By Kalyan Viswanathan | Executive Vice President
Growing up in India, in a Brahmin family, in spite of the family’s best efforts at transmission of Hinduism, through ritual and ceremony, Hindu Dharma remained largely unintelligible to me for a long time. Besides the dominant secular critique of Hinduism as filled with superstitions and bizarre beliefs that were inherently unscientific was ever present in the environment. One had to choose to either be on the side of Science and Technology, or on the side of religion and superstition; one could not be both scientifically minded and spiritually inclined at the same time. At least that seemed to be the choice before me.
While I set aside these concerns in favor of the important matters of completing my education and seeking a job, Hinduism remained largely incoherent, with so much rich variety and tradition, yet without any discernible unifying philosophy. It was not until I met Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (1930-2015) in the year 1994, in Saylorsburg, PA that there was a slow dawn of clarity. I became fascinated with the texts of Santana Dharma. As I delved into the texts such as the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutra and the Yogasutra texts, under the guidance of the able Guru, over a two decade period, one thing became clear – the vast majority of the Hindus themselves had very little access and understanding of their own great texts. The tradition of interpretation and teaching that brought these texts to life meaningfully had long been rendered obscure and inaccessible – except to those few who sought it out under the guidance of a Guru. I was left with a question: How did we as a community lose the tradition of textual study and intellectual engagement with our own heritage? How did it come to be, that Indian Universities do not offer any courses on these texts. And vast numbers of students graduate with no knowledge of them?
Yet in the West, if we go to Harvard, there is a Harvard divinity School; At Yale there is a Yale Divinity School; at Princeton, there is a Princeton Theological Seminary and so on. Even at Oxford University in England, there is a Faculty of Religion and theology. There appeared to be a healthy regard for the systematic and academically rigorous study of the divine, and religious phenomenon were not considered inappropriate at the Universities in the west. This was in sharp contrast to India, where religion had somehow been deemed unworthy of academic study. India’s assimilation of Secularism as a State Policy, appears to be anti-religious, whereas the Western manifestation of Secularism merely advocated a separation of the State and Religion.
The West studies Hinduism
In the West there is a great deal of interest in studying Hinduism, with literally thousands of scholars engaging in various aspects of Hinduism. However, there is one critical difference in their approach. They do not for the most part approach Hinduism with Shraddha i.e. a sense of respect and openness which allows for the possibility that they may actually learn something of value from the ancient texts of Hinduism. In other words, they do not accord a status of validity to the spiritual realities that are being discussed in these texts. Presupposing that everything spiritual in the texts is illegitimate by definition, they approach them with a sense of suspicion i.e. with an a priori assumption that the texts are somehow not truthful and therefore are not worth engaging in for their content i.e. what they have to offer. They end up asking entirely different questions about the texts such as “Who wrote this text?”; “When was it written?”; “Is it a single composite text or a layered text, that has been corrupted over time?”; “Who corrupted the text?”; “Why did they corrupt the text?”; “Who benefitted from the corruption?” etc. These questions enables them to side-step the central messages of the texts, and lead them to speculate on themes that are fundamentally alien to the normative and traditional ways Hindus would approach their texts. Their speculations have been enshrined into PhD thesis after thesis and book after book, resulting in a long chain of citations and references, imbuing them with an air of authority. In fact, they have successfully established a Western parampara of studying Hinduism, in the various Secular liberal departments especially in the South Asian studies area, in which many Hindus themselves are also trapped.
There is inherently nothing wrong with alternate ideas, even speculative ones. Hinduism is sufficiently pluralistic and accommodative in its fundamental outlook, that the presence of these ideas do not do any harm to its philosophical and spiritual foundations. However, in recent times, there is a trend among Scholars in the Western academy to become increasingly activist in their outlook, and political in their interventions. They are claiming that their own speculations and perspectives are not just a “point of view” but in fact the “complete truth” and therefore, must constitute the official and authoritative narrative about Hinduism. This “self-righteousness” about the point of view that Hinduism has nothing of positive value to Hindus themselves, and that the problems of Hindu society, define Hinduism entirely is the source of the ongoing controversy surrounding the California text books.
So when introducing Hinduism to a 6th grade student, according to these Scholars, the text books must focus on the Aryan Invasion, the Caste System, Brahminism, and human rights violations committed by Hindus across some 4 or 5 millennia. Equal emphasis should not be afforded to Vedanta, Yoga, Meditation, Spirituality, Moksha, Ayurveda, Hindu Art and Culture, Hindu conceptions of the divine, Architecture or temples, Indian contributions to Science and Technology and so on, which we as Hindus would want our children to know. So the entire parampara of Western scholarship is accusatory towards Hinduism, and has been prosecuting Hindus for human rights violations for over 200 years now. This has become so entrenched today, that any effort on the part of the Hindu community to bring a more balanced narrative about Hinduism that emphasizes its spiritual dimensions, in the text books, is labeled as “Hindu right wing” efforts to write revisionist history, by these academics. In sharp contrast, the Scholars’ approach towards other world religions, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam is much more positive in its outlook, and does not dwell on negatives.
Dharma Civilization Foundation
The central issue that we as a community face, is that we have lost the ability to own our story, as we understand it. In fact our own understanding of our traditions is today mediated by a western intervention that began with the colonial period, and entrenched in Western methods of study. If we do not recover our traditional modes of study, in a modern context, and enable the creation of a new genre of scholarship which is grounded in the spiritual realities of the Vedic vision of this Universe, while addressing the problems and challenges of today, we will remain unable to participate with a legitimate voice in the public square. Hinduism will remain framed as fraught with problems, for which the West has to supply solutions. We cannot emerge into a space, where Hinduism also has solutions both to the problems of Indian society as well as to the problems facing humanity in general. It is this particular challenge that has been occupying my mind for the better part of two decades now.
Fast forward some 22 years, I now happen to be the Executive Vice President of Dharma Civilization Foundation, an American 501c3 non-profit organization, registered in the State of California. The mission of DCF is to promote philanthropic giving for creating academic and intellectual infrastructure for the systematic study of “Dharma”, its interpretation and application in modern contexts, in formal academic settings. DCF is designed to represent the interests of the growing community members of the Dharma heritage traditions in North America, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, in the domain of higher education.
DCF’s flagship initiative in the Bay Area, launched under the guidance of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, in the year 2013, has today resulted in the creation of a “Center for Dharma Studies” at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. California. This Center was launched in the year 2015, and has been funded through the generosity of a Silicon Valley couple Dr. Ajay and Mrs. Mira Shingal. The Center will commence its inaugural PhD program, with 6 students in the fall of 2016. DCF, in the years to come, aspires to support undergraduate courses and minors in Hindu studies and Dharma studies at the undergraduate level at institutions such as UC, Berkeley, Mills, Mary’s and other colleges. We hope that a new generation of scholars and scholarship will emerge from this important institution.
Shanti – A Journey of Peace
Shanti – A Journey of Peace is being brought to you in the Bay Area in support of DCF’s flagship initiative at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley California.
Shanti in Sanskrit means peace. Shanti-A Journey of Peace, a contemporary oratorio in Sanskrit is a spectacular multi-media musical production that integrates western choral and orchestral music with Indian musical and dance elements. Created by Cincinnati based music composer/educator Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran, Shanti is an expansive and collaborative performance that explores the meaning of peace and interconnectedness through a music score that cuts across cultures and brings ancient chants for peace to life in a contemporary setting.
Shanti is an acclaimed multi-media musical performance – premiered to a capacity audience on May 1, 2004 at the University of Cincinnati’s Great Hall and launched the Indo-American choral movement in the US. Having wowed audiences for over 10 years, in the Eastern, Midwestern and Southern Regions of the US, Shanti comes to the Bay Area for the first time. Shanti’s cast of 250 features singers and dancers from the Bay Area Indian community, the Santa Clara Chorale and a chamber orchestra. Shanti is a ground breaking creation in the history of world music, and represents the ultimate meeting of Western and Eastern cultures. Shanti is perfect for families, connoisseurs, and music lovers of both Western and Indian genres, and is a great way to celebrate the multi-cultural and diverse world that we live in.
Join us at the Flint Center on April 30th and the Oakland Interstake Center Auditorium on May 21st, to celebrate Shanti, and to make your contribution to the Center for Dharma Studies at the GTU.