The US Senate has a long tradition of opening with Bible prayers, occasionally extending a symbolic courtesy to prayers of other faiths. For the first time in its history a Hindu priest was invited to conduct the opening prayer. Indian-Americans, having contributed immensely to America, naturally felt proud to be afforded equal respect alongside other American religions. But the Hindu prayer was attacked as an ?abomination? by hate-filled heckling that resulted from an organised mobilisation by civic groups such as the American Family Association attempting, to demonise Hinduism as heathen, immoral and dangerously un-American.
The President of the Family Research Council mobilised Americans to block the Hindu priest, saying: ?There is no historic connection between America and the polytheistic creed of Hinduism.? David Barton, one of the scholars informing the attackers, declared that Hinduism was ?not a religion that has produced great things in the world,? citing social conditions in India as proof of its primitiveness.
The denigration of Hinduism influences the way Americans relate to Indians. Andrew Rotter, an American historian, in his book on the US foreign policy'stilt against India and towards Pakistan during the Nehru era, cites declassified documents revealing US presidents? and diplomats? suspicions of Hinduism.
They regarded ?Hindu India? as lacking morality and integrity, and its ?grotesque images? reminded them of previous pagan faiths conquered by Christians, such as Native Americans. American ideas about India are intertwined with stereotypes about Hinduism.
There are domestic implications concerning the diaspora as well. The great American meritocracy has enabled us to succeed as individuals, and many Indians see American Jews as a role model. But it took the Jews over half a century of organised lobbying and litigation by organisations such as the Anti-Defamation League, to establish their religious identity in public life. The lesson Jews had learnt in the European Holocaust was that their individual success could easily be used against them if their civilizational identity was defamed. Indians also faced hate crimes in New Jersey when the Dotbusters targeted Hindus. Recent rants by Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs generate xenophobia against Indians for ?stealing? jobs from ?real? (i.e. white Judeo-Christian) Americans. As Indian-Americans stand out for their individual success, while US economic standards deteriorate, we may one day regret having neglected the projection of a positive civilizational image. Unlike many other ethnic and religious groups, we have not adequately engaged US universities, schools, media and think-tanks deeper than the pop culture layer of cuisine, Bollywood and fashions. On the contrary, many Indian writers have fed the ?caste, cows, curry? images of India.
Hindu-Americans need to be educated on the history of American public religion and the ?American way? of claiming one'sreligious identity across the spectrum of liberals and conservatives. In fact, even liberal Americans have always been a very Christian people. Hilary Clinton'sdevout Christianity has shaped her liberalism. She told New York Times that her Methodist faith has been ?a huge part of who I am, and how I have seen the world and what I believe in, and what I have tried to do in my life.? She carries a Bible on her campaign travels and confidently quotes from St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley, the father of Methodism. Another liberal, Barak Obama, proudly projects his Christianity and delivers many of his key campaign speeches before church congregations. It comes as a surprise to many secular Indians that the very liberal President Jimmy Carter describes himself as a Bible evangelist, and asserts that his Christian faith provided the moral compass to guide his presidency.
Liberalism in America is about egalitarian economic and race policies, and is not a rejection or even a departure from the nation'smajority religion, i.e. Christianity. The equivalent scenario would be for India'sCPM leaders (the liberal/left equivalent of Obama, Clinton and Carter) to quote Hindu sacred texts and deliver campaign speeches in major Hindu temples. While American labor unions have always been very deeply rooted in Christianity, India'slabor unions are encouraged to discard the Hindu identity. Unlike in Europe, American public life has never abandoned its deep rooted Christian foundations. America'sseparation of state and church affects only formal institutions, and does not imply de-Christianising the leadership or the national ethos.
Indian intellectuals have misunderstood America'sChristian psyche because the Indian notion of secularism in India is very different to that of the American. Indian secularism requires distancing from the majority religion, i.e. Hinduism, by one or more of the following ways: by espousing a ?generic spirituality? without any specific religious identity, by condemning any Hindu identity as a mark of communalism with BJP links, or by explicitly blaming Hinduism for all sorts of human rights problems. The equivalent situation would be to blame the Bible for all the US abuses in Guantanamo and in its domestic society, and to de-Christianise America into a sort of generic spirituality. While Hinduism, like all other world religions, does have social problems, it also has internally generated reformations, as well as immense resources to deal with the human condition.
Unraveling this requires understanding Hinduphobia'snexus in the American academy and seminaries. This is the subject of a well-researched eye-opening new book, titled, Invading the Sacred: An analysis of Hinduism Studies in America. (See: www.invadingthesacred.com for details.) The book exposes influential scholars who have disparaged the Bhagavad Gita as ?a dishonest book?; declared Ganesha'strunk a ?limp phallus?; classified the Hindu Devi as the ?mother with a penis? and Shiva as ?a notorious womanizer? who incites violence in India; pronounced Sri Ramakrishna a pedophile who sexually molested the young Swami Vivekananda; condemned Indian mothers as being less loving of their children than white women; and interpreted the bindi as a drop of menstrual fluid and the ?ha? in sacred mantras as a woman'ssound during orgasm. To understand the hatred spewed at us by the Senate hecklers one needs to understand the systemic creation and distribution of such one-sided ?data? by an army of ?scholars? whose mission is to bolster the image of Hinduism as a danger to the American way of life.