A more positive story

1_kingsSome time back, I wrote about a few experiences where I got mocking reactions for expressing some visible signs of being a practising Hindu from a section of “modern Hindoos”, who are simply unaccustomed to see young Hindus actually striving to live out the Dharma, either because

(a) they think that in the rat race of life, spirituality or religiosity will get the young left behind in the search for a lucrative career and spirituality should therefore only be practiced by people who are a lot older, or

(b) they are into having fun, and serious stuff like religion means an individual has got to renounce all pleasure.

Both views, of course are wrong, but the latter at least is partly due to way Hindu gurus and preachers do not understand the minds of normal people, and make Hinduism seem life negating rather than life enhancing.

Many readers responded with similar experiences. Now on one hand, it’s always nice for a writer to have stimulated responses of any sort, in this case supportive. On the other hand, I was a bit taken aback or even, dare I say, saddened by the negative “all is lost for Hindus” tone of most of the responses.

The article I wrote, was just a brief rant, and was not meant to encourage doom, gloom and depression amongst conscientious practitioners, seekers and would be activists of Hindu Dharma, which is what it appeared to do. ­ Therefore, I wish to clarify that despite having encountered some relatively minor negativity as a conscientious Hindu, the experiences I had during my student days were overwhelmingly positive, and would rather give grounds for optimism – it is definitely possible to raise awareness and appreciation of the richness and eternal relevance of Hindu thought amongst most Hindus who were not lucky enough to have had much of an exposure to their heritage. What follows is a brief recollection of my experiences as a Hindu activist at Kings College London, which aims to balance out some of the negative energy I unwittingly created, and give grounds for optimism.

I entered university quite an unlikely spokesperson for Hinduism. The main thing I wanted to do was to explore student life and have a good time. But I did care about “Hinduism” (I use the word Hinduism only carefully, because I am not generally a fan of “isms”) having gained so much from it in my personal life. Out of the large number of student societies that I went around joining, I wanted to join a Hindu Students Society and expected there to be one. It was somewhat surprising and discouraging that there wasn’t one, in a university which had at least several hundred Hindu students. I was aware that most universities with significant numbers of Hindu students had a “Hindu Soc” set up. I probably wouldn’t have participated in many of its activities, but I thought it would be nice to at least support it by paying the membership fee. But that was that, the lack of a Hindu society wasn’t something I was particularly troubled by at that time.

In the course of my first year of university, which consisted (as most people’s Freshers Year does)  with partying, drinking, meeting new people, and hanging out in student accommodation until the early hours of most mornings, friends often ended up in intense discussions about all aspect of life.

It was at this stage that I was shell shocked by the ignorance concerning Hinduism amongst most Hindus. Hindu students would generally participate in some aspects of Hindu culture, like celebrating Diwali and Navratri, but I saw that too many knew next to nothing about the depth of Hindu thought, philosophy or practices which I had found so useful and enriching in my own life, and which in other names (Yoga and meditation) were being taken up increasingly in the West.

To me, my Hindu heritage was a living presence in my life, I considered it a dynamic and priceless gift which enabled one to inquire in an open minded way into all the great questions of life, without forcing me to believe in any dogma. It gave me a framework upon which to develop a system of morality and values which fitted my temperament, without a “one rule fits all” approach. It allowed me to take what I wanted, and discard the rest; nothing had to be accepted uncritically in its entirety.

There is a great quote from the great yogi and thinker, Sri Aurobindo, which sums up the way I was taught to approach Hinduism:,

We must begin by accepting nothing on trust from any source whatsoever, by questioning everything and forming our own conclusions. We need not fear that we shall by that process cease to be Indians or fall into the danger of abandoning Hinduism. India can never cease to be India or Hinduism to be Hinduism, if we really think for ourselves.  (circa 1912)

Despite not being born in India, this was the sort of spirit with which I was allowed to approach Hinduism, with the remarkable people I was lucky enough to grow up under the influence of.

But to many Hindus, Hinduism was, apart from the colourful festivals, just a set of (sometimes contradictory) beliefs, superstitions, customs and conventions; something which was quite limiting.  Most of them simply never had the chance to learn anything about Hindu dharma, but had the desire to learn or delve into their heritage, but didn’t know where to start. Knowing a bit more than most of my peers, I often ended up answering a lot of questions, and generally got a very positive response. It meant a lot to me that the great tradition which I personally had gained so much from should not end up just being dismissed, especially by its inheritors, as a bunch of superstitions. I wanted others to know that there was a hell of a lot more to Hinduism than a few colourful festivals and a few superstitions and customs. Quite a lot of my Hindu friends (probably most) expressed their disappointment that there wasn’t a Hindu society at the university. I had no interest in becoming a spokesperson for Hinduism, but in the absence of anyone else, it was a role which I (de facto) fell into.

As I entered my second year, together with my flat-mates we decided that we’d set up a Hindu Students Society. It turns out that there was such a society at King’s a few years ago, but it had lapsed, as there wasn’t anyone who put themselves forward to keep it running.

The results were very rewarding. Even from the beginning, we had lively discussions with decent participation. As things progressed, there were occasions when we had up to 200 people during a series of talks which we held. We also had fun doing it. Here speaker Dilip Lakhani recounts a large lecture theatre packed to capacity for one of his talks. This kind if turnout was achieved on a number of occasions.

There were inevitable challenges, in particular there were a few well-meaning but ultimately problematic characters who made things difficult, such as a couple of East London boys who lived in areas where Muslims were very dominant socially, and had internalised the notion that Hinduism should be rigid like Islam – like to be a proper Hindu everyone must believe A, B and C, and everyone who doesn’t is a “fake Hindu” and had no business being there at Hindu events. People like this made things more difficult, because while they used to support all our events by turning up, they would aggressively argue with people who came as curious seekers, and often scare people away. Imaging what it feels like if you are going somewhere to learn about your heritage which you know nothing about, and for expressing your view you are berated as being a “fake Hindu” because you raise sincere questions about about things.

At one point we even had quite a lot of non-Hindus turning up with their Hindu friends, even nominal Muslims, who were more inclined towards the openness of Hindu thought, but unfortunately they were after a while made to feel unwelcome by the aforementioned “problematic characters”. Despite the fact that these guys messed it up, the very presence and initial enthusiasm of non-Hindus does illustrate the potential for Hindu thought and the Hindu way to appeal to a much larger section of people, who will find it refreshing to talk and inquire without being forced to believe in a set creed or dogma. BTW I am not interested in converting these non-Hindus, it is more about making available a new set of ideas and tools for life amongst more people that excites me.

On the whole, as long as we stuck to an “open-minded” approach, allowing people the space to have have a serious discussion and think for themselves, the results were richly rewarding. We had a few detractors, like the aforementioned individuals, who thought that allowing people too much space to question results in “dilution” of Hindu beliefs. But this is nonsense. Allowing people to think and question means that the truth at which they arrive at has a more living force, and is more transformative. I do not mean to berate Hindus who are devotional and religious in a traditional simple sense, or to upset their faith and beliefs, but the job I’d set myself on was to help Hindus who were not lucky enough to have much of an exposure to Hindu thought to investigate their heritage  – and this is the vast majority of Hindus. And don’t take my word for it, even many Hindu sages advocate this as the true Hindu way, here Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev states that a Hindu is free to question the existence of a God.

One of the reasons as to why we encountered a fair bit of success in doing this was because we were “normal” people who had normal lives. There were some scholarly and well-read Hindus around who self-admittedly couldn’t do what we did, because they would talk in terms that most people couldn’t understand or relate to. By talking in a language and in terms of issues or dilemmas that “ordinary people” can relate to, and also being somewhat streetwise in our approach, far more was achieved than appearing as distant and far removed. Yet I don’t think that what we achieved was anything special or not replicable by anyone else; the message of this story should be that it is possible for “normal Hindus” who have some appreciation of their Hindu heritage and who have benefited from it in their lives to fulfil their “Rishi Rin” by opening up others to our vast spiritual and philosophical heritage. And in doing this it didn’t take away our ability to have fun or be otherwise normal and participate in the energetic world of student life.

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