Progressive Hinduism: A Contradiction in Terms?

The following is a speech I gave May 7 at the Princeton University Hindu student commencement. I am especially grateful to the Hindu students at Princeton University, and Vineet Chander, Coordinator of Hindu Life, for hosting me.

First off, I really want to thank Vineet for having me here. I'm not going to lie, I've been begging him for the past few years to have me speak. I think my exact words were, "Put me on, son!"

This topic is so timely, given what's happening here and across the world. I know so many of you are still trying to negotiate the role your Hinduness plays in your daily life. Some of you are more comfortable than others in articulating your Hindu identity. I think the reality is, our faith identities, and how we conceptualize ourselves, are lifelong works in progress. But that work is one of the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism: the search for truth. It's basically the recognition that how we identify, how we practice, and even what we believe are subject to change, evolution, reconciliation, and hopefully, eventual clarity.

Before I talk about my own journey, I think it's critical about the term 'progressive Hinduism.' Given how politicized the terms progressive and Hinduism have become on their own, some folks see the combination of the two as either oxymoronic or redundant.

First, let's really understand what the term progressive actually means, instead of the way it's been framed. For my entire adult life, I've identified as a progressive, but most of those years, I conflated being progressive with being on the Left of the ideological spectrum. Many still do, and they view the term progressive as being uncompromising, absolutist, and maximalist in terms of identifying on the Left. But rather than viewing progressive as purely a Left-Right dialectic, or within the realm of liberalism versus conservatism, the root of progressivism is progress. I don't think there's an ideological ownership of what progress means. To be progressive is to want to make the world a better place. I used to think that only those on the left of center could claim that space, but more and more, I'm beginning to realize that being a progressive means working towards the meaningful change that helps the world--even if we don't always agree with those we are working with.

From that sense, the term progressive has evolved in the United States from economic populism in the early 20th century (which was actually mixed with a great deal of nativism) to the Communist-led Popular Front of the 1930s, to the Civil Rights Movements and cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and finally, to a term that embraced Western liberalism without the stigma of the word liberal in the late 20th century. To be progressive in 21st century America still is bound by the limitations of ideology and politics, which is sad given that I think so many of us want to be the change we wish to see in the world. That's not a Left-Right battle, but instead a calling to our common humanity. It's important to understand that being a progressive also means having an open mind and a willingness to listen to the other. In this sense, our discourses and calls for social justice are dominated by open mouths, but not enough with open ears, open minds, and open hearts. To be a progressive is to be willing to understand that progress takes time, and that our fellow human beings--regardless of their ideological bent--can be allies in that progress. To me, taking an adversarial approach is a very contradiction to what it means to be progressive.

With that framing, I would argue that Hinduism--at least from how we view the philosophy of Hindu teachings--is inherently progressive. From the scriptural acceptance of LGBTQ rights, to the idea of the divinity of all beings, to the very notion that we must serve all selflessly, Hindu teachings provide a rich database from which we can draw progressive theological inspiration. It should be noted, as Professor Anantanand Rambachan says, that Hinduism is not "anthropocentric," which means our duty to Mother Earth is more than stewardship--instead, it's the inherent belief that we are no more entitled to live on this planet than any other being.

The progressiveness of Hindu philosophy, however, isn't always embraced in practice. While a lot might have to do with how Hindu scriptures have been framed and interpreted, I think we as Hindus certainly deserve some of the blame for not engaging more with texts that bring us so much inspiration. Again, I must emphasize that Hinduism's progressivism isn't defined by a liberal versus conservative or Left-Right paradigm, but rather that its scriptural capacity to produce positive change in the world is undeniable. And Hinduism's inspiration to the world has certainly helped to facilitate the change we wish to see. Hindu teachings--specifically the idea of dharma and the indestructibility of the soul--inspired leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. It helped them to understand and appreciate that while our physical bodies are finite, our soul is on that ongoing journey, and that to prepare for liberation, we must do the best we can to make the world around us a better place.

While Hinduism isn't dogmatic or doctrinal, dharma provides us an ethical foundation from which we can live. It's also premised upon the idea that our divinity comes from within. The idea of restraint, articulated by the 10 yamas, help us understand how to observe the Golden Rule on a daily basis. Being compassionate (daya), for example, is what I would consider a primary virtue of progressivism. I think that the beauty of Hindu teachings is how they can be used in a very practical way for us to just lead better lives, and to help those around us. It should be noted that if Hinduism was not progressive, it wouldn't have survived. When we look at Hinduism solely through the lens of a village in Bihar, a high-rise in New Delhi, or a textbook in Princeton, we fail to appreciate the evolution and progress of Hinduism that helped it survive and thrive in the sugarcane plantations of the West Indies and South Africa, and in the hearts of those who have been inspired by it worldwide for generations. To me, that's hopeful and inherently progressive.

This brings me to the idea of social justice, which I think gets thrown around too loosely. To me, one of the great tragedies of how we view social, economic, racial, and gender justice is that we put maximum emphasis on outcome. We should aspire to these goals, and be inspired by the possibility for change, but we should also accept that change doesn't come overnight. What I see too often is social justice driven by dogmatism, confrontation, and refusal to accept anything but absolute outcomes. To be honest, I was that way in college, but when I became a journalist and began to see gray areas in how we live in the world, it became harder for me to understand how we view social justice in such absolutist terms. Aspiring for change shouldn't come at shouting down the Other, nor should it be through arbitrarily defining subalterns.

Instead, we need to understand that human beings and institutions are complex, and that change can only come when we appreciate that we might not live to see the final outcome that we wish--but that we can still strive towards it positively. In that sense, Hinduism's conceptualization of social justice is encapsulated in seva and karma yoga--the acts of compassion and service, not their outcomes. In other words, a Hindu inspired social justice movement involves acting for positive change, but not being attached to expected outcomes. There's a story from the Ramayana in which Lord Rama, in his joy over the victory in Lanka, asks Hanuman what he wished for. Hanuman only asked that he be able to continue to serve Lord Rama selflessly. It's a story that still brings tears to my eyes, because it encapsulates why we we need to act and not worry about what we'll get for acting. In a very practical sense, if those of us in social justice were only attached to expected outcomes, we'd all burn out very quickly!

That brings me to my last point: me. When I joined the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) three years ago, I penned a piece basically telling progressives that it's OK to identify as Hindu, in part because I saw folks I knew who are Hindu reluctant to identify as such in certain activist spheres. I've begun to realize that there are complex reasons behind their reluctance, and sadly, a skepticism and animosity towards self-identifying Hindus within certain parts of the South Asian American community. But I've also stopped worrying about that, and focused more on what inspires me. That includes my colleagues at HAF, who aspire for a better and more pluralistic world, and keep on going despite getting their bump and bruises engaging within the "nonprofit industrial complex." The wonderful folks at Sadhana, who have taken seva to a new level with their consistent efforts to preserve matre bhumi in New York City. I am inspired daily my the legacy of my mother, who, though she is no longer here on this earth, paved the path for me to appreciate the strength and spirit that comes from within. Of course, my wife, who inspires me everyday to live a dharmic life. My dad, who in his retirement has become a bhakta. My sister, who still finds time every night to read a chapter from the Gita. My brother, who has a faded Hanuman picture in his car to remind him of the Divine. And my in-laws, whose continuation of Bhakti traditions passed down through generations in Guyana and brought over to Brooklyn, is a reminder that our faith still lives - and thrives. These are just some of my inspirations, and I can tell you that each of you will find your inspiration to strive for progress and continue to draw strength from your Hindu identity.

Thank you and congratulations.