- America has come a long way from viewing Hinduism as a “strange cult,” but we need to remain vigilant.
It was the year 1911. Sara Chapman Bull, a resident of Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, died that year. Sarah was originally from upstate New York and married a Norwegian violinist Ole Bull and remained so until he passed away in 1880. In 1893, Sarah attended the Parliament of Religions in Chicago where she heard and met with Swami Vivekananda.
Later, Sara adopted Hindu Dharma and was influenced by the Raj Yog. She remained one of the closest associates of the Vedanta Society founded by Swami ji. She supported Vedanta society in her lifetime and left an estimated half-million dollars worth of estate in her will for the Vedanta Society.
Sara’s daughter, Olea Vaughan, challenged Sara’s will in the Court of Maine, claiming that Sara was mentally incompetent at the time of signing the will. It could have been simply considered a family and property dispute. However, Olea’s lawyer supported her argument by saying, “Hindus had driven Mrs. Bull insane!” The petition referred to “Hindu drugs,” the brain — “inoculated with the bacteria of faith taught by Indian Swamis,” and more allegations showing Hinduism in a bad light and effectively Sarah as its victim. The media was not far behind either. The New York Times referred to Hinduism as a “strange cult,” Boston Herald termed “weird doctrines of their creed” while referring to Raj Yog in Hinduism and many more narratives throughout this trial.
This 1911 recorded court case and the media coverage might not have been the first instance of a Hinduphobic act and might not have been the last one either. However, it is heartening to see that today America and Americans are far more aware of Hindu philosophy and practice. Their openness is visible in their relations with their Hindu neighbors; city officials and elected officials sending greetings during Diwali; first responders being open to tying rakhis to their hands, and teachers looking forward annually to the Guru Vandana event.
But unfortunately, there are exceptions to the goodness of society. One such visible example in recent years is the recent Democratic primary election in District 8 of Illinois. A healthy sign of democracy was that there was a primary election challenging incumbent Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi. It should have been a standard political argument where both candidates could have claimed to be the best representative for their district. There was no reason for a person like me, who does not reside in the district nor in that state, to follow this primary. I don’t know either of the candidates personally, nor have any adverse opinion.
Unfortunately, at such a time, Pieter Friedrich, a self-proclaimed freelance journalist-activist who is an outsider for IL-08, effectively initiated mud-throwing against Rep. Krishnamoorthi. These attacks were not on any politics or the policies that the Congressman stood for, but appears to be purely an attempt to spread hate about one community, its faith, values, and philosophy. His acts were not only against the Congressman himself but against American Hindus whom he perpetually appears to despise. This self-declared activist also attacked in the past, Hindu politicians, including Tulsi Gabbard and Sri Preston Kulkarni. As recent as January 2021, Friedrich called Mahatma Gandhi, in his words, the “so-called” father of India and an “anti-black racist.”
Additionally, he is considered to have a close association with sympathizers of the Khalistani separatist movement that has been known to have worked to destabilize India. These are just some examples where he strategically kept portraying Hinduism and Hindus in the worst possible light.
Unfortunately, the ideological extremism of Indo-centric cancel-culture, bullying, and disinformation campaign against Hindus continue its tacit support to such Hinduphobia. It boosts the morale of radical elements in the society who ignore fundamental human rights and act against people of one community based on their religion. During this primary season, such hate was quite visible when Pieter Friedrich took pride in chanting “Krishnamoorthy Murdabad” or literally, as defined, “down to or death to Krishnamoorthy.”
The attacks on Hinduism and Hindus in 1911 resulted in a controversial trial where the Vedanta society lost the donation they received from Sarah Bull.
Over the past century, America has changed a lot. This was directly reflected in a statement by Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. denouncing “Pieter Friedrich and others who engage in bigoted extremist rhetoric.” Earlier, unrelated to this primary, but in response to Pieter Friedrich’s Hinduphobic rhetoric, Steve Chirico, Mayor of Naperville, where Friedrich had made similar incendiary remarks, stated, “Naperville City council doesn’t accept any hate against any Organization and individual.”
Finally, people voted to elect their candidate in the primary in an outright denunciation of Hinduphobia. As opposed to the court’s ruling a little over a hundred years ago with a few juries, the judge, and the media, people voted for Congressman Krishnamoorthy. He won the primary by a thumping 71.3% of support vote.
This was real democracy at work where voters disregarded the ill-intended narrative, and Hinduphobia and facts prevailed. Let us hope that this message of positivity will spread across all communities and that any attempts to shame American Hindus into oblivion will be futile.
Vikas Deshpande is a member of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA.