*Gandhi and the Art of Dying

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"Martyrs of Humanity", cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

“Martyrs of Humanity”, cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

[On the occasion of the anniversary of the death of Mohandas K. Gandhi (January 30)]

There is but no question that Mohandas Gandhi remains, more than six decades after his assassination, the most iconic figure of modern India. He was one of the most widely photographed men of his time; an entire industry of nationalist prints extolled his life; and statues of his abound throughout India and, increasingly, the rest of the world.  Gandhi has been a blessing to cartoonists, ever since he signalled his arrival on the political scene in South Africa; and most Indian artists of consequence over the course of the last half-century, from M. F. Husain and Ramkinkar Baij to Ghulam Muhammad Sheikh and Atul Dodiya, have engaged with Gandhi in their work.  What is equally striking is that this immensely rich visual archive, which encompasses such unusual items as caricatures of Gandhi in Fascist publications, anti-Gandhi Soviet propaganda posters, and lewd comics of Gandhi from Tijuana, Mexico, has altogether escaped critical scrutiny –– barring some recent scholarly work on nationalist prints, and an occasional article on Gandhi and photography.

A distinct iconography began to develop around Gandhi’s figure in his own lifetime.  Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that, deities, the great bhaktas, and the founders of religion such as the Buddha aside, there is no figure in the history of India who could be so readily signified, whether by Gandhi’s trademark spectacles, his walking stick, the sandals he himself made, or the time-piece tucked into a corner of his dhoti.  Cartoonists delighted in those large ears that prompted Sarojini Naidu to dub him ‘Mickey Mouse’, and some of the most striking photographs are those where, in the midst of men dressed in overcoats, silk suits, or other formal wear, Gandhi appears singular in the shining armor of his nakedness.  One cartoonist had the good sense to represent the battle between Gandhi and the forces of violence as the struggle between ‘the shirtless’ and ‘the shirted’.

However, the various representations of Gandhi cannot be interpreted as offering a seamless narrative on his unique place in the national imaginary or as a figure of global protest.  What we do not see is just as important as what we do see.  Printmakers, photographers, painters, and sculptors are alert to different considerations.  The photographers of Gandhi, for instance, were naturally sensitive to the play of light and shadows, while printmakers drew on mythic material that they construed as the grounding of Indian civilization. The interpretation of public statuary leads us to a different set of questions:  where are statues of Gandhi placed, with what effect and consequences, and to what end?  The vast archive can also be viewed in the light of other interpretive strategies.  We can speak, for example, of ‘the seated Gandhi’, ‘the walking Gandhi’, ‘the spectral Gandhi’, and so on.  A consideration of ‘the sartorial Gandhi’ would enable us to gauge his life from the clothes that he wore at different stages of his awakening, and arrive at an assessment of how, after he had made a decision to reduce his clothing to the bare minimum, he came to embody, in the most profound ways, the idea of nakedness in its fullness.

It is, as we approach the anniversary of the Gandhi’s assassination on January 30th, of ‘the martyred Gandhi’ that I shall now speak.  Many have argued that Gandhi had a premonition of his death.  There had been several assassination attempts on his life in the preceding fifteen years.  What is unequivocally clear is that he spoke often, especially in the aftermath of Indian independence and the country’s vivisection, of wanting to die –– as he told his grand-niece Manu after the failed attempt on his life at Birla House at January 20th, ‘On this occasion I have shown no bravery.  If somebody fired at me point-blank and I faced his bullet with a smile, repeating the name of Rama in my heart, I should indeed be deserving of congratulations.’  On January 27th, Gandhi, still recovering from the fast that brought peace to Delhi and conviction to Nathuram Godse that the old man no longer deserved to live, told the visiting American journalist Vincent Sheean, ‘It might be that it would be more valuable to humanity for me to die.’  Yet, at other times Gandhi had, with equal assurance, declared that he wished to live for 125 years.

Some still dispute whether Gandhi died with the name of Rama on his lips.  The front cover of the 25 January 1970 issue of Illustrated Weekly of India echoes the confusion and shock experienced by all those around him; unusually, the revolver seems almost suspended between the assassin’s hands, though by all accounts Godse executed the task with firm and efficient resolve.  Indian printmakers went to work almost immediately after Gandhi’s death, likening him to Christ and Buddha:  though Gandhi was no founder of a religion, he seemed to some of his contemporaries to have had a similar impact on those who encountered him or had some awareness of his teachings.  These printmakers borrowed effortlessly, recognizing no cultural boundaries.  Gandhi adored Michelangelo’s Pieta and would have been humbled by the comparison.

Gandhi was also a world historical figure and his death was registered across the globe.  In the United States, the eminent cartoonist D. R. Fitzpatrick, long associated with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was reminded of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  His cartoon, ‘Martyrs of Humanity’, points to the place that Gandhi had come to occupy in the American imagination.  One doubts very much that the nation-state meant to Gandhi what it meant to Lincoln, but the image provokes precisely such questions.  Two decades later, another assassination would shake the world.  More so perhaps than any other cartoonist, Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times captured the poignancy of the killing of another architect of non-violent resistance.  In his famous cartoon, published in April 1968, an avuncular-looking Gandhi stretches out his hands towards Martin Luther King in a show of solidarity and says, ‘The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.’  Men such as Gandhi, who knew better than most the art of dying, have to be assassinated repeatedly.

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(First published under the same title in Sunday Times of India, 27 January 2013, p. 9)

*From the Ludic to the Ludicrous: The Affair of Ashis Nandy

 

The Jaipur Literary Festival is known to stir controversy.  So is Ashis Nandy, often celebrated as India’s most arresting and provocative thinker.  For well over three decades, Nandy has been in the business, shall we say, of unsettling received ideas, controverting the most established opinions, and deploying the tactics of a street fighter against institutionalized forms of knowledge.  He scandalized many in India who view themselves as progressive when, in the mid-1980s, he published ‘An Anti-Secularist Manifesto’, though it is no exaggeration to say that the substance of his critique of secularism has now become part of the new commonsense of informed scholarship. 

 

Appearing in this year’s edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival, one should have expected that Nandy would come up with one of his startlingly fresh insights –– more so when the discussion at a panel in which he was participating veered towards corruption, a matter which has greatly agitated the country, particularly its middle classes, since at least the time Anna Hazare launched his movement to deliver India from this menace.  The fact that Anna Hazare, however well intentioned he might be, is nearly clueless, and that the popular movement which he initiated generated, in intellectual terms, little more than platitudes made Nandy’s remarks seem all the more radical and even incomprehensible. 

 

Commencing his remarks with the critical observation that he was going to make a ‘vulgar statement’, Nandy added:  ‘It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs, the Scheduled Castes, and now increasingly the Scheduled Tribes.  And as long as this is the case, the Indian Republic will survive.’  Not surprisingly, the first line alone has been replayed in the media over and over again.  Nandy’s fellow panelist, the TV journalist Ashutosh, immediately pilloried him as a representative of ‘elitist India’, characterizing his remarks as ‘the most bizarre statement’ he had ever heard ‘in this country’.  Mayawati has called for Nandy’s arrest, and a FIR has been lodged against him under the Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.  In Patna, members of organizations of SCs and STs marched from the High Court to Dak Bungalow Square, where they burnt an effigy of Nandy.

 

It is, of course, a feature of our times that attentive reading of texts and the work of interpretation are seen as luxuries that can be ill afforded when the country is thirsting for ‘change’, ‘fast’ track courts, and the speedy resolution of complex social issues.  The dedicated do-good activist types, in particular, are generally without humor and find irony a hindrance to whatever noble cause they wish to espouse.  Nandy had not spoken in a vacuum:  preceding him as a speaker, Tehelka’s editor Tarun Tejpal had argued that ‘corruption’ should be recognized as a strategy by means of which the poor and the marginalized, operating in a hierarchical society with deeply encrusted forms of oppression, are able to enter into the public domain and do precisely what the upper castes have been doing for centuries, namely leveraging their power and privileges to advance their own interests.  The most eminent sociologist of the previous generation, the late M. N. Srinivas, would perhaps not have balked at the suggestion that this might be viewed as a form of what he called ‘Sanskritization’, the emulation of the upper castes by lower castes on a trajectory of upward social mobility.

 

It is these ideas with which Nandy was signifying his agreement, adding his own inimitable touch to the discussion.  Scholars have long been familiar with debates about text vs. context, and critics of Nandy might reasonably argue that he should have known that his remarks would be, as is commonly said, ‘taken out of context’.  Moreover, the most insistent Indian tradition of intellectual argumentation insists that one’s reasoning should anticipate, and account for, objections to one’s argument.  But, to understand Nandy, we can even do without the context:  not only was he showing self-reflexivity in prefacing his remarks with the observation that he was going to make a ‘vulgar statement’, he delivers a resounding defence of how the Dalits and the poor have mobilized electoral democracy with the suggestion that the resort to corruption by the OBCs, SCs, and STs ensures that ‘the Indian Republic will survive.’

 

We need not even enter into the other nuances of Nandy’s argument, such as the proposition that the corruption of the rich and powerful is largely invisible.  Having lagged behind for generations, the poor and the deprived will certainly have to be ‘more’ corrupt if they are to make inroads into India’s political system.  There are, however, more critical questions at stake here.  How did we come to have such fragile sensibilities? What kind of intellectual culture do we seek?  Should we be party to the epidemic of apologies that has swept the West and insist that Nandy take back everything he has said?  Nandy’s fellow Bengali, the writer Nirad Chaudhuri, dedicated his autobiography to the memory of the British Empire in India since Pax Britannica shaped ‘all that was good and living within us’.  Should we have insisted that Chaudhuri apologize to the nation for implicitly denigrating the nationalist movement? 

 

To enter into Nandy’s works is to encounter a mind that is not only deeply thoughtful but also forever engaged with the suppleness and play of ideas.  It is the ludic or playful element in Nandy’s work, which seldom leaves him satisfied with the certitudes of received intellectual opinion, that easily distinguishes him from his intellectual contemporaries.  The tragedy of if it is that, judging from the shallow and profoundly unreflective response to Nandy’s provocations, we have moved from the ludic to the ludicrous.

(Also published in Outlook magazine, at http://www.outlookindia.com, 29 January 2013,

as “From the Ludic to the Ludicrous”)

 

*’A Christmas Gift’ and the Hunt for Homosexuals in Uganda

It has never been easy being a gay or lesbian in most countries, but homophobia has scaled new heights in Uganda, where the country’s legislature may be acting soon on a bill which calls for the infliction of a sentence of imprisonment for life for the mere offence of homosexual orientation or gender identity.  The bill also stipulates capital punishment, ‘death by hanging’, on conviction for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, which purports to describe the conduct of homosexuals who have sex with more than one person, or sex more than once with the same person, as well as those who knowingly engage in sexual conduct despite being HIV-positive.  The Anti-Homosexuality Bill further prescribes a term of seven years in prison for anyone who ‘aids, abets, counsels, or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality’, a measure that would, to take one common instance, cover landlords who knowingly rent out their premises to homosexuals, and a term of three years for those who, while in a position of ‘religious, political, economic, or social authority’, fail to report anyone violating the act.  The Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, eager to bestow ‘a Christmas gift’ on a beleaguered community, had reportedly promised the bill’s passage before the end of the year.  However, Parliament went into recess before the vote could take place, though Ms. Kadaga has vowed that the vote will take place in February.

A nearly identical bill was tabled before the Uganda Parliament without success in 2009, shortly after ethnic riots had engulfed Kampala; and observers of politics in Africa suggest that simmering political dissent has similarly precipitated the present re-introduction of the bill.  But the intervening three years have unfortunately not been uneventful for Uganda’s gay and lesbian community. The 19 April 2009 edition of the Ugandan tabloid, The Red Pepper, carried out a promise, first made in a 2007 article called ‘Homo Terror’, to name and shame the country’s ‘top homos’.  ‘This is a killer dossier’, the article states, ‘a heat-pounding and sensational masterpiece that largely exposes Uganda’s shameless men and unabashed women that have deliberately exported the western evils to our dear and sacred society’.  In October 2010, Rolling Stone, a newly founded local journal, published 15 photos of the country’s ‘leading’ homosexuals, all to the accompaniment of a headline reading, ‘Hang Them’, and reported that it would expose another 85 gays and lesbians.  A few months later, David Kato, advocacy officer of the organization Sexual Minorities Uganda and the country’s most prominent gay rights activist, would be found murdered.  His photograph had been published in Rolling Stone.

KatoRollingStone

David Kato holding a copy of the October 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.

Just what is it that has brought Uganda to this state of affairs?  Uganda appears to be exhibiting the most severe form of the sexual panic that has gripped other African countries where extreme homophobia is rampant, among them Zimbabwe, Namibia, Swaziland, and Kenya.  In Uganda, reportedly 96% of the people have declared themselves opposed to homosexuality, though it is not clear how such a survey was conducted.  Some human rights activists have argued that in countries where human rights are generally trampled upon, homosexuals would be lucky to receive any protection at all from the state.  The rights of sexual minorities may scarcely be viewed as a priority in countries where democracy has yet to take root and bitter conflict wages over land resources, mineral wealth, ethnic identity, political entitlements, and so on.

While this may be so, why should Uganda, and perhaps other African countries, be more vulnerable to homophobic behavior, whether expressed as state repression or severe social opprobrium, than other conflict-ridden or relatively impoverished countries?  Are notions of masculinity and femininity especially rigid in African societies and is homosexuality consequently an intolerable assault on received notions of sexual conduct?  Does Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, with its draconian measures, appear to vindicate those commentators who argue that, by any evaluative scale we can think of, African societies are clearly ‘backward’ and have yet to give minimally adequate recognition to those notions of pluralism, human dignity, and tolerance for the ‘other’ that are expected of nations which seek to be part of ‘the international community’?

The remarks proffered by Ugandan and other African politicians appear to suggest that tolerance for homosexuality is viewed as an imposition of Western values.  Writing a few years ago, President Chiluba of Zambia echoed one widely held view:  ‘Homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity . . .  That homosexuals are free to do as they please in the West does not mean they must be free to do the same here. … The things they do would multiply the rate of spread of AIDS – which was first spotted among American sodomites in the first place . . .’ (Times of Zambia, 19 October 1998).  Namibia’s President Nujoma was likewise of the opinion that ‘most ardent supporters of these perverts [gays] are Europeans who imagine themselves to be the bulwark of civilisation and enlightenment’ (Mail and Guardian, 14 February 1997).  Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, has added another complexion to the debate in suggesting that ‘the African Church is the only one that is still standing against homosexuality.  The Europeans are finished.  If we follow them, we shall end up in Sodom and Gomorrah.’  At a time when it seems difficult for many to imagine that Africa is in the vanguard of anything at all, some Africans may be taking pride in the fact that what was once characterized as ‘the dark continent’ may now be offering a sliver of light to those who believe that the West is slowly being lost to Christianity.

Still from the film God Loves Uganda

Still from the film God Loves Uganda (2013)

If colonialism’s imprint can never ultimately be ignored in reading Africa’s history, we should not be surprised that a more complicated narrative unfolds if we cast the net wide.  In the colonial view, Africans were purveyors of profligate sexuality, unrestrained in their sexual conduct or mores; on the present view, Africans have gone to the other extreme in aggressively criminalizing homosexuality.  Yet this narrative disguises the critical role played by American-style evangelical Christianity, which has witnessed explosive growth in countries such as Uganda, in promoting a climate of hatred against homosexuals.  The Anti-Homosexuality Bill’s chief sponsor, David Bahati, who flaunts the motto, ‘kill every last gay person’, runs the Ugandan branch of ‘The Family’, a super-secretive American evengelical organization with tentacles around the world and whose members include American senators, highly influential corporate CEOs, and venerated military officials.   Long before the bill was first introduced in 2009, Scott Lively, Paul Cameron, Don Schmierer, and Caleb Lee Brundidge, American evangelists ferociously committed to combating what they call the ‘homosexual agenda’, and exponents of the view that homosexuals can be ‘healed’ and turned straight, had already made Uganda their happy hunting ground.  Indeed, as the United States itself becomes more hospitable to homosexuals, American evangelists will increasingly prey upon the rest of the world.  ‘African savagery’ becomes, yet again, another name for colonialism.

(A slightly shorter and earlier version was first published as “Nowhere People”, TimesofIndia – Crest Edition, 15 December 2012, p. 13).

*A Diaspora Epic: Indians Abroad

 

The Indian diaspora is an ineluctable fact of contemporary global culture.  Its presence around the world is signified by Indian writers of renown settled in the Caribbean, Britain, the United States, South Africa, east Africa, and Fiji; the widespread availability of at least some generic, or allegedly ‘Mughlai’, form of Indian cuisine; the emergence of hybrid forms of music –– among them, desi hip-hop and chutney; the proliferation of software engineeers and doctors of Indian descent; a nearly ubiquitous fascination for Bollywood; the growing engagement of diasporic Indians with the political cultures of their adopted lands; and much else.

If India, in some fundamental respects, is not one country, the Indian diaspora similarly does not exist in the singular.  One can speak of the diasporas of the north and the south, though, in India, there is still little awareness of the complex histories of displacement, migration, and overseas settlement that have informed the Indian diasporic experience since the 1830s and 1840s when Indians first departed for Mauritius and the Caribbean.  Newspaper reports from the last few days mention the emotional visit of the Prime Minister of Mauritius to the village in Bihar from where his ancestors made their way to an island that was one of the more remote outposts of the former British empire.  More than a decade ago, something similar was reported about the homecoming of Basdeo Panday, then the Prime Minister of Trinidad, to his ancestral village.

In India’s metros, and increasingly in larger towns, a good number of people have some kin living abroad.  When the designation NRI first came about around three decades ago, it signified only those diasporic Indians who, in the middle class imagination, had done the country proud.  Indeed, it would no exaggeration to suggest that for many people, ‘NRI’ meant only Indians settled in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada and Britain; in recent years, Australia has made the cut.  It is said that more than 25% of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are run by Indians, and statistics are flaunted with evident glee to suggest that Indian scientists, engineers, and especially doctors occupy a hugely disproportionate place, considering that Indians are just marginally less than 1% of the American population, in the professions.  This is the diaspora that the Indian middle class holds up as an example to India itself.  Thus the observation, encountered at every turn in conversations at middle class homes, that the same Indians who are unable to make anything of themselves in their country flourish overseas.

However, even in the US the story of the Indian presence has more twists and turns than is commonly imagined. The Punjabi farmers, students, and later Ghadrites who made their way to the US in the late 1890s and in the subsequent decade saw their numbers dwindling when the entry of Indians and other Asiatics to the United States was prohibited by law in 1924.  Many Indian men married Mexican women, and thus we have Punjabi-Mexican Americans. The vast bulk of Indians arrived in the US following the immigration reforms of 1965:  notwithstanding the common impression that they are largely affluent and highly educated professionals, Indians also ply taxis in New York, dominate the Dunkin Donuts franchises around the country, and of course have a huge hand in the motel business.  In California’s Central Valley, which Indians have helped to turn into one of the country’s greatest agricultural hubs, 14% of the Indians according to a 2005 report lived below the poverty level and 35% had not even earned a high school diploma.

The origins of the other Indian diaspora lie elsewhere, in the political economy of colonialism that sent indentured laborers, mainly from the Gangetic heartland and the Tamil country, to forge the white man’s empire of sugar, rubber, and cash crops.  As one prominent scholar opined, indentured labor was simply a new form of slavery.  Nationalist opinion, and the efforts of English sympathizers such as C. F. Andrews, aided in shutting down the system of indenture in 1917, but not before 1.5 million Indians had sold themselves into debt-bondage.  They lived in appalling conditions, in the “lines” formerly inhabited by the slaves.  These Indians humanized the landscape, tilled the soil, and put the food on tables:  they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of our diaspora.

At the present moment, in the midst of the ‘NRI season’ and the celebration of the recnetly concluded Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, it is well to reflect on the future of the Indian diaspora.  Among the affluent Indians in Britain, Canada, and especially the United States, there is some desire to influence the course of events in India itself.  On the other hand, as the massive exodus of Indo-Fijians since the coups of 1987 and 2000 suggests, ‘mother India’ is frankly unable to do very much to enhance the rights of its dispersed children besides engaging in grand rhetorical exercises in impotent institutions such as the Commonwealth.

India’s policymakers are mainly interested in how the diaspora can feed the engine of growth in India.  But we need a less impoverished and more civilizational view that would make us aware not merely of the accumulated narratives of our Silicon Valley ‘miracles’ and the triumphant success, year after year, of Indian American children at the National Spelling Bee, but also of the histories of those Indians who, braving conditions of extreme adversity, nurtured new forms of music, literature, religious worship, and even conviviality.  It is a remarkable fact that, from within the depths of Ramacaritmanas country in Fiji, we have had the first novel ever written in Bhojpuri.  Our Indian diaspora, complex and variegated, needs a hefty Purana.

–First published in a slightly abridged version as “Diasporas of India: Shiny NRI success stories obscure older migrations from our colonial past”, Indian Express (18 January 2013), p. 12.

 Slightly amended Hindi version published as “Bharatiya Nagarikon ka Purana”, Prabhat Khabar (22 January 2013), p. 8.

*When Hinduism Meets the Internet

 

Hinduism, most of its adherents believe, is the oldest religion in the world.  They are not excessively or even at all bothered by arguments that Hinduism may be an ‘invented religion’, or the view that until the 18th century, those we describe as Hindus would have known themselves as Vaishnavas, Saivites, Tantrics, Shaktos, and so on.  The internet, on the other hand, is a little more than two decades old, and it has been fashioned largely in the United States.  So do the startlingly old and the exceedingly young make for strange bedfellows?  Or might one well argue the extreme opposite, namely that the internet and Hinduism exist in a marriage that appears to have been made in heaven?

            There is but no question that Hinduism is the most apposite religion for the internet age.  As is commonly known, Hinduism is a highly decentralized faith.  Unlike Muslims and Christians, Hindus do not uniformly adhere to the precepts of a single book.  Some Indian nationalists elevated the Bhagavad Gita as the supreme text; in more recent times, the advocates of the Ramjanmabhoomi Movement have held up Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas as the most venerable book of the Hindus; and yet other Hindus regard the Srimad Bhagavatam as the ‘holy book’, while others are of the view that the essence of Hinduism is crystallized in the Upanishads.  The Gita Press in Gorakhpur, which has printed something like half a billion copies of ‘the Hindu scriptures’, has however not printed the Rig Veda:  since this text is apurusha, not made by the hand of man, it similarly ought not to be reproduced by man.  Thus the text held to be the fount of Hinduism is, unlike the Koran or the Bible, not really meant to be read at all.  What would be considered a highly anomalous situation in any other religion is something with which Hindus have been comfortable for a very long time.  Furthermore, Hinduism has neither a historical founder nor a Mecca; and its Shankaracharyas represent competing schools of authority.   

Only Hinduism, then, can match the internet’s playfulness: the religion’s proverbial “330 million” gods and goddesses, a testimony to the intrinsically decentered and polyphonic nature of the faith, find correspondence in the world wide web’s billion points of origin, intersection, and dispersal.  Hinduism has thus appeared to anticipate many of the internet’s most characteristic features, from its lack of any central regulatory authority and anarchism to its alleged intrinsic spirit of free inquiry and abhorrence of censorship.  If, moreover, cyberspace is awash with images, no religion is more fecund in this respect than Hinduism.  Not only do Hindus keep images of their gods and goddesses everywhere around them, but the notion of darshan, or the gaze, is central to popular Hindu religiosity.

            What is equally clear is that Hinduism’s adherents, nowhere more so than in the United States, have displayed a marked tendency to turn towards various forms of digital media, and in particular the internet, to forge new forms of Hindu identity, endow Hinduism with a purportedly more coherent and monotheistic form, refashion our understanding of the history of Hinduism’s engagement with practitioners of other faiths in India, and even engage in debates on American multiculturalism.  Moreover, the aspiration to create linkages across Hindu groups worldwide, embrace Hindus in remoter diasporic settings who are viewed as having been severed from the motherland, and create something of global Hindu consciousness, has a fundamental relationship to India’s ascendancy as an ‘emerging economy’ and the confidence with which its Hindu elites increasingly view the world and their prospects for prosperity and political gain. 

            While adherents of Hinduism are by no means singular in being predisposed towards digital media, there is nonetheless an overwhelming amount of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence to suggest that Hindus have been particularly conscientious, if not innovative and aggressive, in mobilizing members of the perceived Hindu community through the internet.  The rise of Hindu militancy in India since the late 1980s, signaled by the term Hindutva, had its counterpart in the creation of new Hindutva histories on the internet.  The internet was but a few years old when the Global Hindu Electronic Network (GHEN), an exhaustive site on Hinduism and its enemies, was put up by an enterprising Indian American student in the US as a point of entry into ‘the Hindu Universe’.  Some of the other manifestations of viewing history as the terrain on which new and more robust conceptions of Hindu identity were to be shaped can be seen in the creation of the virtual Hindu Holocaust Memorial Museum, dedicated to advancing the argument that the holocaust against Hindus in India over a thousand years is without comparison, and in the manner in which aggrieved Hindu parents in the US waged a determined struggle, largely over the internet, on the question of the representation of Hinduism and the ancient Indian past in history textbooks intended for middle school students in California. 

            In some respects, however, we are on wholly uncharted territory in thinking of the future of Hinduism in cyberspace.  A good illustration of some of the difficulties that might creep in, especially from the viewpoint of a devout believer, is furnished by the phenomenon that is described as online puja.  The altar, or alcove where the deities are housed, in the Hindu home is kept clean.  Now suppose that a person wishes to perform online puja on his computer screen.  What if that same computer screen had been used fifteen minutes earlier to watch pornography?  Can one ‘clean’ the computer, and erase all traces of one’s activity, by emptying the cache, resetting the browser, junking one’s files, and then deleting the trash?

            In recent years, advocates of Hindutva, online and offline, have been staunch supporters of the view that Israel, India, and the United States are three democracies that are besieged by the soldiers of Islam.  The website, HinduUnity.org, describes Hindus and Jews as natural allies in the allegedly global struggle against Islam.  Digital media technologies have thus created new interfaces for articulations of rights, grievances, and interests in a world where rules of civic engagement on the internet are still under negotiation.  Just how far internet Hinduism will proceed in helping us understand changing protocols of citizenship in a transnational world remains to be seen.

(A slightly abridged version of this has been published as “When Hinduism Meets the Internet”, Sunday Times of India, 20 January 2013).