Tag Archives: Hinduism

Ganesha at the art museum

This is an entirely random post. I discovered in my files a couple weeks ago this photo I’d taken during a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art sometime last year. This piece was in their Gallery One, an exhibition designed to serve as a basic intro to art.

My photo of the museum's Ganesha.

My photo of the museum’s Ganesha. (Well, okay, actually my husband’s photo, since I haven’t yet broken down and purchased a smart phone with a decent camera.)

What struck me about this piece was the way that a religious artifact was being “repackaged” for purposes of purely aesthetic admiration–even as traces of its devotional use remained. Note the incense bowl at the foot of the statue. Also, if I recall correctly–this would have been why I was so keen to photograph the statue–the plaque identifying the object noted that the local Hindu temple had dressed the statue for the museum.

The museum's online photo of the same statue.

The museum’s online photo of the same statue.

Upstairs, where the museum’s collection of medieval and Renaissance Christian icons was, the museum had not preserved analogous traces of those religious artifacts’ devotional function–no unlit candles before the icons, no plaques explaining that the icons had been blessed by a local Catholic bishop. I don’t intend that observation to serve as an expression of “reverse discrimination”-style Christian aggrievement. But the question is worth posing in a neutral tone: Why the difference?

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Protesting a Hindu invocation in the Senate

I was aware of this 2007 incident, and of an earlier controversy over a Hindu invocation in the House in 2000. But I’d never seen footage of the incident until the video showed up on my Facebook wall a couple of days ago (very belatedly).

The protesters, who you can hear praying and quoting scripture off screen, were Ante and Katherine Pavkovic and their daughter Christan, members of Operation Rescue. (From North Carolina, I understand–former stomping grounds of mine.) The cleric whose meditation they interrupted was Rajan Zed, from Nevada. Just to make things a little more interesting with an eye to religious pluralism: Zed had been invited to serve as guest chaplain by Harry Reid, a rather rare Mormon Democrat.

This was the first time that a Hindu had been invited to serve as the Senate’s guest chaplain. Some Christian Right organizations and publications objected to the Hindu invocation on the grounds that Hindus don’t worship the Christian or Judeo-Christian God acknowledged by the Founders.

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Guest Post: “Freedom under Fire”

Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.

By Zach Ellsworth, Sara Garret, and Kyle Bush

The United States has always claimed to be the land of the free. It is so ingrained into our country’s self-portrait that we wrote it into our National Anthem. In addition, the great forefathers of the United States saw freedom as such a defining trait of our fledgling nation that it is the foremost thought written in the preamble to the U.S Constitution. The purpose of the Constitution, it explains, is “to secure the Blessings of Liberty.” These blessings are spelled out in the Bill of Rights, which declare freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, and the freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion has been the center of controversy as of late, most recently in the case of Tulsi Gabbard.  Early in 2013, Gabbard became the first Hindu-American to be elected to Congress. When swearing in, she used the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text used in Hinduism, as opposed to the traditional Christian Holy Bible. This turned the heads and opened the mouths of traditionally staunch conservatives, who claim that this is a violation of American tradition. But if we are a country represented by our freedoms, why should Gabbard be held to a custom that is irrelevant to her beliefs? It can be argued that Gabbard succumbing to this opposition and swearing in on the Bible would have been the actual violation, not of tradition, but of the freedom the U.S. has flourished under. By exercising her rights, Gabbard reminded America that freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

Tulsi Gabbard’s case is not an isolated event as some would suggest.  In fact many government representatives have historically been sworn into office over something other than a bible.  When John Quincy Adams was sworn into office as President of the United States on March 4th 1825, he did not use a Bible.  Instead, President Adams used an American law book.  No sort of controversy was reported from this decision at his oath ceremony.

Keith Ellison, however, faced more criticism to his oath ceremony when he was elected a Congressman in 2006.  Ellison, a practicing Muslim, requested that he be sworn into office under the Qu’ran.  This caused much controversy from a group of radical conservatives, because of anti-Muslim tensions post-9/11.  Despite the critics, Ellison did follow through with his oath ceremony and was sworn into office under the Qu’ran;  a Qu’ran owned by no other than founding father Thomas Jefferson.

In a more recent example, John Brennan became the Director of the CIA and chose not to use the Bible either.  Rather, in his oath ceremony, Brennan chose to use the United States Constitution.  When asked why he wanted to be sworn in under the U.S. Constitution, Brennan replied he, “wanted to reaffirm his commitment to the rule of law as he took the oath of office as director of the CIA”  (AUSCS).

Despite the controversial feedback, research these “different” oath ceremonies and you will find something very interesting about American Religious legislation: You are not required by the U.S. Constitution, or any other law, to be sworn in on the Bible.  In fact, U.S. law does not require one to be sworn in under any book at all.  Using the Bible has simply been an American tradition – not a law.  Members of Congress that have sworn in using the Bible, law books, the Koran, or even the Bhagavad Gita that Gabbard used, were completely within their legal right.

Opposition to this type of religious plurality has been a many sided force. On one side of it are the conservative Christians who take up a decent majority of politicians and opinion makers. In his article “Spiritual Adultery,” World magazine writer Timothy Lamer gave this opposition a voice when responding to a Hindu prayer given by Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala before a joint meeting of Congress. Lamer called his Christian brothers who had heard the prayer to repentance, claiming that they had, “basically bowed down to Baal,” (Baal is a pagan god from the Old Testament). He continues to accuse them of spiritual adultery and recommends they be excommunicated from the Church if they fail to repent.

While no swearing in took place in this case, it is important to note because it brought to light the anger of traditional conservatives towards growing religious plurality in a government feeling the affects of post-modernism. Lamer speaks passionately; it is obvious that his convictions are strong. The doctrines and scriptures of Christianity teach that once Jesus saves you from your sins, the Holy Spirit consumes you with passion and zeal for the Glory of God. This is evident in Lamer’s words. But other Christians have had less forward reactions, noting that the Bible also teaches that God has ultimate sovereignty, and Jesus speaks to endurance during suffering.

In relevance to the swearing in of Tulsi Gabbard, Christians must again take comfort in God’s sovereignty. As a government official, your job is to serve the people, no matter their race, religion, gender, etc. With that comes the protection of the separation of church and state. When we are outraged by the fact that a religion other than Christianity is at center stage, have the two not come together, de facto? Additionally, forcing someone to swear in on a text or document of no meaning to them may weaken their vow. Some would argue that by using an object of sacrament, or another item that one holds dear, strengthens one’s oath by adding conviction.

Ellison’s case was similar to the controversy surrounding the Hindu prayer. However, it wasn’t so much that he was a Muslim that he was scrutinized for; it was the fact that he used the Koran in taking his oath of office. Being the first to do so, coupled with the complicated understanding shared by many Americans of Islam in the wake of 9/11, made Ellison a target of numerous prejudices, both political and social. This parallels the criticism surrounding Tulsi Gabbard. One of the most outspoken adversaries against his swearing in on the Koran was Dennis Pragar.  Pragar, one of America’s most well-known talk show hosts, argued that Ellison’s choice to use the Koran should not have been allowed, “because the act undermines American civilization.” He posed a mandate that America, as a whole, is Christian, and that this symbol of religious pluralism is “damaging to the fabric of American Civilization.” This consistent use of the word “civilization” seems to be an attempt to use his conservative Christian view to juxtapose the seemingly savage, foreign, unwelcome Islam.

However, Keith Ellison is neither of those things. Keith Ellison was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, as “American” a city as any in the states. He pursued an American dream, which to him meant a better America. This commitment was what led the people to vote him into office, and eventually Congress. He has four children, who attended public schools and enjoyed all of the “American” experiences that come with it. To argue that Ellison is a threat to “American” civilization is to argue that Ellison is a threat to the very thing that molded him; a country, a culture, and a civilization that he worked to protect as a governing official. Insofar as Islam being considered a “foreign” religion; Muslims have been practicing in the states since they were just colonies, nearly as long as protestant Christianity.

While congress has mostly consisted of Christians, we have found that as religious diversity in our country has grown, the amount of religions represented in Congress has increased as well. While Congress still does not completely reflect the religious demographics of our country, it is a good thing that they are becoming more religiously diverse. Congress is still majority Christian, so even though we see more members of other religious affiliations in government, Christians do not have to worry that they will not receive appropriate representation. As a matter of fact congress is still very much dominated by Christians with 54.7% being Protestant and 30.1% being Catholic. Tulsi Gabbard, in fact, is the sole practicing Hindu in Congress.

While Tulsi Gabbard is the only practicing Hindu in Congress, it is still extremely important that she is there. Whether people want acknowledge it or not, our country continues to become more diverse and all these different races or religions deserve to have representation in Congress. It is hard to find an exact number of how many Hindu-Americans there are, but there is said to be anywhere from 600,000 to 2.3 million. So if there were not at least one Hindu-American in Congress, there would be many citizens without representation.

People who opposed Tulsi Gabbard swearing into Congress on the Bhagavad Gita ought not worry. By Gabbard making the statement of swearing in on something other than the traditional bible, she reiterated that our country still stands on the basic morals that it was founded upon. Religious freedom is granted to everyone here and that is a fundamental right in our Constitution that Gabbard is exercising. So for those concerned about American civilization and what it means to have a practicing Hindu swear into congress on the Bhagavad Gita; your concerns have been heard. However, you can take confidence in the fact that Gabbard is just exercising her rights as a citizen of the United States- the same rights granted to each and every one of us. By exercising her freedom, Gabbard is showing that she is just as concerned about America’s civilization as everyone one else. This country was built on freedom and that includes freedom of religion. Gabbard is exercising that right just like any other American citizen.

The United States is a constantly changing nation, a continuously evolving culture, and could be a perpetual emblem of freedom if we, as its citizens, possess the desire for it to be so.  Our government, which is for and by the people, has to be a direct representation of this desire. As the great American melting pot, diversity plays an integral part of our liberty. When it comes to religion, our tradition is not Christianity, but freedom of such, and freedom from such.  From John Adams, to Keith Ellison; from hindu prayers, to Tulsi Gabbard; America is populated for the free and governed by the same.  Diversity is not a threat; it’s an asset.

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Swami Vivekananda: Belated birthday wishes


Shoot! I had meant to blog about this back in January, but then I forgot. January 12 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Swami Vivekananda, who represented Hinduism at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago and founded the Vedanta Society, the first Hindu organization (to my knowledge) in the United States. Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, Indian-based organizations founded by Vivekananda, are organizing a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary which includes service projects, consistent with the social-service focus of Vivekananda’s brand of Hinduism. You can learn more at the website they’ve created to promote the 150th anniversary. (The banner that heads this post was downloaded from there.)

As my own nod to Vivekananda, here’s the opening lines of the speech he gave at the World’s Parliament. As he himself tells it, the crowd burst into thunderous applause at his opening, “Sisters and brothers of America!” Snarky as I am, I’m inclined to view that reaction as 19th-century American liberals bursting with the self-congratulatory thrill of feeling cosmopolitan while simultaneously being singled out for recognition. Of course, it’s self-congratulatory for Vivekananda to be telling us about their applause, too.

As you read the quotation, note the rhetorical complexity of how Vivekananda touts the primacy, ergo superiority, of Hinduism and the East–Hinduism is the mother of religions; the East is the origin of the idea of toleration–even as he celebrates the equalizing message of universal toleration and acceptance. I read that move as an act of resistance to the way that the Parliament’s American Christian organizers were using the equalizing format of the Parliament–everyone gets to speak; everyone shares the stage–as a vehicle to tout the superiority of Christianity, America, and the West. Complexity and tension all around.

Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects. My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honour of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. . . .

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Andrew Cohen and evolutionary enlightenment

I’m teaching a course this semester on religion and science fiction, which I’m using as a lens for helping students recognize various ways that people in modern societies conceive of the relationship between religion and science. As we get started, I’m introducing students to Ian Barbour’s now-classic typology of different ways to conceptualize the science-religion relationship: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. As I write this, I’m in the middle of preparing an in-class exercise where I’ll give students selections from recent American texts representing Barbour’s four categories; students will then categorize the texts.

The Barbour text we’re using to introduce the categories points to Christian examples of integration (natural theology, process theology), but I wanted to give students something that would represent more of a New Age approach–discourse about evolution and spirituality, the interconnectedness of nature, energy flows, etc. As I was poking around online for an example, I found my way to the work of Andrew Z. Cohen, whom I had never heard of but who is apparently big enough that the Huffington Post was willing to give him a platform. As a cultural artifact, his work intrigues me because it is bent toward integrating evolutionary biology with the soteriology shared by Hinduism and Buddhism, i.e., enlightenment/liberation as an escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth (moksha). Basically, Cohen argues that science has disproved the notion of cyclical time, although he bows to traditional doctrines of moksha as a kind of culturally appropriate partial grasping of the truth; enlightenment should therefore be reconceived, not as liberation from the world but as participation in the transformation of the world, what Cohen calls Evolutionary Enlightenment. He overtly touts this new approach to enlightenment as superior to the old not only because the new is compatible with modern science but also because the new approach, unlike the old, is not escapist (an appeal which points to the premium placed on activism in American culture).

Andrew Z. Cohen, “The Evolution of Enlightenment” (Huffington Post)

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A Muslim at Diwali

In honor of Diwali, here’s excerpts of a story told by a Muslim student at my university about her participation in our annual Diwali celebration. Her story was collected last year as part of the university’s “Year of the Arts” initiative. Students, staff, alumni, etc., submitted accounts of how exposure to the arts changed them while they were here. You can read the student’s full account here.

It all started my Freshman year, when I joined the Indian Students Association.

I didn’t know a whole lot about Indian tradition and culture except from Bollywood films and a few festivals, but after the “Diwali” show, things CHANGED. . . . Though I am Muslim, and am a first generation Kashmiri-American . . . , I thought it would be worth a try. I went into this without any dancing experience whatsoever. At the time, I questioned my decisions. Would I embarrass myself, or would I be able to master this “Diwali thing”? . . .

In order to be a part of ISA’s Diwali show, Freshmen do a separate dance comprised of just the first years of the organization. It helps bring out leadership and team work within the group . . . There was no easy way to do it, so we did the best we could. . . .

It wasn’t until October I began to realize how fun the show would actually be. . . . Before this, I had seriously considered transferring because I wasn’t making any friends. During the last few weeks before the show, I had a family bond so tight, that my dilemma was no more. Art had kept me at Miami. Friendship kept me at Miami.

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First Hindu Congressional representative

Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat, Poised To Be Elected First Hindu In Congress (Religion News Service)
America’s First Ever Hindu Congresswoman Will Take the Oath of Office Over the Bhagavad Gita (Jezebel.com)

It kills me that I don’t have as much time to comment on this as it deserves. There’s so much to think about: What it means that she’s a Democrat; that she’s a woman; that she’s in Hawaii; that her parents, we’re told, were “conservative . . . politicians”; the way she invokes her military service as a warrant for her American-ness; the way Hindu scripture is now set to be incorporated into American civil religion, and what all that means; the predictable objections to a Hindu in public office from certain conservative quarters, and what exactly is accomplished, rhetorically and politically, by media attention to those objections; the intriguing possibilities for American religious conservatives reaching out to socially conservative Hindus, but the intellectual or cultural work that such connections would require of Christian conservatives… Yeah. It kills me that I barely have time to get this written and posted before I rush off to teach and then do other things for the rest of the day.

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Shirdi Sai Baba and a sub

Walking home from work today, I passed a corner store that bills itself as Johnny’s Deli, although it appears to stock far more alcohol than anything else. (Johnny knows what students want.) For some weeks, they’ve been advertising a special on subs, which has been tempting me, and today I succumbed.

As I waited for my sub, the South Asian proprietor and I made small talk. We never exchanged names, but for convenience I’ll call him Johnny. He asked me if I worked for the university. I told him I teach courses about American religions.

He looked puzzled. “But there is only one American religion,” he said.

Oomph… Stabbed in the heart.

“Not at all,” I said. “America has always been a place where people of different religions lived. And it’s become more diverse as more and more people from other parts of the world have come here.”

At this point, Johnny volunteered that he was Hindu. I told him that I’m always on the lookout for religious symbols, and that when I walked into the store, I’d been keeping half an eye out to see if there might be an image of Ganesha, for instance.

Johnny reached under the counter and pulled out a cash box. Pasted onto the top of it, he showed me, was a sticker depicting Shirdi Sai Baba.

Sai Baba is a guru who lived in the latter half of the 19th century. He’s become a popular focus of devotion in India and the Indian Diaspora; he’s also revered as a saint by some South Asian Muslims. I’ve just learned tonight that we have a temple dedicated to Sai Baba here in Cincinnati.

I was interested in knowing more about why Johnny had chosen this particular figure for devotion. But my attempt to ask about it elicited only an explanation that in Hinduism, unlike Christianity, there are many gods, and that Sai Baba is a man who did things that only a god could do.

As my sub came, Johnny put the cash box away. I tapped my finger in the air as if I were tapping the sticker on top of the box. “And that,” I said, “is now an American religion.”

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Lotus Temple, Spanish Fork, UT

A quick break from grading final papers and exams: Today’s post features ISKCON’s Lotus Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah, a town I lived in for a year when I was 10-11 years old. The temple was built after my family moved away from Spanish Fork. I attended a couple events at the temple in the early 2000s, while I was living in Salt Lake City.

This is a fabulous photo of the temple with the Wasatch mountains in the background, taken from the temple’s online photo gallery.

I assume from the cloud of pink dust over the amphitheater and the light snow on the mountains that this photo was taken during Holi. Here’s a video the temple has produced about that festival. I am, frankly, astounded by the video’s production values, as well as by the size of the crowd. A good number of these people have probably come down from Salt Lake City, an hour away. On Sundays, I suspect, some of them could be found at the big drum circle in Liberty Park. And a good number of these folks are probably Mormons, including students from nearby Brigham Young University.

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Sacred Earth

As I’ve walked around campus the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen posters for an upcoming performance, “Sacred Earth,” by the troupe Ragamala Dance, who perform Bharatanatyam, a classical dance style from south India.

The performance is being promoted by the university’s Performing Arts Series as follows. I’ve highlighted phrases that invite commentary.

Experience transcendence. With magical grace, Ragamala dances the ancient temple art form, Bharatanatyam. Performed against a vivid backdrop of painted prayers, Warli paintings, on a stage covered with ephemeral Kolam rice flour drawings, Ragamala’s Sacred Earth transforms the stage into a sacred space. The stunning dancers give physical form to the spiritual expression of the Warlis and Kolams, illustrating the ephemeral nature of our existence and celebrating the ongoing, ever-renewing cycle of life.

I’m struck that among the performance’s sponsors is the “Ford Family initiative on Spiritual Meaning & Purpose.”

Thought question: What kind of experience do the performers understand themselves to be offering the audience? What kind of experience do planners here at the university understand that they are offering the audience? And what kind of experience do audience members understand themselves to be having? Artistic? Cultural? Religious? Spiritual? What’s the difference?

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