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Is India's Independence Day a Hindu Holiday?

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Once upon a time, in a past that now seems like ages ago, a goddess named Bharat Mata battled a demon king. The demon, whose own kingdom lay in a faraway island, had enslaved the goddess and her children for many days and nights. Now, the goddess -- draped in a majestic saffron-colored sari, and seated atop a roaring lion -- rose up and cast off her shackles. One of her sons, a lover of peace, presented her with a lotus flower; another son, an advocate for justice, gifted her a flaming sword. These she held in each hand, and with the love and courage of a lioness protecting her cubs, she slay her oppressor. Venerated Hindu texts describe the pastime.

Except they don't. It's a mythical and intentionally Hindu-ized re-telling of relatively recent political history -- India's independence from British rule and its recognition as a sovereign nation on August 15, 1947. It's an extended metaphor, an allegory that I just made up. Or did I? After all, the deification of India as a mother goddess goes back to at least the mid 19th century. There are countless representations of this goddess in Hindu-Indian art and literature. And there are at least two formal temples dedicated to her -- in Varanasi and Haridwara, two of Hinduism's most important pilgrimage towns.

(To be fair, readers should keep in mind that, in general, concepts like "worship" or "veneration" don't always operate the same ways in Eastern culture that they do in the West. A Protestant normative perspective might consider that worship should be reserved exclusively for God; a pious Hindu, though, would likely see nothing contradictory about offering ritual worship to God in the temple, and also enacting such rituals as a way of expressing respect for his parents or ancestors, for instance.)

Is India's Independence Day a Hindu holiday? There are certainly some Hindus who think so. Part of this has to do with the conflation of "Indian" and "Hindu" identities -- a theme I'd like to go into in more detail about, in a future article. But it also has to do with the narrative I began this piece with, and how that myth has become part of the ongoing development of Hinduism's ever-evolving collective narrative.

Truthfully, I'm not sure how I feel about Hindu-American temples including August 15th on their religious calendars, alongside Diwali and Janmastami and Maha Shivratri, as a sacred day. As someone who was born and raised in America, I naturally analogize to America's celebration of independence on the Fourth of July. The United States and India are both secular nations, and both have historically approached their understanding of what that means in remarkably similar ways. There is nothing overtly religious about July 4th, one might argue, and it would be inappropriate to mix religion and civic history. But we do anyway, in so many ways gross and subtle. Especially post-9/11, we seem more awash in God-and-country rhetoric than ever before.

I recently read a fascinating article about a celebration marking the 400th anniversary of the "birth of the nation" through the settlement of Jamestown in 2007. The organizers of the festival described it as "a celebration of gratitude" and a needed alternative to the state of Virginia's official commemoration, which they decried as "an homage to revisionist historiography and political correctness." The kicker: the celebration was organized by the Vision Forum Ministries, an extremely conservative evangelical Christian organization, and set up more as a preaching platform than a festival. As I read more about the celebration, I found myself experiencing distaste and suspicion--revulsion on an almost visceral level.

I am aware that for many, Hindu and non-Hindu, the Bharat Mata narrative and an Independence Day washed in Hindu imagery and rhetoric is just as worrisome. Perhaps the best Hindu corollary to the Vision Forum folks is the Hindutva movement. Literally meaning "Hindu-ness", the movement tends to conflate Hinduism with Indian nationalism, defining the faith almost entirely in cultural terms. "One is a Hindu," a prominent early advocate of Hindutva famously declared, "when his motherland is India, his fatherland is India, and his holy land is India." For whatever good the Hindutva movement has arguably done, it has also come to be synonymous with an approach to Hinduism and Indian politics that is narrow-minded and fosters sectarianism and even violence. For better or for worst, "Hindutva" has practically become shorthand for "rabidly right-wing, intolerant Hindu fundamentalist."

If all of this is problematic in the Indian context, it is downright perplexing for Indian-American or Hindu-American communities. The link to India is even more tenuous, and the politics of identity even more complex. I hope to wrestle with some of this in my next post, but allow me to offer you a sneak-peak: I am fairly conflicted about it all.

Which brings us back to August 15th.

If there is one passage that best captures the spirit of the day, perhaps, it is Jawarhalal Nehru's iconic "tryst with destiny" speech, declaring India's independence at midnight:

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment, we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity."

It is hard to hear these words--words articulating the awakening of the soul of a nation -- and not feel an underlying religious, or at least spiritual, significance. And yet their speaker was, himself, a notoriously non-religious Hindu.

The truth is that cleanly separating culture and history from spirituality and religion rarely works. In reality, history holds significance, not merely for individuals, but for people -- for collectives and communities and faith traditions. For some, the history of India's struggle to cast off the shackles of imperialism and foreign occupation, and the celebration of this moment in time, evokes something Divine.

Should India's Independence Day be celebrated in Hindu temples in America? I think so. I don't think we need resort to the type of nostalgic myth-making or revisionist theology that I began this essay with to do it, though. Instead, we can use the day to reflect on identity, on struggle and sacrifice, and on the deeper, spiritual significance of concepts like freedom or independence. We can encourage conversation about what those concepts look like, as Hindus living today in 21st century America. August 15th certainly provides us one platform to do that. July 4th may very well provide another.