Hinduism, Unitarianism, and Appropriation By Amit Mehta

2017 July 23
by DoMC

Hinduism, Unitarianism and Appropriation

Summer Sermon, First Unitarian Congregation Society of Brooklyn

Amit Mehta

July 23, 2017


I met my wife Marci over thirteen years ago.  She had grown up Catholic and dabbled with UU as a young adult.  I had been raised Hindu by my mother, but mostly outside of religious community.  Neither of us was practicing any religion at the time. 

In the years that followed, Marci and I traveled to India together.  We visited Hindu temples.  She became part of my family.  She met my Mom who had first taught me about Hinduism and her Mom, who had taught her in turn.  Marci participated in Hindu rituals, including our marriage. Recently, while preparing for this sermon, I woke to realize that in many ways she has become more Hindu than I am.  Most of my temple visits since 2008 have been at her urging.  She is the one who enjoys the prayer chants, while I sometimes need to take a break outside.  She frequents raga music shows, a musical genre rooted in Vedic chants of Hindu prayer, which she discovered on her own.  I mean to go, but I rarely do.  She started a household tradition of pre-meal prayer, leading with the Hindu word for God, “Bhagavan.”  She led.  I followed.

Go figure.  My Catholic-raised wife is now a critical pillar of and anchor for my Hindu identity.  She will probably play a greater role than I will in teaching our daughters about Hinduism.  And it will be her Hinduism, a version that she has appropriated, not just from my extended family and ancestral land but also from experiences which she sought out on her own, to which she later introduced me.

In a Hindu spirit, I want to try to capture this with a passage from the Rigveda, aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah, let noble thoughts come to me from everywhere and all directions.”  And in that same spirit, I want to follow with a passage from the Unitarian Universalist beliefs and principles, that the sources of our living tradition include “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life.”

In other words, we are explicitly a polyglot religion, by which I mean a religion that draws from the world’s religions, each of which individually has long roots and a longer history.  The composite is beautifully kluged together, but it is kluged.  The Unitarian Universalist lens has evolved over the past two centuries.  Through its attempt to reconcile Protestant Christianity with biblical criticism and then with Darwin, to infuse it with a politically liberal spirit, to cross denominational boundaries, and eventually to grow beyond its Christian roots and become not just multi-religious but also to honor and incorporate spiritual traditions whose living followership peaked long ago.  For many of us, myself included, this is an important attraction of Unitarian Universalism.

The idea of appropriation conjures problematic images – Karlie Kloss wearing a native American headdress with a bikini to advertise Victoria’s Secret, or, looking further back, Elvis Presley receiving the lion’s share of credit for a genre rooted in poor African American communities of the rural south.  Appropriation, when you claim something as yours, is a tricky business, to put it mildly.

And with that, I’ll get right to the point: our self-identification as a polyglot religion means we must appropriate

If we claim the world’s religions as our wisdom sources, we’re saying something affirmative, that we can read, hear, interpret and apply the texts of the world’s religions even if we live outside their native cultural settings.  I’ll repeat this for emphasis, because it sounds innocent but is actually controversial: we can read, hear, interpret and apply the texts of the world’s religions even if we live outside their native cultural settings. 

By native cultural setting, I don’t mean to imply all real Hindus must live in ancient India or all real Muslims and Christians must live in the ancient Middle East, nor do I mean to suggest these traditions are frozen in time rather than living and evolving.  I mean that you have a line of continuity towards those times for at least a generation or two.  My great grandparents, grandparents and parents were raised to self-identify as Hindu, and I was so raised even if in the United States and surrounded by Western and Christian influences.  Hence, I’ll call my Hindu cultural setting “native,” even if just barely so.  I think we can all agree that for most of you, your experience of Hinduism occurs outside a native cultural setting. 

This creates a tension, that we, as Unitarian Universalists, are well aware of:  As Christopher Walton, editor of UU World points out, “A persistent feature of Unitarian Universalist denominational life has been a debate about the propriety of adopting or adapting texts and practices of other religions for use by Unitarian Universalists; in these debates, all sides agree that Unitarian Universalists are currently engaged in such syncretism.”  To cite some ready examples, I point to

  • the global religious symbols on display in our Boulder CO church, where Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, Jewish and Muslim symbols decorate the walls
  • Celebration of the Hindu holidays Holi, Divali and Janmashtami in our Manhattan church the Community Church of New York
  • the book collection in our library upstairs, where we have books on all of the world’s today-major religions and on some today-smaller ones 

I’ll also cite Ana’s wonderfully executed incorporation of the Hindu story of Karna in the Mahabharata in her May 14 sermon, when she used a Hindu story about the relationship between people and the earth to illustrate the theme of environmental stewardship.  We don’t get to have it both ways: we are either exclusivist or appropriators

I’m reminded of the Mahatma Gandhi who owned, among his few possessions, a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran and the Bible.  On one occasion, he told an angry Hindu nationalist crowd “I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew and so are all of you.” 

Of course, when the Indian Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah heard of this, he retorted, “only a Hindu could say that.”  That could just as well be said of a Unitarian Universalist.  The retort is powerful. 

Appropriation does not mean we accept something as it’s existing practitioners intend.  Very often, we don’t.  For us, there is a thing called a UU lens, informed by our seven principles, which articulate our search for social justice, our compassion for all including the perpetrators of injustice, our respect for the right of conscience, our priority on good environmental stewardship, and our upholding the guidance of reason and science.  Appropriation for us means looking, necessarily through our UU lens, and then processing, reflecting, integrating and radiating, sometimes critically.  Christianity through a UU lens is one in which Christ’s divinity is not a given, no one is damned, and New Testament miracles need not be historical.  Now this is not really appropriation, since Unitarian Universalism grew out of Protestant Christianity.  However, now let’s take Hinduism: a Hinduism based on its texts and literature, with its rituals, imagery, and divinities downplayed – in short, the version articulated by the well known Unitarian Henry David Thoreau – may be a version of Hinduism viewed through a UU lens.  While my parents may not agree, I look at that, and I say it’s not bad.  It’s pretty much what I would expect, indeed what I would need in my spiritual home.

Continuing on this modern twist on liberal spirituality are the hyphens.  The Jewish-UUs, Pagan-UUs, Hindu-UUs, Buddhist-UU, athiest-UUs, and, of course, the non-hyphenated UUs who were raised in our church.  While a broad spectrum of liberal organizations and missions celebrate diversity of ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age and physical ability, I really think that we alone celebrate diversity of religious origin.  In that way we are something like a religious melting pot.  We appropriate not just by looking out at the world’s texts but by welcoming as members people raised in those traditions. 

Creating a home for hyphens may demand that we appropriate.  I can only speak for myself on this: I am here, as a member of this congregation, because we appropriate Hinduism.  I am here and not at a Hindu temple because I appreciate what the UU tradition and lens have to offer, a tradition that is rationally grounded, critical, introspective and experimental.  But all the same, as much as I need a liberal spiritual home, I need it to acknowledge the faith I was raised in.  I have no compunction about any mistakes made in this appropriation; not trying is worse.  I understand this is a good faith effort, also that our view on Hinduism is necessarily through a UU lens, as Thoreau’s appropriation was.  I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t expect that.  In short, our Unitarian Universalist congregation is my spiritual home because it tries to appropriate Hinduism, even if only every now and then.

In fact, the hyphens allow us to go one better on Emerson and Thoreau.  He studied Hindu texts, but he didn’t grow up Hindu.  Some of us did.  I was very happy to suggest Hindu examples when Ana reached out in advance of her May 14 sermon.

I have heard retorts that it’s unfair to expect our leaders to know enough about non-Western religions, that it would be better to have practitioners come and give guest sermons.  It’s a good effort, but it’s just a beginning.  A guest who comes once is not really part of the UU fabric, is not  looking through the UU lens that defines us.  For instance, we accept God with a capital “G” in our guest presentations in Islam and Hinduism.  But we don’t accept this in our our “own” presentations on Judaism or Christianity, where god must have a lowercase “g” to ensure we accommodate belief in many gods, one god, or no gods.  In doing this, we grant the guests freedom from the UU lens, a freedom we neither seek nor grant ourselves.  The fact that these guests are not UU creates a safe distance, keeping us as passive observers rather than actively engaged.  Instead, we listen with a disinterested curiosity, rather like we view exhibits in museums or watch movies.  That relegates the guest to the status of an interlude from our daily spiritual lives, like a “study break” rather than part of the course of study.  That’s not good enough.  We cannot have it both ways.  Either we draw actively from non-Christian, non-Jewish traditions or we don’t.  If we draw actively, that means we see them through a UU lens, we take some lessons, and we weave them into the the tapestry that we call ours.  That means we don’t view only at a safe distance. 

All that said, the guest sermons are a promising start.  If we can hear a guest speak through our lenses and learn from it, we can process, synthesize and articulate.  And if we can do that, it’s a small step to articulating through sermons inside the church.  And in taking that step, we appropriate.

I don’t mean to deny that we’re on slippery ground.  In fact, the reason this is interesting is that we are.  Acts of appropriation have caused economic and cultural damage and spiritual offense, things we of all people should strive to avoid. 

Appropriated imagery has been used to propagate negative stereotypes, especially if with intent to refute or ridicule.  Katy Perry’s geisha garb comes to mind, as she uses it to reinforce the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman.  We can also look to the history of our own church, in the late 1700’s, when Joseph Priestly, the British Unitarian minister, took an interest in Hinduism as a plundering soldier, reading to search for excerpts to use in proving Christianity’s superiority to the “heathen religions.”  I can look to my personal history, as a child growing up in Texas around Southern Methodists who asserted that Hinduism had Satanic roots.  In this, my first encounter with Christianity, I responded in kind, looking to Christian ideas as a plundering soldier, searching for ideas I could use to prove Hinduism’s superiority.

Even more dangerous, an appropriated version of culture can distort if seen by others, including insiders, to be the native version.  This is especially dangerous when the appropriator is favored by an imbalance of economic, political, military or demographic power.  Edward Said in his magnum opus “Orientalism” discusses precisely this distortion of Arab culture by the Western training of a privileged class.  This privileged class thus internalized Western stereotypes about Arabs before returning to leadership positions at home.  Looking further back, much of modern Christianity was forged through an attempt by the Roman emperor Constantine to appropriate Christian symbols, religion and monotheism to legitimize his rule, an experience that had world historical importance.  More recently, the very Hinduism I grew up with was probably significantly impacted by the process of British colonial appropriation – including the Indian Hindu defense against the Christian missionary arm of the British colonial project. 

We can play this forward: I’ll take my UU experience – including my UU experience of Hinduism – and I will invariably, knowingly and consciously weave it into conversations with my nieces and nephews in India.  And in that way, appropriation will travel back into a native Hindu community and can distort.  This is the seed of precisely what people worry about, when a majority culture takes from a minority one, reinterprets it, and projects its own interpretation with enough power to displace the original.  We don’t have that kind of power – we’re a bit fringy ourselves – but we nonetheless fear that, despite our best intentions, we may unwittingly contribute a little to this kind of distortion.

But there is another model.  The Unitarian Minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson, infused Protestant Christianity with Hindu influences about relating to God introspectively, through the divine within us, who speaks to us and is part of us.  “I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita,” he wrote.  “It was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.”  Yes, he read Hindu texts in a different cultural context, arguably out of context, and yes, he certainly interpreted things differently from the sages of India.  He never thought himself a Hindu; he continued to self-identify as a Unitarian Protestant Christian, and he fit whatever lessons he took from the Gita into that framework.  Nonetheless, Hindus heard Emerson’s interpretation of Protestant Christianity and responded. For instance the Bengali Hindu leader Pratap Munder Mozoomdar remarked, “In whomsoever the eternal Brahma breathed his unquenchable fire, he was the Brahman.  And in that sense Emerson was the best of Brahmans…  He seems to some of us to have been a geographical mistake.”  Maybe, through our appropriation, we may contribute a little to this kind of exchange.  Even if none of us approach the impact of a Ralph Waldo Emerson, maybe we can contribute a tiny step in that direction, not to a harmful distortion but to an inspiring synergy. 

Edward Said warned of the dangers of cultural appropriation, but he didn’t call for cultures to insulate from one another.  Quite the opposite, he emphasized that cultures – including religious cultures – overlap, interconnect, and evolve together, and have much to learn from one another.  It’s in this spirit that I assert we can be responsible stewards, as of the environment also of our wisdom sources.  Our audience, our community is self-selected to want a Unitarian Universalist lens on our spiritual life, so I think it natural that we encounter our wisdom sources through this lens.  We are a spiritual home, a place of sacred symbols, and I trust that any Hindu symbols used would be well treated.  If we listen with intent to understand – in contrast to listening selectively, like a plundering soldier, with intent to refute or ridicule – then I think to try is better than not to try.  To appropriate is better than to keep a safe distance from what is “not ours.”  And those are our only two options.

We come full circle to the Hindu excerpt I started with: “Let noble thoughts come to us from everywhere and all directions.”  Let them come.  They are *our* wisdom sources, as we’ve written into our beliefs and principles, so we must want them here.  And if we want to invite them in, we have to trust ourselves to appropriate them responsibly.  And if we so trust ourselves, we should appropriate with confidence and without apology.

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