- There has been an increasingly troubling trend of Hindus in the diaspora insisting that any criticism of Hinduism or Hindu nationalism is Hinduphobic, using it as an excuse for silencing critics.
Hindus living outside India have faced bias at varying levels. Hinduphobia experienced by Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh should be especially concerning to anyone who cares about human rights. This fear-based violence has caused well-documented abductions of Hindu women, the destruction of temples, and false accusations of blasphemy, a crime with a mandatory death penalty.
Anti-Hindu sentiment in the West, while less violent and systemic, can also have a detrimental effect on the well-being of Hindus growing up in the diaspora. While some, especially first generation immigrants, may dismiss such bias as insignificant, America’s lack of understanding of the Hindu faith and history of white Christian supremacy have led to many Hindu American students feeling lonely, inferior, out-of-place, and un-American. These experiences should be validated and there is a genuine need to address structural problems in how all people of marginalized religious backgrounds — including Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and others –– are treated.
Unfortunately, there has been an increasingly troubling trend of Hindus in the diaspora insisting that any criticism of Hinduism or Hindu nationalism is Hinduphobic, using Hinduphobia as an excuse for silencing critics and oppressing other communities. This trend risks both further violence to oppressed South Asian communities and actual anti-Hindu bias not being taken seriously.
As a brown Hindu who grew up in a rural, very white part of Oregon, I know the feelings of subjection and isolation that often come with being a Hindu American. Here is some of what I experienced:
In second grade, my mom and I went to drop off Indian sweets at our neighbors’ houses for Diwali. One of our very Christian neighbors came to our home the next day to return the sweets. “Don’t ever do that again,” she said.
Teachers regularly made condescending, disrespectful remarks about Hinduism, treating it as if it was an un-American, dead religion. My seventh grade teacher was particularly egregious, misidentifying Gods, misinterpreting Hindu teachings, and asking me to be a spokesperson of my religion.
At high school debate nationals in 2015, a white student delivering a humorous interpretation piece gave a highly offensive impression of an Indian cab driver on the national finals stage. Putting on an exaggerated accent and cracking jokes about sacred cows, the thousands of people in the audience cheered and clapped. I wanted to die inside. There were hundreds of Hindu students at debate nationals, but the competitor’s mockery otherized us. His mockery — and the fact that judges liked it enough to send the kid to the finals — was a not-so-subtle way of saying that we didn’t belong there.
Conversion to Christianity
Friends and classmates tried to convert me to Christianity — gently, but always condescendingly, putting down my religious faith. Missionaries came to our home at least twice a year trying to convert us to Christianity.
Random strangers regularly approached me and other brown students at my college trying to convert us to Christianity. They’d start out by saying, “Can I ask you a question?” If you said yes, they wouldn’t leave you alone.
In a college class about religion and secularism, when I challenged the way our class framed God through an Abrahamic lens, suggesting we look at a text through the Hindu Advaita perspective, my professor brushed me off. “In this class we are going to think of God in the mainstream sense,” he said.
In college, a couple of friends and I tried to start a Hindu Student Association. Some students began saying that we were a cult, and the rumor was picked up by student journalists who asked us if we were “open to everyone” and had “anything to do with the Rajneeshees.” Nobody wanted to join our club. Even though the other Hindu students knew we weren’t a cult, they didn’t want to be seen as joining a cult, and we ultimately had to end our club. (I blame this whole ordeal partially on Netflix’s “Wild, Wild Country,” which came out that year.)
This list does not include every microaggression tossed my way, every home I wasn’t invited to, or every pang I felt when I read a book like “Pollyanna” or “The Secret Garden” or “The Horse and His Boy” that made me feel like I was an inferior heathen from an uncivilized culture. Many of my experiences with racism and anti-Hindu sentiment have melded together into a blur of feelings of isolation and subjection. But I deeply resent groups making moves to curtail freedom of speech and civil rights protections while purporting to represent “Hindu interests.” They are not doing anything for me, my fellow Hindus, or other marginalized communities.
Intolerance of Criticism
In recent weeks, Hindu students at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus organized to censure Rutgers-Newark Professor Audrey Truschke for what they believed to be Hinduphobic comments. One of Truschke’s tweets that has garnered particular outrage for being Hinduphobic was her statement that in Valmiki’s Ramayana: “During the agnipariksha, Sita basically tells Rama he’s a misogynist pig and uncouth.” Truschke has also been called out for her statements criticizing the Modi government and participation in protests against Hindu nationalism. While her choice of words with regard to Rama may seem offensive to devotees, her speech does not infringe upon any Hindu’s right to worship Rama as a deity, and in fact, her statements contribute to the long history of debate and scholarship within the Hindu community about Rama’s treatment of Sita. The fact that she speaks out against violence toward religious minorities in India should be commended. Yet Truschke has been attacked and demonized because she is a white woman who gave an unsympathetic portrayal of Rama and has taken a principled stance against the Modi regime.
Criticizing Hinduism — or I should say in this case, popular interpretations of Hindu texts — should not be considered anti-Hindu, even if that criticism comes from an outsider. Rather, alternative interpretations of Hindu texts and traditions should cause us to think more critically about our beliefs through constructive engagement, as scholars such as Srinivas Reddy have done. Unfortunately, right-wing Hindu organizations have attempted to shut down conversation completely by harassing Truschke, threatening her with libel lawsuits, and attacking the very institutions of freedom of expression and academic freedom that give minoritized communities (like Hindu Americans!) the ability to have a voice at all.
Hindus on Campus
Hindu groups are also increasingly attacking institutions for fighting discrimination. The California State Student Association, the student government body that represents the California State University system, recently passed a resolution adding caste as a protected category against discrimination, committing to support Dalit students. Although the resolution did not mention Hinduism at all, the Twitter account “Hindus on Campus” condemned it as anti-Hindu. Rather than support a resolution that would contribute to the well-being of oppressed-caste students and the dismantling of caste oppression within Hindu communities, “Hindus on Campus” is actively working with other national organizations to push for the resolution to be rescinded.
According to many right-wing groups, including Hindus on Campus, caste is not an inherent part of the Hindu faith. If this is truly the case, supporting caste-based civil rights protections ought to be a focal point of Hindu American advocacy. Rather, in the name of anti-Hindu sentiment, Hindu students are fighting against anti-caste resolutions, furthering the practices of caste discrimination that have demoralized and subjugated oppressed caste students and given Hinduism a bad name.
Opposition to the violent oppression of Muslims has also been ridiculously described as anti-Hindu. In 2019, after the Indian government revoked the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, many Kashmiris, journalists, and human rights observers reported egregious human rights violations against Kashmiri Muslims, including people being detained without cause, excessive force against protestors and detainees, and incidents where people were unable to obtain medical care. After hearing from constituents who were unable to contact their families in Kashmir, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) introduced a resolution calling on India to lift restrictions on communications, protect religious freedom, and allow independent human rights observers and journalists into the region. Some Hindu American groups branded Jayapal’s resolution anti-Hindu and successfully prevented the resolution from moving forward.
Opposing Hindutva ideology is not anti-Hindu. Rather, Hindus ought to passionately fight against the Indian government’s violent curtailment of the rights of Muslims. The revocation of Kashmir’s special status was supported by people who said Hindu Pandits had been expelled from Kashmir in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to ethnic cleansing by extremists. The Citizenship Amendment Act was supported by people who said they wanted to protect those fleeing from religious oppression in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. But these excuses are flimsy, using human rights rhetoric as a tool to diminish the political voice and human rights of India’s Muslims. Supporting human rights for Hindus doesn’t preclude India from supporting human rights for Muslims. The oppression of Muslims in Kashmir and the exclusion of Muslims from the Citizenship Amendment Act were active choices made not to preserve human rights, but to further the goal of India becoming a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). Any Hindu who believes in pluralism must oppose such policies.
Hindus for Human Rights
I grew up with a Hinduism that taught me to speak up for justice, respect all human beings as inherently divine, and promote non-violence. This Hinduism is what inspires me to speak out for oppressed communities in India as a board member of Hindus for Human Rights. It is why I work as an employment advisor, helping low-income rural Oregonians find work opportunities. My experiences with anti-Hindu prejudice push me to stand in solidarity with my Muslim, Sikh, and Dalit community members, who have faced far worse discrimination than I have. Shutting down speech, filing libel lawsuits, and fighting against civil rights protections are profoundly unjust and bigoted actions that perpetuate violence against people from marginalized communities, activists, and scholars. These actions also fail to do anything for Hindu Americans facing bias.
I have been an organizer for the Hindu American community in Oregon since I was 19, and I recently worked with my community to advocate for the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to revise a rule called “Every Student Belongs.” The first version of the rule initially banned the swastika––casting it as a symbol of hate–– from being displayed in school. After a letter-writing campaign and meetings with ODE staff, we successfully pushed for ODE to omit the word swastika from the rule, changing the language to ban “symbols of neo-Nazi ideology,” and create guidance explaining the difference between the Hindu swastika and Nazi hakenkreuz. The Oregon House of Representatives recently passed a bill to put this language into statute.
We were successful because we took a gentle approach of dialogue and conversation, drawing on our own experiences as Hindu students to justify the change. Our advocacy gave us the chance to have later meetings with ODE’s social studies department to talk about issues with the state standards, which led to the revision of a seventh grade social studies standard mandating the teaching of the “Vedic Law Code,” a document that doesn’t exist. But we were also successful because we had interfaith support. In addition to a local rabbi, one of our strongest advocates was Corvallis School District school board member Sami Al-Abdrabbah, who attended all our meetings with ODE and voiced our concerns to important stakeholders. At a school board meeting, he explained that his experience with discrimination as a Muslim made our concerns near and dear to his heart. I am currently volunteering on his reelection campaign so we can continue the equity work that helps all students thrive.
The best way to uplift ourselves as Hindus is by standing in solidarity with disenfranchised people of all stripes to work through our experiences of subjugation and combat discrimination. Criticism of Hinduism, caste, and Hindu nationalism is not Hinduphobia, and Hindus should stop using cruel tactics to fight non-existent enemies. Instead, we should respectfully embrace and engage with criticism of our faith while fighting for the human rights of all oppressed communities.
Sravya Tadepalli is a board member of Hindus for Human Rights and works on poverty alleviation in rural Oregon.