Cover Story

Coverage of Hinduism

Issue: "Press coverage uncovered," March 8, 2003

Hinduism is the world's third-largest religion and the dominant one in India and Nepal; its 900 million adherents include many in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other countries. Perhaps close to 1 million Hindus now live in the United States, so reporters recognize Hinduism's significance both domestically and internationally. But it's hard to make any generalizations at all about the religion, since it consists of thousands of different groups that have developed over the past 3,000 years. Hinduism has no single founder, consistent theological system, central religious organization, or single system of morality. On the surface, Hinduism seems polytheistic because Hindus worship numerous gods and goddesses. But Hindu gurus say that when they are worshipping those small gods-at least 33 million in all-they are actually bowing to Brahman, the supreme god, the impersonal ultimate reality, the world soul. They say the many gods merely represent various incarnations and manifestations of the supreme god, and function in a way analogous to clothes: People wear different ones in different situations. At an intellectual level, those assertions are correct, but at a popular level, it certainly seems that Hindus worship idols. In any event, Hindu gurus generally prefer to describe their religion as monistic, which means it asserts there is no essential difference between God, man, and animals. They say everything is part of God, and that the universe is one unitary, organic whole with no independent parts. They say people and animals at some point appear to be separate from God, and that we even think the split natural. They say we will find no true, lasting happiness until we lose our individuality by becoming reabsorbed into the cosmic whole from which we came. How do American journalists even begin to explain, in the context of a feature story, something so complicated? Can they at least give a sense of complexity and nuance? That's vital for the education of readers, and also crucial for future relations between India, one of the world's nuclear powers, and the United States. India gained its independence partly through the work of Mahatma Gandhi, but India's current leaders do not hold to his pacifism either internationally-regularly threatening war against Pakistan-or domestically. The domestic danger gained some publicity early in 2003 as Human Rights Watch (HRW) slammed Hindu groups for leading riots against Muslims and also noted attacks on Christians generally and the lynching of lower-caste members in particular. Earlier, HRW had noted dozens of Hindu-led attacks against Christians, some ending in murder, and many condoned by India's ruling political party, Bharatiya Janata. HRW in 1999 reported that three Hindu groups were responsible for "the killings of priests, the raping of nuns, and the physical destruction of Christian institutions, schools, churches, colleges, and cemeteries. Thousands of Christians have also been forced to convert to Hinduism." One incident that received some press coverage culminated in the burning to death in 1999 of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons as they slept in their jeep in eastern India. Many Hindu leaders criticized such attacks, but others justified them by saying that missionaries who preach "that the only way to salvation is through Christ" deserve to be punished. Without much coverage, attacks go on. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered one in January 2003, but only because a missionary from Pittsburgh came under attack from a Hindu mob wielding clubs and swords. Journalists looking for contradictions should be swarming over Hinduism's alternating pacifism and militancy. The Hindu principle of ahimsa means that Hindus are not to harm any creatures; some extreme Hindus may even wear a cloth over their mouths to prevent the possible killing of small insects. How does that accord with terrorizing missionaries? Alas, U.S. newspaper coverage of Hinduism displayed superficiality and syncretism. Superficiality Domestic reporters treated Hinduism not like a mighty religion that can hold its own against critics but as a pet capable only of receiving pats on the head. Central Texas newspaper readers learn that "the Shree Raseshwari Radha Rani Temple rises from the Hill Country terrain like a giant Faberge egg," and that it is a place of "peace, harmony, and devotion to God." (Which god? No indication.) Journalists teach that "Hindus see no need for an intermediary or a prophet to come between humans and God. Hindus seek truth, and they practice nonviolence." (Which God? What do Hindus mean by "truth"? No indication.) Reporters rarely asked basic questions about what Hindus believe happens after death. One story read, "Members of the Hindu Temple of San Antonio prayed Wednesday for the soul of an American-born swami ... asking that the swami's soul be granted eternal peace in God's presence." (But the Hindu goal is the achievement of moksha, generally seen as the extinction of personality.) Another reporter related, "Hindus believe that the soul never dies and reincarnation enables one to complete a journey to nirvana, a oneness with God." (That "oneness" is not togetherness but the obliteration of individuality.) The Los Angeles Times rarely prints testimonials to Christianity, but the newspaper gave space for one Hindu devotee to report "an 'incredible peace and an ability to deal with the toughest situations in business and not be swept away by it.'" The Orlando Sentinel told of how "Hindu spirituality encourages ... a human being to achieve his or her highest potential. Ultimately, all paths lead to the goal of self-realization." Those boilerplate sentiments led to a concluding sentence as to how "self-realization leads the way to nirvana, which literally means extinguishing of desires." (How is that the highest potential? Doesn't that last sentence extinguish everything that precedes it?) Reporters regularly erred in defining not only moksha but karma, using it as a synonym for good or bad fortune rather than an exact measure of what an individual deserves, based on what his current and previous incarnations achieved. The Orlando Sentinel began one story with the theologically illiterate statement that "[t]he developers of Orlando's Hindu University of America are certain of one thing: The unique institution they are planning already has plenty of good karma." (Organizations do not have karma, and in any event it's impossible to be sure whether anyone has good karma except by seeing what happens to him day by day.) Many reporters did not even ask obvious questions. One Austin American-Statesman story began, "After she showers and before she eats breakfast, Lalima Pathak chants and sings before the Hindu gods and goddesses that adorn the puja, or altar, in her dining room.... 'When I enter, I say, 'Thank you for getting me home safe,' and when I leave, I take a look at the puja and seek God's blessings to watch over me,' Pathak said." (Questions: With a broad variety of gods and goddesses, what does it mean for Hindus to seek capital-G "God's blessing"? And what difference would a blessing make anyway, since everything is determined by karma?) Journalists normally are skeptical about leaders who foster unthinking obedience. The Los Angeles Times, though, offered a headline, "Hindus flock to temple to meet spiritual leader," and waxed enthusiastic about how "they began arriving at the Swaminarayan Hindu temple in Whittier at 6:30 a.m., as the waking sun broke through the morning mist. Thousands of Indian devotees from San Diego to Seattle, from Orange County to Oregon, flocked to the temple Sunday for the rare chance to see their spiritual leader, Pramukh Swami Maharaj.... Mrudula Dashi of La Verne watched enraptured by his faith. "For us, he is everything. For us, he's like a god." Other laud followed: "'He's like a mountain of magnetism, and everyone is attracted to that,' she said." At this point, journalistic warning lights should have been flashing as police lights do at an accident scene, but this reverential report continued: "What does this gentle old man in the saffron robe mean to the Hindu community? For the Swaminarayans ... Pramukh Swami is the manifestation of God on Earth. 'How do you describe something so divine?' asked one follower. 'This is a lifetime memory,' said Rakesh Patel, a pharmacist who works in Long Beach and is also the temple spokesman. 'When you're with him, you can feel that he is divine. You think you know who you are, but he looks at your soul. You feel the presence of God.'" The Los Angeles Times' unadulterated praise was also surprising because these Hindus "follow a puritanical path that preaches against drugs, alcohol, and television. To guard against illicit relations between the sexes, men and women are separated during worship. And women are forbidden from speaking to Pramukh Swami. All followers adhere to a strict vegetarian diet that prohibits even onions and garlic." A Christian "puritanical" group that made women second-class devotees would never receive such a positive story. Syncretism The San Antonio Express-News summarized the message of Sri Viswayogi Viswamji, a visiting Hindu guru: "love, truth, peace, and eternal consciousness.... All the religions start with the same truth and are meant to show the divinity of God.... All religions start with the same truth and are meant to show the divinity of humanity." The first statement about all religions is arguable, the second is obviously wrong since all religions do not attempt to show humanity's "divinity," but in a medium that often searches for controversy the Express-News passed up the opportunity to have a debate. Reporters regularly were conduits for swami syncretists, such as the one in Rhode Island who was prepared to respond to a request from one adherent: "that Swami help him break free from all material attractions and ultimately take him to Akshardsham, the place 'you English-speaking people call Heaven.'" They also did not challenge those who "fell in love with Christ" at a Hindu-American ashram or said, "I consider myself a Christian, and what I find here at Kashi is all the principles I was taught" in church. The leader of that ashram exclaimed, "I love Jesus Christ." The Los Angeles Times admiringly reported Hindu statements that "all faiths were essentially different paths to the same God, and in particular taught that an essential unity exists between original yoga and original Christianity-one reason that Jesus Christ is considered one of the gurus." The Washington Post even suggested that Christians should not cause pain to Hindus who are wounded by "the assertion by some Christians that Hindus 'are sinners' because they don't profess a belief in Jesus as savior and instead worship thousands of divine manifestations of God." Similarly, the Orlando Sentinel journalist wrote that "Hinduism recognizes that there is one Truth, perceived and expressed by different people in different ways. This liberal view of God and humanity's relationship with God leads to an incomparable freedom of worship, and an acceptance of all ways of religious and spiritual inquiry." The unasked question: Why are Hindus and Muslims at each others' throats? Given press reports that Islam is a peace-loving religion, Muslims must not be causing problems, and Hindus are accepting of all, so the disputes are mysterious. Can we do better? Again, sure we can. Even some newspapers that never looked beyond colorful ritual when reporting on Hindus within the United States went deeper when reporting on Hindu observances in Asia. For example, when Nepal's Crown Prince in 2001 killed nine other members of the royal family (including his parents) and then himself, the Washington Post reported an explanation given by "the prevailing worldview in Nepal, based on Hindu teachings." According to that view, the incident occurred because "the members of the royal family brought only short lives into their most recent incarnations based on actions in previous existences." Mukunda Raj Aryal, 58, a professor and Brahman, added that the Crown Prince should be honored for having "acted well the villainous part he was assigned" by karma. I found one other newspaper story during the past three years that gave readers a sense of Hinduism's extreme predestination in that way. The Los Angeles Times did well in its profile of Hindu villagers who "depend almost entirely on the coins and bowls of wheat flour they receive as alms. It has been this way for at least a century because, the villagers say, they have been born to honor the Hindu god Krishna with song and outstretched hands ... the beggars of Ranidongri say they are simply following in sacred footsteps." The Times quoted villager Sadaram Mukutwansi, 32, saying, "I blame my own karma. If god didn't give me poverty, then we wouldn't have [to beg] in the first place." The key is karma: Begging "is punishment for being just as mean to other beggars in a previous life, Mukutwansi believes." That gives him license, in his own mind, to beg and also to consume "the local brew, moonshine made from the flowers of the mahua tree, which produces a liquid said to be potent enough to keep a motorcycle running in an emergency." Villagers "go out to beg for five to six months," then "come back and mostly spend [alms] on drinking." The article described how "[i]n the beggars' village, Mukutwansi squatted on a plastic mat sewn from pieces of old sacks.... He takes his only son, Lokeshi, 10, with him to beg in a group of about a dozen people, who travel by train-if they can beg a free spot on the floor-to reach the several cities where they sing for handouts. Most days, his alms amount to about 45 cents and a little flour." Here was the pathetic outcome of religious misunderstanding. Two other U.S. newspapers gave a sense of the difference between Hinduism's high theology and common practice. The New York Times, under a headline "Braving Nature and Militants, Hindus Trek for a Peek at a God's Icy Symbol," reported from Kashmir about a cult object that lacked Viagra: "Barefoot, world-renouncing Hindu monks, naked to the waist and wrapped in orange cloth below, came walking, carrying tridents.... Over a month, more than 100,000 Hindu pilgrims will hike at least 19 miles, sleep in freezing temperatures above 10,000 feet and brave attacks from Muslim militants. Their trek is all for a hurried glimpse of an ice stalagmite that forms each year on a wall of a remote cave here. The nine-foot-tall ice sheet, shaped like a phallus, is considered to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism's three most revered gods." The outcome wasn't all that Hindu visitors hoped for: "After crossing a small snowfield, arriving pilgrims took a ritual bath in a pristine stream and put on fresh clothes. They then waited for two hours in a long line that snaked up a set of stairs leading to the cave. Hailing Shiva and ringing ceremonial bells, they took a final few steps, pressed themselves against an iron railing and looked at the cave wall. The towering, nine-foot ice form had apparently melted. It was only one foot tall. Some pilgrims, it must be said, were disappointed with the size. Others lamented that they were forced to leave after only seconds, saying the police had pulled them away before they could confess sins and make requests of Lord Shiva." The Chicago Sun-Times under a headline, "4,000 on hand for monkey's funeral," offered a story from New Delhi about how "4,000 devotees attended the funeral in southern India Sunday of a monkey they believed to be the incarnation of a Hindu god. The animal strayed several weeks ago into a temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman in Timmaganipalli village. Villagers refused to release it, and hundreds visited the monkey each day, seeking its blessing and garlanding it with flowers." The story did not have a happy ending: "Animal-rights activists said the monkey, which collapsed on Saturday, died of starvation and exhaustion. When the villagers discovered the monkey sitting on Hanuman's idol, they thought it was a reincarnation of the ancient god and refused to let it out of the temple.... India is dotted with tens of thousands of Hanuman temples, and every Tuesday is reserved for his worship. Anyone trying to catch monkeys, however destructive they may be, is beaten or chased away." That same sense of the bizarre is not apparent in coverage of Hinduism within the United States-yet the same theology underlies Hindu worship inside and outside India.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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