practice of scholarship itself, no?), but I would argue that the result of these practices, the social formation that we call the academy, is comprised of interests different from those of the people whose lives its members describe. This difference cannot go unnoticed, however, all depending on the degree of affinity the scholar may feel for the lives of the people he or she may study. But we must never forget that defining and studying their culture is our culture, no matter how sympathetic or empathetic one aims to be in carrying out that role; for it is hardly a compliment to the people they may happen to study for scholars to fail to see that their own lives are rather different from living the lives of those others who have no benefit of the critical distance and time for reflection, reconsideration, writing, reading, and discussion that scholars may take for granted.

So, “native” isn’t a native term. That is, there is no “other” out there in the world without first an “us” to posit them. This is what I’ve seen in my study of American encounters with India during the nineteenth century. For American Protestants, the “Hindu” and “Hinduism” came into being through a process of categorizing everyone that wasn’t “American” or “Protestant.” So it was that the “heathen” in the late eighteenth century became a “Hindu” in 1893.

Religious Difference and the Monkey King of Oklahoma City

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Flickr user henrik_me / Creative Commons

In 2012 private funds paid to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol. A 2009 state law allowing privately funded religious monuments on public grounds paved the way for the Ten Commandments to sit in granite outside the capitol. Seeing an opening in the new law and the new monument, earlier this month, a Satanist group from New York announced plans to build their own privately funded monument next to the Ten Commandments as “an homage to Satan.” The Satanists have only raised $2,700 of their $20,000 goal–though maybe a more modest homage could be designed. Then, this week, a group of Hindus led by the indefatigable Rajan Zed announced plans to build a monument of their own–the Hindu god Hanuman.

It’s important to notice the different reactions the Satanist and Hindu plans elicited from Oklahoma officials. On the Satanist monument:

“That’s Oklahoma’s house. It’s not the Satanic club of New York’s house,” said Capitol architect Duane Mass, who serves on the commission.

“I think it is a joke,” said Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa.

“This is a faith-based nation and a faith-based state,” said Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville. “I think it is very offensive they would contemplate or even have this kind of conversation.”

On the Hanuman monument:

Rep. Earl Sears, a Republican from Bartlesville, Okla., who called the Satanist monument offensive, was less inclined to speak directly about a Hindu monument.

“We have a system in place to process these requests,” Sears said. “I stand by my comments that we are a faith-based nation, and I know that once you open the door on this sort of thing that you can’t know where or how it will end up. We’ll just let the system work.”

Trait Thompson, chairman of the Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission, which approves all monuments, declined to comment, saying only that a good-faith application would be voted on by the commission.

Why don’t the Satanists get to take part in the system? On one level this is yet another example of how religion is a category up for grabs in American culture that is constantly being redefined. For the Oklahoma officials Satanism is not a religion or a faith, ergo it does not get to work through the system. Hinduism is a religion, a world religion no less, in their eyes and so it gets a chance.

But from another angle, this is also a matter of religious difference. Religion only exists when it is a term that encompasses a set of different things. It is a term that necessarily connotes variety and difference. What gets in or out of that term, what that term contains, is always up for grabs. But the term is always an attempt to cordon off a set of cultural somethings.

So note that the the 2009 bill that began this whole controversy makes no mention of religion. It is quite narrow and focused on one thing: the Ten Commandments have an important place in American morality and law. Only at the very end does the specter of religion and its tidal wave of difference and diversity loom.

The placement of this monument shall not be construed to mean that the State of Oklahoma favors any particular religion or denomination therof over others, but rather will be placed on the Capital grounds where there are numerous other monuments.

Smartly played. This monument is not going to open the flood gates for “particular religion,” the bill claims. It does take part in diversity, though; the diversity of monuments already on the capitol grounds. We’re adding a different monument to the monuments, not a different religion, the bill argues. In fact, this is what Rep. Mike Reynolds argued:

“Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said the New York group is trying to place a monument on the Capitol grounds for religious purposes and will be unsuccessful. The Ten Commandments monument, on the other hand, was put up for historical purposes, Reynolds said.” It’s not about religion at all, but about history.

The Satanists, the Hindus, and the constitutional law professors disagree:

But Joseph Thai, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oklahoma, said the decision to place the Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol could put the state in a difficult position.

“The state can disown the Ten Commandments monument erected at the Capitol with private funds as private speech, but then it cannot reject other privately donated religious monuments — even a satanic one — on the basis of viewpoint,” Thai said.

Or the state could decide to exclude other religious monuments by taking ownership of the Ten Commandments monument as official state speech, but Thai said that could become legally problematic because of the sectarian message on the granite statute.

“The Legislature has put the state between a rock and a hard place, constitutionally speaking,” Thai said.

Either everyone gets a seat at the table or we do this to the table:

table

And so the table, or the Capitol, must make room for Satan and the Monkey King. Because as soon as religion gets to the Capitol, it brings diversity with it. It’s important to note that when folks are given a seat at the table good table manners are not always the norm. For example, the same Rajan Zed that is planning the Hanuman monument had this experience when delivering a prayer on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

(Side note: I discuss this episode a bit more in the conclusion of the book manuscript I’m currently working on.) The Senate prayer hecklers and the Ten Commandments monument builders assume that America is a Christian nation. What that means, I’m not sure exactly. But it is markedly different from the claim that America is a religious nation. The former is a claim that allows the Ten Commandments to exist as historical and not religious. It is a claim of religious hegemony. The latter claim anticipates religious difference and requires accommodation for it. The authors of that 2009 bill knew this and in marking the Ten Commandments as historical they avoided the religion question altogether. Subsumed under history, the monument maintained Christian cultural hegemony. Even if it was misspelled. The question that emerges from this brouhaha in Oklahoma, then, is “all religions or no religions?” but “religion or Christian hegemony?”

Miss America and Construction of the Other in American Culture

I have a new post up at Medium. Here’s a taste:

Last night Miss New York became Miss America. But even more importantly, Nina Davuluri became the first Indian-American Miss America. The New York native brought Bollywood dance to the stage during the talent competition and spoke from her platform of “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.”

Yet, last night was also a time of thorough cultural incompetence. Both Buzzfeed and Jezebel have accounted for the range of racist tweets that went out after Davuluri was crowned. What’s interesting is the multiple levels of wrongness exhibited in the tweets. Some label Davuluri an Arab (she’s Indian-America), some label her a Muslim (her parents are Hindu and it appears she may be too), and some just flat deny that Miss America should look like anything other than this.

Continue reading at Medium

CFP: North American Hinduism Group: AAR 2013

 I’ve taken on the role of co-chair of the North American Hinduism Group this year. Here’s our call for proposals for this fall’s annual AAR meeting:

The North American Hinduism Group seeks proposals on the topics listed below for the 2013 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Please contact the listed organizers if you wish to contribute to the following themes:

For a possible cosponsored session with the Tantric Studies Group, the transmission of Hindu tantra to North America — Lola L. Williamson, Millsaps College, lola.williamson@millsaps.edu

The use and interpretation of Hindu texts in North America — Jennifer B. Saunders, Stamford, CT, jbsaund1@yahoo.com

Priests, pundits, and the promotion of Hinduism in North America — Alexandra Kaloyanides, Yale University, alexandra.kaloyanides@yale.edu

Hindu temples as sites of healing (for the individual, family, or community) in North America — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University, hamilton.aimee@gmail.com

For a possible cosponsored session with the Religion and Politics Section, Hinduism in the American political consciousness — religion, identity, and citizenship — Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara, anya.pokazanyeva@gmail.com

Hinduism in Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, Pennsylvania, and/or Delaware — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University, hamilton.aimee@gmail.com

Food and festival in North American Hinduism — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University, hamilton.aimee@gmail.com

Images and material culture in North American Hinduism — Alex Kaloyanides, Yale University, alexandra.kaloyanides@yale.edu

Conversion in North American Hinduism — Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College, sgandhi@kzoo.edu

For a possible cosponsored session with the Childhood Studies and Religion Group and the Religion and Migration Group, the transmission of tradition to North American Hindu children — Rita Biagioli, University of Chicago, rbiagioli@uchicago.edu

Hinduism in the American West — Michael Altman, Emory University, mjaltma@emory.edu

Transcendence and North American Hinduism — Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara, anya.pokazanyeva@gmail.com

North American Hindus in the academy: deconstructing insider/outsiders — Leena Taneja, Stetson University, ltaneja@stetson.edu

Who’s missing in the field of North American Hinduism — Leena Taneja, Stetson University, ltaneja@stetson.edu

For a possible cosponsored session with the Body and Religion Group, North American Hindu women: their practices, bodies, and lives — Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College, sgandhi@kzoo.edu

On Swami Vivekananda’s 150th Birthday: Beginnings and Endings

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.

Tulsi Gabbard, the First Hindu in the U.S. Congress?

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…

On the Anniversary of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and Its Place in American Religious History

First Edition of 'Walden' from the Emory Manuscripts and Rare Books Library

First Edition of ‘Walden’ from the Emory Manuscripts and Rare Books Library via the MARBL Facebook page.

Today marks the 158th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Right now I am knee deep in Transcendentalists, Thoreau included, as I wade through my chapter on Transcendentalist representations of Hinduism. The combination of today’s anniversary and my current writing work got me thinking about how Henry David Thoreau fits into American religious history.

Right now I’m working to put Thoreau into the proper place as one of America’s earliest Orientalists. Thoreau studied and appreciated Hindu religious texts, among other Asian traditions, and found them inspirational for his spiritual thought and literary prose. But he also took a view of “the East” and “the Orient” that imagined it as an essentially spiritual place. As New England industrialized around him, Thoreau looked to the Orient as a counterbalance–a place of spiritual contemplation and ancient truth to offset America’s material industry and progressive zeal. He hoped for a fusion of East and West in his writing, in his religious thought, and in America’s future. This hybrid vision emerges at the end of the chapter titled “The Pond in Winter.” Thoreau observes ice harvesters taking ice from the pond that would be packed in sawdust and shipped from New England to India. This connection between cold New England and balmy Calcutta sparks a vision:

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

I want to put Thoreau up as one of the first American Orientalists, with all the baggage that comes with such a title, and analyze the politics and power relations at work in the Orient as he imagined it. But what is his larger place in American religious history? What is the place of Walden?For some Thoreau is the first American yogin. Though that really depends on what you mean by yoga and how much you take Thoreau’s claims at face value. In Restless Souls, Leigh Eric Schmidt argued that Thoreau is part of a tradition of solitude within American liberal religion. When he took to the woods “to live life deliberately” he took part in a larger Western tradition of hermitage and solitude that has continued in his wake–my colleague Brian Campbell is writing his dissertation on this hermitage tradition. Thoreau is also invoked in contemporary talk about “spirituality.” His iconoclasm and belief in individual and intuitive religious experience are often cited as the forerunner to the “spiritual but not religious” of today. Thoreau and Walden are also key to ideas about the relationship between religion and nature. Thoreau found his own sacred meaning in the landscapes around him, as the quote above highlights. These various examples show how Thoreau has become a multivalent icon of religious liberalism and individual spirituality. We’ve reached a point where his face can be deployed to demand you work for peace, disobey, or simplify. Thoreau’s meaning is as slippery as “spirituality.” His face is a blank slate on which we scrawl our own spiritual visions.

What do you see as the significance of Thoreau and Walden for American religious history?