Hinduism

Reuters misses some key players in news package about Hindu radicalization of India

Reuters misses some key players in news package about Hindu radicalization of India

Beneath all the sparkle and glitz of 21st century India is another story; an ominous tale of how the leaders of the 1.3 billion-person nation do not want to turn the nation back a century but instead wish to turn it back hundreds of centuries.

In a package about Hindutva; an ideology seeking to establish the primacy of Hinduism in every aspect of Indian life. Which, according to a fascinating package of articles from Reuters, means rewriting Indian history and killing any opponents who get in the way. And which, in the Reuters universe, means Muslims, who comprise 14 percent of India’s population.

However, this approach ignores Christians and Sikhs, both of whom claim millions of adherents who’ve been in India for many centuries (or in the case of the Malabar Christians, since the time of St. Thomas the apostle). For a sample:

NEW DELHI -- During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation…
Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.

So what this means is that the Hindu god Ganesh –- a deity with a human body and an elephant head –- was a real person. Or that the divine prince Rama, described in the Indian epic Ramayana, is a historical figure who rescued his wife, Sita, from the demon king Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys.

Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people - a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.
In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace.

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Bollywood movie 'Padmaavat' draws mixed coverage on Hindu-Muslim themes

Bollywood movie 'Padmaavat' draws mixed coverage on Hindu-Muslim themes

About 11 years ago, I was in Rajasthan, India, to research some stories for the Washington Times when I decided to take off a morning and visit one of the stupendous hill forts just north of the “pink city” of Jaipur, so named because of its stunning rose-hued buildings. We went to two of them, but it was the 17th century Amer –- or Amber -– Fort that caught my attention for its open air balconies, latticed stonework and gardens.

It was either there or in a similar palace that I heard of jauhar, a form of mass suicide by royal women and their retinues –- to escape abuse and rape -- should their menfolk fail in battle. A guide showed me bloody handprints on the wall from several of these women, left there before they went to die.

A new epic Bollywood film, which ends when the main female lead commits jauhar, is now out. If you wish to understand the Hindu-Muslim enmities that persist to this day in the Indian subcontinent, read up on “Padmaavat” and the mayhem among India’s Hindus before its recent release. According to the Associated Press:

NEW DELHI (AP) — There was anger about a rumored romance between a Hindu queen and a Muslim invader. There were death threats. There were buses burned and grandstanding politicians.
But when the Indian film “Padmaavat” was finally released on Thursday (Jan. 25) amid heavy security and breathless TV coverage, Bollywood’s latest over-the-top offering turned out to be just that: an opulent period drama with multiple songs and dances and a thin storyline and not the slightest hint of the rumored relationship…
The film is based on a 16th-century epic Sufi poem, “Padmavat,” in which a brave and beautiful Rajput queen chose to immolate herself in a ceremonial fire rather than be captured by the Muslim sultan of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji.
Over centuries of retelling, the epic has come to be seen as history, despite little evidence. The main character of Queen Padmini has become an object of veneration for many Rajputs, the clans of former warriors and kings from the western state of Rajasthan.

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New York Times on India: Did Hindu activists make Christmas too dangerous this year?

New York Times on India: Did Hindu activists make Christmas too dangerous this year?

As some of us have gone caroling, Christmas tree decorating or dropped by a candlelit church service lately, we’ve never envisaged a moment where it’d be dangerous to do such activities.

Halfway across the world, in India, they can be life-threatening. 

We're not talking about the scrappy evangelical Protestant missionary groups that have continually given Hindu groups the fits. No, we're referring to Roman Catholics, who aren't known for creating religious tensions there. 

Welcome to the India of 2017. This is a major story, on the global religion scene, but not one American readers see in headlines or on the evening news.

A recent piece in the New York Times provides a door into what is happening.

NEW DELHI -- Tehmina Yadav is a Muslim woman married to a Hindu man. The other night, she was hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree.
In India, a country that is about 80 percent Hindu, Christmas is becoming big business. Airlines play Christmas music, online vendors sell holiday gift baskets, and one especially enterprising young man, Kabir Mishra, rents out a contingent of Hindus dressed as Santa Claus.
“I can provide as many Santas as you want,” he said.
Sitting next to her Christmas tree at home in Delhi, Ms. Yadav said that in India, there was nothing strange about non-Christians celebrating Christmas. Indians have always observed a dizzying number of festivals regardless of religious affiliation, and even though Christians represent only 2.3 percent of the population, Christmas is recognized as a government holiday.

A leftover of its colonial days, the article explains later. But now:

But as far-right Hindu groups have gained traction, India has changed. Christmas has now found itself caught in the cross hairs.

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Bodies trapped on Mt. Everest: The New York Times gets the Hindu details in this tragedy

Bodies trapped on Mt. Everest: The New York Times gets the Hindu details in this tragedy

If, like me, you have read journalist Jon Krakauer's classic book "Into Thin Air" more times than you'd like to admit, and you own the IMAX film "Everest," then the New York Times has a story for you.

This is one of those multi-media deep-dives that has to be seen, and read, to be believed.

Seen? Yes, the images and videos from Mt. Everest are stunning. This includes final looks at experiences in the lives of climbers who died on the mountain and whose stories are at the heart of reporter John Branch's epic "Deliverance From 27,000 Feet."

This is an amazing, multi-media mini-book. But why write about it at GetReligion? As several readers noted, in emails, this is not a religion story. However, this report on how three West Bengali climbers died on the mountain -- and the amazing efforts to retrieve their bodies from the "dead zone" high on Everest -- is in large part driven by details about their Hindu faith. And it's crucial that these climbers were not wealthy people clicking one more item on bucket lists. They were middle-class people whose families made great sacrifices to back their climbs, and then to recover their bodies -- for reasons both spiritual and practical.

If you connect the dots between several passages, you will understand the big themes woven into this must-read feature. Let's focus on Goutam Ghosh, a 50-year-old police officer. As the story notes, the "last time anyone saw him alive was on the evening of May 21, 2016." This passage is long, but essential:

At the time of the tragedy, the climbing season for Everest was almost over. On their way to the summit over the next two nights, the last two dozen of the year’s climbers had come upon Ghosh’s rigid corpse on a steep section of rock and ice.
To get around him, climbers and their guides, sucking oxygen through masks and double-clipped to a rope for safety, stripped off their puffy mittens. They untethered the clips one at a time, stepped over and reached around Ghosh’s body, and clipped themselves to the rope above him.
Some numbly treated the body as an obstacle. ... One climber stepped on the dead man and apologized profusely. Another saw the body and nearly turned around, spooked by the thought of his own worried family back home. Another paused on his descent to hold a one-sided conversation with the corpse stretched across the route.
Who are you? Who left you here? And is anyone coming to take you home?

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Hindu and Hawaiian: The New Yorker sings praises of up-and-coming Congresswoman

Hindu and Hawaiian: The New Yorker sings praises of up-and-coming Congresswoman

You can always tell when the New Yorker team meets a religious person they deem to be either progressive-cool, such as former NYPD Muslim cop Bobby Hadid; or a refugee from weird Christian movements (Westboro Church’s Megan Phelps Roper). There are some exceptions, such as their sympathetic treatment of Rod Dreher’s vision of the Benedict Option.

But then there was their anemic coverage of Mike Pence’s faith and their jaundiced view of religious liberty. And then there's their no-holds-barred hostility-verging-on-incoherent treatments such as this review of the faith-based film "Let There Be Light." 

What runs in the magazine is light years away from classic pieces like Peter J. Boyer’s Sept. 15, 2003, piece on Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” (Boyer now writes for The Weekly Standard).

So when I saw their latest piece on a Hawaiian politician who’s the first Hindu in Congress, I figured here’s another gushy article in the here’s-a-religious-person-who-isn’t- one-of-those-medieval-conservative-folks vein. As this piece in People magazine on her 2015 Vedic wedding illustrates, Gabbard is a colorful politician who's no stick-in-the-mud.

What saves this profile is how the writer actually did some work on the odd-ish guru that Tulsi Gabbard calls her mentor. First, the intro:

“(Gabbard) is thirty-six, and has a knack for projecting both youthful joy and grownup gravitas. Her political profile is similarly hybrid. She is a fervent Bernie Sanders supporter with equally fervent bipartisan tendencies—known, roughly equally, for her concern for the treatment of veterans and her opposition to U.S. intervention abroad. She is also a vegetarian and a practicing Hindu—the first Hindu ever elected to Congress—as well as a lifelong surfer and an accomplished athlete.
On Capitol Hill, she is often regarded as a glamorous anomaly: a Hawaiian action figure, fabulously out of place among her besuited colleagues. “She’s almost straight from central casting, if you need a heroine,” Van Jones, the progressive activist, says.

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Top notch New York Times who-done-it story comes up short on Hindu roots of India's caste system

Top notch New York Times who-done-it story comes up short on Hindu roots of India's caste system

The New York Times ran a fascinating story out of rural India over the weekend that to my mind underscored -- with one big caveat -- some of the complicated mechanics and very best qualities of foreign reporting.

Headlined, “How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India,” the piece, written in the first person by a veteran correspondent, showed — without explicitly explaining — the powerful connection between religion and everyday cultural expression. The writer was Ellen Barry, who shared a staff Pulitzer Prize while previously working in the paper’s Moscow bureau.

Conveying the daily experiences of ordinary people living in a distant and different culture requires a level of empathetic insight and writing skill greater than that of the average newspaper reporter. Barry’s that kind of journalist; she’s able to turn the travails of ordinary individuals into highly readable copy

This story focuses on how a man got away with murdering his wife -- a circumstance that unfortunately happens far too often in rural India.

For that he can thank corrupt local officials and ingrained male disrespect for women -- particularly poor women -- rooted in South Asia’s Vedic-origin caste system. The Vedas are Hinduism earliest scriptural writings and are estimated to be between 2,500 to 3,500 years old.

This, despite Indian laws making caste discrimination illegal.

(Before any non-Hindu readers dismiss this as solely a Hindu problem, note that the Wikipedia link in the previous paragraph, repeated here, makes clear that in India and neighboring (and primarily Hindu) Nepal, some Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews also have adhered to caste system protocols over the years.)

Barry’s story is long, around 3,500 words, but it stays interesting to its conclusion and it's worth reading in full.

I like how Barry documented her dogged reporting technique, returning time and again to re-interview people, often asking the same reworded questions over and over. That kind of intensive reporting becomes more rare with each passing news cycle.

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Air India goes veggie; The New York Times and India's The Hindu play it way, way differently

Air India goes veggie; The New York Times and India's The Hindu play it way, way differently

Sometimes a story grabs my interest simply because of its timing. That’s the case this week with a New York Times piece out of India that I came across just a day prior to flying back to the United States following several weeks in Israel and Greece. It's about an Air India decision to serve vegetarian meals only to coach passengers on all its domestic flights.

So what's this beef all about? (Bad pun, I know. I promise I'll make up for it below.)

Try humanity’s Achilles’ heel, the often toxic mix of religious identity mixed with politics -- either real or imagined -- that accounts for so much of what we think of as religion news. This story ties together some powerful symbols.

About to endure two more coach flights from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Washington, D.C. -- the last of six international flights booked for this trip abroad -- this story felt as if it was written just for me.

Perhaps that's also because I always order the Hindu vegetarian meal on international flights no matter the airline. I’ll say more about why, further down.

Here’s the top of the Times piece.

NEW DELHI -- Coming from some other debt-ridden airline, it might have been shrugged off as just another service cutback. But not this time: When Air India announced on Monday that coach passengers on its domestic flights would now be offered only vegetarian meals, the move provoked an uproar on social media.
G. P. Rao, a spokesman for the government-owned airline, said the change was made a week ago strictly to reduce waste and cut costs. But what people eat can be a sectarian flash point in India, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power.
Many members of the Hindu majority are vegetarians, while the country’s Muslims and some other minorities eat meat. So the airline’s action was seen by many as discriminatory and part of a wave of religious nationalism sweeping the country.
“Only veg food on Air India,” Madhu Menon, a Bangalore-based chef and food writer, wrote on Twitter. “Next, flight attendants to speak only Hindi. After that, stand for national anthem before flight take-off.”

The story next offered a defense of Air India’s scheme (in Indian English, “scheme” loses its negative connotation; it's used as Americans might use “plan” or “proposal”).

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Old question in a New Age: What does the Bible say about reincarnation?

Old question in a New Age: What does the Bible say about reincarnation?

MARK’S QUESTION:

What does the Bible say bout reincarnation? Was it an esoteric teaching of Jesus that was censored by church councils in the 4th and 5th Centuries?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

According to historians, nothing and no.

Forget pop novels, conspiracy theories about church censorship, or supposed secret knowledge from Jesus. The academic experts say the Bible, and thus Christianity, never taught reincarnation. That’s not to say individual Christians haven’t pondered the idea along with some mystics in Sufi Islam and Judaism’s medieval kabbalah movement.

Some basics on what’s also called transmigration of souls, metempsychosis, or samsara (Sanskrit for “running together”). With certain differences the belief is central for Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism (a synthesis of Hindu elements with Islam’s worship of the one God).

The late Professor J. Bruce Long said the soul’s succession through a series of human or animal lives was often taught by early preliterate cultures, then by certain Egyptian and Greek thinkers, and reached elaborate form in ancient India.

In this developed system “the circumstances of any given lifetime are automatically determined by the net results of good and evil actions in previous existences” through the Law of Karma (meaning “action”). Assessment of each soul’s moral performance is a “universal law of nature that works according to its own inherent necessity,” not judgment by a God or gods.

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In America, cremations now outnumber burials — what's religion got to do with it?

In America, cremations now outnumber burials — what's religion got to do with it?

My hippie wannabe wife insists that she wants to be cremated when she dies.

"I think it's environmentally friendly," my bride tells me. "Countless acres are filled up with remains inside caskets.

"Plus, it will allow me to spare you guys a lot of expense and possibly trauma and heartache," she adds.

Rather than be buried in a cemetery, Tamie says she wants to be "mixed in with the roots of a tree and planted in the mountains in the breathtakingly beautiful area where six generations of my family have made memories together. I think it would be nice to contribute to nature rather than be a burden on it."

Well, alrighty. 

As for me, I want to be dressed in my Sunday best and await the resurrection with what's left of my skin and bones fully intact. I don't like flames. So it sounds like my wife of 27 years and I will — at some point hopefully many years in the future — spend the first part of eternity apart.

In all seriousness, we are both people of strong Christian faith — but we come down on different sides of the cremation vs. burial question. 

I bring up the topic because of a fascinating Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story this week that noted cremation is becoming the new norm in America:

When Scott Beinhauer’s forebears expanded their funeral business in 1921 with a location just south of the then-new Liberty Tunnel, they added a rare piece of equipment: a crematory.
For nearly a century it stood as the second-oldest crematory in use in the nation, although it would have received only occasional use for its first few decades, when more than 95 percent of Americans were still opting for burial.
That began to change in the 1960s, and now the nation has reached a cultural tipping point, with cremations outnumbering burials. The Memorial Day tradition of paying respects for the departed are increasingly taking place in columbariums rather than graveyards.

Longtime GetReligion readers will be thrilled to know that the byline atop the Post-Gazette trend piece belongs to Peter Smith, one of the best religion writers on the planet.

That means — hurrah! — that the writer definitely gets religion, and that makes this story a joy to read. Well, as much a joy as a story about dying can be ...

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