THE BLOG
08/11/2014 05:07 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2014

Civilizational Partners and Equals: What Narendra Modi Means for American Hindus

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This post was my contribution to the Patheos 2014 Religious Trends series. It was written in response to the following question: What Does the election of Indian PM Narendra Modi mean for American Hindus?

The election of Narendra Modi as the 15th Prime Minister of India has raised the international profile of the country's controversial Bharata Janata Party. While Mr. Modi's victory is largely seen as positive for the Indian economy, there are widespread concerns about the future of the complex religious and cultural tapestry of the subcontinent. Are such concerns justified? Will the defeat of the Congress Party and the rise of the BJP lead to a rise in sectarianism and the marginalization of non-Hindus? What does this new political atmosphere mean for the Hindu American community?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's victory cannot be reduced to fit a simplistic narrative about religious fundamentalism. Such a narrative is less a reflection of reality than the narrowness of the intellectual bandwidth conventionally used to frame international news coverage. It ignores the complexities of Indian history and identity, the civilizational place of India in world affairs, and most of all, the struggles and hopes of the American Hindu community with all its ethnic, linguistic, class, and generational diversity.

The present media consensus seems to be that Prime Minister Modi may be good for India's economy, but not so good for India's multi-religious fabric that was supposedly cherished and protected by the Congress party for six decades. Although it is tempting to project a simple American Left-Right political framework on to India, it is inaccurate to assume the Congress stands for progressive values and the underdog while the BJP represents religious conservatives and the rich. Indian politics is more complex. Identity politics, based not only on religion (Hindu and Muslim), but also caste, region, and language, have played a powerful role in India for decades now, and the Congress has hardly been above profiting electorally from them. The Congress party may have shared its early history with Mahatma's lofty ideals of representing all Indians while the BJP may have come from the opposite end (in its earlier avatar) as a Hindu nationalist organization. Today, the situation is different. Prime Minister Modi's position may well be the new center in Indian politics, and the 'growth or secularism' dichotomy is simply untrue.

The reality is that India is exhausted equally by superficial civilizational rivalries as it is by civilizational denial of the sort that the Congress's skewed secularism has come to be identified with. Narendra Modi's rise is related to both. In its present form, his position affirms a deeper Indian civilizational commitment to religious pluralism and co-existence, and will not disturb India's constitutional commitment to secularism.

At the same time, Mr. Modi's victory symbolizes a sense of civilizational restoration in Hindu identity. It was clear in the way he addressed the nation from the banks of the Ganga in the sacred city of Varanasi soon after winning the election. The symbolism cannot be interpreted as a mere nativist assertion of Hindu supremacism over minorities though. In many ways, the political symbolism of religion is different in India from the United States. In American politics, a president has to be seen going to church, even if he doesn't necessarily believe in the process. In India, it was almost the opposite. No leader from the majority religion could be seen asserting his religiosity for fear of seeming un-secular, until now. India's first and perhaps most influential Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was nominally Hindu but secularized to the point of even rejecting his mentor Mahatma Gandhi's deeply religious vision for a more progressive and just world.

Mr. Modi's Hindu symbolism has to be seen in this light. Hinduism and even Hindu nationalism, such as that embodied by Mr. Modi, have come a long way in the wake of difficult political circumstances created by colonialism, partition, and postcoloniality. The civilizational ideal that Narendra Modi represents for most Hindus today, in India, and quite likely in the diaspora too, is the idea of a Hinduism which is universal (remains respectful of all faiths, a fact seen in his campaign manifesto and speeches), progressive (against casteism, as seen in Modi's humble lower-caste origins, for one thing), and rooted in intelligence as a guiding force for solving the world's problems (rather than brute force or blind faith). To those with predisposed views, Modi's campaign speeches might have appeared dramatic and rhetorical. But to those knowledgeable about Indian cultural nuances, they were anything but the ranting of an angry fundamentalist. Modi's words were respectful, insightful and evocative of a very Indian sort of intelligence, practical, and yet, ethical too.

For Hindus in America, Modi's leadership will mark a promising opportunity to bring faith, culture, nation, and world together. There is a great deal of hope riding on what he does, not only for India, but also for symbolizing a Hinduism that is modern, strong, and still true to its universalism and respect for all faiths. In some ways, the Hindu American community has been tied deeply into the image of Narendra Modi by media discourses long before he even became the Prime Minister. For several years, Hindus in America have faced an embarrassing amount of disdain and prejudice in some intellectual and journalistic circles under the guise of opposition to Mr. Modi and Hindu nationalism. While there might have been genuine concern about militant identity politics in India from Hindu extremists and from others, the supposedly liberal-secular movement against Modi escalated into an enormous crusade against even mainstream Hindus and Hinduism. Movies like Slumdog Millionaire, the US press coverage of the 2008 Pakistani terrorist attacks on India, and more recently even a report on sanitation problems in India, bizarrely and inaccurately singled out Hinduism and Hindus as superstitious and violent.

US school books and some important academic experts all continue to propagate colonial-era racist stereotypes and myths about Hindus, and the Hindu American community's efforts to address these problems have been inevitably dismissed by a haughty "you're with us or you're a fundamentalist" disdain.

Modi's visit to the United States comes just one year before we mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark immigration legislation of 1965 that has created the diverse global microcosm we take for granted in America today. The first generation of Hindu immigrants are aging, their children are becoming parents, and new visitors, students, and workers are coming in. Temples, volunteerism, and interfaith dialogue are becoming a part of the Hindu American landscape. The major challenge that remains though is need for the emergence of a Hindu public voice that can negotiate the hopes of America, India, and indeed the whole world in the best way possible. It has not happened so far because in spite of the nominal acceptance of Hindus in American life, Hinduism is still barely understood in America on the terms of Hindus ("borrowed" Hinduism, is of course, a much larger phenomenon now, seeping everywhere as Yoga, Kirtan, and other intercultural delights; it is wonderful, and self-relativization is educational in many ways, but it's important to remember that Hinduism cannot be taken off by some Hindus when they leave the Yoga studio, it is existential!)

We often forget today with all the concerns about the rise of Hindu nationalism that Hinduism is a survivor religion. The oldest generation of Hindus living in the world today are people born as second class citizens, when India was a British colony, some in near-slavery conditions in plantations all around the globe. Even when India gained independence, the politics of partition and postcolonial confusion deterred an active public engagement and debate about Hinduism. In some ways, it was as if centuries of stunted growth exploded all at once in recent times in India; at first, it was as ugly politics, as nothing more than the sometimes violent slogans of religious pride and exclusivism. But now, somehow, it appears to have expressed itself in a far more sophisticated, organic, and inclusive manner. At the apex of that expression, or at least amidst the hopes about it, is India's new Prime Minister. He represents an India, and indeed, a new world too that is only emerging, a world of civilizational partners, and equals.