A personal reflection of a born-Hindu, who rediscovered his roots after drifting away; and is now determined to learn more and spread the knowledge.
A Story of Personal Learning
The tension between the insider-outsider narratives and the ubiquity of the default paradigm (as I have understood from Kalyan’s lectures) have profoundly impacted me. It has catalyzed a re-ordering of my personal priorities, opened up my thinking, and is enabling me to better understand my formative years. It is prodding me to define a road map for a re-discovery of my own culture and history, and I feel a surprisingly strong calling to utilize whatever worldly skills I have developed for a greater cause.
In September 2019, I joined HUA's email distribution list. The periodicity of the emails informing me of webinars and learning opportunities worked as subliminal ticklers to "wake up" and look deeper. For almost a year this was the case, until I was galvanized by the announcement of Dr. Kannikeswaran's course on comparative study of Indian/Western music traditions. As a graduate student in the early 1990s, I had known Dr. Kannikeswaran in Cincinnati. Upon learning about his 3-quarter HUA course, coupled with my superficial but sticky interest in śāstriya sangīt, I enrolled in it and joined the HUA network. After the very first session, I felt a deep sense of mental relief, hope and curiosity, which I will now explain.
I hail from a typical middle-class, south Indian brahmin family, with deep connections to Sanskrit. My paternal grandfather (born in 1898) became a lawyer, served in the Madras High Court under the British, and subsequent to independence, developed and maintained an exalted status among his peers and clients. My grandparents were pious Hindu brahmins, very orthodox, bound by rules, traditions, and exhausting discipline in life matters. Their first child, my father (born in 1928), became proficient in math and took up insurance as his profession. He spent a few initial years of his career outside India, and took a liking to many Western ideals. Until his last few years, I have little recollection of talking about the greatness of Hinduism with both my parents; my mother was a bit more vocal about our heritage. I cannot claim associated memories of my grandparents talking about the greatness of Hindu traditions and philosophies either, but only recollect watching our joint family weighed down by rules and formalities that did not mean much to me. As a teenager with friends from varied backgrounds, I do remember feeling rebellious as I could neither understand topics such as heritage and culture, nor did I possess the wits to generate deep conversations to understand Hinduism. Perhaps the default paradigm constrained an open and honest exploration of our true history and culture?
Even though we were insiders, the glory of our heritage was not evident in my conversations with family elders. There were almost no discussions about the destructive period of history when Europe hoarded India's treasures—both material and intellectual—but only heard about the atrocities committed by the Muslim invaders. I internalized very little of the Hindu world view as this topic was not part of family conversations. I never felt proud as a Hindu, did not take pride in speaking in my mother tongue (Tamil), and had the view that learning Sanskrit was a waste of time, as it would not help with my future. I rejected most things Indian and became eager to discover a new world, as I was not aware of a compelling vision of a Hindu life. It was all going to be the western way of life. Looking back and analyzing my past, I can only conclude that my family was perhaps under the spell of colonial aftershocks; and interestingly, no one appeared to be bothered by it. I wonder whether my ancestors felt a loss of Hindu adhikāratvam, and could not articulate or respond to any of the causal factors responsible for this sense of loss. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, "The English have not taken India; we have given it to them"; this is no understatement it seems.
Despite the environment, for reasons I am still discovering, I was drawn to the local Ramakrishna Mission, which I would visit frequently with my best friend. I also found myself attending lectures by Swami Dayananda Saraswati - I did not understand his teachings, but his discourses were captivating. I wonder whether those were the preparatory events for my current journey. On a parallel track, my mind was conjuring up the vision of a better life outside India, especially in the US, and it was further enforced by the broader community vision of a better life anywhere but India. I found myself in Cincinnati to pursue my graduate study in electrical engineering. I bet I am not the only one with this experience set. Interestingly, my interest in our roots only grew deeper, especially after my father's passing, and several subsequent events have continued to push me further on a spiritual quest.
Fast forward to the present - at HUA, listening to Dr. Kannikeswaran's weekly commentaries on not just śāstriya sangīt, but its evolution shaped by broader societal events, hearing speakers in the weekly webinars, and more recently absorbing Kalyan’s illuminating sessions on Hindu Studies, I find myself reinvigorated to re-explore the Hindu past. A simple question "Are you a Hindu?" that I encountered in the initial readings has made me realize the stunning hypocrisy of my early years. That is, even as a born insider, I had no conviction on Hinduism, but instead chose - willingly or otherwise - to remain confused about it - wanting to love and celebrate it but could not find support. Needless to say, my perspectives on the world and Hinduism specifically have morphed considerably over the years, and burning questions such as "how did all this happen, and why did the Hindu community collectively fall under the spell of the colonists?" take up more thought bandwidth. I feel ready to redefine myself and look at history as a beginner.
The question now for me is what is next, and how do I go about it? I asked myself, is it just a select few these revelations come about to? What about my peers? To find out, I reached out to my college network and asked my friends about their views on the current narratives on India/Hinduism. Out of the 85+ whom I queried, just about 4 responded, and among them 3 suggested that while they agree we were not fully informed, revisiting our history would be futile. They would rather not engage in any discussion on this topic for fear of re-igniting passions. So, it was just one of my friends and I who are apparently feeling the need to re-learn the past correctly. I wonder whether the outsider narrative has established itself so deeply that changes within the educated group are near impossible? This remains an open question, but I also happen to believe that change begins from within. To the extent I put in the time to understand and equip myself to help drive the insider narrative to family and friends, and assuming others take a similar approach, perhaps there will be reason to hope for a better outcome? Additionally, perhaps we (insiders) now have enough structure in content and frameworks with critical mass to help even the cynics become receptive to the possibility of changes to the default paradigm? I see hope for a more open debate in the spirit of shraddhA.
My renewed mission is to re-learn our past and get closer to the truth - not just for intellectual curiosity, but for a fundamental desire to at least help open my children's minds and anyone else's who would care to listen to a “born-again” insider's narratives. But before I embark on that journey, I need to equip myself with the right set of facts, the interconnectedness of them, understanding the truth, and an ability to discuss and debate using appropriate terminologies. For that, I look to HUA for guidance and counsel.
I want to believe that our ancestors did what they could to preserve our heritage and it would be unfair to lay the blame on them for our current predicament. I am grateful to them for enabling us to at least have the conversation today about our collective past and debate about the future. Towards that, I understand that rewriting existing paradigms will take time - a few decades perhaps? To persuade cynical insiders, skeptical outsiders and everyone else in between to see the validity of our approaches will require sustained effort both in terms of intellectual firepower and strategy. I resolve to do my part in whatever way possible to help with this historic community endeavor.
I am so grateful to HUA and its affiliated platforms for their leadership and courage to help Hindus understand what is at stake here. I am humbled to be part of HUA and I now feel proud to label myself a Hindu! HUA, you have enabled this change in my perspective and for that I will be eternally thankful.
Let our sankalpā to revive the insider narrative be successful, offered to Dharma itself, and may the brilliance of India's intellectual heritage be our guru.
Image Credit: Congerdesign from Pixabay