Hinduism

Manipur, India, horses, polo and societal change: So what's missing in this picture?

Manipur, India, horses, polo and societal change: So what's missing in this picture?

In the beginning, it appeared to be merely a story about quasi-abandoned horses in northeastern India and for the most part, that’s what “In the Kingdom of Dying Ponies” was a recent offering of Foreign Policy Review.

Until I began realizing the scene was set in Manipur, that neglected corner of India that tourists rarely get to. Northeastern India is the one part of the country that is either majority Christian or has equal parts Hindu and Christian, which is the case with Manipur.

A bit of history: It was mainly the Baptists who swept through the area converting folks in the late 19th century, plus establishing schools, hospitals and translating the Bible into their language. That area of India has seen its Muslim population grow due to immigration from nearby Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

So … in a piece about society in Manipur, would you expect to see at least a little bit about the religious demographics happening there?

Two paragraphs into the piece:

Polo is the archetypal sport of snobs. But in Manipur, where the British learned of the game before introducing it to the world -- or at least the aristocracy -- polo is still a commoner’s game. And the exalted status of the Manipuri pony, the only breed used at the Manipur tournament, is one reason why. The indigenous semi-feral pony is a sacred figure for residents of Manipur, featuring prominently in the ritual life of the Meitei people, the area’s majority ethnic group. The ponies are treated as regal mounts, never put to labor, and trace their origin in local lore to the Pegasus-like Samadon Ayangba, the “swift first among beasts.

The Meitei, by the way, are Hindu.

But the ponies’ regal status has not stymied their slow demise. For decades, the ponies’ numbers have gradually dropped and now there are thought to be only around 500 left. In Imphal, one spots them on the streets, huddled together in pitiful herds, red-eyed, skinny, and surrounded by honking traffic. At night, they forage through garbage piles alongside cows and mongrels. Many of them seem hardly in a condition to be used in sport, which is just as well, because there are far fewer places in Manipur to play polo than there once were. “People in Manipur have forgotten the legacy of the pony,” lamented one local musician.
The ponies’ sorry state is a symbol, and result, of Manipur’s own downward trajectory. For centuries a prosperous, independent kingdom, it is today a pariah on India’s fringes. If it is ever in the national conversation, it is over its separatist unrest, heavy militarization, endemic corruption and overall dysfunction. But for residents of the New Jersey-sized state, the biggest shift isn’t just the violence and disorder -- it’s the area’s marginalization, and the way it has sapped the city’s pride, autonomy, and political will.

The author only sees political reasons behind the region’s poverty of spirit. Something is missing.

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Pity Uncle Sam, who struggles with an unanswerable question: What is a ‘religion’?

Pity Uncle Sam, who struggles with an unanswerable question: What is a ‘religion’?

Pity poor Uncle Sam.

The need to provide chaplains and otherwise serve  military personnel requires the government to define the indefinable -- What is a “religion”? –- and to deal with  the increasing variety of American faiths. An April 21 Kimberly Winston report for Religion News Service revealed that a Department of Defense memo to manpower directors (.pdf here), issued back on March 27, doubles recognized religious preferences, to 221.

Religion-beat writers might well pursue Winston’s scoop with local angles or see how it’s playing among military-watchers and leaders in conventional religions.

Atheists and humanists campaigned for the military’s broadened list so that chaplains will help soldiers of those persuasions to get resources and contact like-minded groups and individuals, and so that followers of new and small faiths or non-faith can be granted leave for their festival observances, travel to group   events, and such.

Among the religions that made the revised list (which, alas, is not alphabetized by DOD!): Asatru, Deism, Druid, Eckankar, Gard Wi, Magick, Sacred Well, Spiral Tree, Troth and generic “Heathen,” “New Age” and “Shaman.” But not Scientology, which long fought the IRS for recognition as a religion to gain tax exemption.

Soldiers can now be listed as “no preference, “no religion,” “none provided” or “unknown,” but no longer will be given the choice of designation as “Protestant, no denominational preference” or “Protestant, other churches.” How come?

DOD or its Armed Forces Chaplains Board flubbed the effort a bit.

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Crossroads podcast: A Muslim at an Episcopal altar? Face it, that's a complicated story

Crossroads podcast: A Muslim at an Episcopal altar? Face it, that's a complicated story

Sometimes the issue flares up in a major religious denomination. Take, for example, the 2007 case of an Episcopal priest who declared, "I am both Muslim and Christian." She was eventually defrocked. Coverage of that story led to some interesting discussions here at GetReligion.

Quite some time ago, there was the case of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who was disciplined for taking part in a post-Sept. 11 service that involved praying with Oprah Winfrey, as well as leaders from a wide spectrum of religious traditions, including Islam and Hinduism. 

Or maybe we're talking about a professor at a major evangelical Protestant school -- like Wheaton College -- who not only wore a hijab in support of oppressed Muslims, but took to social media to declare that she believes that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She quoted the pope, when making that point.

These kinds of news reports loomed in the background during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on a recent Holy Week Mass in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, during which the clergy renewed their ordination vows.

The bottom line: Stories about interfaith work and worship almost always raise complicated theological issues and, nine times out of 10, there are more than two camps of believers involved in the debates. Hold that thought.

Key details about the new Holy Week story: A Muslim interfaith leader preached during the rite, in the normal point in the liturgy dedicated to the sermon. A passage from the Quran was read, before the Gospel. The preacher stood with the bishop and others at the altar during the consecration prayers and she received the consecrated bread during Holy Communion.

All of this was discussed in my Universal syndicate "On Religion" column this week. Here is a sample of that column, which included material from contacts with Bishop Robert C. Wright, as well as the preacher, Soumaya Khalifah.

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Toronto Globe and Mail misses it on religious roots of sex-selective abortions

Toronto Globe and Mail misses it on religious roots of sex-selective abortions

Ten years ago, I wrote a four-part series about the horrific imbalance of boys and girls in India due to the rampant aborting of female fetuses. I spent three weeks in India tracking down doctors who were assisting in those abortions and activists who were trying to prevent them.

People kept on telling me that I needed to also check on whether female Indian immigrants to the United States were aborting their female children. I heard rumors that they were but I ran out of time and could not pursue that angle.

So I was glad to see that The Toronto Globe and Mail not only tackled the topic recently, but actually had some statistics to back it. However, the newspaper only told half of the story. As it said:

Fewer girls than boys are born to Indian women who immigrate to Canada, a skewed pattern driven by families whose mother tongue is Punjabi, according to a new study.
One of the most surprising findings of the study, to be published Monday in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Canada, is that the preference for boys does not diminish, regardless of how long women from India have lived in Canada.
“It’s counterintuitive,” said Marcelo Urquia, a research scientist at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Health Policy and lead author of the study. “We know that the longer immigrants are in Canada, the more likely they are to align to the host country.”

The longer they are in Canada? So western feminist values haven’t rubbed off at all? Are we sure that there is no religion ghost in this subject?

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Check out South China Morning Post: a good source for all things religious in Asia

Check out South China Morning Post: a good source for all things religious in Asia

Every so often it’s nice to give some credit to publications that do good work on the religion reporting front and I may have found a new source or, at the very least, one I have not run into before on this topic. We're talking about The South China Morning Post, published in Hong Kong.

I’ve run across it in recent weeks while looking for information on China, but the SCMP reports on a huge swath of South Asia well beyond China’s borders. And I’ve found a huge trove of religion-oriented pieces, including quite a bit on China’s response to ISIS’ involvement with Muslims in its western provinces. Click here for a piece on the Chinese jihadis in Syria. 

This major newsroom has also done a recent piece on how the Communist Party’s tentacles are still trying to influence Tibetan Buddhists. 

The SCMP has reached into neighboring Malaysia to explore why, for Muslims there, child sex is forbidden but child marriage is OK.  It just reviewed a book on why the death of Mao Tse-tung opened the gates for religion to flourish in China. And the newspaper has documented the government crackdown on Christianity, noting in a recent piece that, after officials ordered crosses torn down from 360 or so church towers, they have now ordered surveillance cameras set up inside churches in heavily Christian Wenzhou.

Christians and government ­officials have come to blows over demands that churches in a city known as “China’s Jerusalem” ­install surveillance cameras for “anti-terrorism and security ­purposes”.
The Zhejiang government issued the orders to ­churches in Wenzhou late last year and began implementing them before the Lunar New Year ­holiday in January.
The confrontation with the city’s Christian community, which is estimated to number roughly one million, comes three years after the authorities ordered the removal of crosses on top of church buildings, on the grounds that they were illegal structures. Opponents called the 2014 ­campaign religious persecution.

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Once again, Time magazine's top 100 influential people list shortchanges the religious world

Once again, Time magazine's top 100 influential people list shortchanges the religious world

Each year, Time magazine comes out with its “100 Most Influential People” list, which is often clueless about the world of religion.

Well, it's deja vu all over again. This year’s selection did not fail to disappoint.

There were no icons of the religious left, such the Rev. James Martin nor, on the opposite pole, people like the Rev. Russell Moore, who took a lot of heat -- and nearly lost his job -- for criticizing evangelical Trump supporters.

There was no Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the ISIS leader whose butchery and short-lived Islamic  caliphate is still creating international havoc. (He made the short list for Time’s 2015 person of the year, so go figure).

There was no sign of the Rev. Tim Keller, the Presbyterian pastor who, against many odds, started a Reformed congregation in highly secular Manhattan 28 years ago and grew it into a 5,000-member congregation. No less than the New York magazine has called Keller the city’s “most successful Christian evangelist.” It was only recently that he became more widely known after Princeton Theological Seminary announced he’d won its annual Kuyper Prize, then reneged on giving him the award after an outcry from theological liberals.

The only religious leader cited was Pope Francis, in an essay written by Cardinal Blaise Cupich:

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When doctrines make news: Why do Hindus believe cows are sacred?

When doctrines make news: Why do Hindus believe cows are sacred?

THE QUESTION: What’s the background on Hinduism’s belief in “sacred cows”? (This question was actually posed by The Religion Guy himself -- not a reader -- because the topic is currently in the news.)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Press reports from India say the government in Uttar Pradesh state is waging a campaign against Muslim slaughterhouses accused of processing cows, which is illegal, instead of buffaloes, which is allowed and constitutes a large industry. Muslim butchers deny the accusations. In Gujarat state, meanwhile, the maximum punishment for killing a cow has been increased from seven years to life in prison.

India is offically non-sectarian but has a lopsided Hindu majority, and the current national government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is Hindu nationalist in character. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat till 2014. The BJP recently won a lrge victory in Uttar Pradesh elections and installed strong-willed Hindu sage Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister. In BJP-ruled Rajasthan state, the cabinet includes a minister for cows.

There’ve been some riots and even a vigilante killing over cow issues during recent years. In times past, regimes even executed cow-killers. Since the 19th Century the nation has seen the rise of militant societies and vigilantes devoted to cow protection. Due to this religious heritage, many cattle roam city streets and the countryside unhindered. For some, reverence extends to bulls and oxen.

Though heavily Hindu, India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan. As with states’ “anti-conversion” laws aimed especially at hindering Christians, crackdowns on Muslims over cows reflect popular feeling among Hindus. Religion News Service reports there’s also sporadic persecution against atheists.

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Why are media missing a key scoop on human brain-munching religion 'scholar' Reza Aslan?

Why are media missing a key scoop on human brain-munching religion 'scholar' Reza Aslan?

In a world where very little seems to shock people anymore, devouring what is described as part of a human brain, albeit charred to a crisp, is enough to shock many folks, even if the alleged brain-eating is described as part of a religious exercise. Perhaps, especially so.

Such is the lot of Reza Aslan, who has parlayed making outrageous utterances about religion into a career of "explaining" faith to the rest of us. Aslan -- not to be confused with The Chronicles of Narnia hero -- is (surprise, surprise) fronting a new series on CNN, "Believer." In this series, viewers must understand that Aslan "immerses himself in the world's most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer."

Eric Hoffer this ain't. Which is where the alleged brain-munching comes in: Aslan devours what he described as barbecued gray matter on the first episode. He says he did this on a visit to the Aghori, a Hindu sect in India regarded as, well, rather iconoclastic. Aghoris reject the caste system, among other things, it's reported.

This caused no little excitement for more mainstream Hindus around the globe, which brought it to the attention of a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post:

Religion scholar Reza Aslan ate cooked human brain tissue with a group of cannibals in India during Sunday’s premiere of the new CNN show “Believer,” a documentary series about spirituality around the globe.
The outcry was immediate. Aslan, a Muslim who teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, was accused of “Hinduphobia” and of mischaracterizing Hindus.
“With multiple reports of hate-fueled attacks against people of Indian origin from across the U.S., the show characterizes Hinduism as cannibalistic, which is a bizarre way of looking at the third largest religion in the world,” lobbyist group U.S. India Political Action Committees said in a statement, according to the Times of India.

A story on The Atlantic magazine's website brings in other dissenting voices:

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Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole

Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole

If you have followed news in India in recent years, you know that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party -- commonly known as the BJP -- has continued its efforts to promote "Hindutva," or Hindu-ness, which essentially argues that Hinduism is an essential component of what it means to be a citizen of India.

Thus, it's goal is to defeat secular pluralism and the recognition of a valid role for other faiths in public life. The side effect has, in many cases, been a crackdown on many of the activities of other faiths in India -- especially ministries linked to foreign groups.

Tensions between Muslims and Hindus remain a fact of life. Meanwhile, attacks on Christians -- including a much-publicized gang rape of a 71-year-old nun -- have risen by 20 or 30 percent in recent years.

This brings us to a detailed New York Times report on the latest battle in this conflict, which ran with this headline: "Major Christian Charity Is Closing India Operations Amid a Crackdown."

The key is that officials in India are accusing a major ministry of evangelism, of converting people to Christianity.  What the story never addresses are these questions: As a matter of human rights, do citizens in India have the right to convert to another faith? Do members of one faith have a right to discuss their faith with others? Here is the overture:

NEW DELHI -- India’s crackdown on foreign aid will claim its most prominent casualty this month, as a Colorado-based Christian charity that is one of India’s biggest donors closes its operations here after 48 years, informing tens of thousands of children that they will no longer receive meals, medical care or tuition payments.
The shutdown of the charity, Compassion International, on suspicion of engaging in religious conversion, comes as India, a rising economic power with a swelling spirit of nationalism, curtails the flow of foreign money to activities it deems “detrimental to the national interest.”

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