Monday, May 25, 2009


A friend of mine pointed out a website about Vedanta over our listserv, and while I was going to reply to the list itself... it occurred to me that the reply was far more about what I'm comfortable with and what I'm not than about any feedback I might have as far as her choices for herself. So since this has basically nothing to do with her, I'm going to post it here instead in a space that can be as much about me as I ruddy well please.

It's interesting, definitely. Looks like they're trying really hard to have all the foreigner-friendly bits of Hinduism without actually including all the distinctively-Indian bits. They've done a decent job of this, but it includes a lot of the same social structuring (even without caste)--mainly the whole notion of karma and reincarnation. While it's certainly appealing to think that we can make good things happen for ourselves by doing good things, and while it's even more appealing to think that any good which happens to us is deserved, and just, and otherwise Totally Rightfully Ours... I'm not sure how comfortable I am with it because of the other implications.

Obviously, I don't have to be comfortable with a tradition that isn't mine, and I wanted to state clearly that I'm aware of this. I just think that the notion of karma is more or less entirely there to reinforce inequality. Here's what I mean. On this page: they say:

"Nothing happens to us by the whim of some outside agency: we ourselves are responsible for what life brings us; all of us are reaping the results of our own previous actions in this life or in previous lives."

If all they mean by this is that no divine power is affecting human fates--that only humans are doing this to each other--then I can't really argue. However, if they're arguing that it's a natural law that nothing comes to an INDIVIDUAL person undeserved... then I start to take issue. It means that rich people have all that money because they're better than poor people, that sick people are sick because they lack piety or virtue, and there is no injustice anywhere because justice is cosmically assured.

That's where I'm seeing the cultural trappings here that they haven't gotten rid of. In a cosmology like Hinduism where social inequality is quite explicitly ordained by the gods, they introduced karma to explain why certain people have certain places, and why it's just plain silly to try to be any place other than what you were born into (see Krishna's urgings to Arjuna in the Bhagvad-Gita). You're there because you deserve to be, and so your qualities were arranged in such a way that the place you deserve is the best place for you at the time and everybody stays where they "belong," in their proper place.

So while this is certainly a very cool way to try and universalize Hinduism, I thought their claims to making it effectively no longer an Indian thing are sort of disingenuous--except to the extent that privileged people in all cultures like to believe their privilege is some kind of manifestation of divine justice. Of course, the alternative is to take karma as a very good and very personal reason to take an interest in the fates of others (since alleviating even their justly-earned suffering is still a pretty swell thing to try and do). But any time a religion says, "Everybody is, on some level, exactly where and what they deserve to be to the exact extent that they deserve," is going to throw up red flags for me.

But then, I guess that's why I don't identify as Hindu or Vedanta or really anything close. It just doesn't mesh with what I believe is true about the human experience, so it doesn't fit with me personally. If this makes more sense for my friend than it does for me, I'm glad she found it. I'm just uncertain about their claims that this isn't Indian Hinduism anymore... because to a dalit it would probably sure as hell still look like it.

Holy shit. That was long.

1 comment:

Crystal said...

Holy shit indeed! ;)

I have to agree though. Any religion that states that your social status is because of your own actions whether past or present, or that anything bad that happens to you is really your own fault, even if it is attempting to be reconstructionists still smacks of political control - ie, this tenent exists because this religion was put in place by the state to keep it's people in line and keep them from rebelling or trying to rise above their "status" because "Your status is god-given, and thus to attempt to rise above it is blasphemy." Even if this isn't the intent of the CURRENT religion, the current religion should still think twice before keeping something that is so clearly a method of political control and has nothing to do with personal growth or spirituality.

If it were to be modified, on the other hand, to something that promotes personal responsibility and still allows for a person to rise above the circumstances of their birth (using one's own mistakes, for example, as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks), that would be far more productive.

I'm neither Hindu nor Vedanta, but this would be a glaring reason as to WHY I'm not Hindu or Vedanta, and so I think the complaint is still a valid one. We can't always say "If you don't like this religion then don't participate in it." At some point it still has to be fair to make a point.