By Debotri Dhar
April 21, 2014
The freedom to profess one's faith is upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and by liberal Constitutions worldwide; yet I sometimes encounter negative reactions in academia when I identify as Hindu. These reactions may come from academic spaces with diverse agendas and ideologies, but most present themselves as radical politics. The irony is that dialogues with conservative Hindus who are steeped in hegemonic understandings of gender and caste, and opposed to liberal interpretations of religion, are as difficult. So where does this battle between the radical left and the unrelenting right leave the question of faith?
Faith, in an evolved sense, cannot be reduced to dogma laid down centuries ago. It is a quest both intellectual and spiritual, one that has taken me to Rishikesh, Dakshineshwar and Vrindavan, and led to involved exchanges with Sadhus and scholars, believers and non-believers. A winter was spent burrowed in primary Sanskrit texts as well as secondary scholarly literature in the Indian Institute Library at Oxford University. This journey, on the lines of gyanayoga from the Upanishads, allows me to move beyond personal experience in order to uncover and embrace several beautiful, even modern, ideas from the eclectic corpus of Hindu philosophy, and to reject or reinterpret several others. Through this I remain Hindu, in the deeply personal way I experience my faith. I do not believe in rituals, and the only "religious" sign in my house is a tiny figurine of Krishna; when I hold this figurine to my heart, I am renewed.
Some academics on the far left of the political spectrum believe a study of religion does not constitute serious scholarship. Western intellectuals who were immersed in this question might disagree: think of the German idealists like Hegel and the metaphysics of Absolute Spirit, Benjamin's messianism, Ralph Waldo Emerson's romanticism, Berkeley's immaterialism, Heidegger's religious atheism, Rene Descartes, Carl Jung, even Newton...the list is impressive. Today, top universities like Harvard and Princeton have departments of religion. Another common criticism is that a profession of religious faith runs contrary to liberal intent. Wrong. It is not faith but fundamentalism that poses a threat to liberal democracy. As American philosopher and constitutional law expert Ronald Dworkin argued, religion interpreted in progressive ways can be quite compatible with liberal democracy.
"But secularism, a necessary tenet of liberalism, implies separation of church and state. South Asia remains so hopelessly mired in religion," a senior American scholar once said to me. While the framers of the Indian Constitution interpreted secularism as equality of all faiths, there is obvious truth in this allegation. One thinks of Fatwas, extra-judicial rulings of khap Panchayats, religious riots across South Asian countries; India's own worst riots were in 1984, 1992-93 and 2002. But to deduce that only certain parts of the world are mired in religion would be facetious. After all, the affirmation of Christian values in the American public sphere is hard to miss, as is the Islamophobia following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the ways in which religion continues to dictate pro-life and other legislation. The debate in India around Wendy Doniger's book on Hinduism was rather similar to the debate in America around Raza Eslan's book on Christ. However, the latter book was not withdrawn in America.
Given these notes and nuances of faith, what is needed is open dialogue, a commitment to fighting discrimination while not reducing everything to it. Speaking of dialogue, the sentimentalist in me is most touched by inter-caste, interfaith and interracial relationships. The two marriages I attended on my last visit to India were both interfaith, with each side holding on to their own faith while also creating a third space of love. When I contrast this with the recent ordeal of the tribal woman sentenced to gang-rape by village council elders for daring to love a Muslim man, I am filled with pain and shock. I show films like Pinjar (based on Amrita Pritam's novel), and even the hugely Bollywood-ish My Name is Khan, in my classes. My pragmatic American students giggle to see me cry for almost the entire duration of the films, and once, a girl impulsively hugged me. Perhaps love is the most radical form of politics.