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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.

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15 Comments

  1. A cogent, well-written op-ed. Thank you.

  2. This editorial is one more example of tolerance in a sea of intolerant religious interpretation.

    We’re all well versed in crimes by those claiming religious justification – Christian, Islamic and Judaic extremists are well documented (not to mention ALL of the other religious at one time or another).

    The common theme is people use intolerance to express power. You spirited defense of tolerance on the basis of Hindu beliefs misses the point – the critics of Ms. Grossman were empowered by outrage and delighted in taking down a white person a few pegs.

    They don’t care a wit about history, your interpretation, or anything else except the rapture of self-righteous indignation.

  3. Sigmund Nadal says:

    Thank you for writing this!

  4. I think its easy to hear about students protesting a white person’s adoption of a non-western religion and decry it as unfounded vitriol. I don’t have a problem with anyone of any background adopting a certain religion and celebrating it. However, this woman’s interpretation of “Hinduism” and “spirituality” is unbelievably perverse. She coopts non-western traditions and preaches about “mysticism” to purely white audiences. What she’s practicing isn’t Hinduism, it’s a bastardization used to dilute Indian/South Asian cultural practices and conveniently bundle them up for white people interested in “contemplative traditions.” She makes no effort to preserve their sanctity, and THAT is what I take issue with.

    • Willie Sam says:

      The solution should be simple then–don’t go to the event or write an op-ed in the newspaper. Disrupting another group’s event because you disagree with it on cultural, aesthetic, or religious grounds is a form of fascism and fundamentalism worthy of the Taliban. What Grossman offers is not much different in substance than Deepak Chopra, who as far as I know has not been protested by anybody.

      The larger issue is one of a university climate that has become so dominated by the academic left that instead of encouraging debate, prefers students to act in any illiberal manner it choses so long as they do it under the banner of one of its favored ideological doctrines. The result is that Brown loses its credibility in the eyes of the outside world which can only look upon such incidents with bafflement and ridicule.

    • I see now. Your position is just like the Evangelicals who think gays bastardize traditional marriage and dilute family values. Didn’t you even read the cogent treatment of race-based understandings of Hinduism in the column?

      Claiming that the performer makes “no effort to preserve [Hinduism’s] sanctity” and describing her interpretation as “unbelievably perverse” is such hyperbolic language that it betrays an utterly unreasonable perception of the world.

    • CoryIntheHouse says:

      Great, no one cares what you think about anything. Further, you’re not an authority on anything.

  5. Man with Axe says:

    I appreciate your tolerance in this specific case, but I take exception to your unwillingness to generalize from it, as indicated in this line from your article: “Of course, cultural appropriation, in all its nebulous forms, is unacceptable — I don’t seek to defend it here.”

    I can understand someone being upset if some aspect of his culture is mocked. But appropriated? What’s wrong with that?

    We have French cooking done by people who are not French. The same could be said of every other kind of cooking.

    Were the Beatles wrong to use sitar music in some of their songs? Or was Paul Simon just being a typical white man when he asked Ladysmith Black Mambazo to back him on one of his albums?

    Is it a travesty for black Africans to play basketball, a game invented by white Americans?

    These questions are so stupid that it makes me feel stupid to ask them.

    • Cultural Appropriation = Cultural Appreciation. We need more, not less.

      What we don’t need are faux causes levied by the lowest common denominator of victimhood culture.

      “Racism” used to mean something, but as long as these regressive conformist nuts champion superficial diversity by calling everything “racist,” the word will lose significance until “racism” means “reasonable.”

      • No. There is a difference between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation. The difference is in intent – whether it is a respectful use of customs of another culture with due credit given, or whether it’s either uncredited ‘stealing’ of another culture’s customs and/or disrespectful misuse that reflects insensitivity to the culture to which the customs originally belong (such as disrespecting a religious symbol by wearing it inappropriately as a fashion statement where it’s not considered acceptable by the religion to whom that symbol is meaningful).

        • Nate Ogden says:

          WNBA Appreciates basketball
          And1 Appropriated it
          NBA mostly Appropriated it with some token appreciation

  6. RajuCharles says:

    Hindu religion is based on wicked Caste! Hindu caste system is deadlier than the dead Apartheid! Cate India got ‘two glass ‘system even today in Mahatma Gandhi’s own State Gujarat!
    India world largest Secular democracy got higher education and employments based on religion and Caste! Native Dalit Christians must re-convert to Hinduism and take on Hindu names for equal opportunities! Christin rights are human right just as Hindu and Sikhs of India and USA!
    God bless America the beautiful!
    Shalom!

  7. Govind Menon says:

    The student heckling of Carrie Grossman on the basis of half-baked theories of cultural appropriation fills me with disgust. Hinduism is a multi-layered, complex religion that contains within it deep philosophical beauty, rich cultural and musical traditions, as well as the unmitigated, institutional cruelty of the caste system. Several Indian musicians and scholars, welcome students from around the globe. At least one such American student, Jon B. Higgins, became a leading Carnatic music singer. Carnatic music is perhaps the most conservative Indian musical tradition, yet it extends seamlessly to include new devotees (of the music, and the faith).

    If Carrie Grossman, finds joy within this faith and wishes to share it
    with an audience, I see no reason why she should not be welcome on this
    campus. I do not see how it does the campus community a service to shout
    down her views and to insult her, and her hosts for engaging in an open
    dialogue. I’m not sure which body of Hinduism the students accusing Grossman of cultural appropriation speak for. As someone who was born into the faith, I will say that they certainly do not speak for me.

    Govind Menon, Professor of Applied Mathematics

  8. Thank you for this. So well presented, insightful, and informative. As you say, you are free. The icing on the cake is that it seems Hinduism makes your own freedom an even richer and more thoughtful experience. That’s a nice spot to be in. Revel in it and thanks for sharing a bit of that here.

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