Chapter 23: Hindus in America

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Shah Rukh Khan is actually a Muslim, but this is a great still from one of my favorite Bollywood films.

11 thoughts on “Chapter 23: Hindus in America

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  1. I was genuinely surprised that while this chapter on “Hindus in America” mentioned the 1890s history of Swami Vivekananda and the early Ramakrishna Mission (p. 639), Doiniger did not follow up on the subsequent history of Vedanta in the West, but instead spent the rest of the chapter analyzing various instances of hippie or New Age phenomena which we might call cultural appropriation (many of which are both misinformed and embarrassing). I thought this was strange because the Ramakrishna Mission still exists in both America and India to this day, and probably draws interest from very different kinds of people than do the New Age literatures and practices.

    Maybe the Ramakrishna Mission is just one instance of a phenomenon we could bring up in class discussion: that of a modernist or universalist variety of Hindu thought that comes close to being a proselytizing religion, even if it is not outright deracinated from its Indian origins.


  2. An interesting part of the chapter for me was Doniger’s separation of the three types of objection to American appropriation of Hinduism. The first one, that “Americans have gotten Kali and Tantra all wrong” (649) is the one that most rings true, according to Doniger. On page 650 she mentions that in a religion where there is no central cannon of beliefs, it is hard to say what is right or wrong. I found myself agreeing with this part of her discussion, and reluctant to condemn Americans for taking on parts of the religion that they found insightful, especially as that is what Hindus have done over the centuries, as we have learned: there was constant interpretation and reinterpretation and one might not agree with all of it, but it is still regarded as valid. I find that the “New Age” or “Hippie” interpretations are not always taken seriously, and are illigetimized as valid beliefs. That being said, I am refering only to respectful and honest interest by non-Hindu Americans in Hinduism, and I agree that there are many instances, like Doniger’s mention of the commercialization and obscene misuses of Hinduism. I think that sometimes it is hard to distinguish between the first and third objections (the third being that “only Hindus have a right to talk about Hinduism” (649)). It would be interesting to have a discussion in class about this distinction, and what types of non-Hindu use of Hinduism are okay and what types are not okay.


  3. On page 651 Doniger explains that the aspects of Kali and Tantra that most American devotees embrace “unfortunately” turn out to also be the aspects that the Hindu tradition has tried to censor or deny. If these aspects of Hinduism have in fact been valid throughout the religion’s history, then why is it unfortunate that Americans are embracing them? I agree that appropriation is not ok, but if Americans are practicing and celebrating aspects that lower class Hindus/villagers also practiced and acknowledged, then why is it unacceptable for them to practice their own personal view of Hinduism given that there are already so many other different versions not in the US?


  4. The section of the chapter that intrigued me the most was the “Twisted in Translation: American Versions of Hinduism” that detailed the popular media’s projection of Hinduism in the West and the subsequent response from Hindus for these portrayals. One quote that particularly jumped out to me is on page 645 and is as follows “If the Coca-Cola brand can come to India and connect without sensibilities, why can’t Hanuman (a Hindu god that some have argued is heavily appropriated) go to New York?”

    Other examples that Doniger gives that I found intriguing, mainly because I had never considered them to be appropriative prior to it being brought to my attention are the examples like “Karamel Sutra ice cream” and “Kamasutra chocolates”. I’ve tended to err on the side that if something isn’t actively hurting someone, it shouldn’t be prohibited or condemned, but in this case, I wonder if these novel comparisons reduce respect or credibility for the Hindu religion, or worse, if these “appropriations” truly hurt and offend people within the religion. But even then, I wonder if it’s my “duty” (no pun intended) as a person to ensure I’m not offending anyone at any given point. This is another topic I’d love to delve into during class.


  5. Similar to Robert, as he pointed out, Doniger’s leap from the 1890s aspect of Hinduism in the west, to the the “new age/hippie” aspect of Hinduism; seemed somewhat odd to me as well. One might anticipate in this chapter that Doniger would go through (even briefly) the history of Hinduism in America between those two time periods.

    Furthermore, I also think that the points brought up by Amy and Fahrenkn about appropriation and how Hinduism can be talked about/practiced by non-Hindus is also a very important part of this chapter. I thought the section about the film industry in America and various other “appropriations of Hindu deities” (pg. 645) was interesting. Additionally, Doniger’s exploration of the Kama Sutra and Karma also highlighted this point (pg. 645-646 American Versions of Hinduism). It then seems somewhat paradoxical at first, if so many versions of Hinduism exist, to say that some are “better” than others. I think Doniger realizes why this is problematic, and in some parts does a nice job delineating between full on appropriation/intentional manipulation of Hinduism and the societal development of Hinduism (in part by showing extremes). This in turn helps address the potential paradox.


  6. I can’t tell whether or not Doniger is trying to be sarcastic in the middle of page 641. She is talking about virtual worship. She states that “you can perform a “virtual puja,” a cartoon puja in which you burn electronic incense and crack open a virtual coconut.” She goes on to talk about a virtual Ganges river cleanse: “At the same time, someone who is actually (nonvirtually) there at the river dips your actual photo in the actual (nonvirtual) river, which is what makes the ritual work; it can’t all be done by mirrors.” (641). “It can’t all be done by mirrors.” That is funny!! On a more serious note, it’s a little bizarre how people think that virtual cleansing and virtual worship are the same thing as real life worship and devotion. But I guess that can be said of any religion that uses live streams, videos, and other digital media to worship. This chapter makes it seem as if Hindus in America are doing just as much as Hindus in India are doing, and that both are considered practitioners of the same level of Hinduism. At least Doniger makes it seem that way.


  7. Doniger starts the chapter with saying that “This was colonization […] in a new positive and intellectual sense of making major contributions to American culture (637).” But, in the rest of the chapter, it seems that she doesn’t talk much about the positive reverse colonization of Hinduism so that it would be great for me if we will be able to learn more about the positive reverse colonization.
    As for a intriguing part of the chapter, I vert agree with the conclusion that Doniger reaches, which is “[…] the wild misconceptions […] need to be counteracted precisely by making Americans aware of the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices (653).” One of good example to show the richness and human depth of Hinduism is what Doniger mentions in her objection against Hindu objections to the American appropriation of Hinduism that “the features of Kali and Tantra […] are often precisely the aspects that the Hindu tradition has tried, for centuries, to tone down, domesticate, deny, or censor actively (651).” The case that many Hindu practitioners have attempted to reject those aspects of Hinduism shows that, even among Hindus, there are numerous disagreement and disputes. Also, it is because those aspects have already existed or rooted in Hinduism, some Americans appropriate those ideas “wrongly”. Moreover, since, as Doniger claims, “there is seemingly no limit to the variations that Hindu have rung on every aspect of their religion (650)”, it can be stated that, essentially, there is no wrong interpretations and every person, regardless practitioners or bystanders, should have their own right to come up with their own interpretation. Hence, the most important thing is to make all the people who have some ideas about Hinduism to understand that Hinduism is not simple but is extremely rich.


  8. This chapter was full of some bangers, I definitely made some mad annotations in my book. Of all of the things that stood out to me or got me thinking, one of the first things that resonated with me was of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa conclusion that “all religions are true” and that whatever an individual believes in or practices is their exact calling in life. This idea has been something I’ve considered throughout the whole book, in regards to ideas of monism, progress, and development of Hinduism. Growing up in Catholic faith, the idea of anything other than accepting one God or following strict rules that have existed since forever is very foreign and interesting to me. When I was younger, I liked to believe that everyone’s heaven or afterlife was exactly whatever the believed, so to find this saint who put into words what I had hoped for as a child was shocking.
    Another component of the chapter that stood out to me, like Tanner, was the portion regarding the online involvement in the life and practice of Hindus living in America. This raises several questions about authenticity, and like Tanner had said, it isn’t even clear what Doniger’s hot take on this is. In cultural anthropology, we learned of a similar phenomena: Chinese immigrants were sending their money home to further build temples and pay homage to certain gods in order to make offerings for their new lives here in America. The idea of using technology and the time space compression to maintain a religious identity is a very interesting and common one, and like I had just mentioned, the idea of religious traditions altering in order to better fit one’s lifestyle or an era is an idea very foreign to me, where Catholicism (as I have learned it) has been heavily based in OLD tradition. Its been 5 years and people at church still refuse to accept that we don’t hold hands for the “Our Father” anymore.


  9. Much like other members of the class, I was interested by Doniger’s account of Hindu appropriation in the West. It’s easy to dismiss it when it’s been a part of our lives for so long, but reading this chapter called attention to instances that I feel should no-longer be looked over.

    Hannah pointed out that she believed if something isn’t actively hurting someone, it should be fine, which is a mindset that I have found myself having at many times. However, Hannah’s post also reminded me that minor acts of appropriation can have much larger implications, so it’s important to take a step back to realize the magnitude of what something seeming-small can have.

    Finally, I have a confession to make: my junior or senior year of high school (4ish years ago), my grandmother flew from Albuquerque to Chicago to take me and my younger brother to a promotional tour for Shahrukh Khan’s new movie at the time, “Happy New Year”. This entailed being serenaded and seduced by SRK himself in addition to other cast members. SRK is a household name in the Minkus family, as several pictures of my grandmother with the man himself and a closet full of his movies adorn her house. In fact, my grandmother’s Facebook profile picture was a picture she took of him for a good chunk of time, too. Sam (what we call my grandma) has some serious fangirl dedication, and I respect her for that.

    So, Sam, if you’re reading this, know that I am only sharing this because I love you and it applies to class, and not for any negative reasons. I’ll also edit the stuff about you from my post if you want.

    Yours truly,

    (P.S. to the class: yes, I have pics. They’re not very good though)

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    1. Rebecca — we’re going to have to talk about this more in class. I also hope that your grandma comes to your graduation in a couple of years, so that I can shake her hand.


  10. What intrigued me about this chapter, was how many of the appropriations of Hinduism pointed out by Doniger have influenced my own life without even realizing it. This goes further than realizing a high school history book is pretty inaccurate and leaves out a lot of information on Hinduism, and is more about the subtler ways I’ve been affected. One of the weirdest examples is how “In 1999 a century and a bit after the first World’s Parliament of Religions, Chicago city officials placed a 340 life-size cow statues along city streets.” Doniger then says how it has nothing to do with Hinduism but it brought a lot of tourism into the city. The thing that sticks out to me is my own town, a suburb just outside of Chicago, had colorful painted cows lining its streets for a third or so of my life (now they’ve replaced them with other art things). I know that the goal of the project with cows was to enrich and draw attention to the arts, however I’m also sure the idea was taken from Chicago’s. It’s weird how something I didn’t even slightly relate to religion has a slight history with it, and it’s interesting to know how far the appropriation affected my daily life. Knowing this, it made me take a second look at the other appropriations Doniger points out, especially in films. I like to think I’m a relative movie buff, I’m not super duper into movies but I know more than my fair share, so when Doniger brings up the 1965 Beatles film Help, Indiana Jones, and then The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and later a Stanley Kubrick film, it surprised me just how much appropriation was right under my nose.

    This sticks out to me because most of these movies I watched in my childhood, so trying to determine how these appropriations have affected my thoughts on Hinduism is a questionable rabbit hole. It also makes me think the dilemma between trying to create awareness of other cultures, and studying something out of pure curiosity, versus misappropriating and misrepresenting a part of someone’s life and then this being propelled later.


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