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Nose Deep in Their Own... Prejudice: Hinduism and The New York Times' Sewage Problem

07/21/2014 09:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2014
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What might have been an excellent piece of reporting on an important public-health concern in India has turned out instead to be one of the most absurd, far-fetched, and ugly pieces of Hinduphobic racism in journalism ever.

After being told for several years now that Hinduism is to blame for everything in India from the gang rape of women to the mere questioning of Wendy Doniger's strange claims, The New York Times now reveals to us that it is "some ancient Hindu texts" that are at least partly responsible for unhygienic excretory practices and diseases in modern India. As further proof of this incredible thesis, we are also told that Muslim children have a better survival rate because they are discriminated against and forced to live in separate slums, safe from the Hindus' less-hygienic habitats. Even the opening line of the article evokes a picture of Hindu superstition, spelling out the sad story of a boy whose mother's attempts to ward off the "evil eye" have obviously failed to stop the disease from coming. The point of the article seems to be this:

Hindus don't use toilets because it's against their religion, and it's spreading disease.

Once again, let us remind ourselves. This is not some 18th-century colonizer's pamphlet tucked in between bio-warfare blankets. It is The New York Times, and in the year 2014 at that.

And of course, given The New York Times' eminence, a reader in the comments section has already asked the only question left to ask by such an argument: Do you have any recommendations on which religion I ought to convert to from Hinduism? Should it be Islam or Christianity? The irony, of course, appears to have been lost.

The tragedy of this new low in Hinduphobic fantasizing is that the concerns the article raises are very important ones (see Dr. Raman Khanna's critique "The New York Times' Fecal Load of Hinduphobia" here). When an important journalistic institution like the Times devotes the resources needed to place a professional on the field in South Asia, and devotes all the diligence required to produce an otherwise well-informed analysis of a serious and tragic public-health concern, why is it so difficult to pause and consider how damaging, and indeed self-defeating, this kind of bizarre and baseless commentary might be? Does a journalist not have a professional responsibility to ascertain facts? Is there the slightest evidence anywhere -- anthropological, journalistic, historical, or even anecdotal -- that Hindus follow some kind of ancient religious code in deciding where to do their thing? Can a self-respecting writer seriously expect to get away with an assertion like that?

I would still like to think that it is not "intentional" racism that perhaps leads someone to make claims of such an absurdly racist nature. As a media scholar writing about a media professional's actions here, it would not be appropriate for me to assume what his personal intentions might have been. Let us therefore presume for a moment that there is indeed some connection between Hinduism and public disease in India; there are a lot of Hindus in India, and there is a lot of sanitation-related disease going around in India, just like how there are a lot of people of many different religions in the world, and there are a lot of different diseases going around in the world. Now, if the health issue in question were one directly related to a religious practice, like, let us say, a condition related to a religiously sanctioned dietary custom (food coma and Christmas, let us say, for fun), then the claim of a religion and health connection would stand and would be worth debating seriously.

But Hinduism and where one goes to toilet?

I have yet to think of a time when I heard any of India's 1 billion Hindus say, "Let's go squat by that river, where God X once went," or, "Let's not go to that World Bank-built plumbing contraption, where God Y told us not to."

In fact, the only toilet-related custom I have heard of is that you wash not only your hands but also your feet after you go -- a bit of a contradiction with that old Sesame Street song that goes something like, "We wash our hands before we eat, but we don't wash our feet before we eat" -- a point that sometimes led to productive cross-cultural debates with my grandmother. (The insistence was probably a relic from the days when they all used to eat on the floor and not on dining tables.)

The point is this:

We have had hygiene inscribed into our bodies, minds and lives in ways that today's Hinduphobic discourse cannot understand and, equally sadly, India's present infrastructure cannot support. It is unfortunate that some of the most obvious facts have to be stated aloud here, but think about it. Have you seen an Indian concert with a mosh pit up front? Have you seen a Bollywood song with images of dark, dirty toilets like those '90s grunge music videos? The only example one might think of is the sewage-jumping scene in Slumdog Millionaire, which, frankly, had less to do with India than the fantasy world of a media culture that has, among other things, depicted the glory of a junky plunging into a filthy bar's filthy toilet to retrieve his stash, and, of course, consummated reunion with human waste in adorable antics like "poo-diving."

I am mixing real life and movies and television for a reason. The Hindu sense of the sacred, the aesthetic, and cleanliness are all deeply rooted in our history. We might have a serious infrastructural crisis in India today when it comes to sanitation, but it is not a cultural issue. We are not drawn to filth, not even in our movies, and much less in real life. We had a Great Bath in Mohenjo-daro when people elsewhere were presumably still dealing with Great Bogs. We had hygiene, and we had religion. Each had its place, and today, trodden badly under the circumstances of postcolonial degradation and apathy, somehow each still survives, somewhat.

The real danger of the Times' most recent cheap shot at Hinduism is not so much that it perpetuates an old Katherine Mayo-style arrogance about the heathens and hurts modern Indians' self-perception. It perpetuates something far worse, something that is historically and at least partially and indirectly responsible for the terrible sanitary conditions that millions of people in India face today. It is not Hinduism but Hinduphobia that has caused this mess, for Hinduphobia is no mere attitude problem. Like racism, like orientalism, it is a vast and centuries-old complex of lies, projections, deceptions, hypocricies, and cruelties, as well as actions, aggressions, and policies that have severely damaged, if not completely destroyed, an enormous civilizational investment in a sense of propriety over self, body, other, society, and nature. You can call that Hinduism, or Indian civilization, or maybe just good sense as it once existed in most parts of Earth. But the truth is this: Four hundred years of colonialism (maybe more, depending on how you wish to analyze this, and how honestly you wish to analyze this) have broken humanity's ways of being in nature and with nature in more ways than today's mass-mediated pop-culture common sense can hold a light up to.

If you were to read Hindu thought, read it seriously, from the Upanishads through the Gita all the way to its most recent interpreters, whether Vivekananda or the Mahatma, you will find a civilization dedicated to nothing less than mastery over one's own self, to the cultivation of an exalted sense of spirit rooted not in superstition or tall tales of mythical afterlives but simply in the duties and obligations of the present, duties and obligations that are as much about the material, the social, and the civic as they are about the spiritual and the mystical.

To put it in simple terms: Hindu scriptures don't stoop to spell out where to go, how to go, or how often to go, but they will inspire you to celebrate your intelligence, your vast potential as a sentient being to apprehend all nature's ways and rhythms, so you will be able to use your reason, not blind belief, to practice all parts of life and living, including hygiene, in the best way possible.

And yet, it is true that the present we live in today is dismal. Hygiene in India is a personal privilege rather than a civic reality. What are the reasons for this? We cannot pretend the last 400 years of colonialism and plunder did not take place and simply say, "This is the way it always is in the benighted third world." At the same time, we cannot blame Europe or America for the way things are now; that is a reality too. But throwing aside all the Marxism-hued dreams of smashing imperialism on one hand, or free-market fantasies of shopping malls and airports popping up everywhere and lifting the world out of poverty on the other, we have to recognize the persistence of one massive, ugly, pernicious cause, a disease of the heart and of the mind as foul as the stench of the sewage that stains the water of the Ganga.

Hinduphobia is a reality, and it is a problem.

You have to understand one thing now: If India has to clean up its act again, both literally and culturally, you will have to recognize that this persistent and totally baseless denigration of its intellectual and civilizational heritage is not going to help. You perhaps cannot fathom how low the spiritual morale and civilizational imagination of an ancient people is when they have to settle for something like this planet-heating, plastic-shedding global capitalism, for these trinkets of selfish material gratification in islands of gated-community prosperity surrounded by impoverished slums and villages suffocating in sewage. No. If India's "elites" have abdicated their responsibility to its masses since the 1990s, as critics claim, if India's masses have no room to go each day, all of this is not a sign of some religious underdevelopment. It is the outcome of a massive denial of cultural, philosophical and spiritual self-sovereignty, first by British colonialism and then by Hinduphobia disguised as secularism.

Mahatma Gandhi warned us about blindly copying modernity's violence and spiritual denial in Hind Swaraj. His prescription might have sounded too anti-modern, a village fantasy, perhaps, not strong enough on fighting the injustice of caste (and yet stronger than most Hindus' position at that time). But the goal is still the same. It is swa-raj (self-rule). That's what India has always been about, for all and not just for some.

And if achieving that will mean completely refuting, rejecting, resisting, and indeed flushing Hinduphobia out of the minds of civilized society and respectable conversation, so be it, thathastu. What The New York Times and its stunted vision does not yet recognize is that what we are doing right now is nothing less than remaking our minds, our hearts, our deepest sense of what it means to be sovereign over ourselves again. And this is not some right-wing imperial fantasy about some ancient glory past. Every issue in India is not about Hindus and Muslims, except in the loopy, divide-and-denigrate universe of The New York Times.

The present moment in Hindu history is about India, and it is about what it means to be in the world as a human, an agent of history, and a sentient being capable of seeing suffering and ending it. The civilizational aspiration that exists in India today ceased to be a fantasy the day Narendra Modi stood at the banks of the Ganga in Kashi and said public sanitation is how this will all begin. It may be a fantastically difficult task to undo what centuries of colonialism or 66 years of post-independence malaise, apathy and corruption have done to India. But today's India is speaking about its soul again in a way it has not done in a very long time. The real decolonization is beginning now.