Campaign Rhetoric in Kentucky — A Rite of Passage for American Hindus

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

“All is fair in love and war” is a clichéd adage, to which we can also add “in business too,” till one gets caught. David Williams, Kentucky’s Republican candidate for the governor’s race in last November crudely exemplifies this. Williams was trailing badly behind his Democratic incumbent opponent, Gov. Steve Beshear, who participated in a bhoomi pooja (ground-breaking ceremony) for a $180-million factory. The plant, to be built by an Indian-American Hindu entrepreneur, will directly employ 250 Kentuckians, giving jobs to another 750 people indirectly. Unemployment in Kentucky was 9.7% in November 2011.

Williams plastered all over the photo of Beshear participating in the Bhoomi Puja saying, “[Beshear] is there participating with Hindu priests, participating in a religious ceremony. He’s sitting down there with his legs crossed, participating in Hindu prayers with a dot on his forehead with incense burning around him. I don’t know what the man was thinking.” He added this gem: “I think you disrespect other people’s religion when you go down there [to their places of worship].” A detailed report is here:

Using Williams’ twisted logic, all non-Christians who have participated in Christian weddings sitting in the pews of churches uttering “amen” along with others, or have gone to the Christian funeral services, have disrespected Christianity.

Before one reacts to William’s bigoted view towards the Hindu religion, one needs to understand the history of this nation. Even decades after the Civil War, the attitude of the powerful white American Protestant establishment towards Blacks, and Jews & Catholic immigrants from Europe was along similar lines. After a period of considerable soul-searching, the Protestant establishment reconciled the different faiths under the rubric of “Judeo-Christian” heritage, which seems to work fine for the most part. Post 9-11, the American establishment tries to reconcile with Muslims with the inclusive phrase “Abrahamic faiths.” But reconciliation is too far away.  Where do the agnostic Buddhists, atheistic Jains, monist Sikhs and the “idolatrous” Hindus fit into this? Given the history of the internecine wars among the Abrahamics, many non-Abrahmics may think, “Leave us alone.” You may wonder why? There are reasons:

Here is the attitude of 4th century Syrian-born Christian Theologian Saint Ephrem, who composed a hymn in Syriac in praise of his faith that is racist by today’s norms (Ref: All is Change – The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West by Lawrence Sutin, p. 31, Little, Brown and Company, New York (2006)). Translation below:

The sun-burnt India you [that is, Christianity] have made fair…

A tainted land of dark people, you [Christianity] have purified.

More than snow and white linen

The dark bride of India, you [Christianity] have made fair… …

The crown of light has obliterated India’s darkness shades.

During the Colonial days in India over a millennia later, the attitude of the newly landed European Christian missionaries towards Hindus was worse. The European missionaries were dictating to Hindus what was right in matters of faith without even caring to know the Indian spiritual ethos. Francis Xavier (1506 – 1552), later canonized as St. Xavier, representing the Vatican in India, was responsible for unleashing the Inquisition of Hindus in Goa with support from the Portuguese rulers, similar to inquisition of Jews and Muslims in Portugal. Search the web for Goa Inquisition for more details. Incidentally, the fashionable, upscale St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai where Mumbai’s elite Hindus send their sons and daughters, is named after the same inquisitor St. Xavier.  

Let us also not overlook the behavior of elected officials of our own ilk in the US. Louisiana governor Bobby (Piyush) Jindal (R) did not even want to be seen in the White House Deepavali where nobody had to sit cross-legged on the floor. South Carolina’s Nikki Haley (R) walked away from her Sikh/Hindu heritage to get elected as governor. Luckily, we have Dalip Singh Saund (D) (1899-1973) for inspiration. He did not change his name and his faith –- he was a Sikh — and yet got elected to the US Congress from California in 1956 under even harsher environment.

Given this history, how should the Hindus in the US respond to the Republican and Protestant David Williams’ diatribe against the Hindu faith?  First, let us appeal to Yahveh Himself, paraphrasing the words of His only Son: “Forgive Dave, O Lord, for he knows not what he says. He is swirling in blind faith, ignorance, and prejudice.” Yahveh just might forgive Williams. But Kentuckians did not. Williams lost big time to Beshear in the election — 56% to 35%.  In his victory speech, Beshear was candid: “In the election, we asked voters to send a strong message against … … the politics of religious intolerance. Today, they sent the message in the strongest possible terms.” Amen, Governor Beshear!

Williams is not the only one in this genre. Republican Governor Robert J. Bentley of Alabama last January said this after taking office: “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother.” (Ref: “Southern Hospitality, but Not for Newcomers,” Opinion piece by Yunte Huang, NY Times, November 19, 2011). Mercifully, later Bentley apologized for his statement. 

We are likely to have more Williams and Bentleys in the years ahead. But taking inspiration from the Black, Jewish, Catholic, Chinese, and Japanese experience, we need to react nondefensively, and with grace and confidence, and tell that the diatribes like those of Williams and Bentleys are our Rites of Passage for getting melded into the American mainstream. I am sure, Mainstream-USA will be with us on this.

As the latest immigrants, it is now the Hindus’ turn to endure, notwithstanding our better education, professional careers, and middle class lifestyle. For Hindus here to stand against religious bigotry, they don’t have to be “modern” and “western educated.” They can go to their own Indian roots.  For that go the story titled “India’s Centuries Old Fight Against Religious Bigotry” elsewhere in the website.   

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