Mahatma Gandhi would have applauded the good intentions underlying President Obama's recent remarks on religion and violence at the National Prayer Breakfast. He might have even agreed wholeheartedly with the President on the need to recognize that religion has been not only a source of conflict in history but also a force for peace, love, and justice. But where the Mahatma might have weighed his words so as to express the greatest love and the strongest truth, President Obama somehow ended up with a seemingly curt and judgmental assertion of blame. Specifically, his remark that Gandhi would be shocked by intolerance in today's India disappointed many in the country who expected a more informed and less disrespectful attitude from a 21st century U.S. President.
There are two aspects to the questions being raised about the President's comments in India. The first one is the obvious one about double standards. Was it appropriate for him to lecture Indians about how to run their country (he did this earlier too on the last day of his visit to the country) when he did not do that in Saudi Arabia, a country with far less religious freedom than India? Was it really brave of him to take a shot at India when he did not dare take a shot at lecturing the Chinese government about its record on religious freedom; an opportunity that wouldn't have been remiss considering he was sitting right next to the Dalai Lama? These are questions that are being widely asked, but those are not the only things we need to consider.
For me, the more difficult question to think about is that President Obama did not say anything that decent people anywhere in the world or of any faith would disagree with. And yet, something about his comments has upset Hindus very much.
We have to examine the reason for this. Is it simply that Hindus around the world have turned into fundamentalists who disagree with him and want to oppress minorities? For most Hindus in India and around the world, the answer is clearly no. We do not want to hurt anyone. We do not want to fight with anyone over religion, over something as philosophically and cosmically inconsequential to us as the different names and forms of God. We wouldn't even know what to call our "religious" enemies? Unbelievers? Kafirs? Heathens? No, those are not our words. Those sort of battles are not in our religion, nor in our history. That is a fact. We have had our religion far longer, and we have had our religious pluralism in our midst far longer, than most parts of the world; even Europe, even America. It does not occur to us to fight you about what you worship or whom you worship.
And yet, for several centuries, we have had to deal with forces that did not think like us. We survived a powerful and violent imperial conquest by absorbing into our civilization what was once a foreign religion to India. We survived another imperial conquest driven at least partially by religious violence by speaking to our colonizer in a way that would heal him of his own ignorance and inhumanity. We survived colonialism. And we survived the partition of India and Pakistan, another imperial idea that wanted to perpetuate a colonial way of thinking about religion as national identity. We survived much, and we have had to survive much ever since we got our country back less than seventy years ago. The spiraling consequences of several hundred years of ignorance, conquest, and violence remain still in the culture, in the mind, and in the politics of the land.
One such consequence is that there are some among us who are now increasingly drawn to the language of power and violence that colonialism and postcolonial conflict have left us with. What do we do with them? Can we ever persuade them about the futility of identity-based conflict and violence when most of their encounters with the world has taught them only that? Can we tell them again of Hinduism's grand recognition of the dignity of all religions when all they hear from some of the proponents of other religions (and some supposedly lofty secularists) is a rampant and relentless running down of Hinduism?
Can we even hope to tell them how important Obama's message of respecting minorities in India is when Hindu American children are still forced to read insulting and inaccurate lessons about Hinduism in their history textbooks to this day?
Can we still tell them there is no such thing as Hinduphobia lingering to this day?
Can we tell them still to rise above their anger?
As a devout Hindu, I believe we can and we will. But for that there is one thing the world should also learn to do.
Every time President Obama, or the New York Times, or some other hallowed institution of universal enlightenment and seeming goodwill, walks into the complexity of Indian identity politics with half-hearted knowledge and what seems like deliberately distorted pictures of what India's past and present are about, they are only going to make things difficult for liberal Hindus in convincing those Hindus who have accepted the terms of identity conflict and violence given to them by colonialism and the postcolonial legacy. And as everyone noted after the Paris disaster, the fight against extremism depends on winning the liberals and moderates.
The challenge today is for those who believe in the positive side of religiosity to respect the ability of like-minded people in each religious community to do what is best for themselves. It does not behoove us to condescend to tell other religions what they should do to make things better. That was a colonial practice, and tendency.
The solutions that were offered in the past to address the problem of one religious group's violent excess will not fit everyone else. But having said that there are still common concerns, and a very common source for many of these concerns: the way colonization has changed the story within every religion and culture.
Mahatma Gandhi understood this well. He did his best to reject the calculus of primitive, tribalistic, divide and rule politics set forth by the colonizers. He did his best to question the blind acceptance of violence and the "kill or be killed" logic of the colonizing mind. Today, the world does neither. Everybody has been taught this is normal; that violence is part of human nature, that religious conflict is inevitable and has always been with us, and only the Enlightenment and its secular ideals made it better.
That is the fundamental global problem today. There is very little religion in the Gandhian sense, even in religion too.
To his credit, President Obama alluded to this by differentiating between good and bad uses of religion. But we cannot get to "good" religion by naively saying there is something "bad" in "all" religions. We have to learn to speak the truth, Gandhi's greatest ideal.
And for now, one truth that has to be spoken is this: there is something incredibly strange when someone lectures Indians about how to keep their country from religious implosion without seemingly realizing that they have been doing it for several centuries now, against great odds at that.
A world that takes Gandhi's name so breezily in admiration cannot pretend that his greatness had nothing to do with the civilizational legacy that produced him. And it is in that legacy, more than in those who merely profess it, that we still see hope.