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Krishnamurthy ’19: Grossman ’00 protesters misunderstand cultural appropriation

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, April 25, 2016

Last Thursday night, protesters gathered at an event sponsored by the Contemplative Studies Department and decried the performance of a Brown alum — Carrie Grossman ’00, a white woman — who chanted Hindu hymns. For sure, their frustration stemmed from a fairly reasonable place: Hindus, Indians and south Asians more generally, after centuries of colonization and material exploitation, have seen elements of their cultures systematically dissected, insouciantly exported and insensitively lampooned by the Western world.

Unfortunately, in their gratuitous arraignment of Grossman and in their misguided “defense” of Hinduism, the protesters severely missed the mark. Most egregiously, in erecting race-based access to a central feature of the faith, they demonstrated a flagrant misunderstanding of what Hinduism, a religion whose characteristics transcend encyclopedic enumeration, really stands for. Now, I can’t speak for those who subscribe to other religions, but I do know this: Hinduism, unlike other belief systems, derives its immemorial appeal from its tremendous capacity for tolerance, individualism and diversity. In short, Hinduism is, by deliberate design, disorganized and customizable. You can be anyone, come from anywhere or believe in any god — and still have a legitimate stake in and claim over Hinduism. As Jonardon Ganeri, a professor of philosophy at New York University Abu Dhabi, observes, “Hinduism is a banyan tree … supported by not one but many trunks.”

Therein lies the religion’s inscrutable, paradoxical magic: At once, everyone can be a Hindu, but Hinduism belongs to no one, in the same way any bird can nest in a banyan tree, but no bird owns the whole thing. As a Hindu myself, I am free — and liberally empowered, by the marvelous Indian practices of intricate narrative construction and colorful storytelling — to cultivate my spiritual interests in any way I deem fit. For instance, I’m no vegetarian, and I keep a small statue of Ganesh, the elephant god, on my desk and carry a pocket-copy of the Hanuman Chalisa in my backpack. But by no means am I allowed to trespass on someone else’s negotiation of Hinduism, even if they fail to resemble the faith’s more typical adherents. (Besides, no one appointed the protesters guardians of Hinduism. What right do they have to deny the faith to anybody?) Grossman, whose website conspicuously illustrates a profound respect for Hindu culture, is permitted — not by any single person, or college protester, but by thousands of years of vibrant, unencumbered tradition — to forge her own Hindu path.

In fact, Grossman exhibited a robust awareness of Hinduism’s most critical component, one that many Hindus, including me, are unfamiliar with: chanting. Verbalization, not lengthy written texts or elaborate places of worship, is the principal medium by which Hindus have interacted with the faith. In the Rig Veda — an ancient collection of hymns sustained through oral communication that provides much of the foundation for contemporary Hinduism — speech is exalted. It is said, “when the wise ones fashioned speech with their thought, sifting it as grain is sifted through a sieve, then friends recognized their friendships.” Speech is how we measure our minds, comprehend the world around us and, most importantly, identify those in whom we can find love and support. Contrary to the protesters’ allegations, Grossman, in her resounding appreciation for chanting, wielded a well-founded understanding of Hinduism.

The primary problem the protesters had with Grossman, it seems, then, was not her knowledge or admiration of Hinduism, but her race. But the visceral association of whiteness with cultural appropriation is both a grave injustice against the welcoming foundations of Hinduism and a significant impediment to intercultural exchange more broadly. Of course, cultural appropriation, in all its nebulous forms, is unacceptable — I don’t seek to defend it here. Even the Hindu community, with its striking openness and polycentricity, has suffered from its profiteering grasp. “Color Runs,” for example — trademarked 5K races in which runners are bombarded with powdery color — is an unadulterated co-opting of the Hindu holiday Holi. But what makes “Color Runs” so strange and off-putting isn’t the participation of white people; it’s that a for-profit company, in its pursuit of money and worldwide expansion, shamelessly circumvents the millennia-old human culture from which its whole business model originated. Intentional, self-aggrandizing ignorance is a far worse crime than race. This is exactly why admission to Hinduism along purely racial lines, a novel notion implicitly espoused by the protesters in their emphasis on Grossman’s complexion, so irreparably damages the faith and undercuts its essential tenets. 

Indeed, Grossman’s whiteness should not, and cannot, be the single factor that precludes her from expressing genuine artistic and scholarly interest in Hinduism. My brownness does not make me a better Hindu — that’s a self-evidently absurd proposition. By the same token, Grossman’s white skin does not automatically make her a worse, or less deserving, practitioner of Hindu chanting. When the protesters challenged Grossman’s performance solely because of her appearance, they retrogressively emulated the same kind of close-minded othering that kept Hindus and south Asians under imperial enslavement for hundreds of years. 

And, it may just be me, but I find it wonderful that people outside of India, with all sorts of racial and national backgrounds, are beginning to seriously study and treasure Hinduism. After all, real compensation for historical wrongs occurs not when the oppressed exact exclusionary revenge on white people, but when whites are encouraged to cast off ingrained, xenophobic worldviews and explore, with their own eyes, the value of the developing world’s cultures.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.