Religious tourism and Hindu proselytization

Yogiraj Prem Prakashji responded to a recent article addressing environmental concerns and I started to answer, but it spun out of control and became too long for a comment. And it was also becoming incoherent. So I decided to give it a little more thought and write it as a separate article.

The environmental issue in Vrindavan is really a big deal. It is so everywhere in the world, but here we can feel it much more acutely. People in the "first world" can only imagine the kind of environmental degradation that is ongoing in India. Just think: India has four times as many people and only one-third the terrain of the US, what to speak of Canada.

Many people are enthused by India's material progress and the rapid urbanization, but it is a bit harder for me to join the chorus. Every so-called step forward simply means more of the same haphazard construction of ugly buildings surrounded by heaps of refuse and open, garbage-filled drains emptying into what were once considered sacred rivers. One fears that "the sacred" has little place in modern India other than as just another money-making scheme.

I started Vrindavan Today with the environment as one of my main issues and indeed Jagannath and the BVHA have been fighting in the courts and blocking some of the major travesties that unthinking bureaucrats, cut off from Braj culture, have tried to impose.

Religious Tourism

If you have been following Vrindavan Today at all, you will see that tremendous amounts of government money is being invested in the development of the tourist industry, amounts that have been increasing steadily from year to year as the potential of tourism, both domestic and international, is being recognized as a formidable engine of economic growth. This, of course, only means further strains on both the environment and the heritage that are the life of Braj-Vrindavan, strains that have been increasing exponentially over the past twenty years.

These investments have been made by the three successive governments I have seen in power since coming to live in Vrindavan: first Mayawati's BSP (2007-2012), then Akhilesh Yadav's SP (2012-2017), and now the BJP (2017-present), which is even increasing these sums greatly. Both the Center's Modi and CM Adityanath Yogi very much pushing the tourism agenda as a real big hope for the economy. But whereas Mayawati and Akhilesh may have thought it a good idea, for the BJP, this is part of a greater mission.

All kinds of touristy things are available in Uttar Pradesh -- everyone knows the Taj Mahal -- people used to drive right by Vrindavan on their way to behold this "Seventh wonder of the world," and left the greater wonder, Vrindavan, to sleep, of interest only to the locals.

There was a mini-scandal recently when the UP Tourist Board put out a brochure without highlighting the Taj. The other day, when Yogi came with the CM of Haryana and a number of his ministers to play Holi in Barsana, reporters tried to trip him up by asking where he would celebrate Eid, since he had gone to Ayodhya for Dussehra and to Barsana for Holi. "I am proud to be a Hindu and I don't celebrate Eid," he answered. And Yogi brought it up again in the Vidhan Sabha when the opposition parties accused him of being a CM for the Hindus alone. This did not phase him and he doubled down.

One of the signs of the seriousness with which Adityanath Yogi took the development of Braj and Vrindavan was his establishment of the Braj Teerth Vikas Parishad very soon after he took office, with himself as president. Shailja Kant Mishra, the acting vice-president, was given full executive powers in the region and has initiated many far-reaching development programs designed to enhance the allure of the Dham and to make it more attractive to traditional pilgrims as well as to the modern middle-class and foreigners.

The BJP government is liberating religious Hindus from taking refuge in a hypocritical pseudo-secularism. He thus encourages a marriage of the movement for economic development with India's ancient traditions. He is putting them on show at the front and center of his economic plan.

It is indeed religious tourism that the government wants to increase, and that in great part arises from a fairly newfound proselytizing spirit in the Hindu community. Let's call it pride or confidence. Pride in the Hindu heritage, proclaiming that it is not a mere artifact, a curiosity, but a living thing that is becoming meaningful to more and more people around the globe.

This is being driven in great part by Indians' pride in their rapidly growing economy. There is a growing confidence that India can achieve parity with other modern nations. And though this may or may not be a matter of pride for those who are purely secular or belong to other religions, but how can it be wrong to specify that India is primarily a Hindu country and that an evolving Hindu ethos should prevail?

Hindu Evangelism

There was a time when Hinduism did not consider itself to be evangelical, in the sense of going out and actively seeking converts. You were supposed to keep the dharma you were born with.

Yogi and the BJP are not thinking of economic development alone. There is national pride that accompanies a profound belief in the holiness of India, and that includes a belief in the Hinduism's capacity to adapt to the circumstances of the 21st century.

Bringing people here is a part of spreading the good news. Improving the sacred sites in order to make them accessible and functional for people habituated to modern amenities is a part of that plan. And this is pretty much an extension of what Bhaktivedanta Swami started when he attached modern guesthouses to his major Indian temples.

Some History

It is not easy for people living in long independent countries to remember that Hindu India had spent roughly 900 years dominated by alien cultures. Independence in 1947 resulted in an artificial attempt to impose secularism on the new republic, for good reason, as the horrors of Partition could not have been a more stark reminder of where religious fundamentalism can lead.

Actually, the bhakti movement from the very beginning had the element of resistance to Islam, as is shown by the temerity of Gadadhar Das (Nityananda's follower) whose claim to fame was the he asked the local Muslim Kazi, a powerful man with decided fundamentalist tendencies, to chant the Holy Name. Gadadhar Das sought an appointment with him and that is what he asked for. The Kazi laughed and acquiesced.

Perhaps this seems like a nothing story. What was achieved? If you put yourself in the position of being a subjugated and despised people facing a world-conquering, completely self-confident Islam, which could often be extremely cruel the name of religion, it takes on a great deal more meaning. It was a daring act of self-affirmation. (CC 1.10.53, CBh 3.5.395-418)

There is a feeling throughout the Gaudiya texts that the Islamic rulers were capricious. Sanatan tells Mahaprabhu himself, "[The Shah] might be friendly now, but he is a Yavan and that could change in a moment. Don't take any chances." (CC 2.1.222-223).

That is why we don't hear of any mass Muslim to Hindu conversions. It was unthinkable. Yavan Haridas is held up as the Namacharya. The Chaitanya Bhagavata also tells about how he was punished by the local Kazi for his temerity in renouncing Islam for the practices of Vaishnavism. He was sentenced to be whipped in 22 market places, publicly flogged to death so that the good citizens of the Dar-al-Islaam would know what happens to apostates.

As it was, citizen Haridas was thrown for dead into the Ganges after a quarrel about what should be done with his body. Haridas had been in samadhi. The holy waters of the Ganga revived him, and he washed up to safety downstream. (CBh Adi 16)

In the Chaitanya Bhagavata, it is said that Mahaprabhu himself recounted the story to Haridas and remembered it, even saying that he had himself protected Haridas from the torturers' lashing. (CBh Madhya 10.36-46)

A hundred years after Mahaprabhu's arrival in Vrindavan and his dispatching of Rupa and Sanatan to Braj, things must have been looking pretty good to Krishnadas Kaviraj. Rupa and Sanatan themselves were escapees from the gilded prison of Hussain Shah's court. They managed to get away when the Shah was off to conquer the great kafir kingdom of Jagannath, on his mission to destroy that temple and its idols, and to liberate their filthy, idol-worshiping gold.

But Rupa and Sanatan knew Persian, the language of the Moghul court, and they knew the ways of diplomacy. By 1616, after the reign of Akbar, there was a new sense that Muslims and Hindus could coexist respectful of each other's religion. Jiva Goswami had been expert in dealing with the local powers to procure most of the land that is today's Vrindavan for the three big temples, Govinda, Gopinath and Madan Mohan. Without Akbar it is hard to imagine that happening. Jiva Goswami asked him to send paper for writing... There are so many Akbar legends in Vrindavan!

In 1515 Sikandar Lodi destroyed the temple of Keshava Dev or the birthsite of Krishna in Mathura. This traumatic event is not mentioned in Chaitanya Charitamrita, though Kaviraj Goswami does tell us that Mahaprabhu visited the Keshavadeva temple in the autumn of that year. I find it extremely doubtful that such an event would have been unknown to Kaviraj Goswami, whether it happened before or after Mahaprabhu's visit, but he does not mention it.

I have been puzzling about that for some time. It would have fit his narrative, which is about the revival of Hinduism in the form of Vaishnavism when for centuries Hindus had been struggling with a conquering ideology that seeks the annihilation of all other forms of religious belief. It was no longer just some Kazi in a Bengal backwater agreeing to say Krishna's name once, but the Grand Moghul himself who was looking at Hinduism and Indian culture with a gentle eye and even supporting its development. Kaviraj Goswami could thus unabashedly point to Mahaprabhu and exclaim, "What my God has wrought!"

On the other hand, he may just have thought, let bygones be bygones, let a new temple be built, and let's not muddy the waters lest our new friends go back to their old ways. Let the sleeping dogs lie.

You could say that unless a religion gets some kind of Cosmic Feedback in its early stages, the mythology that surrounds it cannot survive. If the Cosmic Mother does not feed its infant with the loving milk of success, it will not grow into a healthy adult.

Hindu Nationalism and the future of the Dham

At any rate, the same religion will also have to face opposition and to develop in the face of those opposing forces. Temples did get knocked down once in a while, jizya taxes were levied and eased. It could be uncomfortable, but it seems that for the most part a live and let live situation developed.

The history of India and Hinduist politics is too long a story to go into in detail here. I have already spoken of some aspects of it in symbolic terms in a previous article. After more than 60 years of freedom from British rule, Hindu India had been forced into an unnatural and often uneasy sectarian garb. It now is resurgent.

Hindu preachers have been teaching since the time of Vivekananda that Hinduism is compatible with modernity and present-day progress, that it can adapt and make contributions to the totality of humanity. Not only that, but its teachings can be a prophylactic to the negative effects that will inevitably come from such progress, which is really nothing more than the effect of Kali Yuga.

Hindu nationalism holds fundamentally that Bharatvarsha is a sacred land; it is the home of avatars, saints, rishis, yogis and acharyas. This is why India must always be different for a Hindu than for Indians who don't share that vision. The spiritual search is the soul of India's identity.

So when we talk about religious tourism, we are talking about an evangelization of Hindu culture, carrying on in the traditions of Vivekananda, Yogananda, Bhaktivedanta and many others.

It is good that the BJP has taken up this challenge. It will not be easy. There is more to it than economic development. The goals of economic development and spiritual refinement are often diametrically opposed. The leaders of this movement need a refined understanding of the ideal ethos of a region like Braj and the means to realize it. This requires a concerted effort in keeping the preservation of heritage and environment, without which the dream of Hindu spirituality becoming a beacon to the world will never be realized.


Prem Prakash said…
I am very glad you have addressed this important issue in some depth. I find most Westerners, even those practicing various versions of the Hindu dharma, do not have an adequate sense of the oppressive historical context of the last millennia in India. 900 years of occupation is an extraordinarily long period of collective suffering. It is remarkable and, as you allude, perhaps even miraculous our traditions were born and sometimes flourished under such conditions. For some perspective, the Europeans conquered North America some 500 years ago, and it is difficult to envision native peoples ever getting this land back. So, if India has some struggles since 1947, it is understandable.

The effort to throw off the shackles of occupation, combined with an enforced secularism, have taken India far from her roots as the treasure house of the world. It was India, after all, that was sought by the worlds explorers and plunderers, such as Columbus and Marco Polo. The sanatana dharma has proposed four great boons -- kama, artha, dharma, and moksha. I suggest that when there is no kama or artha, there is no full spirituality. I'll also say that in authentic dharma and moksha, the vision of Nature as an expression of divinity makes environmentalism an inherent value.

I hardly know what the answer to these modern problems might be. Traditionally, it was understood the khsatriyas and vaishyas would not be able to solve problems without the help of brahmins, so it’s no surprise the guys you mention are having difficulties. But brahmins, where they exist today, are too often falling prey to imbalanced theologies, seeing only the transcendent and dismissing the imminent. This, I believe, is why religious people can worship the Yamuna as a devi but pollute Her into a waste stream. There doesn't seem to be anyone on the scene with the spiritual wisdom and political gravitas to lead a substantial movement.

There may be little we can do, I don't know, the problems seem so intractable. Perhaps we need to wait for Hari to reclaim His playground. Perhaps Kalki has some plans. Perhaps we can at least commensurate with each other. Maybe, like the gopis, we will spend our lives yearning for the times of abundant forests and clean waters. This might not be so bad, after all, yearning is a fine way to spend a lifetime.
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