How Western elites fell out of love with Hinduism
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
MANY PEOPLE KNOW that J Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Gita’s eleventh chapter on seeing the first atomic bomb go off—even more people than before, now that a major film has been released about him. For Oppenheimer, this verse wasn’t just an interesting quotation he picked up from a book he once read. It was the point of connection between two of his intellectual obsessions. When he wasn’t studying physics, he studied Sanskrit; his love of all things Hindu led him to nickname his car ‘Garuda’. Hinduism, with its vast time scales, with its feel for metamorphosis and the indestructibility of energy, has much that might appeal to a theoretical physicist. The European nuclear research centre (CERN) has a two-metre-tall Shiva Nataraja murti on display.
Oppenheimer was hardly the first or only major Western intellectual to take an interest in Hinduism. Emerson, Thoreau, and the American Transcendentalists are simply the best known, at least in America. In the same century, German Romanticism was co-founded by the Sanskrit-loving Schlegel brothers, Schopenhauer made Vedanta a cornerstone of his philosophy, and a delighted Goethe danced with Shakuntala on his head. Hindu motifs found their way into the French opera repertoire as Georges Bizet composed The Pearl Fishers and Leo Delibes composed Lakmé. In the 20th century, the Irish poet WB Yeats co-translated the Upanishads, and TS Eliot dropped transliterated Sanskrit into The Waste Land. Thinkers as far apart as the French mystic Romain Rolland and the Italian reactionary Julius Evola devoted pages of prose to exploring Hindu thought. Rolland maintained a long correspondence with his fellow Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore—who became a European sensation, like Gandhi, precisely because of how unlike the Europeans he seemed. The Beatles visiting with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and George Harrison’s attempt to hybridise sitar music and British pop in ‘Within You Without You’—these come at the tail end of a long love affair, among Western creators and thinkers, with the Hindu tradition.
Today, it is increasingly hard to find a physicist, or other Western intellectual, with a deep interest in Hinduism. CERN’s Nataraja statue, it turns out, was a 2004 gift from India—its placement was not driven by the physicists at the institute itself. Though writers, scientists, and thinkers of Hindu ancestry have proliferated in the West thanks to the Indian diaspora, most self-identify as ‘South Asian’ or ‘Indian American’ rather than as ‘Hindu’. An engagement with Hindu philosophy is largely absent from English-language ‘South Asian’ fiction published in the West—unless it carries a (consistently negative) political charge. As for musicians, Willow Smith, Will Smith’s daughter, recently released a single album of kirtans; within the year, she had cycled out of that musical style and into another one. Doja Cat grew up in a California ashram but incorporates little to nothing of Hinduism in her music. The Anglo-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A., who rose to fame with albums entitled Maya and Kala, had a vision of Jesus and converted to Christianity. The Vedas and Upanishads, once an inspiration from California to New England, from England to Germany, seem to be at a low point in their prestige and influence.
For Oppenheimer, the verse from the Gita was the point of connection between two of his intellectual obsessions. When he wasn’t studying Physics, he studied Sanskrit. Hinduism, with its indestructibility of energy, has much that might appeal to a theoretical physicist. Today, it is hard to find a physicist, or other Western intellectual, with a deep interest in Hinduism. CERN’S Nataraja statue, it turns out, was a 2004 gift from India
What happened? A set of cultural and political phenomena have conspired to efface Hinduism from elite Western consciousness—and indeed to substitute, wherever it is thought of at all, a very different notion of it. Even as yoga studios, yoga teachers, and yoga practitioners proliferate, yoga itself has been uncoupled from Hinduism. Despite countless references to yoga in Sanskrit texts dating back to well before the Gita, yoga has been bleached of its Indian and Hindu connection. It is just one path among many towards physical fitness, flexibility, and ‘mindfulness’. As a spiritual discipline—famously tripartite in the Gita, involving knowledge, action, and devotion—yoga is unknown in the body-centred West. The only yoga is Hatha yoga.
Another reason is the appeal of Buddhism. The often-described ‘restlessness’ of the West can find the same serenity and meditative stillness in the Buddha’s teachings—without importing a plethora of gods and goddesses, rituals, new musical forms, or a single dietary stricture. Buddhism has proven itself highly adaptable throughout the centuries, finding purchase in Confucian China and among the fearsome deities of Mongolia without displacing the native tradition. In a scientific materialist culture that does not care for deities or the supernatural, Buddhism mirrors the West’s contemplative atheism. The West’s Buddhists are seemingly unaware of the frenzied reverence for the Buddha’s tooth in Sri Lanka, or the elaborately supernatural mythology of East Asian Mahayana. For American and European Buddhists, it offers meditation and transcendence—without the loud, colourful, unfamiliar Hindu mythos. Buddhism offers everything Hinduism does, without the strangeness.
Nor the politics. The Hindu tradition, for centuries, had very few political associations. Occasionally, in British propaganda during the 1857 rebellion, or in the tracts of missionaries, the “savage Hindoo” might come in for demonisation. But among most intellectuals, the tradition was famed for its profound philosophy, its intricate Sanskrit, its elaborate sculptures, and its fabulous wealth. Today, the emphasis—what Westerners talk about when they talk about Hinduism—has shifted entirely. As Hindus have become a powerful collective in northern India, deciding elections at the national level and at some state levels, the Hindu religion is increasingly perceived in political terms rather than as a path to transformation. Gone are the days when hippies lit incense, backpacked to the Himalayas, and thought of swamis and gurus as spiritual liberators from materialism.
Instead, among the educated classes, the image has inverted. Major American newspapers have been flooded with accounts of Indian politics that come exclusively from a disaffected, frustrated, hyperpartisan opposition. In the most feverish accounts, Indian Hindus are on the verge of committing genocide. Academics and activists insist on the inextricability of the Hindu faith and caste discrimination—ignoring the radically egalitarian theology of Vedanta, as well as the mixed and varied origins of some of the most revered Hindu saints and poets, including Valmiki, Vyasa, Kabir, Tukaram, and several Tamil Alvars. In the 1920s, when Oppenheimer was studying Sanskrit, Hinduism had a reputation in the West for otherworldliness, tolerance, and wisdom. One hundred years later, Western intellectuals primarily discuss it as a political phenomenon, highlighting its intolerant or illiberal fringes as representative of the whole.
The other, crucial factor has been the rise of social media. Unlike China, India has not created a walled-off internet for its citizens. Hindus who can connect to the internet and post in English (of whatever proficiency) constitute a small percentage of the religion’s global population, but they still comprise an online army of millions. India’s online Hindus, like any online community, tend to be more extreme, opinionated, and vocal than the mainstream. They do not enter online shouting matches in pursuit of samadhi nor to spread wisdom and beauty. They consider that sphere an arena, and they behave accordingly. The upside is that no misrepresentation or disrespect of Hinduism goes unchallenged by a mob. The downside is that this mob, with all its rigid thinking and confrontational harshness, becomes unofficial ambassador for the religion as a whole. These are the Hindus that Westerners see (and block); the real-life Hindus in their midst—doctors and colleagues and shopowners and students—often keep their Hindu identity hidden, or allow it to atrophy within a generation.
Oppenheimer was hardly the first western intellectual to take an interest in Hinduism. Emerson, Thoreau, and the transcendentalists are the best known. German Romanticism was co-founded by the Sanskrit-loving Schlegel brothers, Schopenhauer made Vedanta a cornerstone of his philosophy, and Goethe danced with Shakuntala on his head
Efforts to dissociate Hinduism from the good in it, simultaneous efforts to link it with social evils, selective exposure to a strident online subset, and the politicisation of the identity: These have combined to turn the religion from a darling of physicists and poets to something increasingly perceived as violent, intolerant, antithetical to freedom, and closeminded—indeed, as something unrecognisable to most practising Hindus. This shift in Western elite perception has happened within less than one hundred years. Not even centuries of missionary monotheism managed to demonise the ‘heathen’ Indian religion so successfully.
What is to be done? The West’s intellectual elites have a settled opinion now that is unlikely to change in a generation; the West’s business elites, increasingly enamoured of India, remain as indifferent to the Hindu religion as they are to their own. Confronting anti-Hindu propagandists through wars of rhetoric, online or in print, is impossible, as the newsrooms are staffed precisely by the educated classes whose perceptions have been poisoned. The increasing number of openly Hindu conservatives—as of this writing, both the UK’s prime minister and a high-profile US Republican presidential candidate—will only further estrange this religion from Western academia, which is dominated by the political left. There is no way to link yoga and Hindu spirituality in Western fitness culture, which has uncoupled them. Caste discrimination—a pan-Indian social evil that does not entirely spare the church, mosque or gurudwara— will always remain associated with India’s majority faith, regardless of its repudiation by practising Hindus of all backgrounds. Nor can anyone reverse or quell the politicisation of Hindu imagery and stories in India; Indian religious identities have been activated for political gain for decades, even before Jinnah forced the creation of Pakistan.
With so many factors conspiring to defame it, how can the beauty and wisdom of Hindu civilisation reassert itself? How can the best of the tradition find its way back into Western consciousness, so that future Oppenheimers and Eliots draw love and illumination from it? The answer is the same now as it has been in the past. The arts and letters create a direct, emotional connection that obliterates the distance between two civilisations. Mountains of academic jargon and clickbait propaganda can be vaporised by a single poem. The blissful, luminously bronze face of a Chola sculpture can efface the memory of a magazine caricature. Music settles an argument in ways that prose can’t. Only an unabashedly Hindu Renaissance in the arts and letters will effect the change. With Hinduism, spiritual revival has always been identical to artistic revival. Historically, the Bhakti movement originated as a literary movement, which is why its major figures, north and south, were poets like Tulsidas and Andal. Today, creativity alone can overcome a century of reputational destruction.
The Beatles visiting with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and George Harrison’s attempt to hybridise sitar music come at the tail end of a long love affair with the Hindu tradition. Though writers, scientists, and thinkers of Hindu ancestry have proliferated in the West, most self-identify as ‘South Asian’ or ‘Indian American’ rather than as ‘Hindu’
For this to happen, both Indian and diaspora Hindus must rediscover what is distinctively beautiful and deep about their religious tradition. The Hindu mind has expressed itself, for millennia, in a variety of languages and poetic forms, in sculpture, architecture, painting, music, and philosophy. These ancient legacies hold the secret to originality, and to winning the future. Hybridising ancient motifs, ideas, and images with modern technologies and platforms can alter perceptions overnight.
Yet this renaissance must not be something performed for Western eyes, for Western approbation. If so, its beauty will warp to fit the blue eye of the beholder. The only thing that wins respect is self-respect; the only thing that inspires confidence is self-confidence. Artistic engagement with the Hindu heritage must be a form of yoga, a spiritual union with the past, a threefold pursuit of continuity, renewal, and innovation. The change in global perception will happen of its own. Of far greater benefit will be the transformation and perpetuation of the civilisation itself. Through these means, Dharma will adapt to modernity, not just politically but spiritually, as her poets, artists, thinkers, and musicians treasure up what is best of the past and bear it into the far future.