Hindu Prayer in the U.S. Senate
Yes, it shows that Hindus are not welcome here
By RAJEEV SRINIVASAN
It has surely taken a long time for a Hindu chaplain to be invited to address the United States Senate–especially for a nation that "prides itself on religious freedom and diversity," as noted by Tim Mitchell on the Crusadewatch blog (www.crusadewatch.org). And then this prayer was disrupted by white Christian bigots shouting about "false gods."
Hinduism is the world’s largest non-Semitic faith, one that influenced the founding fathers of America, including Thomas Jefferson. Yet, Hinduism is never treated on par with the West Asian belief systems. It is at best tolerated, often ridiculed and insulted, as demonstrated in the California school textbook case. Even the children’s encyclopedia Encarta described Hinduism in lurid sexual terms until pressured to alter their content.
Christian fundamentalists are extremely hostile to Hinduism, as they invade India to offset their declining numbers. The so-called Dalit Freedom Network, which purports to combat caste discrimination, is a front for white American churches to harass Hindus and encourage conversion. This has come to light as the result of a CAPEEM (California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials) lawsuit compelling people like Michael Witzel of Harvard University to reveal covert online activities. (See Sandhya Jain, "‘Dalit’ twist to textbook row," available from www.dailypioneer.com, dated July 24, 2007)
But the fundamentalists are hypocrites: they do not care about the benighted lives of all American Christians. The life expectancy in black ghettos is lower than in many parts of Africa. Fully one-third of all young black men in America are in prison. The white churches did precious little for the (mostly black) victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Given the neglect of their own, and the eagerness to "save" self-proclaimed "Dalit" victims–most of whom are actually comfortably middle-class–the fundamentalists show that they are just religious bigots.
Secondly, organizations are giving in to escalating Muslim demands: for separate "foot-washing baths" and a strict male-female divide in common prayer areas at, for instance, George Mason University. But Christian fundamentalists are afraid of Muslims, because the latter will sue at the drop of a hat and are not averse to violence.
So bigots, being bullies, will attack the meek: that is, the Hindus. Furthermore, they feel their Semitic monotheistic god is somehow superior to the non-anthropomorphic, monist creator of the Hindus. Not at all: as Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) have written recently, the Semitic god is pretty nasty and noxious, in Dawkins’ words, "vindictive, bloodthirsty ... misogynistic, racist, infanticidal …"
This, then, is the sad reality for Hindus in America: unless they stand up and fight for their rights, they will be severely oppressed. In some predominantly white countries like France and Russia, Hinduism is not even recognized as a religion.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Mumbai, India.
No, you cannot judge a society by a few bigots
BY S. GOPIKRISHNA
July 12, 2007 was an interesting first—the United States Senate opened with a Hindu prayer, arguably the first time a non-Abrahamic prayer has been recited in one of the world’s most respected forums. Given America’s recent excess of flirtations with Christian fundamentalism, the occasion symbolized the finest principles of American democracy. The gesture would have won the approval of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and other torchbearers of American equity and equality.
This incident was unfortunately marred by demonstrations from members of the Christian Right, demonstrating little but their arrogance and ignorance. But then haven’t reactionaries opposed everything progressive in history, from lifting race-based quotas in immigration to desegregation in the South?
If one believes in the maxim that history repeats itself, why expect a warm welcome to progress from the self-appointed guardians of nineteenth-century perspectives?
Indeed, we are fortunate that the bigots who disrupted the ceremony lack intellectual credentials and professional clout—a far cry from the days when a president of Dartmouth College wrote letters supporting inculcation of "Christian values" in response to universities eliminating numerical quotas on Jewish students. In 1995, Senator Alfonse D’Amato (New York) had to apologize on the Senate floor for mimicking Asian accents on national radio. Rajan Zed’s prayer comes like a breath of fresh air into a forum where so much disdain has been directed towards minorities.
How negative is this incident when compared with other contemporary events? The fact that Pat Robertson and his ilk have regularly attacked Hinduism citing "freedom of speech" is disturbing, more so when such a fine principle has not resulted in a defense of Hinduism. Topping this is the White House’s own indifference to Hindu festivals. While George Bush officially started celebrating Divali in the White House in 2003, he has always been conspicuously absent from the celebrations. In contrast, Bush has assiduously wooed the Muslim community by arranging Iftar dinners and personally welcoming attendees.
Compared to the aforementioned cannonade of antipathy, the Senate’s inclusion of Hindu prayer is a definite move in the right direction. Presidential candidate Senator Christopher Dodd (Conn.), Senator Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), and a number of other political and religious leaders have declared that they were "honored" and proud to celebrate the Hindu faith with Zed. The magnitude and the implications of this gesture are what we should rejoice in as opposed to lamenting the actions of an ignorant few.
The incident and the reaction are best summed up as an illustration of dogs being able to do little but bark at the elephants that majestically pass them by.
Toronto-based S. Gopikrishna writes on issues relevant to India and Indians.