Faith & Reason: Western words are inadequate to carry Hindu truths

Young British Hindus must develop a new vocabulary if they are to explain their faith without diluting it
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Some 10,000 Hindu youths will gather this weekend in Leicester for a "Get Connected" festival. Their task is to search for an authentic identity, one that truly reflects their culture, philosophy and spirituality and yet which also engages with the reality of their life in contemporary Britain. This is a tall order.

Even those who think they are sympathetic to the needs of religious minorities do not understand enough to see how profound is the gap between our different world views. Cultural exchange has not gone deep enough, indeed some efforts have even been counter-productive.

Hindus often explain their traditions using Western vocabulary in an attempt to bridge this communication gap. But the trouble is that a lot about the Hindu tradition is fundamentally distorted if you try to talk about it in the framework of Western philosophical concepts and language. A vocabulary for true inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue doesn't exist at this point, or is very limited. As a result, people don't feel confident expressing themselves.

Take an example from a few years back when Glenn Hoddle turned from football coach to theologian. He didn't prove a very articulate proponent of the principle reincarnation. He declared that disabled people achieved that condition by doing something bad in a previous life. The media came down on him mercilessly and the Prime Minister declared that it was "very wrong."

But what exactly was wrong about it? Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and others in this country all believe in reincarnation. Yet these communities are not heartless or backward in their treatment of people with disabilities. Rather they are some of the most compassionate and charitable communities in modern Britain.

What went awry here was the assumption that such a religious philosophy must have negative practical consequences. There may, or may not, be some truth in that from Western notions of causality. But from a Hindu point of view each of our incarnations must be seen from the perspective of eternity. What you are going to be in the next life is more important than this. Disability may not be bad karma but good. It may be a condition which gives me the space to develop intellectually or spiritually. It may be a form of purification that brings me closer to God. The practical outworking of that is therefore not distaste or prejudice but a cherishing of the disabled person and an additional compassion prompted because that might be me in a future life. But as yet, we lack an adequate cross-cultural vocabulary to explore such issues.

One danger is that we make compromises to communicate which distort the fundamentals of who we are. One of the issues that Hindu youth are consciously beginning to grapple with is whether their identity as young Britons is pushing them towards assimilation rather than integration. Integration means that they bring their values with them to the pluralist discourse; assimilation means a subtle pressure to change those values.

Some change is inevitable, and appropriate. In the first Hindu Youth Survey ever conducted at a similar festival in 2001, the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies found that the present generation of young Hindus are not as caste-conscious as their parents, nor as attached to regional India. They're developing new dialogues which will influence how the community matures and relates to British culture - if anyone could please define that for us.

Yet early next month many of these same young Hindus will be attending temples up and down the country to celebrate Janmastami, Krishna's birthday. This, the most popular festival in the Hindu calendar in this country, celebrates Krishna, a personal manifestation of God. The emotional attraction of Krishna is expressed in the Bhagavat Purana, where it describes the calves hearing his flute: "As for the calves, they're seen with the nipples of their mothers pressed in their mouths, but they cannot suck the milk - they remain struck with devotion, tears glide down their eyes, illustrating vividly how they are embracing Krishna heart-to-heart." Unless we can understand the feelings expressed in this poetry we will not understand the heart of the devotee.

If British Hinduism is to mean anything then young Hindus have to be able to embrace Krishna heart-to-heart. But they have to be able to do so while at the same time developing the confidence and courage to express their real thoughts and feelings to their fellow Britons. Only then will we be able to create a community where our relationships are not defensive, or a lip-service to some multicultural myth, but a sincere appreciation, heart-to-heart.

Shaunaka Rishi Das is director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies

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