- As a Hindu American, I’m obligated to take up the stewardship of the sacred that my ancestors died for and that my Hindu sisters are kidnapped, raped and killed for believing in.
It’s impossible to enjoy mainstream American entertainment media these days without feeling constantly assaulted by the subtle (and overt) Hinduphobia that nestles itself into throwaway lines about yoga and jokes about New Ageism. Increasingly, Hinduism and Hindus are the casualties in virtue signaling dialogue or plotlines about bias and discrimination against other communities. It’s stitched together with Hinduphobia that has been around for so long, it’s become normal.
I watched the first season of “White Lotus” this week because of the hype about season two on social media. Set in a Hawaiian resort, the show promised dark comedy coupled with a (hopefully nuanced) commentary on race, colonization, privilege, entitlement, and wealth. Plus, Jennifer Coolidge is in it! It seemed like the perfect combination of hijinks, tropical fashion, and critical commentary to keep me warm on a chilly November night.
Not even one episode in, and I am witnessing Belinda, the endearing, compassionate Black woman who manages the resort spa (and the most sympathetic character on the show), chanting Gayatri Mantra (correction: slaughtering Gayatri Mantra) to soothe the anxiety of the privileged, frazzled, narcissistic white woman, Tanya, played by Coolidge (a beloved actress). Tanya tries to repeat it with her, and Belinda says, no you don’t have to repeat this. It’s a Hindu chant.
(For those readers who don’t know, Gayatri Mantra is one of if not the most sacred Hindu mantras. It is incredibly beautiful and significant in meaning and is not to be chanted or even learned without permission and the proper preparation.)
Then it happens again. Belinda “chants” Gayatri Mantra on a boat. To Tanya. While stroking her head and comforting her after she has a meltdown about her mother’s death.
As if Gayatri Mantra is a New Age energetic warm compress.
How painful it was to watch Belinda, who didn’t openly identify or present as Hindu using and mangling a sacred Hindu mantra to appease Tanya, also not a Hindu, in situations that had no reverence or connection to the Divine, in situations that were all about ego and New Age platitudes.
I watched it knowing that it would be so difficult to talk about why it was wrong. That a show that problematizes privilege and discussions of privilege doesn’t appear to problematize the neocolonial theft and distortion of indigenous knowledge as long as it’s a person of color doing it. And that if I said that out loud, I could easily be accused of being anti-Black.
It took only seconds for me to already unpack (even as I watched with horror at these scenes unfolding) that if I voiced an issue with this, then bursting out of their echo chambers would appear the screams and accusations, the dominant voices who have conflated caste and race and have seared into people’s brains that yoga and Hinduism are inherently oppressive and it is only through allowing BIPOC people to claim those practices for themselves that Hinduism will be free of Hindus. Or Brahmins, who are according to them, white supremacists. And that there would be no real space for discussion to explore why it is harmful to use Gayatri Mantra in this way — harmful to everyone.
So, I debated writing about it, in no small measure because in the face of so much physical harm that is happening to Hindu girls and women and is erased by those same echo chambers, this feels … less existential.
Except if I do not take seriously the stewardship of the sacred that my ancestors died for and that my Hindu sisters are kidnapped and raped and killed for believing in, then I am simply fighting against instead of fighting for.
As a Hindu American, I know that at any moment, I might be accosted with such a moment, where what is most sacred to me is used as a punchline, as a throwaway remark, as an accessory (at best) and that this has serious implications in dehumanizing us and erasing our historical trauma, but that if I point this out, I will be accused by those concerned with justice (maybe even by my own community) of being the cause of oppression.
But I also know that there are Hindu Americans who want to have these conversations in meaningful ways, and we have friends and allies who are open and eager to support us and do the same. One friend suggested reaching out to the producers of the show to call them in. I will be doing that.
After posting about this on Facebook, a memory popped up from 4 years ago, when I was deep in the literature review phase of dissertating. It feels perfectly suited to this situation.
“Came across a beautiful concept today, whilst reading Marilyn Cochran-Smith (of course!) — hermeneutical pedagogy towards the building interpretive capacity.
She was citing Rob Reich in her 2010 article, “Toward a theory of teacher education for social justice.”*
“Reich rejects “mainstream multicultural pedagogy,” which he claims essentializes groups and is based on stereotyping. Instead, he calls for “hermeneutical pedagogy,” which supports cross-cultural discussion and efforts to understand others’ points of view from their own perspectives, thus building “interpretive capacity” for all participants in society.”
*From the Second International Handbook of Educational Change (pp. 445–467). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
Indu Viswanathan is the Director of Education at the Hindu University of America. She received her Master’s in Elementary Education and Doctorate in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Indu received a BA in Economics from Cornell University. Indu is the co-founder and co-director of Understanding Hinduphobia, an initiative to increase public consciousness and discourse about Hinduphobia, build allyship, and nurture scholarship.