Interview with Murali Balaji, editor of Digital Hinduism: Dharma and Discourse in the Age of New Media

Murali Balaji, whose new volume Digital Hinduism: Dharma and Discourse in the Age of New Media was published by Lexington Books in November 2017, is the founder of Maruthi Education Consulting, and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. Graduate intern Jeremy Hanes spoke with Balaji on the phone in Washington, DC in July 2018.

JH: What are some of the main themes that you were interested in exploring in Digital Hinduism with the other authors?

MB: The main focus of Digital Hinduism was to look at the way that the religion as a lived tradition interacts with new technology. We live in a time when changes in technology, the way we consume media, and the way we look at media content has dramatically shifted and transformed our daily lives. Religion is not immune from those impacts. And so, when you’re looking at an ancient religion that has evolved over thousands of years, and now it has this interesting convergence with technology—and also geography, politics, culture, and the whole gamut of variables—that impacts the way Hinduism has changed and is practiced. So I think Digital Hinduism tries to touch on all of those variables.

JH: It sounds like you’re focusing on people’s lived experiences of the tradition itself.

MB: Absolutely. Coming from a media studies background, I didn’t want to dwell too much on philosophical aspects of Hinduism, in part because that’s not my field. But secondarily, I think the conversation in academia has focused mainly on philosophical traditions and the evolution of Hinduism, and on the specific types of Hinduism as it relates to philosophy. What it has not necessarily covered as well is the practical diversity of Hinduism, and how new technology has in some ways accelerated those diversifications, and in other ways homogenized Hinduism.

JH: That’s interesting, since in your introductory chapter you mention Hindu philosophy was often guided by context and adaptability. And it seems that your approach is assuming that too. As different people utilize these media in various ways, the tradition itself is flexible enough to accommodate that. Would you say that’s right?

MB: Absolutely.

JH: That was one of the curious things. It seems like you are responding to these forces in the academy. You mention there is still an implicit Orientalism going on. You called it “postcolonial narratives devoid of context,” if I’m getting it right.

MB: Yes, you’ve got it exactly right. We really worry about how the study of Hinduism and the understanding of Hinduism, as both a lived tradition and a diverse set of practices that span the globe, has been narrowly broadcast into two eras. There’s the ancient era, and then this 1850s-to-the-present era. This leaves aside many centuries of evolution. So the postcolonial stance on Hinduism, when I say it is devoid of context, I really am talking about how Hinduism has been essentialized and reduced to social practices within the Indian subcontinent that in many ways are not connected with the evolution of Hindu theology and the diverse philosophical traditions that exist within Hinduism. And because of that, Hinduism has really been miscast as an “ethnic religion.” I think that in order to understand Hinduism as a global religion, we have to not only look at the many centuries of history; we also have to look at the impact of migration, the diaspora, and take the migration of Hindu philosophy to specific cultural contexts into consideration.

JH: That seems like the second prong of your approach. Not only addressing persistent Orientalism, but this Marxist focus, as I think you call it, on the “overemphasis on subcontinental geopolitics” after 1947 following independence and the partition of India and Pakistan. So are you trying to critique the assumption that thinking about “Hinduism” means thinking of Hindus in South Asia rather than Hindus in the diaspora, or people who are migrating to different places in various eras, such as to the Middle East today?

MB: Yes. When you focus on Hinduism only within the Indian subcontinent post-1947, it essentially conflates Hinduism with the rise of political Hinduism without giving any sort of context—and not only context, but any sense of just how diverse Hinduism is. I think the Marxist approach has really put the emphasis on the materialistic development of the Indian political state post-1947, and conflates it with Hinduism as a majoritarian movement, rather than understanding Hinduism, and how the lives of Hindus have also been adversely impacted by geopolitical factors, whether we are talking about post-independence India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka…you name it. So I think the focus on the Indian political state does a disservice not only to the development of Hinduism over time, but also to the lives and existence of Hindus across the globe.

JH: Your chapter about Caribbean Hindus and Charu Uppal’s discussion about Fijian Hindus really draw on this sense that Hinduism in each culture has adapted in really unique and particular ways. Reducing Hinduism to just one regional set of politics really ignores all of these different strands of culture it has combined with and developed alongside over time.

MB: One of the really important outcomes I hoped for this book was not only to understand the various interactions Hindus have with media technologies, and how these technologies shaped and are continuing to shape it, but also understanding the experiences of Hindus in a global context. Oftentimes diasporic communities are united by stories of trauma. We’ve seen quite a few stories of religious communities, specifically in the American context, being shaped by trauma. I think, unfortunately, in the United States and in other Western contexts, the Hindu experience is overdetermined by the relative socioeconomic privilege of Indians who have immigrated. But if you look of the experience of Fijian Hindus, of Guyanese Hindus, that’s a story that is shaped largely by trauma, by migration, by labor, and a desire to keep maintaining traditions when barriers are erected to prevent the maintenance of such traditions. This plays a significant role in how these communities self-identify and how they collectively keep their traditions alive. For Fijian Hindus it has been much more institutionally difficult, even in recent years, and as such Charu’s chapter really shines a light on what new media technology can do in terms of helping the Hindu community overcome structural and geographical barriers to religious practice. Whereas for Guyanese Hindus, the subject of my chapter, we need to understand that they went through a double migration. You have the Hindu migration from South Asia in the 19th century, and then you have a post-1930s migration of West Indian Hindus, primarily from Guayana, to places like Canada and the UK. You can see how they continue to keep Hindu tradition from indentured servitude in the 19th century in Guyana to the present in other countries. It’s really important to put that into context.

JH: Could you talk a little about how the Guyanese Hindus are using the internet to formulate a larger pan-Hindu identity versus relying on cultural identities that have their roots in diasporic movements? 

MB: So full disclosure, my wife is Guyanese. And in the cultural experience of Guyanese Hindus, there is both the physical place of Guayana as where they’re from, yet also a spiritual connection to India as the homeland of Hinduism, creating a double consciousness. When you look at Guyanese Hinduism, it has largely preserved the years of the bhakti movement from the 17th and 18th centuries, as its practitioners were literally transported on ships and sent to work on plantain and sugarcane plantations. That trauma furthered their desire to preserve the very bhakti traditions that to a large degree don’t exist in many parts of India right now. Yet at the same time, as uniquely as they see their cultural aspects of faith and identity, they also want to connect with a larger Hindu identity. What in many respects the internet is doing is eradicating the faith keepers that have designed what it is that is Hindu in both a local and global context.

JH: You mention these gatekeepers of the faith in your conclusion, as opposed to what you are calling a new generation of bhaktas and bhaktis, varieties of “devotional followers” and “devotion” that are challenging the gatekeepers’ authority. Lakshmi Chandrashekar Subramanian’s chapter, “Mirabai Sings on YouTube,” touches a little bit on this. Are you seeing a different way that bhakti is being developed online that can connect people?

MB: I think bhakti is especially significant for Hindus who are not born into Hinduism. I’ve had conversations for years with Graham Schweig, for example, that really focus on where the Hindus who have not been born into Hinduism fit into the larger conversation when it comes to the practice and discourses. I think the online sphere—social media, the internet—has provided a sanctuary for those who want to experience bhakti without the cultural prohibitions that might be in place in non-virtual contexts. For example, there are white and black Hindus who don’t necessarily feel comfortable going to the physical space of the temple—they’re worried about being looked at as different. The online space gives them that opportunity to experience the divine in a way where shame will not be cast upon them.

JH: That’s fascinating, especially in Subramanian’s piece, since she says that bhakti, a set of devotional approaches to religion has “two paths” within it. The styles chosen in performance can reflect personal and cultural contexts like the Guyanese inherited practices of devotion. Within it, there’s also an implicit philosophy, which Uppal argues Hindus in the diaspora need to make explicit to legitimate and protect their tradition from disappearing. Do you agree with Subramanian who seems to suggest that devotion in these performance traditions carries within it this implied philosophy?

MB: Yes, I think that bhakti provides for an interpretation and elaboration of the divine that is solely based on an individual relationship. So when you are able to reimagine or reinterpret the divine on an individual basis, it’s in terms of this relation of intimacy as Lakshmi herself illustrates in the case of Mirabai.

JH: Some of the authors point out that personal identity can be developed within the tradition in specific communities. I’m thinking of Shikhandi’s piece, the online name of a Hindu LGBTQ blogger who suggests that there are “traditional figures in the Hindu pantheon who embrace a fluidity in gender and sexuality.” The Hindu tradition seems to have these ways one can individually connect with the divine, but what are other ways that Hindus are creating community with each other based on divine models?

MB: I think regarding community building, the most important change that the internet and other new media technologies has facilitated is that it is far easier to find a base of solidarity in which you can identify various aspects of yourself in connection with other identities. In Shikhandi’s piece, as you said, LGBTQ identity is fostered and cultivated in an internet space devoid of a lot of the offline cultural political factors that might prevent people who are queer Hindus from feeling welcomed.

JH: Early on in the internet’s history, a lot of people had this utopian vision that it would be possible to overcome the boundaries and social distinctions that color everyday social contexts. Unfortunately, the internet, at least in the West, has become a place for inciting divisions politically, but also religiously. Sachi Edward’s chapter on Hinduphobia online really brought that out for me in a visceral way, considering the things that have happened in 2017 in Olathe, Kansas when two Indians, Srinivas Kuchibotla and Alok Madasani, were shot at a bar right after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I wonder if you could speak briefly about how the internet has the potential, not only for reinforcing positive change, but also dividing people and how this has played out especially for Hindus.

MB: I think what we’ve seen is the democratizing impulse but also the balkanizing impact of the internet. Hate exists in all different forms across the internet. What Sachi pointed out was that anti-Hindu sentiment can be amplified through internet platforms. We can’t be oblivious to the fact that not only is there a dominant anti-Hindu voice among Muslims, there is also a very strong political undercurrent of anti-Hinduism. For instance, there has been an emergence of Ambedkarite Dalit forums that have fostered a strong and visceral anti-Hindu sentiment. [Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was a nationalist political reformer and the primary architect of the Indian constitution after independence. He came from a non-caste background, formerly called “untouchables” but argued for the group name “Dalits,” or “the broken.” He advocated for Dalits to convert to Buddhism as his interpretation argued it rejected the caste system and fostered equality while Hinduism tolerated and flourished alongside caste restrictions. -JH] They have essentially called for the destruction of Hinduism! These are spaces where, if left unchecked or unmonitored, they can really grow into something worse. And I think the problem is, because the internet is so open and information is constantly evolving, that it becomes really hard to keep track of how Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu sentiment are spreading.

JH: I’ve been surprised by the replication of Orientalist stereotypes online. This idea that Hindu deities are “evil and erotic” is a Christian evangelical interpretation almost unchanged from 18th century British missionizing tracts. But you also draw attention to traditions from the subcontinent that are critiquing Hinduism at a political and communal level.

MB: It’s largely from the subcontinent but it’s been exported to the West as well. You do see some of this activity in the UK, in Canada. I talk about it in the last chapter, the afterword, where we stand in terms of some of these discourses. But I’d argue that anti-Hindu sentiment, particularly in the US, seems to be a racial event—particularly given the hate crimes after the 2016 election. For years in the US, “Hindu” has been a racialized, ethnic term. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term was “Hindoo,” and it was primarily targeted at Sikh immigrants from India and the subcontinent. But now, even though there is an understanding of what Hinduism is as a major world religion, there continues to be that conflation of Hindus and a very large and diverse South Asian immigrant population in the US. That racialization has had quite a large impact on Hindu Americans. This subtle xenophobia has influenced the way Hindus identify and present themselves to others. There’s a reluctance in the US, among many Hindu Americans, to identify as Hindu because of the perceived biases they see in identifying as such. This is where the online interacts with the offline. There’s this dynamic of identity formation.

JH: I am curious about the use of dharma in your subtitle [Dharma and Discourse in the Age of New Media]. Were you thinking that each individual author might contribute their own theory regarding what dharma is or what it’s doing online? You bring up the idea of “dharmic discourse” a few times. What would you say is different about dharma in new media and online, versus discourses about dharma that have happened before?

MB: You’re right, I did give the authors an opportunity to contribute their own definition, their own praxis of dharma in the chapters, rather than saying “This is what you need to focus on. In terms of dharmic discourse, you need to address this in your own chapter.”

JH: What would you say is different about dharma online?

MB: I think when you look at what dharma means in terms of the ethical foundations of Hinduism—and dharma as a concept that has been the underpinning of religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism from various ethical and philosophical standpoints—you have a broad understanding of the broad range of practices that communities view as essentially their dharma, either as individuals or collectively. So the maintenance of tradition, for example, is seen in some diasporic communities in the chapters we explore, as a dharmic ideal. It is consistent with one’s dharma to maintain tradition in every generation. How much do we see an actual change in what it means to be a Hindu and how much do we see a change in the actual religion itself as technology interacts with different Hindu communities, influencing their interpretation of dharma? There are so many people who see Hinduism as a static religion, a static set of core philosophies. But are we seeing the core values of Hinduism changing before our eyes due to the impact of technology on diverse parts of the global Hindu population?

This volume is by no means the end all and be all when it comes to understanding Hinduism’s interactions with media. I encourage scholars of religion and scholars of media to open their eyes and their minds to new ways of understanding the dynamism that exists within Hinduism. Right now definitions of Hinduism continue to be dominated by a narrative in which many scholars view Hinduism ideologically as causing more harm than good. Or they view Hinduism through power structures, rather than understanding “Here’s what people on the ground think.” I think as we can get away from the thirty thousand foot view of Hinduism and get the experience of Hindus, we will see just how beautiful, vibrant, and dynamically open the religion really is.