Ahimsa, Nirvana, the World's Oldest Religion and Erie, PA

In an article posted on GoErie.com, I like the fact that author Joel Tuzynski considers the city of Erie fortunate for being able to welcome refugee groups like the Bhutanese-Nepalis.  Like the Buffalo author, he wants his readers to embrace their newest neighbors.  This is good and such sentiment should be applauded.  Tuzynski, who directs the Multicultural Community Resources Center in Erie (which I have seen personally), also issues in the article a firm and heartfelt call for the citizenry of Erie to band together to fight against targeted violence against the Bhutanese.  Since I know what is going on in Erie, I join in this call.  

However, I don’t appreciate the way Tuzynski talks about the Hinduism of these refugees.  There are three quick points to make.  (1) Tuzynski claims that the Bhutanese-Nepalis adhere to the concept of “ahimsa” (non-violence/injury) and are thus, “by nature”, a peaceful people.  The problem with this claim is that most Bhutanese-Nepalis haven’t the foggiest idea what “ahimsa” means.  Those that do will normally interpret primarily (even exclusively) in terms of dietary rules (vegetarianism).  What is more, a closer look at their history reveals that they are not at all averse to the use of violence, war, or revolt.  Short of that, just watch practically any Nepali film (including the ones produced by Bhutanese-Nepalis) and see how non-violent they are.  The fact of the matter is that “ahimsa” plays a negligible role in the Hinduism of most Bhutanese.  On the contrary, the Bhagavad Gita is probably the most commonly read Hindu shastra among them – hardly a text that advocates non-violence.  

(2) Tuzynski refers to “nirvana” as the Hindu’s “highest state of existence” and says that the Bhutanese view life as the ongoing quest to achieve nirvana.  While the idea of nirvana is present in Hinduism and spoken of in the Gita, Tuzynski seems to be conflating the Buddhist with the Hindu worldview.  Nirvana is a term that is essentially unknown to most Bhutanese-Nepalis.  They will instead speak of salvation using a term like “mukti” or perhaps “moksha” (which are somewhat synonymous with nirvana).  They more commonly talk of going to “baikoontha” or “swargya” (heaven) but even more than this are interested in the spirit world and trying to avoid upsetting ancestral spirits or becoming a ghost (preta).  Tuzynski fails to appreciate the folk Hinduism that is really what dominates the worldviews of the Bhutanese and instead mistakenly paints a false picture.  

(3) Tuzynski falls for the PR and repeats the notion that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion.  There are some many problems with such a statement that it is difficult to know where to begin.  For one, the idea that Hinduism is a single and cohesive religious system is preposterous.  It is an umbrella that is more parallel to a term like “Western Civilization” than “Christianity”.  The reality is that scores of distinct religious groups exist within the cultural complex called “Hindu” (including, by the way, some Christians).  One must also point out that the term Hinduism has only been around for a couple centuries and the term Hindu isn’t much older than that.  The concept of “religion” is foreign to South Asian worldviews and arises, as a category distinct especially from government, from a particularly Western context.  To suggest that South Asians even spoke of “religion” in this way until recent days is anachronistic.  What is more, most Nepalis don’t really speak of “religion” in this way.  The term they use in Nepali is the Sanskrit word “dharma” which is hardly equivalent to what Westerners mean by “religion”.  What we are left with is a statement like, “It would seem that the Rg Veda is very old – of comparable age to the Jewish Torah,” but this is hardly the same thing as saying that “Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion” especially considering that the Vedas play at best a nominal role in the lives of most Hindus and are rejected altogether by many others.

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