Hinduism vs. Buddhism in the West: the Belgian Case

As Mr. Rajiv Malhotra has pointed out on a number of occasions, the spokesmen of Hinduism in the West are doing a rather poor job of putting across to the Western public a fair image of what Hinduism stands for. I will make essentially the same point through a case study, viz. a comparison in performance between Hinduism and Buddhism in my homeland, Belgium. The contrast between Buddhist method and Hindu chaos, as well as between Buddhist success and Hindu failure, is striking.

In Belgium, the law provides for a status of "recognized religion", allotted to religions which fulfil certain conditions. These include a sufficient (fairly low) number of practitioners and an organizational structure with a representative board empowered to negotiate with the authorities. Today, the Catholic, Protestant, Judaic, Anglican, Orthodox and Muslim religions have this status. This implies that their ministers are paid by the state and that upon parental demand, state schools have to organize classes in the religion, from first through twelfth form, with the teachers' salaries again paid by the state. Very similar arrangements exist in many European countries.

The next religion lining up to acquire the status of recognized religion in Belgium is Buddhism. Some procedural motions and practical preparations remain to be completed, but there is little doubt that within a few years, Belgian state schools will be offering a curriculum of Buddhist religion. Most Buddhist traditions have a certain presence in Belgian society. Zen Buddhism has a sizable following among intellectuals, Tibetan Buddhism has the most visible presence through its three very active monasteries, there are frequent ten-day intensive courses of Vipassana Buddhism in its own retreat centre, while Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants have brought along their own forms of devotional Buddhism practised in a few ethnic temples. A federation of Buddhist associations (Belgian Union of Buddhists, BUB) provides a common platform for mutual coordination as well as for representing Buddhism's interests vis--vis the authorities.

Once Buddhism will be on the school curriculum, I predict it will be an enormous success. All those post-Christian parents, vaguely spiritual or "alternative" (New Age) or even agnostic, will gladly expose their children to the teachings of this "non-religious religion", rather than to the non-religious ethics course now offered as the only alternative to the various religion courses.

One reason why the course of Buddhism is sure to have credibility is the same reason why Buddhism will be accepted as a recognized religion: all while being non-dogmatic, it does have doctrinal backbone. Most visibly in the lecture programmes of the Tibetan monasteries, but in other centres too, an effort has been made, based on age-old practice in the countries of origin, to build up the teaching programme of Buddhism in a clear and systematic manner. It starts with the Buddha's biography, stories from the Jatakas (the Buddha's earlier incarnations in all manner of life forms), then the elementary teaching from the Four Noble Truths upwards, moving to some capita selecta of the application of Buddhist values to specific problems, more advanced doctrines starting from the twelve-phased Dependent Origination, a survey of the proliferation of Buddhist schools and sects, and the first-hand study of the more exciting chapters from the Buddhist classics. And, combining practice with theory, a whole curriculum of specific meditation techniques.

Now contrast all this with the situation of Hinduism in Belgium. First of all, there are a few problems with the definition of Hinduism, problems imported from India. There is a Sikh community of several thousands, mostly immigrated as asylum seekers in the last years of the Khalistani armed struggle, i.e. in 1989-93. Though 99% were not recognized as genuine refugees (Sikhs as such were never persecuted in the Indian republic, and while life in their native Panjab was rendered difficult by the terrorism problem, they could settle anywhere else in India), most managed to stay on, and they have a Gurudwara in the town of Sint-Truiden. Because of their link with Sikh separatism, they are unlikely to accept that Sikhism really is one sect within the Hindu fold, as many Sikhs elsewhere do.

Likewise, most members of the Gujarati diamond-trader community in Antwerp are Jains (with their own five-star Jain temple nearing completion), and while most Jain laymen in India are indistinguishably part of Hindu society, the relative isolation in this foreign metropolis has reinforced their separate identity. So, for the present purpose, let us not consider Sikhs and Jains as Hindus, all the more so since otherwise we would also have to include Buddhists among the Hindu category, as Indian law treats the three traditions on the same footing, viz. as coming under Hindu personal law.

Of those inhabitants of Belgium who follow indisputably Hindu religious practices, at present only a minority are South-Asians belonging to a variety of communities, mostly not represented in sufficient numbers to organize a community life in Belgium. Among the diamond Gujaratis, there are Swaminarayan followers who recently opened their own temple in Antwerp (incidentally, Swaminarayan idiosyncrasies, often quite untypical of Hinduism in general, are an extra public-relations burden on Hinduism, e.g. Westerners abhor the rule that Swaminarayan monks are never allowed to have visual contact with women). For all practical purposes, these ethnic Hindus don't interact with the ambient society in the name of Hinduism and remain absent from interreligious dialogue forums. This is partly because their immigration is still recent and in many cases intended to be temporary, so it may change once a sufficient number integrate more deeply into the host society. They also interact only very sparsely with fellow Hindus belonging to different traditions, except on secular Indian events like Independence Day, though attempts are now made to mobilize everyone for an annual Saraswati Puja in Brussels. They have no Belgian Union of Hindus or some such common platform.

For the rest, we are dealing with native (or, very exceptionally, immigrant non-Indian) Belgians, 99% of whom are followers of one particular guru or one particular sect. Note that I have described the people concerned as "people who follow Hindu practices", not simply as "Hindus". Most of them would greatly hesitate to call themselves Hindu and many have never even thought of themselves in those terms. One reason is that this term can hardly be disentangled from its geographical reference to South Asia. A second one is that many a Hindu guru tells his Western audience that his teachings are "not Hindu but universal". The third one is that Hinduism has a negative image, connoting obsolete practices such as casteism, superstition and widow self-immolation, as well as being associated with India's current problems including bride-burning, riots, poverty and corruption.

The fourth reason, and the one most consequential for our topic, is that many of these de facto Hindus have no awareness of Hindu schools and teachings beyond what their own guru has taught them. They may be followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, of Herakan Babaji, of Srila Prabhupada or of Ma Amritanandamayi, but they haven't got the faintest idea where their particular teachings fit into the larger genealogy of Hindu traditions. For that reason among others, they often want nothing to do with those other Hindu "cults". Of the Vedas or the Gita, they will know the two or three maxims which their own guru likes to quote, and nothing else. Typically, they know only one spiritual technique, which is like a medical doctor knowing only one medicine and giving it to all patients regardless of what disease they have. They chant Sanskrit mantras without knowing or even caring to know their meaning. They are more illiterate about their religion than the simplest sweeper in India. Yet, it is very largely from their Indian teachers that they have adopted this petty-sectarian and anti-intellectual attitude.

When you mention their illiteracy about their chosen religion, they are bound to reply, after their guru's example, with a sanctimonious variation on the well-known maxim: "An ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of theory." To be sure, this is not incorrect. Of course theory is only the handmaiden of practice; it is practice that gets you somewhere, and theory is only needed in order to guide the practice. But without a certain load of theory, it is unlikely that your ounce of practice will be the right kind of practice, or that it will get you anywhere worthwhile.

Let us consider an example of what this illiteracy can lead to. A teacher of Catholic religion, who had to teach a little survey of world religions (a first intrusion of multiculturalism into the catechism lessons) in her class for a few weeks, took pregnancy leave and was asked by the school rector to find a replacement. Religion teachers are hard to find these days, but she found a friend willing, a nominal Catholic like most Belgians but also the director of a Hindu puja circle ordained by a lesser-known South-Indian guru. Now, instead of quietly doing his survey, giving Hinduism a place among the other religions in the dozen or so hours he was required to teach to each class, he rushed in with a full-time non-stop peptalk about his guru: "You've learned about Christ, I will show you a living Christ." He made the pupils do puja before the guru's photograph, as if he didn't know that few things are abhorred more by post-1945 Westerners than the cult of a person. He distributed ashes saying that the guru had produced these paranormally through his skin. Short, in no time he had parents complain to the rector about a "lunatic indoctrinating our children into some Satanic cult". It was no surprise when the newspapers reported that he got fired. This man was a native with higher education, entirely familiar with what is feasible in our society and what isn't, so I can only evaluate his behaviour as stark madness.

You might say that this was merely an individual case. Even then, the fact that such people can become Hindu community leaders says something about the quality of that community. And in fact, this funny behaviour was no individual and exceptional case at all.

Consider the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's movement of Transcendental Meditation, or rather of the Vedic Science of Creative Intelligence. First of all, their teaching is in practice an instance of "one medicine for all diseases": an otherwise indisputably valid technique (internal mantra-japa, sustained repetition of a Sanskrit phrase), which is traditionally given to pupils by teachers on an individual basis, is mass-fed to all comers indiscriminately. Secondly, the TM people attract a lot of suspicion about their motives because of the high price which they charge for initiation into their technique or for treatment and medicine in their Ayurvedic clinics. Thirdly and most importantly for the present purpose, they advertise their system with the paranormal claim that their advanced practitioners can literally fly through the air. When you ask for a demonstration, they sit there "hopping" a few inches from the floor, something any sportsman who applies himself to it, can learn to do through the mechanics of his muscles. None of them was ever seen flying, yet they have continued to make this claim for decades, thus attracting ridicule not just to themselves but to the "Vedic" tradition they purport to represent.

The same criticism is valid in the case of the Hare Krishna enthusiasts, who call themselves Vedic and thereby create a popular impression about the Vedic tradition among the Western public witnessing their highly idiosyncratic behaviour. No sobre Westerner except their handful of converts is ready to believe that you can reach enlightenment in any worthwhile sense by benumbing yourself with the endless repetition, even during other activities, of a mere name: "Hare Krishna Hare Krishna." As if you could satisfy your hunger by repeating: "Bread, bread." Likewise, the highly watered-down "kundalini yoga" propagated by Mrs. Nirmala Devi under the name Sahaja Yoga promises instant results, fails to live up to its promise, and consequently invites contempt and ridicule. Any serious student of yoga who takes the elementary trouble of reading Patanjali's Yoga Sutra would recognize at once the distance between these instant-enlightenment formulas and the genuine product.

Unfortunately, with the encouragement from quite a few Indian teachers, many Westerners think that dry theory is a Western aberration and that the Eastern way is to throw yourself into practice unfettered by all those cumbersome words. They like to quote the daoist philosopher Laozi to the effect that "the Way that can be put into words is not the true Way" (arguably a mistranslation, but let that pass). But they forget, or blissfully ignore, that Laozi himself was an archivist by profession, as bookworm as you can get, and that his followers also have a rich scholastic tradition.

The true state of affairs in learning the inner path is better formulated by Thomas Cleary in the introduction to his translation of the Sandhinirmochanasutra, the "Scripture Unlocking the Mysteries", a classical textbook of Buddhist yoga: "This is a text that is meant to be read and reread many times as essential preparation by those who are thinking of undertaking meditation exercises of any sort. This procedure was the classical way, and many of the aberrations of modern Western meditation cults can be traced to abandonment of this tradition." (Buddhist Yoga, Shambhala 1999, p.vii)

Western Buddhists who have gone beyond the stage of beginner's enthusiasm have taken this lesson to heart and integrate their practice with the study of Buddhist theory. In the Hindu sphere of influence, by contrast, this kind of sobriety and intellectual discipline is the exception rather than the rule. Serious integrated teaching of Vedic tradition is as yet available only on the margin, as in the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (based in Coimbatore and with an ashram in Saylorsburg PA, but so far not present in Europe). Most Hindu gurus are content to indulge in wild claims about bringing the "original universal spirituality", ignoring (or even mendaciously denying) its specifically Hindu roots, all while effectively imparting only a fraction of what any grass-roots Hindu tradition offers its practitioners. There is a complicity between Indian teachers and Western followers in promoting and perpetuating this flaky distortion of Dharma.

At any rate, one result is there for all to see. In Belgium, Buddhism is poised to be recognized as a religion fit for state-sponsored teaching and ministering, thanks to its doctrinal and organizational coherence. Hinduism, by contrast, hasn't even reached base one in the process of getting its act together and presenting its case for this official recognition.

(published on Sulekha.com, 28 August 2004)

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