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Letter to a Young American Hindu, by Vijay Prashad

By: on 21 May 2007

The following is a guest contribution from Vijay Prashad. He is the author of eleven books, including Karma of Brown Folk (2000), and most recently The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (2007).

Dear Friend,

Like you, I was raised in a mixed family. My parents' families came to Bengal from Punjab, and from Burma. One side leans towards Hinduism; the other to Sikhism. The city, the metro, provided its own cultural mooring, and in secular India, I found myself interested in all religions and deeply schooled in none. Id meant fellowship with my Muslim neighbors and friends; a Navjot meant a crash course in Parsi life; Nanak's birthday meant a visit to Gurudwara Sant Kutiya in the center of town; Christmas, which is Bara Din in Calcutta, meant a brightly lit Park Street and a visit to St. Paul's Cathedral; and, of course, Diwali and Holi represented the high-points of our festival culture. Religion was colorful, and friendly. It didn't represent either the harshest of personal morality nor the resentments or distrust of others.

I learnt a few prayers and songs, but this learning was not systematic. Some of my friends were better schooled than I in their various traditions. Our diversity was not simply across religion, but also a diversity of the density of our engagement with religion: agnostics or religious illiterates were as welcome as those who were committed to their faith. The festival that I most liked was Saraswati Puja, the day when we wore yellow and put all our schoolbooks at the feet of the goddess. The respite from study was welcome, as you can imagine.

My morality came from elsewhere than religion, from recognition of the pain in the world. Religious teachers whom I encountered sometimes talked about this suffering, but they didn't seem to have more than charity to offer to those who suffered. It struck me that while religious festivals were beautiful, religions themselves were not adequate as a solution to modern crises. But religion, as I came to understand while reading Gandhi many years later, can play a role in the cleansing of public morality. In 1940, Gandhi wrote, "I still hold the view that I cannot conceive politics as divorced from religion. Indeed, religion should pervade everyone one of our actions. Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral government of the universe. It is not less real because it is unseen. This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. It does not supersede them. It harmonizes them and gives them reality" (Harijan, February 10, 1940). In other words, politics should not be simply about power struggles, but it must be suffused with moral concerns. It is not enough to win; one must strive to create, what Gandhi called, Truth in the world.

To strive for Truth does not mean that we, as humans, can be sure that what we believe in or what we aspire to is some transcendental truth. Gandhi's autobiography was not called I've Found Truth, but The Story of My Experiments with Truth. The use of the word "experiments" is revealing, since it refers to a scientific tradition that privileges verifiable testing (this is also the case with the Gujarati word "prayago," which is in the original 1927 title, Satya-na Prayago athva Atmakatha; Professor Babu Suthar links "prayoga," the singular of "prayago," to the ayurvedic and yogic sense of treatment and practice. An ayurvedic doctor must ask the patient to "prayoga" a medicine, which would imply, try it out to see if it works). Religious traditions are resources to guide us, as social individuals, through the difficulties and opportunities of our lives. They are not dogmas to tear people apart from each other. In a powerful essay against compulsory widow segregation, Gandhi wrote, "It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide" (Navajivan, June 28, 1925). Let tradition be a studied resource, not a set of inflexible, unchanging rules.

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