Op-Ed: On ‘Tel Aviv Meets Bombay’ And Mutual Respect

May 6, 2013, 12:50 a.m.

A recent article published in STATIC, “On ‘Tel Aviv Meets Bombay’ and South Asian Assimilation” by Janani Balasubramanian ‘12, disparaged Sanskriti, Stanford’s South Asian cultural organization, for hosting a mixer with the Stanford Israel Alliance on May 3. This event had no political purpose, nor any intention other than to bring together a few dozen students from both communities to sit on FloMo field and engage socially over falafel and samosas.

We did not “celebrate the colonial Israeli state” or even talk about it. We did, however, marvel over the presence of the hamsa (swan) as a symbol in both cultures, an example of the many principles they share. Janani took this event as an opportunity to put down not just Sanskriti but Indian, and specifically Hindu, culture as a whole. I write this response not as a Sanskriti representative but as a Hindu and an Indian-American concerned about the derisive and incorrect image of my heritage propagated by this article, and the threat it presents to the atmosphere of mutual respect desired in the Stanford community.

First of all, the Indian education system does not favor upper-caste Hindus. The caste system as a social practice does still exist on some level but has no intrinsic roots in Hindu scripture. The reality in India today, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, sees upper-caste Brahmins actively discriminated against for both education and jobs, with reservation quotas of more than 70 percent for backward and scheduled castes in private and public sectors and additional quotas for minority religions.

Indians of our parents’ generation immigrated to the United States as skilled professionals in high demand. Perhaps they did not face the same level of discrimination as other communities, partly because the first wave of immigration happened after the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.

Still, one cannot simply ignore the violent hate crimes of the “Dotbusters” in New Jersey in the 1980s, named with reference to the red dots called bindis that Hindus wear on their foreheads. More recently, one cannot forget the mass shooting at a Sikh gurudwara in Wisconsin just last year.

Janani’s claim that “it was often safer [for Indians] to collaborate with the British colonial government than to challenge its White supremacy” should raise red flags for anyone with any knowledge of the anti-colonial Indian freedom movement. Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent protest inspired both the leaders of the South African Anti-Apartheid movement and the American Civil Rights movement. To call a nation that gained its independence through nonviolent means, a nation that today has a Sikh Prime Minister and a Muslim Vice President, a cause of “Hindu-nationalist duress” reveals deep ignorance.

And if India truly did embrace Hindu principles, what would that look like? Like Janani, I too studied classical music and dance growing up, and attended weekly classes at Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, an institute for the study of Hindu advaita Vedanta philosophy and other classical disciplines. The gurukulam gave me a learning environment in which there were no wrong questions. I learned the value of ahimsa, causing the least possible harm. I learned responsibility for both the direct and indirect effects of one’s actions, karma. I learned about dharma, a framework for moral behavior that places one in harmony with the universal order. I learned the importance of pluralism and mutual respect among religions rather than mere tolerance. Hinduism bases itself on understanding rather than belief, and one need not be a follower of the religion to attain enlightenment.

I do not understand Janani’s repeated reference to “Hindu patriarchy,” since Hindu tradition personifies divine energy in feminine form as Shakti and has a history replete with female religious leaders. My thorough immersion in Hindu tradition through the gurukulam has given me a strong sense of religious and cultural identity, and I am comfortable, no, proud to identify as a Hindu, as an Indian and as a woman.

Furthermore, I take issue with Janani’s endorsement of the term “South Asian” rather than Indian. The term works for an umbrella organization like Sanskriti that seeks to involve as many people as possible in cultural and social events, but it proves problematic in most other contexts. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh differ greatly on issues of religion, politics and human rights. Of the three, only India identifies as secular and as a democracy and supports equal (or extra) rights for minorities.

The three countries have different goals and needs, and, in the international arena, no foreign policy could be framed to deal with “South Asia” categorically. Identifying as “South Asian” individually means embracing an inherently fractured, contradictory self-image. In a collective context the term serves a purpose of inclusion but on the individual level only leads to cultural confusion.

Now to come to the actual event and what it represents. India and Israel have a rich, mutually beneficial relationship that stems from the similar challenges they face. In addition, the Hindu and Jewish traditions share many values of practice and lifestyle confidently recognized by religious leaders of both faiths. In an American context, Indian-Americans have followed in the footsteps of the American Jewish community to enjoy success in academia, business and culture, and they look to members of the Jewish community as role models for a strong political voice.

Both India and Israel are democracies in locations of instability and face aggression from their neighbors. Unlike these other nations, they both offer citizenship and equal rights to their large populations of minority religions, with members of these communities serving in political office. India has developed a strong relationship with Israel not only through defense and security, but also through technology. Israeli techniques for soil management in desert climates have helped states like Rajasthan grow exportable crops. Irrigation techniques have changed the face of Indian agriculture, the means of subsistence for a majority of the population. The two democracies that represent the world’s two oldest religious traditions have much to share with each other.

In terms of religion, Hinduism and Judaism are both non-aggressive in practice and propagation. Neither religion actively proselytizes, and both experience dwindling numbers in the face of other religions that do actively convert through a variety of means. Since 2007, the most prominent Hindu and Jewish leaders from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha have engaged in dialogue to promote mutual respect through three Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summits organized by the World Council of Religious Leaders. I was fortunate enough to tag along to the third Summit in New York and Washingon D.C. with my father, the Executive Director of the Forum for Religious Freedom, and I attribute my continuing passion for mutual respect among religious communities and for Hindu-American advocacy to such opportunities.

I agree with you, Janani, that students at schools like Stanford will probably go on to have significant social and political influence, but I find that all the more reason to stimulate intercultural and interfaith dialogue in our community with the intention of fostering mutual respect. Mutual respect means respect for all communities, including those with which one might not agree.

The SIA-Sanskriti mixer created new friendships across the two organizations, friendships that will further the discovery of abundant similarities between the two countries, religions and cultures, giving us the chance to support each other and learn from each other’s successes past and successes to come.

Amrita Rao ‘15

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