Love of All Wisdom

Mimicry, mockery or mumukṣutva? A response to Deepak Sarma, by Jeffery D. Long

by on Nov.27, 2012, under Karma, M.T.S.R., Modern Hinduism, Truth, Vedānta

This is the first time I have featured a guest post on Love of All Wisdom. Jeffery Long, a professor of religion and Asian studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, sent me this response after I had written my own piece on the topic. I disagree with a few of Jeff’s ideas, most notably the free employment of the term “Hindu”, but some disagreement is always to be expected among philosophers and humanists. I thought the piece merited prompt online publication and I found it to be in broad sympathy with the aims of this blog, so I am presenting it to readers here. I haven’t configured the site to allow others to add content, for the moment at least, so the “official” byline currently lists me as the author. But readers should be clear that this is Jeff’s work, not mine, and all credit and copyright belong to him. Enjoy. – Amod Lele

The first thing a respondent to Deepak Sarma’s essay, “White Hindu Converts: Mimicry or Mockery?”, needs to do is acknowledge the essential core of experiential truth and the genuine pain at its heart.  Racism against brown-skinned persons is real and pervasive in North America.  Being married now for over seventeen years to a Bengali, I cannot help but be aware of it.  Sometimes this racism is overt and brutal, as in the case when, shortly after 9/11, a fellow customer at a gas station pointed to my wife and asked aggressively, “Is she from Afghanistan?”  At other times it is more subtle, and perhaps even unknown to its perpetrators, such as when my wife speaks in a faculty meeting at the college where we both work only to have her words met with blank stares and confusion, while I later make basically the same comment and am told what a brilliant and insightful observation I have made.

I understand.  I get it.  And I also realize that even with the close personal vantage point to which I have access, I will never know, really know, at least in this life, what it is like to experience this kind of prejudice.

The proper response of any compassionate and right-thinking person to Deepak Sarma’s anger is to say, in a spirit of empathy and solidarity, “Right on, man.  I hear you.”

The same right-thinking person, though, especially if that person is at all familiar with the white Hindu converts of whom Sarma speaks, cannot help but wonder if, in his effort to direct his rhetorical barbs at their rightful targets–white privilege and racism–he has not caught some innocent civilians, and many friends and allies, in the crossfire.  His anger is real and its source–racism–is a legitimate target.  His aim, however, is poor.  This is an unfortunate result of several mistaken assumptions that are built into his argument.

Mistake #1: That the intent of white Hindu converts is to mimic

Sarma says of white converts to Hinduism, “They claim to have ‘converted’ to Hinduism and concurrently 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.”

The error here is found in the words “in order to.”  I had no idea at the age of thirteen, when I first felt the pull of Hindu philosophy, about the motives Sarma attributes to me.  Having endured a series of family tragedies, culminating with the death of my father, my search was for a worldview that could make sense of all the suffering I was experiencing.  Hinduism quite literally saved my life.  This had nothing to do with the politics of race or colonialism and everything to do with my urgent existential need to understand certain deep truths, to find meaning, and to draw nearer to what I still believe to be the ultimate goal of life: moksha, or liberation from the cycle of suffering and rebirth.  My motive is neither mimicry nor mockery, but mumukṣutva: the desire for liberation.

Now, to be sure, Sarma’s argument takes the form of what people in our discipline call a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (despite his use of the phrase “in order to,” which suggests a conscious motive on the part of the people he is critiquing).  Sarma is arguing, in other words, that our conscious motivations are a delusion.  And the more we clarify our intent, the more we confirm his suspicion that something else, which only he can discern, is what really lies behind our views and behavior.  I can therefore argue all I like and Sarma can sit back and revel in the irony of it all: that this stupid white guy does not know why he has deluded himself into thinking he is a Hindu.  No matter what I say, his response can be that I doth protest too much.  Ironically, given his scholarship, which is critical of the concept of māyā, he sounds like a postcolonial māyāvādin.  White Hindu converts are suffering under a deluded false consciousness.

The problem with such an approach is that it is unfalsifiable.  Pretending I know the true motives behind others’ words and actions frees me from any responsibility for engaging with them.  It allows me to treat them dismissively.  Sarma can lob his rhetorical barbs at white Hindu converts free from accountability for his words and the hurt that they cause while moreover claiming a moral high ground because of the racism from which he has suffered.

Although I therefore have no reason to expect that my arguments will move him, I write on in the hope that others who may be eavesdropping on this conversation might thereby benefit.

Back to the main point: the conscious intent of this white Hindu convert has not been to mimic those who were born Hindu.  Indeed, I have been (mildly) critical of those Hindu movements which insist that their non-Indian adherents assume Sanskritic names and traditional Indian forms of dress (strictures to which even many who were born Hindu do not adhere).  My desire has not been to Indianize myself in a vain effort to “color my life,” as Sarma might say, but to practice my spiritual path as who I am: Irish American, raised Roman Catholic, Midwestern, sci-fi and rock fan, and so on.  I would like to see Hinduism emerge (as it is emerging) as a global tradition, just like Buddhism, with many cultural forms and expressions.  To the degree that white Hindu converts feel they must engage in cultural “mimicry,” I may be just slightly less critical of them than Sarma, but for a different reason: not seeing such mimicry as mockery, but as simply unnecessary.

Mistake #2: Whose colonial history?

The second major error in Sarma’s essay is his sweeping assumption that all white people are equally implicated in the colonial oppression of India.  The very term “white” is itself deeply problematic, and an over-generalization.  I was not involved in the colonization of India and neither were my ancestors.  Indeed, most of them were busy being starved out of Ireland by the very people who did colonize India.  Most ended up as poor farmers in West Virginia, Missouri, and Illinois.  The exception was my great grandfather, who was busy fleeing, there is reason to suspect, from anti-semitism in France.

I am of course blatantly engaging here in what Sarma might call a denial of my colonial history.  Armed with his hermeneutic of suspicion, he can be confident in his knowledge that I do have a colonial history, whether the facts of my family history bear this out or not.  My melanin-deficient epidermis is a sufficient basis for this charge.

One could of course argue that, despite my humble origins, I have clearly benefited from the phenomenon of “white privilege.”  This is certainly the case.  There is no denying it.  I have also benefited from growing up in a country that had the advantage of centuries of free slave labor at its command in developing its economy.  But then again, so has Sarma.

Believing that one can predict–or even worse, dictate–how people will think, feel, vote, or believe and practice religiously based on the color of their skin is as good a definition of racism as any.  I am not saying that Sarma is a racist.  That is a very serious charge to lob at a respected colleague.  I am cautioning him, however, that he has come perilously close to it in this essay.

Finally, I cannot help mentioning that if one takes certain kinds of Hindu philosophy seriously, this entire line of thought is mistaken.  Ethnic and national identities, and even gender, are qualities related to the body.  They are ultimately impermanent karmic effects that do not reflect the ultimate nature of self as pure consciousness.  Not only, therefore, did neither I nor my ancestors colonize India.  It may be that both I and they were Indian on many occasions (and that Sarma was the British Viceroy of India).

Judging others by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character is a basic error from both Vedāntic and progressive secular perspectives.  Avoiding this error does not require one to fall into the opposite error of “color blindness,” naively ignoring the many ways in which race continues to matter in contemporary society.  And if Sarma has felt patronized or offended by the behavior of some white converts to Hinduism, he certainly has a duty to name this truth and to start a conversation about it.  But if he is offended by the very existence of white converts to Hinduism, he risks replicating the toxic attitudes of those who have marginalized him.

Mistake #3: The nature of religious belief

In his essay, An Apology for Apologetics, philosopher of religion Paul J. Griffiths states the axiomatic claim that we each have an epistemic duty to strive to believe things that are true.  In the comment thread attached to the Huffington Post essay that I am critiquing here, Sarma clarifies that nowhere in his essay has he made mention of the truth of Hindu doctrinal claims.

In ascribing motives to white Hindu converts to Hinduism–or converts to any religion–it seems a glaring omission to ignore the possibility that one reason, perhaps the reason, for many people to take up a religious practice is their belief that the worldview with which that practice is associated provides a true description of the nature of reality.  I was drawn to the practice of a Hindu spiritual path largely because I became persuaded of the truth of a Hindu worldview.  There are many Hindu worldviews; but the one I hold teaches the reality of karma and rebirth, is theistic (or more specifically, panentheistic), and includes a practice which, when cultivated, leads to profoundly transformative experiences for the practitioner.  I cannot (and have no desire to) un-persuade myself of these things in the name of political correctness.  My main interest, whatever the historical genealogy of my access to these teachings, is in whether they are true.  In deriding the practice of white converts to Hinduism as a form of mockery, Sarma commits the genetic fallacy.  Is colonialism a deeply problematic part of the history of how Hindu thought and practice became available to people like myself?  Certainly.  Are white converts sometimes naïve about these historical issues, and would they do well to be better informed about them?  Absolutely.  Does it have any bearing on whether our Hindu beliefs are true?  Not at all.

In another response to a comment on his essay, Sarma has written that his entire point was that the experiences of white converts to Hinduism are different from the experiences of diasporic Hindus.  This is of course true.  I am not sure if anyone would deny it and am also not sure why anyone would want to deny it.  Perhaps what Sarma is really saying is that there is a sacred quality to the experiences of diasporic Hindus that cannot be replicated by white converts, and that he feels offended by what he sees as our attempts at such replication: such mimicry that is really mockery.

What I am saying is that I am not seeking to mimic, much less mock, anyone.  I have my white Hindu convert experience.  Sarma has his diasporic Hindu experience.  Are one of these experiences authentic and the other somehow fraudulent?  Or are they both simply different experiences and expressions of an ancient, diverse, yet emerging and ever new, religious tradition?  I opt for the second of these choices, perhaps for reasons of which I am unaware, but which Sarma can perceive with his hermeneutics of suspicion.  I affirm the sacred character of his experiences and my own.  And I do not apologize for opting for universalism over tribalism, and an affirmation of all our experiences.

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6 Comments for this entry

  • aumshantih

    Namaste.
    Thank you for this post.
    My two cents – I’m a Bengali American, brought up in the Vedantic tradition of Sri Ramakrishna, and I’ve taken his universalism to heart and embraced Paganism and Buddhism into my practice as well.

    I sort of have had the opposite experience of Mr. Sarma. On the uncommon occasion that I’ll attend a temple meeting here in the USA, I have found the converts to Hinduism to be *far* more interesting to talk to and much more engrossed in the spiritual goings on that the vast majority of the Indian folks. Perhaps it’s just the way they express themselves, but to me they had to have the journey into embracing a Dharmic faith rather than being born into it.

    While I hope Hinduism does not becomes an Evangelizing faith, I do think opening ourselves to outsiders is a good way we will stay relevant as the world continues to change. Our Dharma is evolving and transforming itself constantly – new rishis and new revelations will make themselves known to us. It gives me hope for the future.

  • Jeffery D. Long

    Thank you, Aumshantih! I am also an adherent of the Vedanta of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Much like yourself, the universalism of this tradition has allowed me to keep those parts of the Roman Catholic Christian practice of my upbringing that have remained beneficial for my spiritual life, while incorporating elements of Buddhism and Jainism as well (and of course the wider Hindu tradition).
    And my wife, like you, is a Bengali American.

    Though it may be self-serving for me to say so, I appreciate your comments about those who have come to Hinduism from other traditions. Your openness toward people like myself is precisely what I have experienced the vast majority of the time from those who were born Hindu. I find Dr. Sarma’s views to be much more the exception than the rule.

    Namaste!

  • michael reidy

    As a long time devotee of Sri Sathya Sai Baba the universalist position underscored by Advaita has been my spiritual compass. Dr. Sarma’s stance seems more of a personal blood rush to the head and does not represent a significant strand of Hindu thought. Conversion is of course problematic in India even though they tend to forget that there is a standing army of swamis in the West.
    My post on this in a lighter vein is at:
    http://ombhurbhuva.blogspot.ie/2012/11/putting-on-newman-putting-on-style.html

  • Thill

    Here is a reductio ad absurdum against Sarma’s argument.

    The fashionable “post colonialist” premises he uncritically subscribes to cannot have the implications he affirms only for cases of white conversion to Hinduism.

    Mockery, mimicry, denial of their colonial past, masochistic desires for marginalization, etc., on the part of whites cannot possibly be confined only to contexts of religious conversion!

    They must also extend to other aspects of the subjugated or colonized culture, e.g., food, clothing, the arts, etc.

    This implies that whites are also engaging in mockery, mimicry, denial of their colonial past, masochistic desires for marginalization, etc., when they eat Indian food, or choose to wear Indian clothing or jewelry, or collect or exhibit Indian art in their homes, or perform Indian dance or music!!!

    The absurdity of this entails that the premises of Sarma’s argument, regardless of their hallowed origins in “post colonialist studies”, must be equally absurd.

  • Prabhat

    Great Article…
    I think Mr. Sarma is suffering from some post colonical disorder…anyway he doesn’t represent other Hindus..Anyway Recent term hinduism and Actual Term Sanatan Dharma is open to all like the Light of Sun belongs to all the same way Sanatan Dharma belongs to All…I was surprised the Hinduism which talks about Empasses universe and talks about Parallel universe..Mr. Sarma is limiting it to some colony thing …We should never ignore In Past Sanatan Dharma was spreaded till europe,Iran, Afganistan etc..so it is foolish to limit it to a region..Anyway however Hinduism never believe in fooling or enticing someone to convert like Missionaries do..but once you come for seeking truth it always welcome you with open Arms…There is No Central Authority who can deny the Right of Person to know the truth and Practice it…However just to add I Agree with aumshantih I also found that the new hindu converts are more knowledgable then regular born Hindus..even I started seriously Practicing my Religion after having some meaning ful conversation with Western Hindu Convert..I was impressed by his knowledge..

  • Rajshree Vasudevan

    The above series of conversations have been a fascinating revelation for me. Being a student of Indian philosophy and a teacher of the same for some years now,it has kindled a desire to rethink issues that I had ignored earlier.Kudos to Jeffrey Long and Sunthar Visuvalingam (from whose Yahoo group I receive these posts)for objectively presenting opinions and articles on a wide variety of issues and topics.I did notice some of the above mentioned tendencies in both the Hindu diaspora and white converts when I toured the US as a Bharatanatyam dancer.Sanatana Dharma into which I am born, is all inclusive and universal.the least we can do is to let it be that way.Rajshree Vasudevan,India.

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