A Life of thinking globally, acting locally, and seeking peace internally.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What I am learning as a Hindu Seminarian - part 2

I just read some of the work of Prema Kurien, a professor at Syracuse University, and specifically, some excerpts from "A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism 2007." The unresolved tensions between Christians and Hindus, and the lack of resolution of between dialogue and evangelization, as I chronicle below, echoes in Kurien's perception and presentation of Hindu Americans and her identification of them as non-progessive. I sincerely wish that she came from a better place. It is easy to point a finger, or to interpret and present something in a negative light. I often wonder who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed, and why the other is so often villified. It is easy to tear something or someone down, but much harder to be a builder - I want to be in the latter category so I won't say any more about Prof. Kurien's writing. As my Systematic Theology teacher, Anneliese Sinnott, has said, it all depends on the lens with which we see things. Thank goodness that my lens allows me to envision Siva's dance of creation choreographed referencing the biblical story of creation - I love Sudha Aunty (www.hindutemplerhythms.com) and Tandav!

The Emergent Gospel: Theology from the Underside of History
Edited by Sergio Torres & Virginia Fabella, M.M.

Chapter 12: The Indian Universe of a New Theology by D.S. Amalorpavadass (India)

The author, Director of the National Biblical Catechitical & Liturgical Centre of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India in Bangalore, examines the two main realities and sources of theology in India, as part of this report from the Ecumencial Dialogue of Third World Theologians, held in Tanzania in 1976. He says that India is “the cradle of great religions that are ancient, alive and have a long following,” pointing out also that the nation is in the process of liberation and development, to create a just and human society and a well-integrated nation. He attempts to articulate how the church must fulfill its prophetic mission given this background. He quotes mainly from the Declaration of the 1971 Nagpur Theological Conference, which he finds “comprehensive and creative,” saying that the “religions of the world and realities of the temporal order must be viewed as including in God’s universal saving plan,” and that confrontation must yield to dialogue. According both to Nostra Aetate and the DNC, other religions also reflect a ray of the Truth, and recognize them as paths to salvation, but this recognition “does not in any way lessen the urgency of the Christian mission.” Believing that missionary activity remains necessary, he takes up the question whether the church’s mission in India could be of dialogue and/or evangelization, since the Nagpur Declaration did not fully settle the relationship between them. Since “genuine dialogue requires a spirit of openness and humility, and a willingness to learn and receive from one another,” he points out that it is “through common searching and sharing that we come closer to the truth.” Laying out the aspects of Indian reality – the presence of ancient and living religions, and the process of development and liberation – he points out that the division in the world is between the oppressors and the oppressed. The main points he reviews are: 1) the Indian scene, where there is a daily increase in poverty and suffering; 2) the various approaches (and confusion) in the minds of the Christian leadership with regard to the relationship between evangelization and development; 3) the view of Christ as the liberator in the India of the seventies; 4) the church as the living sign of Christ’s liberation for today – where evangelization and development “compenetrate each other in one redeeming movement of human progress and salvation”; 5) the notion of [an integral human] development, whence the church must join forces in the struggle for liberation, contributing to humanization and community building; 6) a call for political action, so that one can hope to bring about change in the economic system; and 7) the roles of ministry and the laity – where the priest should keep to the spiritual, and laity should should be involved in development.

Finally, the author concludes that no genuine commitment to development and liberation is valid until there is conscientization, a method and strategy of liberation in the context of a society divided into oppressors and oppressed. The goal of evangelization is to “unleash the power that is in the oppressed masses to change their situation and to convert the oppressors themselves by a process of love.” In this context, evangelization is meaningful and necessary, as long as it calls for a correct understanding of the religious traditions of humankind, such as the “age-old spiritual quest for moksha and mukti, a process of self-realization through the discovery in the depth of one’s being to identification of one’s self with the self of the universe.”

I began to read this chapter with trepidation, wondering how a Catholic Bishop from India would treat evangelization in the framework of liberation and development. My context is based on churches today in the US, in my own neighborhood which go to India to “graciously save people out of Hinduism,” (Kensington Community Church: http://www.kensingtonchurch.org/global/missiontripsdetail.php?id=9). My knowledge of Christian evangelization is colored by acquaintance with missionaries who have little understanding of the culture and spirituality that are inherent in the region. The theological presentation of the issues by the author filled my heart with hope that there are people who understand that the spreading of God’s love must be done consider the true liberation of the oppressed and suffering masses. I fully understood and appreciated how he explained evangelization as the way to “unleash the power that is in the oppressed masses to change their situation and to convert the oppressors themselves by a process of love” and the respect he holds for the ancient religions of the region. However, I didn’t feel that this fully addressed how the relationship between dialogue and evangelization is “and/or” and especially didn’t feel that the message has reached the churches in India, where the reality is that the tensions and violence between the Hindu and Christian communities have increased from what they were decades earlier, and the gap between the oppressors and oppressed seems even worse. Read more Entry>>

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What I am learning as a Hindu Seminarian - part 1

I have read the wonderful work of the theologian Raimon Panikkar, and never knew his background until I took a course on God and Humanity at Ecumenical Theological Seminary. The assignment began as something I had to do, because of my discomfort with current Hindu-Christian relations in India, and the context of proselytizing that seems to be part of the landscape here in my own neighborhood. The chapter I discuss below is from a book published decades ago, before the Hindu-Christian clashes of recent times colored my world dark, and it makes for an illuminating read.

The Emergent Gospel: Theology from the Underside of History

Edited by Sergio Torres & Virginia Fabella, M.M.

Chapter 13: Development of Christian Theology in India by J.R. Chandran (India)

The author, the Principal of United Theological College in Bangalore, examines reformation theology in India, as part of this report from the Ecumencial Dialogue of Third World Theologians, held in Tanzania in 1976, with a view to “understanding how…Christian theology can serve the renewal of the church for its mission.” He believes that theology must interpret the Gospel to both deepen understanding of the faith and to communicate the faith in a way that calls for response, and says there is no “perennial theology.” In discussing the contribution of missionary theologians, he says that many Western missionaries realized that they needed to change the totally negative approach to other faiths and cultures with which they had started.

The historical review of theologians starts with the early 17th century Roman Catholic Jesuit Robert de Nobili, who said that “it was unjust to require people to change their national customs, to give up caste and other forms of social and cultural life,” and even sought to replace Latin with Sanskrit (the language of the Hindu scriptures), but whose approach was focused on getting the natives to accept the external forms of Christianity. Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary who arrived in India in 1706, who changed his attitude of prejudice after studying Hindu scriptures, and wrote, “I do not reject everything they teach, rather rejoice,” that there was a light in their teachings also. He even said that they put to shame many Christians “by their upright life.” However A.H. Francke (1663-1727) said “The missionaries were sent out to exterminate heathenism in India, not to spread heathen nonsense all over Europe,” echoing the sentiments of the general population. Rethinking of this sentiment came with the discovery and interpretation of the Hindu, Buddhist and other scriptures by great Orientalists like Max Miller, Paul Deussen, Berridale Keith and others.

Then, the article turns to Indian theologians, both those within and without the church. The theological doctrines of two followers of the Brahmo Samaj movement, which stood for a radical reform of the Hindu religion and society, Ram Mohan Roy and Keshab Chandra Sen, are presented first. Others like Swami Vivekananda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan responded to Christ from the context of their advaita Vedanta theology, interpreted Jesus as one form of the universal reality. The author states that Mahatma Gandhi “approached the person of Jesus Christ from the ethic of love” which he found to parallel the Hindu concept of ahimsa, and that Gandhi believed all religions had love as their common goal. The first Indian Christian theologian mentioned – who tried to reformulate theology for an Indian context – is Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya (1861-1907), who combined the nationalist hopes of his times with a commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in a “manner indigenous to India.” He felt the Vedas should be recognized as part of the Old Testament for the Indian church, and felt that the Thomistic idea of God as pure being was the same as the Vedantic absolute, the Brahman. Another Indian Christian theologian, AJ Appasamy, respected the Bhakti [faith/devotion] tradition, and wrote Christianity as Bhakti Marga, particularly as the union of the human and divine in Christ. Appasamy reflected on visishtadvaita, (qualified non-dualism) where Brahmabandhav’s frame of understanding came from Shankara’s advaita philosophy. P Chenchiah (1886-1959) felt that loyalty to Christ did “not involve the surrender of a reverential attitude towards the Hindu heritage,” and wanted to free Indian Christian doctrine from Greek philosophical language and western categorization and thought.

In the next section, the author issues a call to dialogue, saying that displacement of indigenous faiths by Christianity has proved inadequate and superficial, and that there should be a realization that there is a presence of reality in other faiths. He speaks of PD Devanandam, who was influenced by Barth and part of the Rethinking Group, which gave importance to understanding contemporary religious and cultural movements and those of other faiths. Another great theologian profiled is Raimundo Panikkar (1918-), who was born of a Hindu father and Catholic mother, understands Hindusim from within and says that Christ is already present in Hinduism, although not known as Christ. His focus is on “common ground of the interiority of the religious experience.” Finally, in discussing the theology of liberation and humanization, MM Thomas (1916-) whose role in the ecumenical movement shaped his focus on the gospel as a tool for justice and liberation. Thomas spoke to three aspects of dialogue: 1) studying the contribution of each faith to man and society; 2) seeking to understand the central theological issues in each faith; and 3) the dialogue “in the cave of the heart” of which Abhishiktananda [the French Benedictine monk who served as a bridge to Hindu and Christian theology]. Thomas focused on the first, where Hindus and Christians could come together in the context of modernity and secularism, and take action for the good of the nation as a whole. In conclusion, the survey reiterates that there is no pattern or model for Indian Christian theology, and that it is not important to concentrate only on doctrinal formulation. It is important to take “a stand for righteousness, peace and justice in human affairs” that would not lead to polarization, and not create an abstract theology. It is when the process of doing – grappling with the suffering of the oppressed and the totality of the Indian religious, social and cultural situation – becomes the real basis of Indian Christian theology, that it will become part of universal Christian theology.

When I began to read this chapter, I was absolutely floored as I read about so many theologians to whom I could relate. I felt a sense of enlightenment at how many other people have preceded me in the understanding of the issues central to being an Indian American, since I had heard mostly of the work of Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda and not of many of the others. Although I had read Raimundo Panikkar’s and Abhishiktananda’s work, I didn’t know how critical they are to the development of Indian Christian theology. However, knowing the reality of human nature and the contemporary situation in India, I felt that there is still a long way to go – that people are still grappling with the suffering of the oppressed and the totality of the Indian religious, social and cultural situation, and am glad that my journey has led me to ETS.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Hoping for "Hum Honge Kamyab"...

I recently talked about my article about Sacred Music that appeared in Vishwa Hindu. While I am sorry to say that at our most recent MLK Jr. Day in Troy, we weren't able to sing Hum Honge Kamyab, (the Hindi lyrics for We Shall Overcome – a song that became a key anthem of the US civil rights movement), we do sing many versions of the song - Hebrew, Spanish, English and Hindi - at the Troy Interfaith Group's National Day of Prayer. Troy lives up to its promise of engaging and embracing the diversity it embodies, at this simple event in May, and in numerous other ways. Hopefully we will sing Hum Honge Kamyab at the next MLK event in January 2010 and beyond. After all, given the state of our economy and our world, we really need to work on overcoming in as many languages as possible!

Sharing Sacred Music in the School

When my daughter was in elementary school, a "Holiday Sing-A-Long" was held – it incorporated Christmas carols, many of which were comic in nature, as well as a Ramadan poem, a Kwanzaa song and a dreidel song (from the Jewish tradition) that I had learned as a child growing up in NY. The president of my children's school PTO (which sponsored the event), asked me to help include a song from the Indian tradition. After consulting with the other Indian parents in the school (we have 10% Indian-American students in our district), we chose to teach and have the kids of desi origin – Hindus, Muslims and Christians – sing Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram. The song was printed in the program and allowed others an opportunity to sing along.

Although this illustrates what we can do to have our voices heard (literally!) in a mainstream public school program, there is an official statement that supports this type of inclusion.

During its August 1993 meeting, the National Board of the American Choral Directors Association adopted the following position statement pertaining to music from a sacred tradition in the public schools.
"Any work of art studied or performed should be selected for its inherent beauty of structure and form. Its purpose in study should be learning for the sake of developing artistic understanding and responsiveness. Often artworks are related to a specific religious/cultural tradition. The study of such works of art can enhance one's understanding and appreciation of a cultural product which a particular tradition has fostered.
In no way should music be selected for study and performance in the public schools for the purpose of advancing or perpetuating a particular religious belief system. Rather, music should be selected first, on its own merits as an art form and second, as a cultural object for study which enhances the understanding of the cultural development of a particular movement in human civilization.
Problems of misunderstanding and intent seem to arise most frequently with solo songs and choral compositions which have a sacred text. While public school teaching objectives and criteria for repertoire selection should not include religious indoctrination, the selection of quality repertoire will invariably include, within its broad scope, music with a sacred text. To exclude from a public school curriculum all choral music which has a religious meaning associated with the text is to limit severely the possibilities of teaching for artistic understanding and responsiveness. Such exclusion has as its parallel the study of art excluding paintings related to the various religions of the world, the study of literature without mention of the Bible, or the study of architecture without reference to the great temples and cathedrals of the world.
Care should be taken in the performance of music associated with any religious/cultural tradition that it not be construed as a religious service or religious celebration. Whenever possible, a multiplicity of cultural traditions should be included in musical programming.
C. Typical educational standards should include a range and a balanced offering of music from various religions/cultural traditions. Music from a sacred tradition shall be created, studied, and performed as an educational experience that relates to achieving goals and objectives, and shall not be designed to foster a religious belief."

The entire statement is available at http://www.acdaonline.org/statements&policies/sacredmusic.shtml

While such a statement exists, and enables parents to ensure that suitable Indian music is included in the curriculum, limited resources are available to the mainstream community to use to achieve this goal. Most music books that teachers use nationally do not contain many Indian songs. Material can be found online, by going to music shops in India (books with Western staff notation for Carnatic, Hindustani and film songs), or by purchasing books such as the Unitarian Universalist hymn book Singing the Living Tradition (it has the words and music for Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram, but not the translation). These materials can be provided as supplemental materials to teachers if they are unable to find something. The easiest thing to do is to give them the lyrics to Hum Honge Kamyab, which is sung to the tune of We Shall Overcome – a song that became a key anthem of the US civil rights movement.

Parents should work with their children's elementary, middle school and high school teachers, administrators and music directors to ensure that ALL children have an opportunity to hear and honor music from all traditions in a fair and equitable manner. Hindustani and Carnatic classical and Indian folk music traditions are wonderful, and our children can take pride in them. It is also important to create an awareness of the complexity and diversity of these traditions – not just Bollywood tunes and other pop music. After all, Beethoven is being taught more often in academic settings, not Britney Spears. It is our responsibility to ensure that we support our children's learning so that they can raise their voices in the music we hold sacred and dear – it will be melodious to all our ears! Read more Entry>>

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An act of faith - reviewing Acts of Faith...

I finally had to publish this review of Eboo Patel's Acts of Faith, since he's making headlines again. Not that it's a bad thing, just read my review and you'll understand what rankles...

I was quite excited that Obama's inaugural address referenced Hindus, but the makeup of the Faith Based Neighborhood Partnerships office - not Community Initiatives - leaves me perplexed. I rather liked Waldman's article on this:

But back to Patel and my review - although as my ever-realistic husband said, "who cares what you think about it?" - here it is.

Eboo Patel's book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, speaks of a journey that I have been seeing people go through everyday, for years – a journey of interfaith dialogue and discovery. As Patel writes in this autobiographical work, we Americans can find hope by following our respective faiths while finding common ground in our values of community and service. "The arc of his life" is to build interfaith understanding, he says. He lays out the way that the common ground of service and compassion which he found within the religious diversity that is America, laid the foundation for the non-profit youth organization he founded in 1998, Interfaith Youth Core.

While reading this book, I was fascinated by the common thread I see in our shared background – Indian immigrants usually so absorbed in the pursuit of the American dream and dollars that "they were never home" for their kids. Patel's father is absorbed with international news when there is activity that affects him ("Muslims are dying by the thousands, and these people don't give a shit," says Patel’s father about George H.W. Bush's Iraq war), while being knowledgeable about, but not absorbed by, world affairs. His mother faced the "challenges of balancing professional and family life," while Patel had "a vague sense of being Muslim from [his] mother without any real grounding in how that was relevant or useful to [his] life." One could so easily change the word "Muslim" to "Hindu" or "Sikh" or "Jain" – the other major faith traditions of the South Asian/Indian diaspora. I also found "flashes of ingredients" that were similar in our lives – and that of so many other immigrants': the difficulty in balancing the culture we live in and the one that shapes how we are raised, the issue of being marginalized for our brown skin or whatever else marks us as "the other." We are all "Third Culture Kids," a term coined by the Michigan academician Ruth Hill Useem over 40 years ago, and so many of our stories are laced with this common angst. I also discovered similar core values on a very personal level – we are both American pluralists, seekers who love ideas, and interfaith activists who wish to pursue peace through service and action in this millennium.

But I don't see his journey as prophetic, since I remember reading words of caution and a call to action in Tariq Ali's 2002 publication, Clash of Fundamentalisms. I also see his vision of pluralism as part of a larger entity, since there are many grass roots movements for interfaith understanding around the country – for example, those which can be found in the Pluralism Project's work and the efforts of many organizations in my metropolitan region of Detroit, Michigan. His chapter "An American in India" lacks the compassion and concern so eloquent in other pages. With all his scholarly understanding, he fails to explain the Hindu-Muslim antagonism in a just way. And his deep discomforts as a young adult, with India and the servants in his grandmother's home struck me as somewhat hollow, not too far from the sneer he says he had as a young teenager towards the Muslims in jamatkhana that his parents dragged him to on occasion. I lived in India as a teenager and college student from 1981 to 1988, and feel that his words lack appreciation for the nuances of the stratified socio-politico-economic conditions in India. In fact, Michigan Roundtable's Interfaith Partners can tell you about so many interfaith heroes from the Indian subcontinent who worked tirelessly for interfaith harmony in that region and around the world (IFP helped create Interfaith Heroes vol. 1 and 2).

I was concerned that Patel focuses on interfaith trialogue between the Abrahamic faiths. He lacked sufficient data or information on the world's third largest and most pluralistic faith ("Truth is One, the paths to It are many" - Rig Veda): Hindus in America number two million, based on several reliable sources (his number is much lower), and many think that this is underestimated. And also, India is mentioned first among the most religiously volatile nations in the world (at odds with Thomas Friedman's understanding of India) and "Hindu nationalists" are mentioned first when Patel states that "religious extremism is a movement of young people taking action." Patel’s words could inflame Hindus who have a deeply rooted concern about the violence inflicted in the name of Islam on the subcontinent – with all my willingness to identify with him as an Indian American, even I felt put-off by this lopsided portrayal. Why? I have always had a pluralistic world view – I am an American Hindu.

- Padma Kuppa, 2008

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Reflecting on a reflection of HMEC...

I recently saw that the latest issue of the Vishwa Hindu had a copy of my article. So why would the Vishwa Hindu have my article? Because I met many people from VHP-America at the Hindu Mandir Executive Conference, where I was a panelist on interfaith...
Reflections on HMEC 2008

I am just recovering from the experience of attending the Third Annual Hindu Mandir Executive Conference. This 48-hour event was held in Romulus, Michigan, and enabled representatives from about 115 mandirs (temples) around the USA and Canada, along with swamijis and other devotees and practitioners of Sanatana Dharma to meet, exchange ideas and create synergy.

You may wonder why I was there, since I am no Temple Executive. I was asked to moderate a session on why temples should be involved in interfaith activity. I was part of a panel of four, and we each presented our story of interfaith involvement and explained the need for dialogue within our respective regions with those of other faiths.

I spoke about the Outreach Committee of the Bharatiya Temple: why and how we got started, and the different things we do to engage ourselves in the wider community. I talked about our mission, (The Outreach Committee will take the lead to represent the Bharatiya Temple in interfaith and intra-faith activities in the Metro-Detroit area. The committee will accomplish this by working with many different wisdom traditions, groups, specific audiences or the general public) and our goals. I talked about our participation in area organizations, such as the Macomb County Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers, the Interfaith Alliance for Health and Hope and Michigan Roundtable's Interfaith Partners Board, as well as our annual representation in Habitat for Humanity, the annual metropolitan-wide services for the World Sabbath for Religious Reconciliation, National Day of Prayer, International Day of Peace and Thanksgiving. The Q & A part of the session got a touch heated, since someone was concerned about the symbols used and the statement Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti. It translates to "Truth is one, but the wise call it by many names" but someone thought the panelists were saying all religions are the same. We were even asked why we should be involved in dialogue with those of other faiths, when at times, these other faiths don't respect ours, and their philosophy may be that theirs is the only way to salvation. Each of us clarified our position, but I was intrigued by the idea from Ravi Joshi of Toledo, who suggested that we should take the person and sort of separate him from his theology, so that we can enter into a dialogue, and then, after establishing a friendship, we can enter into a discussion about the differences in theology.

I made many new friends, including Simi and Hina, who are next generation Hindus, and like me are working for a balance in their lives between the East and West. Hina told me the story of her college roommate, an evangelical Christian, who decided that since she loved her like a sister, wanted to "save her." She also refered to me as part of the Lost Generation – those of us who grew up in America in the early '70s when there was no significant Indian community and temples were yet to be established. Simi told me of the experiences she had, meeting Swami Dayanand Saraswati when she was thirteen, and later, how she spent time in India to learn classical music and stayed in an ashram. I found a spiritual advisor in Pandit Ramadheen Ramsamooj, the bearded leader of the Saraswati Mandiram community, which has been evicted from their premises in Epping, NH, because of predatory and illegal lending practices. Panditji came from Trinidad, and I asked him how Hindus there have maintained the tradition for over five generations. His answer – that the people who came to the Caribbean in the mid-1800s were simple village people who kept the tradition alive through storytelling from the Ramayana, and whose memories enabled them to paint a pleasant picture and even extol the glories of Bharat. A common thread I heard from Panditji and Hina was the importance of language to the cultural context.

I learned of the seva provided by Barsana Dham in Texas to the people who suffered displacement because of Hurricane Ike, and the gratitude of the Greater Houston area Hindu community expressed in material ways with the presentation of a $5,000 check to Swamini Jnaneswari Devi of Barsana Dham. I learned of the work across the country to correct the information about our faith tradition in textbooks and other materials used by educational institutions. I spoke with Sant Gupta of the greater Washington DC area; while learning of their efforts to ensure that Hinduism is not reduced to "karma, caste and cows" (as reported by the Washington Post in April 2005), exchanged my initiatives related to teaching of sacred music in Troy Schools. I learned about the book "Invading the Sacred," which contains concerns raised about the academic study of Hinduism in the United States. I also became concerned that in this process of trying to present a unified view of Hinduism to outsiders (and sometimes even to ourselves), we may end up losing the very richness of Sanatana Dharma, which contains multitudes, where every individual has his or her own path to the eternal Truth. As Abhaya Asthana, one of the organizers said, it is not what Mark Twain said (that there are two million gods in India), nor is it that there is One God, it is simply that there IS God.

The main feeling I came away from HMEC with was that we are indeed ONE family, as expressed in Vasudaiva Kutumbakam. I felt proud to be connected to the host family – Bharatiya Temple of Metropolitan Detroit, and appreciated the efforts of everyone from metro-Detroit who worked so hard to make it happen. And I realized that, like any family, we have contrasting ideas and common ground, leading to friction and friendship. The latter will deepen with time, as we seek to understand one another and work together, and especially continue to participate in and support such gatherings as the Annual Hindu Mandir Executive Conference.

So, I sent my friends from HMEC an article about sacred music in public schools, which got into a recent issue of Vishwa Hindu. I am pleased that it will be read by many parents and young people around the country, who can take the experiences I have had and the ideas I present and put them into use in their own context. One of these days, maybe I will reflect on that! Read more Entry>>