Narendra Modi and Barack Obama : A New Vision for Both India and World Hinduism

Article by Acharya David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States brought about many glowing statements from the American government, both about Modi and about India. These included productive meetings with President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry, who were quite elated with Modi’s visit. The camaraderie extended to Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as various congressional leaders Republican and Democrat.

Modi’s visit was a great success for the Indo-American community, particularly with his Madison Square Garden program, and for India-America business ties. The success of his visit extended to the western media, with CNN going as far as referring to Modi in a video as, “Is this the world’s most interesting man?”

Predictably, the Indian left was upset with the success of Modi’s visit. They had long used Modi’s American visa rejection in 2005 – which they played a major part in bringing about – to highlight how the world rejected Modi and his policies. Now America is embracing Modi in a powerful way and ignoring the complaints of Indian leftists.

Of course the Indian media, which still has a Marxist slant, brought out the usual Marxist spokesmen as well as Congress politicians to criticize Modi’s trip as unsuccessful. But these comments fell flat before Modi’s firm embrace by the Democrats, America’s left wing party.

In fact, Modi’s policies of promoting trade, developing defense ties, cleaning up India, protecting women’s rights, and promoting ecology in the light of climate change are hardly the fascist agendas that he is accused of, but that of the center left in the West like the Democratic Party of Obama.

However in all of this political posturing, another important event has been missed. Modi’s visit was not only a personal victory for Modi, or for BJP, or India, it was also a victory for Hinduism itself.

Modi came to the West not merely as a Prime Minister of India but as a proud Hindu. He completed his entire grueling overseas program while engaged in a nine day fast for Navaratri that celebrates the Goddess or Shakti. His Facebook account posted for each day, the form of the Goddess Durga to be worshipped, with the PM’s greetings. Yet Modi was not trying to promote Hinduism in a propagandistic manner, he was simply continuing in his own personal practices as he always fasts on Navaratri.

Modi feels there is no contradiction between being a good Hindu and the Prime Minister of India at the same time – and why should there be? Political leaders all over the world honor various religions, particularly the majority religions of their own countries, even if they are heads of secular states. Up to now, however, most of the Indian media and political parties have given the impression that for a Hindu to be a respectable political leader in India is only possible if a Hindu downplays his religion.

Most importantly in this regard, Modi and Obama cosigned a special op-ed in theWashington Post on Sept. 30, highlighting their relationship. What it says about Hinduism is most interesting. I am quoting the first two paragraphs of this op-ed below.

“As nations committed to democracy, liberty, diversity and enterprise, India and the United States are bound by common values and mutual interests. We have each shaped the positive trajectory of human history, and through our joint efforts, our natural and unique partnership can help shape international security and peace for years to come.

Ties between the United States and India are rooted in the shared desire of our citizens for justice and equality. When Swami Vivekananda presented Hinduism as a world religion, he did so at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. When Martin Luther King Jr. sought to end discrimination and prejudice against African Americans, he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent teachings. Gandhiji himself drew upon the writings of Henry David Thoreau.”

Let us highlight specifically the second paragraph. It notes Swami Vivekananda’s historic visit to the US in 1893 and his speech before the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, but for Vivekananda having presented “Hinduism as a world religion” at the Parliament, connected in the same paragraph to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Henry David Thoreau.

This is quite a statement and one that both Obama and Modi must have carefully considered before letting it be published in such a prominent manner. The joint statement is an honoring of Vivekananda and India relative to World Hinduism. It recognizes World Hinduism as important for India and its independence movement, and for America and its civil rights movement for the pursuit of justice and equality. We must remember for all the India emphasis on Gandhi as secular that Gandhi described himself as a Hindu, and was quite critical of the Christian missionaries who came to convert him.

Today Hinduism is a much more positive word in the United States than in India. This is not only due to Vivekananda and Gandhi, but also owing to the over three million Indo-Americans who are predominantly Hindu in religion, just as India is. Hindus in America are the most affluent and best educated of all religious groups along with the Jews. Recognizing this fact, American politicians like Obama and Clinton see Hinduism as something to be respected, and as a force for the future, not a superstition from the past.

The remark on Hinduism as a World Religion is important in many ways. Many scholars in the West, particularly Marxists, routinely deny that there is anything such thing as “World Hinduism.” They would reduce Hinduism to scattered, often unrelated or conflicting cults and practices of India that do not merit the name of any single religion. And they would not equate Hinduism with any social justice and equality, but only with an oppressive caste system.

We could say that Modi’s visit raises not only the presence of India on the world stage but also that of Hinduism as a World Religion. Yoga and Vedanta, which Swami Vivekananda also emphasized and which are now popular worldwide, reflect this greater tradition of World Hinduism. The remarks show that Hinduism is not a liability for India but one of its greatest contributions to the world.

Clearly a new era is dawning in which India is gaining its proper respect and so is Hinduism as a world religion. And we cannot entirely separate the two. This is because Hinduism is based on a universal vision that is relevant to everyone and asks us to put the cause of truth and Self-realization above any dogmas or institutions.