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Obama's Inaugural Gesture to Hindu America

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"The One" is now President and has already done one nice thing no President apparently did before. The newest of messiahs has acknowledged the oldest of religions. He mentioned Christians, Muslims, Jews, and non-believers. And he mentioned Hindus. Those are the words on the front page of today's Times of India, here.

It is easy to see the naming of a religion in so spectacular a forum as political recognition for its members. TheTelegraph, from Kolkata, notes that this Presidential "first" represents an acknowledgment of the accomplishments and contributions of Hindu-Americans to the country. I believe though that this is only one part of it. There is more than the demographic reality of those of Hindu faith in America that is being acknowledged. What is more important perhaps is the recognition of some of the noble ideals that religions (or the equivalent worldviews of "non-believers") can stand for.

I think that Obama's mentioning of some of the world's great religions can be seen as recognition not just of the people who follow them, but more universally the fact that religion is an immense cultural resource that human beings have used to co-exist, serve one another, and give meaning to the world for hundreds, if not thousands of years. I know that such a view of religion may seem incredibly optimistic, since we are only too aware of the terrible things that have happened in its name. In fact, history, as we know it, seems to be nothing more than a series of brutal wars many of which we often consider "religious." However, the following words by Mahatma Gandhi may give us a slightly different take:

History as we know it is a record of the wars of the world ... but... if this were all that happened in the world, it would have ended long ago. If the story of the universe had commenced with wars, not a man would have been found alive today....The fact that there are so many men alive in the world still alive today shows that it is not based on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love."

We don't often think of history this way, but there is something to be said for the role of "the force of truth or love" that has perhaps kept the world from totally destroying itself until now. Gandhi was well aware that this "force" was not necessarily confined to one religion, or to even organized religion in general. Sometimes, this "force" arises in spite of religion, but perhaps sometimes it arises because of it too.

So when Obama included "Hindu" in his address, I saw it as a recognition for whatever good Hinduism has stood for and for whatever good it can continue to do. I saw it as a recognition that was needed, because despite the spread of interest in yoga and spirituality in America, there have also been persistent misconceptions about Hinduism, particularly in the media. Some difficulties are understandable, because we are talking about a religion that is so old, so diverse, and in some ways so unlike more centrally organized faiths. But there have also been some misconceptions that have come from earlier, nastier, decidedly pre-Obama-like times in history, and have not fully gone away.

The first "stories" about Hinduism appeared in America in the early 20th century, at the height of British colonialism. It was seen, for political reasons, as a religion of superstition and barbarism and blamed, instead of colonialism, for India's impoverishment. It was one book, in fact, that tarred America's perception of India in general and Hinduism in particular at the time; Katherine Mayo's Mother India. Some of the stereotypes from this era remained for decades, like the bizarre images we saw in Indiana Jones. Since globalization and the economic rise of India, a new set of misconceptions have come about because of a failure among some writers to distinguish between the Hinduism of widespread popular practice and the more recent and narrow political phenomenon of Hindu nationalism (the causes for which are complex but include both internal issues and international terrorism). The last failure has in fact been so egregious that even a terrorist attack on India on the magnitude of 26/11 was not properly condemned by some commentators who erred gravely by seeing it as a Hindu-Muslim issue when it was not, as I wrote here.

Although there have been many people who have seen the good things in Hinduism and India, the power of old stereotypes run deep and unexamined. For example, in the dazzling six-part documentary The Story of India, which just concluded on PBS, the obviously affectionate Michael Wood casually says that the core of Hinduism is the caste system. I always thought that the core of Hinduism was its belief that God is one, regardless of what religion we practice, and that is what made it possible for Hindus to accommodate and coexist with successive religions over the centuries. That is the sort of sensibility I thought of today too, when Obama recognized Hindu America.

In some ways, India was the America of the past; it was the country to which many faiths came and made their home. Today, both India and America face many common issues, whether it is security from terrorism, or spreading prosperity within their country, or renewing the idea of a common humanity from a diverse population. We should take our strengths for these goals where we get them and not leave matters of faith to ignorance, whether it comes from the Right or Left. Obama has shown us his way; remaining devout in his own form of faith, and being respectful to those of others. He has taken a bold stance by acknowledging that the promise of America will stand to gain from the best of all religions. It is not just good PR for America in a time when it seeks renewed friends and allies around the world, but also a salute to those who still have faith in faith, in whatever form.

I think that the global dream that is America has found in Obama the sort of popular 21st century religious sensibility that has been forming unnoticed by the dogmas of fundamentalists and some of their more dogmatic opponents too. A few months ago, this picture appeared of the charms Obama carried in his pocket. One of the figurines he had was of Hanuman, a Hindu God, although this version was probably from Obama's days in Indonesia. The Indian press was happy, but the best interpretation came from right here, a Bay Area writer who said that what Hanuman implies is not just whether we literally believe in "monkey gods" but really the ideal of service. That is the sort of inspiration perhaps we could draw from religion, ours and others; because, like everything else, our beliefs too are being tossed together and tossed around with globalization. What better place than America for everyone to see the best in everyone else, and in their own selves too. Then, and I hope we can, the only "clash of civilizations" we will hear ever about again will be nothing more than the jingle-jangle of all the world's religious trinkets in our great President Barack Obama's pockets.