Hindu Dharma beyond borders: Etching marks through festivals and traditions

Mark Twain said that the land of Bharat is “one land that all men desire to see”. This remark was not a hearsay from those colonial satraps on errand to discharge executive duties, nor a hyperbole just to appreciate a vast and splendid mosaic of natural landscape – snowclad hills, mighty rivers, dense forests and spectacular biodiversity – compounded by magnificent architecture, second to none in elegance, which awestruck the spectator with its ornate domes and intricate carvings. The real essence of Twain’s eulogy included the vivid and vibrant culture, or sanskriti, that saw every moment as a reason to celebrate human life; the culture with a myriad of festivals – of light, of dance, of colours, all cheering good over evil. This diversity in culture is intimately integrated with the dharma (of which religion is one aspect) casting a sacred touch to festivities and pressing for the realization of goals beyond this mundane world, a unique approach in Hindu Dharma (popularly also known as Hinduism).

This article appraises how these religious and cultural elements have crossed borders yielding a global recognition to Hindu Dharma.

The festival of Sacred Feminine – Navratri

Each part of Bharat has distinctly conceived festivities that are uniquely blended with variegated forms of folklore, music, dance, ritual, cuisine, and so on. One such particularly popular religious and cultural festival from Gujarat is Navratri. It essentially marks worship of the Devi – feminine divinity who annihilated the evil powers of a demon. The worship of sacred feminine in Bharat, perhaps the oldest in the world, is well documented in the panegyrics of the Rigveda predating the veneration of Isis across Nile Delta, The Hebrew Goddesses in the Temple of Solomon, female deities of Celts and obviously before the feminine pagan deities of pre-Islamic Arabia and pre-Columbian Aztecs. Navratri is a portmanteau of nava and ratri meaning a celebration going on for nine nights. This instance of worshipping Shakti for nine nights, or navaratris, occur multiple times in the luni-solar Hindu calendar, although, the one celebrated in Gujarati culture happens to fall in the first half of the lunar month of Ashwin.

Young men and women, from villagers to cosmopolitans, draped in colourful traditional clothes dance on the tunes of various folk songs, known as garba, in annular pattern with the deity of Durga or Amba at locus reminding constantly to dance in devotion. The exact origin of such dance is contentious but the petroglyphs of Bhimbetka (around 30,000 years old) showcases a similar kind of dance arrangement in Bharat! Today, however, the occasion sees participation by Hindus and non-Hindus equally. As the famous poet Narmad boasts, ‘wherever there is a Gujarati, forever is Gujarat’, this tradition has crossed seas and reached various continents along with the Gujarati diaspora. Local and international media has noted this conspicuous supplanting of culture on their land.

Navratri becomes transnational: Case of the UAE

Sometimes, academics and thinkers have flagged the Middle East as a hostile region for non-Muslims. However, increasing globalization and influx of expats as skilled immigrants have compelled authorities to adopt a liberal outlook to a certain extent. In the UAE, the Bharatiya diaspora is in numerical majority even surpassing the local Emirati population. Hindu festivals, if not officially, are celebrated with huge vigour. Navratri is not an exception, perhaps the second largest organized event after Diwali among the diaspora. One such large fete is organized by the Country Club. The Navratri celebration of 2015 marked its twenty-fifth anniversary witnessing thousands of Hindus belonging to all corners of Bharat. The celebration was well received by non-Hindus and they participated in this event with equal enthusiasm. A few encounters are noted here.

On a weekend night, at the Mamzar Park among a joyful ambience of swaying floodlights and upbeat Dandiya rhythms, everyone is indulged in lively dancing to hardly notice anyone else until they spot a Caucasian girl draped in an ethnic ghaghra-choli and learning garba moves with traditional dandiya in both her hands. Irina Humeniuk, a 26-year-old zoologist from Belarus, can be often seen at the Mamzar Park after twilight spending her leisure. After noticing the preps of a grand fete, she was explained by her Hindu friends at the park what is Navratri and how and why it is celebrated. On a warmly extended invitation, Irina did not hesitate to join her  acquaintances from Bharat on that weekend night. Her first encounter with such an event was on-screen through Bollywood films as a child and shares an excited Irina, ”I personally purchased that pair of (ethnic) clothes to look exactly like those actors!”

Like Irina, there were many other non-Bharatiyas who remained barely estranged and mingled with the crowd. In one such performing group were Ethiopian Muslim lady Hayat and her Nepali Hindu supervisor Purna Gurung, both oblivious of Gujarat, the customs and associated religious history of Navratri. For them, it was an occasion to dance and have fun with their counterparts from Bharat. However, they tried to expand their knowledge after-event, speaking to new acquaintances and appreciating such festivities not so common in their culture.

Out of nearly ten thousand participants, Gujarati diaspora amounting for nearly half speaks volumes about the popularity of Navratri. Its appeal, among the non-Gujarati and non-Bharatiya expats, has obliterated the lines of states, nations, languages, ethnicities and all other pre-conceived socio-cultural boundaries, bequeathing a unique recognition to those who owned this festival. They volunteered in explaining what is going on and why there is a literal frenzy on the floor. It was an unprecedented exchange of culture that included elements of Hindu Dharma – making space for itself in an alien, if not absolutely hostile, social sphere. This cultural exchange is not limited just to the UAE, Navratri has been a crucial celebration amongst the diaspora in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Middle East and other countries with Hindu concentrations. The nature of the celebrations has led to tremendous participation by non-Hindus, leading to a deep sense of appreciation and enquiry for this joyous occasion, culture, and religion.

Global Hindu recognition: Festivals and traditions

By the constructs of the so-called experts on Bharat or Orientalists (alternatively Indologists) of the colonial era, Bharat was portrayed with broad strokes as ‘the land of snake charmers’ characterized by poverty, superstition, polytheism and casteism – a condescending construct that failed to understand the conjuring of ancient and mystic that was exacerbated by indigence and oppression caused by perpetual invasions. These stereotypes did not start effacing until immigration statutes liberalized and vast diaspora started stabilizing in the west. These fledgling settlements initially faced severe alienation and racial profiling due to the imperial hegemony.

After nearly half a century of cohabitation and persistent permeation of cultures, Bharatiyas are seen otherwise –  a highly-skilled, productive and peace-loving workforce whose average earning exceeds most other immigrant communities. Reiterating the poet Narmad, these immigrants have developed their own spaces in urban concentrations to foster their religion and relish indigenous culture – what Prof. Raymond Williams phrases as the ‘bulwark’ against the hostilities of the host culture. However, there has been enormous cultural give and take in the form of Yoga, Ayurveda, Bharatiya cuisines, religious-cultural events like the one mentioned above and similar exchanges which has brought appreciation and to a certain extent mitigated the scars left by colonial narcissism.

This unprecedented cultural exchange, mutual participation and courteous recognition is turning into a regardful appreciation of Hindus not only as a peacefully coexisting community, but as emissaries of the oldest civilization contributing to the world in various forms. Perhaps, Barack Obama was the first American President to publicly praise Yoga as, “a universal language of spiritual exercise in the United States, crossing many lines of religion and cultures”. Subsequently, the United Nations recognized 21st June as the International Yoga day. Today, Yoga has not just remained a passion and pursuit of Hindus, but on a regular weekend, one can observe a bevy of Americans of all races scurrying across the cities with their yoga mats to lie down and perform some yoga asanas (postures).

One in three American adults uses complementary and alternative medicine in the US that includes Ayurveda. It has become a central focus of research on Public Health by WHO, WIPO, and WTO. Beyond this, vegetarian Bharatiya restaurants, across all continents, serving exquisite delicacies are often frequented by people regardless of their race. Hindu spiritual texts and allegorical narratives from the sacred epics in the form of self-help books, animated toons, lyrics of rock bands and other modern renditions are occupying a conspicuous space in the shelves and are enthralling people of all ages. Succinctly, from the vividness of Navratri to the crackers of Diwali, and from the savour of Bharatiya cuisines to postures of Yoga, everything is giving a huge recognition and appreciation to Bharat.

In the Occident, this serendipitous discovery of a sanskriti so antique in existence that connects all aspects of life and culture through a trans-mundane thread called dharma has posited an alternative view to their monolithic outlook of life. Despite a haughty clique still living in the surreal realm constructed by their predecessors, most have embraced the existence of an uncontested merit in the Hindu way of life. There are some pleasant ramifications for Hindus in the mainland and the diaspora. Firstly, the interest in Bharat has been catapulted to an exceptional level. Whether it is the Kumbh Mela or the hermitages of recluses along the sacred geography of Bharata, westerners are spotted trying to beseech some gnostic formulae for inner fulfilment. It has also allured tourists to the mystic art and sacred architecture of Bharat.

Today, the number of foreign tourists flocking to Bharat is increasing at the rate of roughly 10% contributing nearly 7% of India’s GDP. The warm hospitality and enticing scenery of a modern Bharat completely contradicts the ‘land of snake charmers’ theory opening a new perspective of the visitor to re-think Bharat.

The first-hand experience of Bharat and Bharatiyas in the west is gradually dismantling the old narrative and surging a new attitude of respect. People tend to learn about Bharat and its accomplishments. Academia no more conceives the research on Yoga, Ayurveda, Hindu studies, Sanskrit philology and other pertinent South Asian streams of study as a squandering of resources. Contrary to that, more varsities are establishing dedicated departments to Indic studies considering fruitful contributions of the past ventures. Hindu mandirs (temples) with traditional spires are becoming a norm in the vicinity of Hindus. Hindu presence is becoming an inevitable part of interfaith dialogues once limited to Abrahamic faiths. Beyond these elitist endeavours, the respect enjoyed by an average Hindu immigrant is of far more importance. It comes with a fascination leading to an honest enquiry establishing a dialogue between civilizations rather than a clash. Consequently, Bharat is no more a victim of what Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian novelist, phrases as ‘the danger of a single story’.

Today, as nearly one and a half century has passed since the first Hindu teacher P C Mozoomdar had landed in Massachusetts, USA in 1880 to give a talk at Emerson’s home in Concord, Hindu Dharma (or its popular moniker Hinduism) is recognized as a World Religion. Its sublime philosophy, ecstatic rituals and devotional practices have attracted millions of converts embracing Hindu Dharma without the coercion of muscle or money. Hindu Dharma is etching a unique mark from Oceania to Americas, dispensing a formula of peaceful life to the beleaguered world through its customs, ancient traditions, and joyous festivals.

(Disclaimer: This article represents the opinions of the Author, and the Author is responsible for ensuring the factual veracity of the content. HinduPost is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information, contained herein.)

About the Author

Chirayu Thakkar
Chirayu Thakkar is a a student of Hindu Dharma from the University of Chester, UK. He writes on interplay between religion and various other disciplines.