Hindu Temples To Hebrew Lamps: Thoughts On Hanukkah By A Hindutvaite

In India, Partnerships, Thought by Aravindan Neelakandan

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It is a Hindu temple run by a Telugu community in San Francisco.

Hindu temple in San Fransisco
Hindu temple in San Fransisco

Two things strike me.

In many places, the temple administration has put out posters – ‘as per city requirement’ – asking the devotees to vacate temple premises and all halls by 8pm. I ask my host and dear friend Thirumalairajan about this notice.

The Christian neighbourhood found the temple and its activities a disturbance, and even now try to curb their activities, he says.

Even bringing a temple here was tough, with all kinds of objections being raised, explains Sundaresh, another longtime friend accompanying me.

Then, Thirumalairajan says gently, invoking suspense, “Wait till you see who had laid the foundation stone for the art hall of this temple.”

The marble slab stone says that the ground-breaking ceremony was performed by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on 15 September 1985.

The next day, I stand before a closed building, Berkeley Vedanta Center. I had always longed to visit this centre, and had read previously about how the centre here had come to be.

Marie Louise Burke (Sister Gargi) in her detailed biography about Swami Ashokananda, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, had explained the stiff opposition Berkeley Vedanta Center had faced from the local population.

In 1938, Vedanta Society had obtained approval from the Berkeley Planning Commission for buying and remodelling a house. However, objections began to be raised soon thereafter. A wealthy and influential real estate businessman, Sherman, spearheaded the campaign against the ‘diabolic intrusion of a Hindu church upon the town of Berkeley’.

In May 1938, Berkeley City Council withdrew its affirmation and asked the planning commission for further investigation.

At the hearing, there were only five speakers in favour of the centre. The opposition consisted mainly of influential property owners and wealthy businessmen who were religiously and racially opposed to India.

After two hours of deliberation, the commission found nothing detrimental in the proposal, but referred it back to the city council.

The main drama unfolded on 20 June at 7:30pm in a packed, emotionally-charged hall. Missionary misinterpretations of Hinduism meant that Vedanta Society lost. They had to be content with the knowledge that they had the support of 437 citizens of Berkeley. Undaunted, they strived and looked for a new location and, again, fought battles in the city council sessions.

One of the supporters of the centre, Mrs Martin, recorded in her diary that the attorney for the opponents ‘made pornographic insinuations during the meeting …and …put forth the immorality charges against the Vedanta Society and Hinduism in general’.

During the session, the opponents ‘read out at length and in scandalized tones Sri Krishna’s life with the Gopis’. A principal of a girls’ school ‘circulated a story that there was a ship in the harbor to take young girls to India to be sold into slavery.’

It took a tremendous amount of courage, persistent effort and ceaseless clearing of the cobwebs of colonial missionary lies to win the case at last.

The Vedanta Center at Berkeley was opened for the first time on 22 October 1939. In the same state of California, 66 years after the founding pioneers of the centre faced accusations and insinuations, Hindu parents in 2005 would face similar accusations and insinuations – this time in the California textbook society case. Hindu students and parents would testify to mostly non-Hindu and significantly unsympathetic authorities, clearing the same cobwebs of propaganda against their culture and religion.

With the Berkeley Vedanta Center closed, my friend Sundaresh says that we should visit the museum at the Mission Center at San José.

II

San José Mission museum was established by missionaries who accompanied the Spanish military. The Christianising mission of the missionaries went hand in hand with the colonisation of the land where once the Native American tribes lived.

Sundaresh picks a book from the museum book shop and hands it over to me. He says he has already read it, and recommends it to me. The book titled Life in a California Mission is actually the journals of Jean Francois de la Perouse, a French man.

I flip through the pages of the book. It details the way the local Native American tribes were treated inside the mission. He calls the mission’s evangelical enterprise resembling a ‘slave plantation’.

When the Spanish arrived 225 years ago, there were aborigines who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, now known to anthropologists as Ohione.

Back then they organised themselves into small independent communities. At least fifty such communities were flourishing. They had musical instruments. They danced to their Deities in an altered state of consciousness. An exhibit showed body pigments which they used to apply on their bodies or to their sacred objects with water. I would have said it is the holy ash and vermilion that one finds by the side of every roadside Hindu altar.

We walk inside to look at the exhibits. But this book helps one decode the exhibits like the Hadith helps one understand Quranic verses. For example, the exhibit says almost benignly that ‘once baptized, the Indians could no longer leave the mission community without permission since the Fathers viewed baptism as a spiritual commitment to change from the old ways.’

However, the journal of La Perouse gives an entirely different picture:

… the moment an Indian in baptized the effect is is the same as if he had pronounced a vow for life. If he escapes to reside with his relations in the independent villages, he is summoned three times to return; if he refuses, the missionaries apply to the governor, who sends soldiers to seize him in the midst of his family and conduct him to the mission, where he is condemned to receive a certain number of lashes with the whip.

The hopes of these Native Americans were raised with gifts from Spain, and then they were trapped through baptism and their old ways destroyed. No wonder the missionaries called these Spanish goods ‘bait and means of spiritual fishing’.

The converted ‘Indians’ kept within the mission compounds had to labour. Their women produced food for the mission. The men cultivated the land and took care of the cattle, effectively becoming cowboys of the mission.

Murals in the exhibition show a peaceful, serene co-existence. I look at the calm faces of native women who are shown preparing meals.

And I read this from the ‘journals of La Perouse’:

Women are never whipped in public, but in an enclosed and somewhat distant place that their cries may not excite a too lively compassion, which might cause men to revolt. The latter, on the contrary, are exposed to the view of all their fellow citizens that their punishment may serve as an example.

The Guardian article on the proposed canonisation of Junípero Serra, the mission founder, provides even a darker dimension to the way Native American women were treated inside the walls of the mission:

When Native American women were caught trying to abort babies conceived through rape, the mission fathers had them beaten for days on end, clamped them in irons, had their heads shaved and forced them to stand at the church altar every Sunday carrying a painted wooden child in their arms.

Even in the exhibition reading through the texts, one can discern the horrors of the mission’s history neatly concealed. An exhibit says, Mission mayordomo Jose Maria Amador described an Indian named Formo, who was punished for coming to Mission San Jose to “conduct dances and diabolical undertakings for our Indians”.

I can picture that shaman who considered his own spirituality in no way inferior to the spiritual claims of the missionaries and came in a spirit of sharing and mutual respect. Seldom would he know that the God of the missionaries was the God of inquisition who commands burning at stake the pagans and infidels.

Another exhibit informs tangentially that measles killed the natives and reduced their population strongly. However, the exhibit which talks about the measles epidemic and decimation of Native Americans practically jailed inside the mission, actually glorifies Father Narciso Duran, who defended ‘the mission system with great eloquence.’

Another exhibit unintendedly reveals something horrible. The general inventory of St Joseph’s Church (1850) in the mission includes “1 more (cross) with no staff of varnished, with a crucifix of gilt metal in half-relief, for (funerals of) the deceased infants.’ No prize for guessing which infants’ deaths needed such regular supply of crucifixes of gilt that the exhibit speaks with no remorse or guilt.

An exhibit merely informs me that the mission at its peak extended itself over thousands of acres. And that is not providential, as missionaries would love for us to believe. In his exhaustive introduction to the journals, author Malcolm Margolin points out that “the severing of the Indians’ linkage to the land was not just an accidental byproduct of missionary activity; it was consciously done, part of the missionary policy of ‘civilizing’ the Indians.”

“Civilizing the Indian can only be achieved by denaturalizing them,” said Fermín Lasuén, another prominent missionary at the mission. That Lasuén belonged to the Franciscan order is an interesting paradox for Hindus like me who love to eulogise St Francis of Assisi as a Christian saint with ecological sensibility. However, the point is that such ‘denaturalizing’ of Native Americans at once provided the mission with slave labour and vast land resources.

The entire exhibition is an exercise in presenting a sanitised version of a system that could definitely be called the prototype of Auschwitz.

As I come out, there stands majestically the statue of a monk with fierce merciless eyes. Under the statue is the name Fray Junípero Serra.

III

The Museum of Jewish Heritage at New York had its second floor closed on the day of my visit. There was, however, an exhibition running ‘Seeking Justice: Leo Frank Case revisited’. The exhibition is about how race tensions, social dynamics and an ever-present anti-Semitism, all came together in the sensational murder case of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in Georgia in 1913.

After the court verdict found Leo Frank, superintendent of the factory and a Jew, guilty of the murder of the girl, a mob lynched him to death after abducting him from the jail. Decades later in 1982, it was found that Leo Frank was not guilty. The exhibition shows how a section of the media used terms such as ‘big money’ to refer to Jews who were accused of trying to help free Leo Frank.

The Jewish Heritage centre has lessons for Hindus in the United States and elsewhere. When I saw the multimedia panel showing the various sections of the Jews, the orthodoxy, reform school, Zionist socialists, secular humanists and Zionists, I understand how to manage the differences among Hindus even as Hindu activism works for all Hindus irrespective of his or her political stand, even if they are diametrically opposite to Hindutva.

Another panel that strikes me is the commitment of Jews to justice. One finds them supporting the suffering people in Africa, and also at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the US.

The Leo Frank event shocked the Jews in the US and sensitised them to the dormant anti-semitism lurking in the American psyche. It also resulted in the launch of Anti-Defamation League that fights against not only anti-semitism but also all forms of prejudices and hatred.

As victims of centuries of hatred and prejudice, Jews have often found themselves at the forefront in fighting for the justice of other persecuted communities in the world.

Days later, I stand before the gates of Temple Ohabei Shalom in Boston along with Ravi Shankar, the editor of a famous Tamil literary webzine Solvanam.com. It is a reform Jewish temple.

Here I see another notice in front of the temple door. I now understand why Prof Nathan Katz spoke of the significance of Israel – ‘when push comes to shove, Jews will always have Israel to look at, and that is the significance of Israel’.

A smiling face opens the door and lets us in. Bill McCarthy, who is the executive director at the temple (also adjunct Professor of Mathematics at Wentworth Institute of Technology) kindly takes us to the main temple. He is eager to see us two Hindus enthusiastic about the Jewish temple. Having returned to Judaism, he may not be completely at ease with the orthodoxy, but that does not make him hate the orthodoxy. He has preferred the reform synagogue, which is much closer to his spiritual nurture.

For me, that is another lesson learnt, despite my own tradition celebrating diversity, I have had prejudices against orthodoxy in my tradition.

I marvel at the wonderful stained glass art work around the synagogue and ask him about it. He explains. Particularly striking is one panel. It relates to what is known in Jewish history as the Maccabean Revolt. When Antiochus IV tried to impose his own religion on Jews and defiled the Temple of Jerusalem, Jews started a guerrilla war on the occupying forces and, after years, they freed Jerusalem.

The temple was then in ruins. When they started cleaning up, they found a small cruse of oil. Though the oil was in little quantity, it was miraculously lighting up the lamp for eight days. It was only after they prepared fresh oil that the lamp went out. Today, this is celebrated as Hanukkah – the Jewish celebration of light.

The panel shows the oil lamp as well as the Maccabean fighter. McCarthy explains that it shows both the aspects – the light – the Divine Grace and also the valour – the brave faithful fighter, and both are complementary.

I recall a very similar event in the history of Madurai. It was only after the Vijayanagar Empire repulsed the Islamist advances and secured the Tamil land from further Islamist invasions that the temples were re-opened. After 48 years, when the temple of the Goddess which was camouflaged from desecration by a stone wall was reopened, they found the oil lamp still burning, giving out light miraculously.

Whether it is the temple of Jerusalem in the first century BCE or the temple of the Goddess in Madurai in medieval times, the lamp that glows through the dark times of expansionist monocultural oppressions is the lamp of human divinity and diversity.

Whether it is the anti-Semitic persecutions that Jews faced as in Leo Frank’s case, the genocidal wrath of missionaries which the Native Americans faced, the anti-Hindu hate prejudice which the Hindus faced at Berkeley, or which the Hindu parents face today in the California textbook case; through all these dark, shameful phases of human prejudice, the lamp still burns brightly and gives light.

It is this light that unites the lamp of the fish-eyed Goddess and the oil lamp of Jerusalem across space, time and cultures.

Originally published in Swarajiya.

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