Apr 15, 2011

Hinduism from Foreign Eyes

Living in America has brought me and my friends face to with a lot of questions about the religions of Nepal. One of the first things people want to know is about the caste systems of Nepal. People want to know how we distinguish people from other casts. The answer is actually easy; we distinguish castes by last names. But in Nepal we are so used to distinguishing people by their faces that we often draw a blank to that particular question. To the question of untouchability, we tell people again and again that those are outdated norms, but few people are willing to believe us over the textbooks of ancient Hinduism. One time we had a friend who had taken a world religions class and was very eager to spread his new-found knowledge of the same ancient textbooks. “Are you a Brahman?” he asked us in turn. When I replied yes, he berated me “then go into the jungle and meditate, what are you doing here?” To another friend he said “you are a Kshatriya, go and fight for your country, why are you poring over books with the Brahmans?” We had a hard time convincing him that these are archaic practices long dead now, and that no Brahman I ever knew has gone into the forests to meditate.

Another time I and a couple friends were invited to give a presentation about Nepal to some students. We packed our slides with a whole lot of information. We thought the info about the living goddess Kumari, Mt. Everest, about the hundreds of languages spoken in Nepal was pretty intersting. But apparently not so t the students. They were interested in none of these. Our question answer session following the presentation went like this:

Student 1: So, did you say you guys don’t eat beef?

Us: No, cows are holy to us.

Student 2: Then what do you eat?

Us: Well, meat is not eaten as frequently in Nepal as here. So we eat other stuff.

Student 3: So, you don’t eat meat at all?

Us: Of course we do, we eat goats and chickens.

Student 4: So, no beef at all?

Us: No, none at all.

Student 5: Then what do you eat?


And so it went on for a long time. We were surprised that students took an interest in such an obscure fact rather than other more interesting things. No wonder misunderstandings are rife. I have been asked many times if women wear the traditional burqa in Nepal, and one time I was asked if in Nepal we cut off the hands of a person as punishment for stealing. I had to clarify that both these things are normally associated with Islam and had nothing to do with me, and I am not even sure if the hand cutting thing is practiced anywhere today.

Recently I came across another misunderstanding that surprised me. An American friend, who is a Buddhist told me that people in America thought Buddha is a “fat Chinese guy”. I guess this might be because of the popularity of the laughing Buddha statues. This irritated my Buddhist friend, because he knew that Buddha practiced strict discipline in everything including eating. For that reason, Buddha had a lean physique and is never portrayed as fat in South Asia where he actually lived.

One of the many poses of laughing Buddha

One time I was asked if the Hindu gods changed their sex frequently. At that time I could think of only one god who fit this image, the ardhanarishwar form of Lord Shiva. So I passed it off as another misunderstanding. But later I realized that there are many gender bender stories in Hinduism that we know but do not notice. For example, the stories of Lord Vishnu’s Mohini avatar and the stories of Lord Kumar who was born from two fathers could be perceived as examples of cross dressing and homosexuality respectively. We take these stories for granted but I could see how they could be weird for outsiders.

The person in the center is Vishnu, a male god, in his Mohini (enchantress) avatar. Look how enchanted all the gods and demons are :P

Sometimes these discussions unknowingly escalate into the realms of faux pas. Once I had a friend who was trying to explain that in his religion, he only worshiped God and not the wordly things that God created. “Some people worship animals, some people worship trees” he said. “We worship trees” I interrupted. My friend was dumbstruck, and quickly changed the subject. “What happens if you are Hindu and die and are reborn as Muslim?” was his next question. I tried to explain to him that from my understanding, these theories of Hinduism are all-inclusive, even of those who do not believe in the faith. So a person could be reborn as whatever they liked and still would have to go through the whole cycle of karma, heaven and hell. Well, that’s the theory anyways, in all its arrogance of assuming that it applies to the whole world, but my friend of course would have none of it. One of my other friends was more sensitive to our feelings though. “How long have I had my foot in my mouth?” he asked after we discussed religion. Well, not at all, in that case, but in my own case, the article seems to have put a mile of my foot into my mouth. Hence, time to sign off, Namaste.



Anonymous said...

I read your blog and found it interesting. I have heard about courses in world religions, but I found your characterization of it--at least in this blog--as somewhat discomforting. If I were to take a course in world religions, especially if I had the opportunity of taking it with classmates from other religions, I would not pay that much attention to calling myself a Hindu, Christian, etc. For me, a course like that would not be about my religious identity but an intellectual opportunity; while I would share what I have known/experienced about one or more religions, I would not try to represent the religion. In other words, one should try to distance oneself from all religions being studied in order to understand and appreciate them. Also, I found your confusion of culture with religion rather awkward: the things both your classmates and you use as examples of religion are cultural practices (outdated or not) and while they are shaped by Hindu religious beliefs, they narrow down the whole idea of religious philosophy and belief system into stereotypical religio-cultural practices. I thought courses in world religions teach religious philosophies and not just cultural or religious practices. Finally, the study of world religion must be done in order to understand how religions are historically shaped by the material, political, and other realities of the place and time where they developed and prevail. For example, caste system began as an economic system of division of labor, but perhaps more importantly, it is also a reflection of the terribly hierarchical power structure of south Asian societies so it should be understood politically as well; the persistence of caste system today (no, it's a thing of the past yet) has to do with the economic disparity whose vicious cycle continues to plague south Asian societies. The real objective of a course in world religions should be to historically and analytically understand the evolution and prevalence of the beliefs and practices of religions instead of getting stuck with this or that practice or belief for describing the religions. I hate to say this to a person who seems to love the idea of being a Hindu so much, but courses in world religions should make the student intellectual capable of understanding all religions as similar historical, political, and social phenomena with different manifestations. I am surprised that a person who took such a course only got as far as being surprised by her classmates' narrow understanding of her religion--and never seemed to get to the point of understanding religions in historical, analytical, political, and intellectual terms.
But thanks for sharing the thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I reread the post to realize that your friend and not you took the course in world religion. So, I guess the critique of narrowing down the idea of religion to the level of stereotyped cultural practices is directly applicable to the person who, after taking a course in world religions, failed to take an intellectual perspective on religions. But my thoughts might be worth reading to you and other readers of your blog as well. Again, thanks for sharing this and many other great posts on this blog.

sewa said...

thanks for the second post, you realize that m irritation was rising with every line of the first post :P

i was only reporting the incidents that i found funny, you should have noticed the title, which is Hinduism from "foreign" eyes and not my eyes.

i would like to thank you for your close reading, your interesting opinion and breadth of knowledge, and complement you on your sophisticated English.

krishna said...

A ton thanks for the nice article Sewa. I liked; specially American Misunderstanding... “fat Chinese guy”.. :) In my experience not only America entire western world think in the same wrong way. I m not hate to them neither love to eastern philosophy or religion. After read your article i just became happy... we have something. keep it up!

~ bhoowan ~ said...

प्रस्तुती सुन्दर छ | कुनै बिषयलाई अलि बचेर उधिन्नु पर्छ , तर यसमा सन्तुलित छ | अझै अरु लेखहरु आउदै जाउन !

sewa said...

thank you for liking krishna and bhoowan :)

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