The versatility of clothing makes it a preferred means for constructing and negotiating identities; not only individual identities (just think of a teenager’s anxieties when choosing clothes!), but also collective ones. -Jean-François Bayart
So I saw this article on Patheos.com a couple of days ago titled “Why Do Hindus Wear Turbans [Google Questions Answered]”. Ambaa “the White Hindu” points out that there seems to be quite the confusion on the cultural identification of those who wear turbans. According to research from Stanford University, 70% of Americans ‘misidentify’ turban wearers as “Muslim (48%), Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto.” However, this seems quite problematic. Some Muslims actually do wear turbans and many people around the world wear turbans for all sorts of reasons not necessarily having to do with religious affiliation.
My issue lies in the religious identification vis-a-vis religious garb. Despite all the good intentions of Ambaa or a similar article from the Huffington Post defending Sikhs from discrimination, they are actually just as much participating in the same system of essentializing an entire group by a peice of clothing. The turban becomes the identifier for religion, the central and usually only important part of a groups identity, whether it be the turban identifying Muslimness by some or indentifying Sikhness by others. Religion becomes the entire identity of the other. I’ll try not to get into the irony of the Orientalism of “the White Hindu” (yes Orientalism despite her defending against Orientalism) who has self identified as a white woman of European descent and is “appropriating Indian culture” for her own (I don’t think she is appropriating Indian culture since, but see how I seamlessly make race rather than religion the means of identification of an entire group). Perhaps religion as the primary indicator of indentity is a proverbial wink identifying us as Americans rather than saying something about the ‘other’.
This of course is only a problem if we think people are more than their clothing or their religion. If that is the case, did you correctly identify the religion of the person wearing the turban in the photo at the top? If you guessed Christian you are right!
While all of these elements point to the Hindu religious tradition, we were not Hindus. There is a qualitative difference between people who have been raised in a tradition in which the rituals, the foods, the prayers, and the ethics are second nature, and people who have incorporated only parts of a tradition into their religious style. This is why I use the term “Hindu inspired” rather than “Hindu” to describe Transcendental Meditation and similar movements.
I think I will channel my inner Russell T. McCutcheon when I say “show me a category and I will show you someone making the category.” The block quote above comes from the book Transcendental in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements in America by Lola Williamson. This book is great for laying out the evolution and belief systems of these things called HIMMs that Lola names–the evolution of differences in groups, ethic systems, focuses on the experiential, focus on the guru figures, etc. My critique of the book comes from the underlying tone behind her categories. There seems to be an assumption of an authentic Hindu religion that Americans have access and appropriated to make a less authentic American version and within those American versions there are some that are more authentic than others.
I think we can also learn a lot about Lola Williamson from this book. For instance from page 11 I learned that Lola believes that Americans are “culturally indoctrinate into the Judeo Christian worldview.” Without getting into how problematic a term like “Judeo-Christian worldview” is, does this mean that Jews and Christians have been indoctrinating innocent HIMM children in America?
I found it particularly interesting that I learn on page 179 that Lola uses William James as her theoretical framework for experience with experience being a large focus of her data. That was rather disappointing since it was right after a discussion that experience is shaped by the language that is taught–that is to say belief leads to experience rather than the other way around.
Over the past few class meetings we read and discussed “Transcendent in America” and have been tasked with writing a review. While I can’t speak to how qualified I am to do this, I’ll attempt to give you an idea of how I felt about the book and its usefulness in our curriculum. Transcendent in America presents an interesting look at HIMM (Hindu -Inspired Meditation Movements) and how they came to shape Hinduism in America over the years. The author is able to come from aplace of personal experience, having participated in and had contact with many of these movements first hand, which provided a plethora of fascinating first hand accounts and testimonies. She did a fair job nof addressing negative aspects or things that were widely perceived negatively, but her overall look at HIMM ignored more ‘cultish’ aspects as discussed in class. Furthermore she did little to relate the HIMM and Christianity at the time, though only selectively. She relates spiritual experiences to Pentacostalism, for example, but later pointedly states the stark line between Evangelical Christianity and HIMMs. She also seems rather reluctant to delve into the question of why abuse of power (and abuse in general) seemed to be so endemic to these organizations (as well as many other organizations, of course, particularly those featuring charismatic leaders who demand loyalty), though she displays a great deal of empathy and compassion for those hurt in said scenarios. Additionally, she spends a great deal of time towards the end of the book relaying first hand accounts of spiritual experiences without providing much analysis, or any methodological information. In this way I think she occasionally presents a more narrowed view. However, despite these issues I found the book as a whole to be incredibly informative and useful, as well as inadvertently raising interesting questions on the nature of insider/outsider observation.
We are currently going over “Transcendent in America” in class. This book goes into detail concerning Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs). I thought that the first section of this book was good and that the second section was informative, and I found the third section enlightening. Overall I think that this book was very informative and a good read. I really had no idea what went on in these religious movements, and this book really helped to explain it. The author does a good job at remaining impartial in her explanations despite her background of being in a HIMM, and she does not leave out information that show the HIMMs in a less than positive light. The author does her best to make some of the stranger practices seem relatable, but some of the things that go on in Hindu-inspired meditation movements seem a bit cultish. The absolute faith that one is expected to place in one’s guru seems to me to be dangerous, especially since this relationship is abused on occasion, and the cover-ups that happen to hide negative information do not sit well with me either. I think that the biggest problem that the author has is that there is an innate inability to explicate the experiences had by those who participate in HIMMs. The book relates some of them to Pentecostal church happenings, which are equally mysterious to me, and sometimes attempts physiological explanations (i.e. tingling spine), but ultimately I do not know what their spiritual experiences are like. If you have a spiritual experience by looking at the image of Gurumayi on this blog, please let me know.
Murali Balaji wrote this article that highlight the misconceptions between Hindu Americans and their teachers and classmates. Balaji grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and was often confronted with inappropriate questions from “misinformed” classmates and teachers. His parents would feel frustrated and powerless about their child’s unfortunate circumstances. He gives two extremes that could arise between Hindu parents and their children’s teachers. This first approach is the “in-your-face” and the second is the “non-confrontational”. Often Hindu parents take the latter approach.
Balaji is the Hindu American Foundation’s Director of Education and curriculum Reform where he has talked with many parents frustrated by what their children are learning about Hinduism. He points out two truths in education: 1) teachers don’t intentionally teach wrong information and are almost always willing to learn and 2) parents can work with schools, school boards, and individual teachers to help fight stereotypes and wrong information. Harsh confrontation rarely yields results, as with Passivity. He encourages parents to meet with their child’s teachers to calmly discuss cultural or religious meanings.
I found this article about a married couple, consisting of a Baptist minister and a Hindu monk, who wrote a book called Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. According to this article 27 percent of Americans are married to or live with a partner of a different religious faith.
Amazon describes the book as a story of a “East-meets-West partnership.” While the couple’s individual identities seem to be wrapped up in their religious identity I do not see this as the East meeting the West but as two Americans and the success of eHarmony. Hindu does not equal East as Baptist does not equal West. (People are Baptist and Hindu in many places all over the world). I will go further and say there is no East or West. There are just two parts of the ‘American’ imagination of itself and of the other.
Recently there has been a pictorial campaign launched in India depicting various Hindu goddesses as victims of abuse- it presents a jarring contrast between the serene, traditional poses and depictions of powerful goddess by showing them with bruised faces, as seen in the image above. This is intended to play on the shock value of the idea of these powerful, benevolent figures being so disrespected, in order to shed light on the awful issue of domestic violence and violence against women in India. However, this blogger argues that it is emblematic of a problematic change in representations of Hinduism. According to Vamsee Juluri, a professor at USF, Hindu deities are increasingly being presented in ways that do not highlight their virtues of compassion, kindness, and so on. Instead, modern Hindu representations reflect only the violent, action driven motifs present in their mythos, and Juluri believes this campaign to be similarly problematic. The underlying problem, he says, is that children being raised by Hindu parents today see more compassion and kindness from the Wiggles and Cailou than they do from representations of Hindu deities, and as such are missing out on the messages of compassion in favor of an increasingly violent idea of Hindu deities and as such extending into Hinduism itself. Given the discussed propensity for Americans to assume that Hinduism and Buddhism are purveyors of some ancient and mystical, peaceful vision of wisdom, I found his concerns to be quite fascinating, and something I would not previously have ever considered, and I wonder how American converts to Hinduism would address his worries.