if everyone is family…
thoughts on whether Hindu universalism can play out in the flesh
Flanking Mother Mary on Navnath’s Maruti Suzuki dashboard was a small gold-painted Ganesh statue. From his rearview mirror dangled a plate of silver and blue Urdu text. A few frames of the Sacred Mosque of Mecca were taped up for good measure. I stared at the religious insurance and asked him what, exactly, was going on. He shrugged and told me that god was in all things, and in all things god.
Like Navnath, I’ve always lived Hinduism as a universal faith that harbors a diverse range of thought. There are Hindus who are atheist, theist, or agnostic, who are vegan or carnivores, and even those who simultaneously call themselves Buddhist or Sufi. Growing up, I was taught that all life forms, divine or mortal, are just different manifestations of one consciousness. As the Rig Veda says, ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti — there is one truth, but sages call it by many names. Gandhi incorporated Christian, Islamic, and Zoroastrian teaching into his life, writing that Hinduism has “room for the worship of all the prophets of the world.”
Recently, though, I’ve been wondering if Hindu universalism can really play out in the flesh. “If everyone is family,” Obama wrote in his memoir, “no one is family,” which makes universalism seem incompatible with the deep human desire to be part of a tribe. Tribes provide people with emotional sustenance but can also motivate mob violence, as India’s religious riots show today. Here, I ask: can universalism survive in spite of — or even, aided by — the human urge to uphold a tribe?
Though I write here about India, the tension between universalism and tribalism exists everywhere, from the American political debate stage to the Knesset. This maildrop is a live question, and I would love to hear what you think. Please forward it on if you think a friend would enjoy.
Religion manifests in every street corner in India. On Friday evenings in Bombay, Muslims wind around the seawall to Haji Ali and Ganesh devotees stretch to catch aarti at Siddhivinayak temple. Christians kneel to offer plastic lungs, hearts, and even VISA signs in prayer at Mount Mary church. With nightfall, Jews at the Baghdadi synagogue begin shabbat and the Zoroastrian fire temple grows quiet. Time turns in a rotation of festivals that celebrate the birth and death of deities ancient and new.
Fragments from these different faiths blend into the languages of local communities. Even the members of my family who don’t eat fish or believe in God say dahi machli when someone leaves for a trip and god bless you when someone sneezes. My mom chants the Hanuman chalisa during tough times and plays Sufi ghazals on long car rides. Still today, when my foot grazes a book, I can’t help but touch my forehead in apology to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge.
Though Hindu universalism accepts many faiths, in practice we latch onto specific traditions embodied by smaller tribes, which lie somewhere between the individual and the universal. These sprout in India in many forms, from Vaishnava or Shaiva associations to groups of street vendors who care for the same roadside shrine. People even rally around new deities who support their 21st century dreams, like the Goddess of English, who stands on a computer in a hat and gown with a keyboard, pen, and the Indian Constitution.
Religious tribes like these are exclusive, in some sense: I’ll never truly be part of a Vaishnava sect, much less a synagogue. However, I think they can be compatible with universalism. This is possible when tribes stake their identity in positive space — a non-exhaustive claim to what they do believe — instead of negative space — a rejection of what they don’t. Think of a Hindu who acknowledges that she worships Shiva instead of Allah as a matter of personal resonance or cultural contingency, versus one who looks down upon Muslims because they’re doing something wrong.
The latter camp often ossifies around a dangerous belief: this is what we are, and we are under attack by them. This exists all over the world, particularly in India’s politicized religious landscape. One of India’s most polarizing political parties is the right-wing BJP, which aims to build a strong nation that stands alongside the US and China. Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear the BJP described as bold, anti-corrupt, fear-mongering, and most often, Hindu nationalist. But Hindu nationalism, to me, sounds like an oxymoron. How can a universal belief system power tribal politics?
Last February, a few months before Modi’s re-election, my mother and I went to the Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh is a Hindu festival in Allahabad, the city where I was born. It is so massive that it’s a cheesy Bollywood backdrop for twins lost, lovers separated, and elders abandoned. The 2019 Kumbh was the largest gathering in human history: 120 million people came to bathe in the holy river over the course of two months.
The BJP was anxious to retain power in the upcoming election, and it showed. Allahabad was cleaner than my mother could ever remember. Streets had been widened, murals painted under bridges, and trash cleared from the river and roads by an army of robots and workers. Billboards alternated between the Gandhi family and Modi with Yogi Adityanath, a gun-loving Hindu monk who is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Most strikingly, the BJP had renamed Allahabad to Prayagraj, dropping the city’s Mughal name in favor of its “original” Hindu name.
When I asked pilgrims and locals what they thought of the BJP, I got two main reactions. Many people, especially those in the lower class, just shrugged. Their Hindu identity had nothing to do politics, and their approach to politics was pragmatic and skeptical. They cared about basic life improvements, not cultural symbols. They accepted cash payments and extra food rations, but were unmoved by the accompanying BJP or Congress rhetoric about Hinduism or India. When I asked a cab driver about the contentious proposal to build a Ram temple on religiously disputed land, he told me that he wished they’d just build a hospital instead.
On the other hand, I met many people whose Hindu identities were tied closely to political discourse, and particularly the BJP. An older uncle showed me a WhatsApp clip of the Indian defense minister to explain.
“Hindus have always been the nice guys, letting people walk all over us,” he paraphrased. “First the Mughals, then the Christians. It’s a miracle we survived! It’s time to finally stand up for ourselves.”
“The Jews assert themselves,” others told me. “Pakistan literally has Islam written into its constitution. Why shouldn’t we?”
“Egalitarianism is all fun and games until it doesn’t cut it anymore,” I heard. “Young people like you might not understand.”
These people were hurt by the idea of Hindus humiliated throughout history by repeated invasions. What Hindus had gotten in return for treating everyone as family, they thought, was pain. “Our tolerance has just gotten us trampled,” someone noted. It was time to toughen up and rise at last, even if that meant cutting people from the family.
My conversations helped me realize that public rhetoric about religion in India often isn’t about religion at all — it’s about power. Political parties on all sides galvanize support by activating different tribes’ insecurity and fear. They convince groups that they are in danger of losing their place in society’s power ladder, that they must assert themselves or die. From there, it is only a short, dangerous step to mob violence. (I understand now why my father says that organized religion and politics can be worse than organized crime.)
Insecurity-fueled tribalism exists in many political parties beyond the BJP, of course, in India and around the world. It has arguably fueled Naxalite murders, Muslim terror plots, Trump’s election, and Brexit. I am not unsympathetic to it — everyone needs a tribe, and history can hurt. (Even I, a US citizen who grew up in New Jersey, have cried over stories of Indian freedom fighters and raged at the fact that our treasures remain in the British Museum.) Once our tribal identities are at stake, it is hard not to get sucked into an endless cycle of wrongdoing and retaliation.
But taking action based on insecurity is dangerous. People’s fears about their power being stolen by outsiders — whether Muslims or Mexican — easily become runaway trains, justifying a wide spectrum of political agendas. It’s much easier to forward around WhatsApp videos and jump to consternation than to demand facts, especially as people burn each other to the ground. (I remain amazed that most conversations I’ve had about the BJP’s proposed National Register of Citizens have skirted around basic details: how many Indians lack papers or proof of citizenship? How could a law like this ever be implemented under highly corrupt local politicians?)
Maybe the answer is not to fight against our tendency towards tribalism, but to work with it. A friend showed me a video of the poet Javed Akhtar responding to outrage over a film that poked fun at a Hindu deity. “People ask if I’d dare do this with Islam,” he says, “and I say, who are you competing with? The Taliban? Look at the societies with this kind of intolerance. Try to make them more like you, instead of becoming more like them.” “Our country is special,” he continued, “because it allows us to say anything, hear anything, and believe anything.”
We can use people’s tribal tendencies to activate a defense of universalism over hateful nationalism, to make them see being Indian or Hindu as being deeply multicultural. (Both India and America face a similar task here, ekam sat or e pluribus unum.) I wonder, for this to work, whether they need to feel more thickly connected to being Indian or American than to being members of their ethnic, economic, or religious tribe.
In response to my original question, then, yes. I believe that a universal belief system can play out amidst the human urge to be part of a tribe, that our search for community beyond the individual does not need to result in hatred. Even then, this is hard, especially in a world of strangers. As a prerequisite, we need local relationships that fulfill our need for emotional sustenance, whether through a temple, school, or Girl Scouts group. Then, we have to affirm our identity through positive, not negative, space. We have to resist power plays that prompt insecurity. We have to demand facts, doubt our gut reactions, and take an extra moment before generalizing about a group, even one whose members have hurt people we care about.
When I was writing this piece, I was criticized both for being anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim, for bashing the BJP too much and not enough. I was never, however, playing the numbers game about who started what, or who has killed more of the other. Instead, I am trying to understand what enables mob violence in the first place. If there is anything I am bashing, it’s the ugly side of tribalism that endangers everything I have believed about Hinduism and India’s capacity for universalism.
One of the most magical afternoons I ever had was in Bombay’s Chor Bazaar, a street market in a heavily Muslim area. Past lines of stores piled high with brass doorknobs and vintage cameras was a gorgeous teal and green tiled mosque. A doorknob salesman nearby noticed me and started recounting the mosque’s history. Eventually, I asked him where he prayed, assuming from his pride that he was a patron of the mosque.
“I’ll show you,” he said.
We walked into the shop of a Muslim tailor, who looked up, folded his hands in namaste, and moved aside to reveal a small staircase in the floor. Through three heavy metal doors, and behind a grille was a cobra-ringed Shiva lingam made of orange clay. The salesman closed his eyes, murmured a Sanskrit shloka, and folded daffodils onto the floor. Behind us rang the imam’s slow evening call to prayer.