Rooting for An Open, Inclusive and Moderate Hinduism

durga-pujaNote: Pratik Ghosh of Mauritius translated it from my Bengali oped published in Calcutta’s daily Ananda Bazar Patrika.

(Link to original Bengali article here.)

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Nowadays nobody talks about these. Discussing religion or spirituality has become out of fashion. Yet the currently evolving events makes me broach the subject. In thirty years of my life in the U.S., only once I had the opportunity to visit home to celebrate the annual Durga Puja festivity, commonly known as “Pujo”. Thus only once I shared the unbound joy of the festivity, be part of that heartfelt intimacy and experienced the overwhelming joy of mingling in the sea of humanity. The remaining twenty-nine years, I spent abroad indifferently.

First few early years during the Pujo days, I would press the telephone hard on my ear to hear the sound of the drums from the Pujo ceremony held at my neighbour’s house in Kolkata. Not for long though. Ten minute call was worth a princely twenty-five American dollars that a poor student like me could ill afford. Those days there was neither the Internet nor Skype.

Later I had the opportunity to take active part in the Durga Pujo ceremony held at Albany, the capital of the New York state. Once I even became the President of the Bengali Club organizing the Pujo. A taste of home abroad, amidst the din and bustle of funfare, music and play, kedgeree and meat curry. Quenching thirst of milk by drinking shakes – a popular Bengali idiom!

Offering to the Deity. Humble. Harmless. Humane.
Offering to Deity. Humble. Harmless. Humane. Hinduism.

The last fifteen years have seen a great influx of Pujos, advent of many temples, display of the best of opulence at the Pujos of immigrants from West Bengal, advance collection of contributions for hosting the occasion. Even breaking out in fistfight over mutton curry. Bangladeshi pujos are relatively peaceful. They continue to be solemn, respectful and courteous with subscriptions being voluntary.

Seemingly, Joe Stranger in the U.S. knows little about our religion, traditions, art, music or literature. Yet the common American knows a lot more about the Christian, Jewish or Muslim faith. The former two are respected and the media covers them well. Plentiful of TV shows, innumerable essays on newspapers and magazines. Christmas, Easter and Yom Kippur are public holidays. With Islamist fundamentalism, Muslims are disliked and falling prey to racial discrimination. Following the 9/11, many innocent Muslims have been tormented, imprisoned and even deported. Still, people are aware of these three Abrahamic faith. Most people know about the Eid and Ramadan. Liberals are tolerant of all three.

In comparison, Hindu faith is pariah. Well, not even pariah. Simply not present. For most non-Hindus, Hinduism is about discrimination, casteism and Brahminical oppression of the untouchables. Hindus are taken as principally ritualistic or rather superstition ridden. The contribution of Hinduism to the world is hardly known. Only the experts and historians know about the Kailash, Khajuraho, Konark or Minakhshipuram. As if the present day India is built through British colonialism only. The Indian heritage is irrelevant and ignored. The western media do not carry any news about this four days long celebration of religion, art and music at the shores of the sea of humanity. From New York to Los Angles, from Chicago to Houston, the organizers of the Pujo too have no interest in presenting to the world the glory of our festivity. It is not told that this celebration is not a narrow religious practice but almost a way of life. They immerse themselves into nostalgia and the melancholy of their missed pleasure back home.

Another trouble prevails among the new generation of Hindu emigrants. As serious discourse on spirituality or religion isn’t “hip”, this generation, in void of true religious interest, has vastly become ultra-orthodox, racist and particularly, anti-Muslim. Neither they have heard of the liberal philosophy of Hinduism nor are they interested to engage. If this is the general trend, there is also a liberal strain who are busy establishing their secular identity by disowning Hinduism altogether. Consequently, Hinduism is squeezed in between the two, earning the undesirable tag of being a backward creed. Yet, there never was any organized form of Hinduism or anything like Hindu fundamentalism. The battle cry and the negativism of the BJP, Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal, VHP, ABVP and the other members of India’s rightwing establishment – collectively known as the Sangh Family, isn’t the only identity of Hinduism.

The number of people to put across the notion that a Hindu can be tolerant and a secular citizen; who believes in independence of women; doesn’t have to agree with the caste-based divisions is reducing in alarming proportion. The Hindu religion that invites everyone else to be of one’s own; that tells the world to be a family; says “as many faith, that many ways”, is being gradually wiped out to oblivion. Who recognizes that the Hindu religion had been and is still the core faith of India that assimilated and absorbed effortlessly the Aryans, the Dravidians, the Chinese, the Sakas and the Huns, the Pathans and the Moghuls into one nation? Who knows that Saraswati, the goddess of learning, scripted the Vedas or the goddesses Durga, Kali and Jagatdhatri are the most powerful among all gods and the annihilators of evil forces? How many champions of even hardcore feminism know about this faith that places women power higher than all the rest?

Khajuraho Temple in India. Eroticism and art. Who knows, maybe, Hindu Talibans will destroy it all!
Khajuraho Temple in India. Eroticism and art, and major engineering from way back when. Who knows, maybe, Hindu Talibans will destroy it all!

While visiting the United States in the early twentieth century, Swami Vivekananda declared that “the Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe in a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realizing – not in believing, but in being and becoming.” Today we are made to forget these words of this socialist ascetic by fundamentalists who believe that he belongs to them and those on the other hand, who see him as a fundamentalist. Today the pluralism of Gandhi and Nehru only champions liberal values. As if liberalism is not inherent in Hinduism. As if Hindu religion and liberal values are perpetually contradictory. To believe in liberal Hindu values one doesn’t have to become a socialist or communist and yet one can be all of these.

During Durga Pujo, we must remind ourselves and the others about the liberal and humane traditions of Hinduism. We need to liberate Hinduism from the violent and hateful clutches of extremists. The facet of Hinduism must be promoted that makes Brahmin and the others share meals together; that congregates the Muslim and the Christian neighbours in spontaneous enthusiasm to celebrate Pujo. There we do not engage in the mayhem of destructing bridges but in building them to connect humanity through understanding each other.

If this bridge can be preserved and the World is made aware of it only then the way out of fundamentalism and extremism can be found. It is the responsibility of the centrist Hindus – in between the traders of hatred and politics of hate in the name of religion and the protagonists against religion and the non-believers. Indeed, my Hinduism is my identity. Similarly, it is my urgent duty to recognize and propagate the Hindu religion where there is no place for greed, hate, jealousy and animosity.

As a follower of that eternally liberal tradition of Hindu religion what other time than the Durga Pujo can be better to talk about it?

A Peaceful, Joyful and All-inclusive Vijaya Dashami to All. May Mother Durga bless us, and help us to go beyond today. Let us usher in a universal, progressive tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Partha Banerjee

Brooklyn, New York

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Rabindranath Tagore, poet and philosopher. I think he sums it up all.
Rabindranath Tagore, poet and philosopher. I think he sums it up all.

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