Hindus lack a sense of collective harm – Vamsee Juluri

Prayag Kumbh 2019

Prof. Vamsee JuluriWhy is it difficult for Hindus as individuals to face the reality that hostile and hateful beliefs and forces exist that threaten Hindus as a collective? Do we lack a sense of collective harm, or collective anything for that matter? – Prof. Vamsee Juluri 

In my earlier article here in Firstpost, I talked about how dropping the word “Hinduphobia” because it allegedly sounds like “Islamophobia” as some Hindu leaders and intellectuals have argued is not a good idea.

One of the points I made in passing was that Hindus are known to be “cheap” which is perhaps why no one has bothered to support a proper, professional Centre for Hinduphobia Studies in a major university in the West or in India which can house rigorous interdisciplinary work that can serve as the foundation for future research, corporate policies, anti-Hinduphobia legislations, etc.

Some readers wondered if “cheap” was a harsh word, and whether the problem is that Hindus in general don’t bother to own a story. While I have anecdotes enough to support my strong word here, I will skip that for now and focus on the bigger picture: Why is it difficult for Hindus as individuals to face the reality that hostile and hateful beliefs and forces exist that threaten Hindus indeed as a collective? Do we lack a sense of collective harm, or collective anything for that matter?

And it’s not even Hindus as Hindus, but maybe even as members of other groups (that also happen to be largely Hindu too) that succumb to this. Some brief, saddening examples.

The tragic murder of Aishwarya Thatikonda in the Texas shopping mall massacre reminded me of another infamous Telugu tragedy from a few years ago.

In early 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla was murdered in a bar in Kansas City. Shortly after, the Oscars ceremony took place, and Hollywood celebrities declared their great and principled opposition to Trump and Islamophobia. Yet, no one mentioned Srinivas, though he was perhaps the first actual victim of that unfortunate climate. And years later, when our own RRR team stood on the stage at the Academy Awards, I wondered, just wondered… would they remember that a whole Oscars night had gone on once evoking the tragedy of a Telugu victim without mentioning his name once? I felt that poignancy as a Telugu. But what are feelings when they don’t add up to anything? Tollywooders, Telugus, Hindus, Indians, we are too happy in general to do anything like a remembrance, let alone a martyr-moment, I suppose.

And naturally, as I mentioned in my earlier article, even in the case of the current caste bill controversy in California, neither the major Telugu nor Tamil organisations here have spoken up although Telugus and Tamils happen to make up a fair amount of the Silicon Valley community., I also found it curious that a major Indian Silicon Valley networking/ investing/mentoring sort of conference was held a few days ago and once again, in spite of some Hindu community leaders being there, somehow the issue of all Indians or South Asians possibly being affected (for better or worse) by the legislation, never came up.

This tells us that perhaps the Hindu organizations spearheading resistance to what they call Hinduphobic policies and politicians seem to have failed to convince the majority of Hindus, and other Indians, that their concerns are real. Even if this is not the case, it has become very easy for anti-Hindu policies and positions to be advanced in mainstream institutions like universities, schools, corporate workplaces, media, and now, legislatures too, by interest groups who can easily pretend that the majority of the Hindus here do not agree with their critics.

The Hindu Communication Gap

This is an incredible gap, going back to the point that we simply do not care to own our stories, even stories that are about our own well-being, safety, and happiness. If the National Geographic or NPR or someone published a piece praising Indian Americans for being rich CEOs, we suck that praise up as if it’s our own achievement. But when big media mainstream absurd-level lies and bigotry about Hindus or Hinduism, many Hindus simply brush it off as if it’s not about them, but someone else, those “bad Hindutvas” or casteists.

Similarly, when we read about a victim of crime or some injustice in America who happens to be Hindu, we avoid connecting it with either the pervasive anti-Hindu propaganda in media, social media, schools and colleges here, or with our own sense of personal vulnerability or alarm.

The Kansas City tragedy, the Alabama police brutality case, numerous vicious attacks, we always take comfort that it wasn’t Hinduphobia but Islamophobia, or generic racism, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are incredibly vulnerable I think to others’ stories, and at the same time, we fear the prospect of producing our stories in a way that explains others and others’ behavior to us very much. Again, in the aftermath of the Srinivas Kuchibhotla tragedy when a bunch of anti-Indian, anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant incidents were happening, I recall someone at a consulate social event saying we should not be saying we should not say “Hinduphobia” because then people will think, oh, Hindus are also now a target (not unlike the argument that some British Hindu leaders have made, I suppose).

I think it is clear that the stories we have, as Indians, Hindus, immigrants, are just things we make up to comfort us, and do not come from a position of intellectual, spiritual or political leadership. We really lack a story about us, to use a phrase, that works, even if we live most of our lives and careers in our own suburban Indian cocoons talking Costco, finance, holidays, kids’ colleges, and so on.

The Laughable Joke of ‘Unity’

Hindu organizations, have of course, tried hard to address this situation, although without the full set of tools to understand the problem. The usual thinking among such groups has been to say that Hindus need “unity”.

Of course, such Hindus have “united” multiple times in spirit and body in retreats, conferences, and so on, but nothing seems to matter beyond this token assembly. It reminds me of a story from many years ago.

When I was in engineering college in the 1980s, I recall my Telugu friends insisting all of us go to see a midnight tent theatre screening of a Chiranjeevi movie suddenly because all the Tamil hostelites had just gone as a group and watched a Rajinikanth movie. We Telugus now had to show “unity”. Both group events may have happened because the movie Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak had just been released and other groups had done mass outings from the hostel for that.

That vision, unfortunately, is where many of our former engineering students from India seem stuck in when conceiving group action in America I think. We can “get together,” but we have no conception of “unity” in messaging, communication, language, image management, accomplishing goals in wider society and so on.

“Unity,” in our community, means to create an illusion of being in a large crowd to assure individual members they are protected and powerful, and to convey, presumably, a message to outsiders that indeed the group is powerful and can protect its members.

Now, this is an utter farce, as far as Hindus, and especially “Hindu Americans” are concerned. Assembling bodies might have had its uses in a pre-internet, pre-smart phone era and even now, in some contexts like rallies or relief work. But in today’s global, virtually interconnected, and hyper-visible, society, it’s the word, the image, the smarts and the quality rather than mere quantity (or illusion thereof) that matters.

And all the more so when the problem is that extremely dangerous and devious psychological warfare strategies are at play against a community of sitting ducks (or dodos). We have to understand this terrain not just politically, but sociologically too.

Vertical Communities, Horizontal Coercions

My study of generations and generational experiences of media and communication makes me now think of “Hindus” and “Hinduism” as less of a collective label for a group in space and more of an attempt at describing a continuity in time. We do tend to think of groups as entities in space, because that is the norm. Now, a group organized around a central ideology about the group and the group’s members, especially about identity, is a group. But a group like “Hindus” is mostly in our own imaginations. Even if all the Hindus in the Kumbh Mela were “united” in one parade ground, we would not function because we are really not a group in the sense of a BLM protest or MAGA rally, at least not because of our identity as “Hindus.”

The truth is that whatever we mean when we say we are Hindus, is really what we have chosen to preserve and pass on to our children from our elders. Details could change, and they have, especially in the last 2-3 generations with intercaste, and inter-sub-caste marriages, migration, media, modern gurus and so on. For example, my grandparents might have focused mainly on Tirumala and Mantralayam as their “Hindu” universe. My parents then added Puttaparthi to that list. And so on, it goes. We are basically ancestral traditions, Hindu micro-nations, as it were.

We still live in these micro-nations, but how we know ourselves is increasingly by outside and outsider labels; caste, nation, group and so on.

This leads me to the second part of this proposition: horizontal coercions. It is fair to say that before “religions” or “organised religions” or “congregational faiths,” the planet was full of basically micro-traditions, stuff people did like their elders before them, that is all.

In just about two thousand years though, we now have found ourselves in a tightly integrated global society where it’s not just trade or culture but actual impulses towards mass control, obedience, and thought that is the norm. Our media studies literature is full of discussions of the rise of “mass society” since the industrial revolution. I think our Hindu resistance literature, Goel-Swarup and others, shows us that the force to compress ancestrally diverse traditions and peoples into massive human armies, literal and otherwise, goes back before that.

So, to put these together: Hindus today have to recognise that they are stuck in a reality where virtually no one other than Hindus (and small indigenous communities here and there) is “vertical,” at least not organically. Most of the planet identifies as Muslim, Christian or, what we might say, “Woke,” because these are identities produced out of dedicated, centralised communication strategies to produce horizontal results.

The horizontal end-goal is important, and the real, laser-sharp, target of any culturally genocidal strategy: break the intergenerational continuity, and you break the “group” (except, of course, for their own, where they ensure intergenerational ideological reproduction through careful in-house management like keeping secular government schooling out, speaking to children with respect, instilling a sense of supremacism and so on).

Todorov’s classic study of Columbus’s “discovery” tells us about how the missionaries had clear instructions on how to ingratiate themselves to the indigenous children’s parents so these children could be isolated, brainwashed, and even used as hostages. A couple of centuries later, the designers of the North American forced boarding schools also tried the same strategy, of “Killing the Indian, Saving the Man,” by essentially tearing children out from their elders’ cultures and words. And to this day it continues, even if not explicitly along lines of religion or race like before, along lines of manufactured identities. Just ask Asra Nomani, for example.

Hindus, therefore, cannot organically think of every other Hindu as their own, because the moment you go beyond biology, every form of group identification has perhaps been created artificially, as nation (the case of Indians born between say 1940s to about 1980) and as (woke) planet (the case of everyone born after, say 1990). So naturally we have the absurdities of “Hindus” here insisting they are “Hindu AMERICANS” (emphasis theirs not mine) and some “Hindus” there back home now insisting they are actually the same thing as “Indians,” that all Indians are Hindus, even if their religion is different, and such. These are acts of political desperation, spawned in a desert of cultural emptiness, that is all.

The truth is that we have to clutch at verbal “We” straws because there really is no “We.” At least not remotely like those whose “we” comes from unrelenting messaging that the world is just “us” and “them.” And, if we conceive of the present as not just one mass of “Hindus” but really as an interaction of say, three to five generations of Hindus each of which have experienced and expressed “Hinduism” (and being “Indian,” being immigrants, being Americans, being children, being parents etc.) at different cultural moments over the last few decades, we can notice things a lot more clearly. There have been much bigger ruptures in Hinduism (temporal, intergenerational) between, say, the parents of the millennials and Gen Z’ers and them, compared to say, the parents of the Nehru-era children and them (equivalent to the U.S. baby boomers roughly).

Stories and Learning

What is the solution, then, to this reality?

Hindus” for the past two or three generations and for most of the modern 20th century, have thought of solutions almost entirely along lines set by colonial existential templates. When you get labeled as part of a group, as say, pagan or kafir or Hindu or cowpiss drinker, and get attacked, murdered, thrown out of your homes, you do tend to realise you are perhaps in a group, or perceived as being in a group, a hated one.

But then, absent central organising or ideology, you go back to your small, micro-nation. The difference of course is that your micro-nation is now only as good or bad as your ancestral affections and intergenerational pedagogical connections. Once it is weakened or gone, as is the case in nature, because elders die, or as is the case in modern culture, because when elders are still here we don’t learn from them enough, we have no “Hinduism” to speak of but only a “horizontal” cipher borrowed from colonial, Protestant, nationalist, liberal, “RW” or whatever template.

This too, has happened alarmingly, especially among the middle and upper classes. Even if many parents now try to “return” their children to tradition, it is extremely difficult.

The places where “indigenous” traditions were born aFirstpostre gone, either because of migration, or because all the old natural markers like trees, rocks, lakes, rivers, vistas, and even shrines have been eviscerated. The people are gone. Most of all, even the attention is gone. Not just children, but parents too. Like the Mesoamerican indigenous parents five hundred years ago, Hindu parents to this day still get sold on the promise of a better future the Horizontalisers promise to give them in their schools. Parents prioritize their children’s lives along today’s “competitive” lines. Half a day a week of “heritage” at best, a desperate antidote-pill after a whole long week of, well, detoxification.

Now, all of this might well seem like the problem, whereas I had promised at least something of a solution.

I think the solution, in a way, lies in our ability to recognise this interplay of the vertical (in time) and horizontal (in space) as it affects our own lives today, and to return to the former at least in our intergenerational conversations.

This means that we have to learn how to tell stories to our children, and also to teach our children how to tell stories too. The latter, the children of today learn anyway. But from school, from marketing companies and celebs, from Instagram reels and “influencers.” And from professional propagandists many of whom are earning a good living destroying ancestral traditions and bonds today.

The crisis today is not just one of “big” political issues like which party to vote, but really of very small things, like what “amruthavakkulu” your precious children and grandchildren will learn to “paluku” in their lifetimes even after you are gone. These amruthavakkulu (words of immortality) will be words to adorn Krishna and Rama and Ammavaru as our elders did, but then they also have to be words to burn like a blazing axe through the lies of our world today.

Surviving, even living, actually, is going to need not just stories about the gods, but the stories about the world of today that has smashed and sneered at the gods for too long now.

Hindu parents simply can’t package children’s attention in the small time they have together as parents and children into “Secular-Career” story-paths (do engineering/medicine, avoid liberal arts, trust meritocracy to reward you with lot of money) and “religion/heritage” stories (remember how Rama was a good manager when you walk into your C-suite office, beta!). We need stories that will inspire our descendants to remember us and our names with love when it is Pitru-Paksha. That is survival. That alone is survival.

In the next article, I will write more about the science and art of story-telling and how we can make this our own once again. – Firstpost, 16 May 2023

› Prof. Vamsee Juluri teaches Media Studies, University of San Francisco. He has authored several books, including Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence (Westland, 2015).