[I wasn't planning to update this week, but I wanted to post this while it was still topical.]
I have not had as much time as I would like to read Deepak Sarma‘s work in Indian philosophy. It intrigues me, and what little I have seen so far seems to be well researched and well thought out. I hope to be more involved with it in the future.
My reaction was considerably less favourable when I saw a recent short blog post of Sarma’s at the Huffington Post. (I found out about it through the RISA-L mailing list, and there has already been some discussion of the post there.) Sarma expresses discomfort with “White Hindu Converts”, those white Americans who claim to have “converted to Hinduism”. I agree that such a claim can be problematic, given that the recent term “Hinduism” typically covers such a wide and disparate range of meanings, and the concept of “conversion” does not adequately cover much of what happens in Indian traditions (where Muslims offer prayers to revered “Hindu” sites and vice versa). But Sarma’s post goes considerably further than this.
Sarma claims that White Hindu Converts (his capitalization) “mimic their imaginary (and often Orientalist) archetypal ‘Hindu’ in order to reverse-assimilate, to deny their colonial histories, to (futilely) color their lives, and, paradoxically, to be marginalized.” This claim is already deeply problematic. Could their claimed conversion be a way of expressing their belief that Vedānta traditions express reality better than any other available? Could it be the case that they have been searching for an adequate vision of divinity, found that Durgā expresses that more adequately than a Western model, and found identifying as “Hindu” the best way of expressing this vision? Could it be the case that their practice of modern haṭha yoga has seemed to them the best available technique to improve their lives, and they want to deepen their association with the tradition that has produced it? Not according to this passage; at least, not primarily. Here, Sarma pronounces that the idea of “converting to Hinduism” must be a matter of escaping white guilt and colonialism, perhaps of seeking an imagined authenticity. Considering that he expresses concern that converts “deny the voices” of “Diaspora Hindus”, Sarma seems cheerfully ready to deny the voices of the converts. He claims to know their reasons for converting, does not acknowledge any other potential reasons for it, and says all this without reference to a single word expressed in a convert’s voice.
But Sarma doesn’t stop there. He goes on to ask: “But is their mimicry merely disguised or (unintentional) mockery?” And he answers yes: “no matter their sincerity, or self-proclaimed authenticity, their mimicry seems more like mockery.” “Seems” to whom, exactly? Presumably to the “Diaspora Hindus”, with whom Sarma contrasts the “White Hindu Converts”, and on whose behalf Sarma implicitly claims to speak.
And why would it seem like mockery? Because, in short, of the history of colonialism. Diasporic Hindus mimic in the opposite direction – imitating mainstream American culture in order to “deny their colonized and oppressed histories…” in a way that nevertheless “may have subversive understones and may destablize the dominant ideology…” But this is not so for white converts, whose acts “merely reinforces existing hierarchies and paradigms.” For “the experience of being colonized is not available to white Americans.”
Let us examine some of Sarma’s claims. White Americans may not themselves have the experience of being colonized. But neither do second- and third-generation “Diaspora Hindus”, who may have well grown up in a wealthy and privileged life. One might indeed argue that neither do any Indians below retirement age, since the British colonization of India, as such, ended before they were born. Certainly, their ancestors were colonized – but so were the ancestors of Irish-Americans. As one commenter on the Huffington Post site (“IdeaTalk”) pointed out, so, indeed, were any ancestors who lived in what is now America before the Revolution!
So we are not dealing with present colonialism, but with past. And while Sarma acknowledges that white people are not currently colonizing Indians, the former’s claims to conversion nevertheless “seem like mockery” because of the lingering effects of the past history. “While the responsibility for the historical privileging may not lie with them, they cannot avoid benefitting from the ill-gotten fruits.”
Now which fruits are these? Let us first recall that India was never a colony of the United States; it was a colony of Great Britain (or of England, if you prefer). So there are no direct fruits of colonialism to be yielded. True, white Americans are much richer on the whole than the Indians whose ancestors were colonized by Britain; most of the latter continue to live in dire poverty — in India. But over here? Wikipedia’s list of US ethnic groups by household income, taken from the American census’s FactFinder, shows Indian-Americans on average to be the very highest – wealthier not only than any subgroup of white Americans, but than Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Arab-Americans and everyone else. If “ill-gotten fruits” is referring to any sort of economic plunder, then in the US, these fruits are imperceptible. It is the Indian-Americans who live in privilege!
Now of course there is still racism against Indian-Americans. I’ve experienced it myself, though not very much. But I don’t see why this experience of racism is supposed to trump other forms of privilege. Moreover, it increasingly happens in reverse too; in some quarters I’ve received a hearing for my views that I would not have received if my skin were white. The idea of “authenticity” – that some are “real Hindus” and others are just faking it – carries with it its own form of privilege. And when this article describes the practices of white converts as a “mimicry” and “mockery” of other practices which are not similarly problematized, it therefore implies the former practices are less authentic than the latter, and perpetuates this form of privilege itself.
To a white man from Appalachia raised on food stamps who later joins ISKCON and considers himself a Hindu, it is a slap in the face to be told his “privilege” makes his act a “mockery”, when this claim of privilege and mockery comes from a wealthy and well educated Indian family in New Jersey – or from a comfortable professor in Cleveland, or a comfortable educational technologist in Cambridge. The binaries of colonizer/colonized, privileged/subaltern, are not nearly so clear.
Does the history of colonialism make a difference to the experience of Indian traditions today? Yes. Does that history make the practices of those who were not colonized a “mockery”? Not at all.