Apostasy Project: Why I am not Hindu
Some people use their religious heritage as a badge of identity - but not me, writes Hari Sri.
I was ten years old when I figured out that when my father dies, my mother won’t witness his funeral. Hindu customs dictate that women cannot take part in funerals; the “rationale” is that they are too mentally fragile, thus incapable of being able to withstand loss. She won’t be allowed even the basic courtesy of saying goodbye to the man she has loved for 27 years, since she was a teenager.
Hinduism is so interwoven with Indian customs, traditions and culture that it can be hard to separate religious and national identity; for the devout, being Hindu and being Indian might well be one and the same. The problem with this is that being devout also places you under great pressure to fulfil a predetermined role in society.
Westerners often ask me how could there be any negatives in a faith system that is portrayed as “loving” and “welcoming” and has such esteemed ambassadors as the Beatles. But Hinduism is not all peace and spirituality and George Harrison; indeed, such a portrayal is a convenient PR exercise that represents Hindu society about as much as Slumdog Millionaire represents the experiences of most working-class folk in Mumbai.
Hinduism is not free from the violence and chauvinism that have traditionally been associated with the Abrahamic faiths. There’s a feral Hindu nationalist movement in India, alive and thriving. I was just a baby in Mumbai, 20 years ago, when the streets of my city ran red with the blood of Hindus and Muslims slaying each other over whether a 600-year-old holy site in northern India should be a mosque or a temple. Nor is Hinduism “atheism-friendly”. Proponents of “Hindu atheism” often cite the Charvaka school, a rationalist philosophical tendency from Indian history, as proof that Hinduism had atheistic schools within it. In truth, they conflate what is Hindu and what is Indic. Pasta is Roman and so is Catholicism. Does it mean pasta is Catholic? Atheistic thought was Indian, not Hindu.
Discovering that my mother would be excluded from family funerals awakened a Curious George within me. And the more I read, the more I became convinced that Hinduism is intrinsically misogynistic. And it was that which ultimately convinced me to abandon the faith.
Yet I drag this identity along with me wherever I go. Somehow, “Hindu” has become a label that sticks. “British Asian” does not suffice. The rise of anti-Muslim bigotry has given extra weight to all the other sub-categories: British Sikh, British Jain, British Ex-Muslim, British Hindu. Anything to not be associated with the label “Muslim”. I bet there are a few ex-Hindus or ex-Sikhs in Britain who choose to retain their identity as Hindus or Sikhs.
I refuse to follow suit. I am not content with merely branding myself “a secularist with Asian roots”. I am not afraid to say that I have not been Hindu since I was old enough to decide for myself, and I am certainly not British Hindu. It means nothing to me. If push comes to shove, I am British Indian.
Those people who have stopped believing, but continue to label themselves “culturally” Hindu, or Muslim, or Sikh, are doing a disservice to those of us who are tired of being burdened with these identities. It doesn’t mean you have to give up on family gatherings, or festivals; to stop celebrating Eid or Baisakhi or Diwali. But the moment you stopped believing in the deities of your ancestors, you stopped being part of the faith system.
I, for one, will not participate. Culturally, socially or ethnically, I am not Hindu.