Tuesday 18th June 2024,
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Hindu Seva or Christian Charity? Lessons for the US and the World

Hindu Seva or Christian Charity? Lessons for the US and the World
In 1993 Christopher Hitchens exposed the myth of Mother Teresa as a caring old woman helping India ’s poor with Christian charity. Yet the myth persists that her disease infested incarceration centres are in the forefront of Christianity’s civilising mission in Hindu-majority India .

Switch onto any American fundamentalist Christian programme such as the notorious CBN and its 700 Club run by Pat Robertson and you will be asked for donations to help spread the true faith among the wretched and pathetic poverty stricken masses of India who are enslaved by a socio-economic condition created by the caste system and the demonic faith of Hinduism. Robertson’s Operation Blessing operates in many countries and as well as spreading hardcore intolerant Christianity through aid projects also provides Robertson with a lucrative income to help ‘fund’ his private helicopter and other nice little perks. Of course Robertson is far from alone and he does not just target Hindus.

KP Yohannen was born in India and from his adopted homeland of America launched the uncompromising message of conversion and vilification of heathen faiths in Gospel for Asia . Like Robertson, Yohannen is very keen that freedom of religion is pushed in all countries, especially India . Yet at the same time both men foam at the mouth at the very idea of even yoga coming to America . So perhaps we should take their freedom of religion with the unhealthy scepticism it deserves.

KP Yohannen

In the gallery of Hindu-hating Christian preacher types Yohannen is joined by fellow Indian immigrant Dinesh D’Souza now veteran of the American conservative scene. He is however a comparative latecomer to religious apologetics, even though one his early forays into writing involved a gushing eulogy for Jerry Falwell, a vile character who defended racial segregation. No surprise that on hearing of his death Christopher Hitchens referred to Falwell as a “carcass”. But D’Souza is quick to praise Christianity for bringing equality especially to Hindu converts like his own ancestors. He even praises Christianity for being responsible for India ’s recent economic rise and Hinduism as the reason for its backwardness for, yes, you guessed it, the caste system. The interesting thing is that Christian hardcore preachers like the delightful people just mentioned in my introduction seem to ignore their own backyard. This is not surprising. An estimated fifty million Americans are uninsured which means they lack basic health care. In 2012 a documentary by BBC1’s Panorama exposed the raw reality of what this means. No job means no health care, something which is becoming an increasingly grim daily subsistence for the growing numbers if poor and unemployed.

And what exactly are the god-fearing doing to tackle this? Well in a disturbing article from the Digital Journal in 2009 entitled ‘Religious Right: Health Care Reform is Against God’s Plan’ Carol Forsloff exposed Christian groups such as Olive Tree Ministries, Minnesota family Council, Focus on the Family, The Christian Coalition of America and the American Family Association as calling for town hall meetings to be swamped in order to defeat health reforms being enacted to help the country’s least well off.

Obama was even called the anti-Christ for his efforts to tackle the simple fact that poor Americans simply cannot afford adequate health care which people in Europe take for granted. Southern Baptists meanwhile, a group that Obama would have been barred from even joining until the 1970s because of his part-African origins, claim that the president’s health reforms will fund an increase in abortions. While they are so keen to prevent the death of the unborn they remain unwilling to prevent the needless death of their fellow citizens from preventable diseases. In 2006 Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention brushed off the idea of equality saying that not everyone can afford Cadillacs.

It is not simply that Christian hardcore groups are against equality of health care because while they fulminate against India ’s poverty being the result of the ‘caste system’ and above all that idol-worshipping false creed of Hinduism, the Christian fundamentalists sit upon a very dirty secret. Americans have always felt that god himself blessed their nation with special favour, making the United States a beacon to all mankind. An increasingly secular Europe has become irked at trans-Atlantic religious observance and moral superiority. Into the twenty-first century, bucking the trend in the developed world, Americans remain famous for their religious observance. There are two hundred Christian television channels, 1500 Christian radio stations, and Christian road signs everywhere. In many small towns the churches outnumber bars. It is impossible to avoid Christianity completely in America . In this the most powerful nation on earth, ninety-five percent of people believe in god, forty percent attend church at least weekly, and three out of four people belong to a church. Religious observance is at its deepest in the southern states where two thirds of people claim they have undergone a religious experience. George Bush Jr was in fact a radical evangelist who was enacting his vision of American exceptionalism, a nation whose destiny had been ordained by god.

The Bible

America ’s creation myth states that the nation was founded by free men and women who created a democratic and egalitarian model society from scratch. In reality the freedoms taken for granted by modern America evolved only gradually from a harsh system of forced labour, penal servitude and black slavery. The Puritan origins of what became America remain evident in that nation’s culture and psyche, withstanding the diverse immigrant groups that have settled in what is now the United States . In 2006, George Walden, former private secretary to British foreign secretaries David Owen and Lord Carrington, reported that sixty per cent of Americans are Protestant Christians, of whom one quarter are evangelicals. Puritan ethic continues to infuse American society. The stress on individual virtue and personal development as a sign of one’s worth, hard work as an indication of merit, material success as a reward for diligence are legacies of the Puritan theocratic ethos.

The English Puritans who came to American shores wanted to build a utopia, and were heavily influenced by Calvinist ideas of predestination. With its concept of the “elect”, Calvinism held that god has decided our fate in advance, and only the fittest souls were predestined for salvation. The rest are damned as George Walden explained in his 2006 book ‘God Won’t Save America’:

Outlandish as its theory seems, the idea of predestination is by no means foreign to the contemporary American psyche. ‘A loser’ is a very American term, as is ‘a born loser’, with its implication that society is divided into losers and winners from the start. . . . We think of genetics as stark in its implications, but Calvinist predestination was starker, if only because Puritans made no allowance for what we would call environmental factors in deciding who was to be damned.

From 1647, The Westminster Confession became the most authoritative English text for Calvinism and greatly influenced American Puritans in this idea of foreordained bifurcation of humanity into the saved and the damned. From this idea it is a linear development to the unscrupulous businessman offering products to the poorest, least educated and least intellectually endowed, designed to appeal to immediate emotional, sexual and instant gratification, or a drug dealer disclaiming all responsibility for supplying his addicts, who do are inherently incapable of knowing any better:

“In cold logic – and Puritan logic could be very chilly – both Calvin and the least scrupulous business folk of today have a point. If the consumers in question are hopeless profligates who will never get a grip of their lives, little harm can be done by trading on their vices. What sticks in the craw is the idea that of Christians acting on the premise that some human souls are irredeemable, and profiting from the knowledge. Basing itself on Puritan habits of thought, the American business conscience appears to be able to accommodate things that, to the non-Christian or agnostic, seem deeply impure. Puritan talk about the fecklessness of the poor can sound remarkably like the thinking of economic ultra-conservatives today, in which whole sections of society are overtly or tacitly written off. The fact that America has become a less socially mobile society than it was (according to a recent study only Britain is less meritocratic), and that educational opportunities are becoming as widely differentiated as incomes, makes this an even less Christian attitude.”

The individualism which sprang from settler America is a direct result of this Puritan ethos. Southern evangelicism in particular endorses the social status quo and has always defended social privilege, believing that government interference makes no difference to progress and prosperity. This conservative ethic is now spreading across the rest of the country. Its origins of course lie in the Puritan ethic of the original English settlers. The Religious Right has always insisted that America was meant to be a Christian nation. Exactly what this meant in terms of the poverty gap has been made abundantly clear. The Christian fundamentalist business empires took root in the 1960s but their roots went back much further.

In 1927 Bob Jones University was founded and became the largest national producer of fundamentalist preachers. By 1930 there were already fifty fundamentalist Bible colleges. Billy Graham rose to prominence from 1950 with his lucrative mega crusades. In 1960 Pat Robertson founded his Christian Broadcasting Network. In 1973 Paul and Jan Crouch founded what was to become world’s largest Christian broadcasting network, Trinity Broadcasting Network. In 1971 Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in Lynchburg as a private educational institution. Liberty would grow into the world’s biggest Christian university. To this end the dominant and largely white Protestant preachers have opposed far-reaching social activism in the name of Christ.

In the 1980s Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority which promoted family values, anti-abortion, and patriotism. Falwell held that capitalism had been ordained by god. Property ownership, competition and commercial success was Biblical. He therefore argued for cuts in social welfare but increasing the defence budget. After 1988 Falwell’s fellow Christian fundamentalists Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed married pro-business with a socially conservative agenda to build the Christian Coalition which was actively courted by George Bush Jr. The Christian Religious Right denounced Medicare and supported cuts in government spending, even as it was willing to use power of government to enforce their fundamentalist values and intrude into the private lives of others notably abortion and homosexuality. A vice-like grip of history, ideology and theology now hold the monopoly of power in Washington . As America polarises the privileged top twenty per cent have tightened their grip on elite universities. The bottom twenty per cent are locked into a vicious cycle of low wages, few skills, indifferent schools and lack of health care which means that they are far less likely to exit poverty than the poor in Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and even Britain.

This underclass has developed its own subculture of alienation and disaffection as it is locked into a desperate struggle for survival and is all too familiar with the corrosive gun culture. By contrast the “overclass” is sheltered not only from gun culture, but is actively opting out of the American way of life using the conservative and anti-statist philosophy to justify its detachment. Just as the elite British schools of Westminster and St. Pauls dominate intake onto the universities of Oxford and Cambridge , Andover and Exeter pupils predominate in Yale and Harvard. By 1997 Warren Buffet was so concerned by this aristocracy of the rich that he organised the Campaign for Responsible Taxation. But he was up against George Bush’s plans for tax cuts and the huge support which he had from an elite who live in exclusive gated communities such as Hidden and Rolling Hills in California and are fierce critics of any state intervention in helping the poor. The growth of this Selfish Capitalism has been helped by the influence of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism which decries altruism as evil and raises individual selfishness to be a virtue and has gone mainstream as seen by the Tea Party Movement. Therefore Christian fundamentalists have not hesitated to employ the ideas of the staunch secularist, atheist and virulently anti-religious Ayn Rand to argue that god helps those who help themselves. Most of America ’s wealthy do not accept resultant social responsibility that was common in the past with ruthless tycoon barons such as Rockefeller and Carnegie.

They follow the dictate of Cornelius Vanderbilt who was against philanthropy because giving away money meant losing power, and power was of course the key motivation for acquiring wealth. Downsizing has meant more part-time work and an impermanent labour market, better for employers as they can avoid paying for health insurance. Once in poverty few manage to leave since there is lower social mobility than Britain , Italy , Germany or France and will get worse. Although a flexible labour market is held to be the key to economic success, America has been very inefficient in placing poorly skilled workers into jobs. With lack of affordable housing trailer park communities have mushroomed as the poor have in effect become the serfs of the wealthy nobility. Is America still an economic and social model to emulate? Will Hutton of the Work Foundation has written on the Leninist inflexibility and dogma which surrounds much of American discourse on socio-economic inequality:

The journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted her own social experiment, spending 1998 working in a series of low-wage jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing-home aide and Wal-mart sales clerk. The result of her year, documented in Nickel and Dime, is an extraordinary, Orwellian testimony to how tough American working life is for the bottom 20 per cent. She had absolutely no financial margin beyond paying the rent and what she needed to survive; saving or finding the time for any training to upgrade her status was beyond her. ‘Most civilised nations compensate for the inadequacy of wages by providing relatively generous public services such as health insurance, free or subsidised housing and effective public transport,’ she writes. ‘But the United States , for all its wealth, leaves its citizens to fend for themselves – facing market based rents on their wages alone. For millions of Americans, that $10 – or even $8 or $6 – an hour is all there is.’

In ‘Civilization’ Niall Ferguson found that Christianity was strong in America because it has become part of the commercial landscape not an alternative. Churches resemble shopping malls and the parallels are not coincidental. While correctly stating that unlike in Europe the lack of state religion meant that churches had to, and still do, compete for worshippers like any commercial venture, he could have mentioned something else. This is that churches provide essential social work. There is much greater degree of private philanthropy in America due to the lack of a welfare state on the lines of Europe . Churches help the poor with outreach programmes such as homeless shelters and free lunches. For that reason a fully comprehensive health care would negate the need for Christian organisations to play such a role to show how ‘good’ they are.

Hence it is not belief that draws people to the Christianity, but as with India , the exploitation of poverty and distress to create dependant automata. Full access to basic health care would thus be an unmitigated disaster to these organisations who assuage and compromise their selfish Objectivist perspective on life with a few crumbs for the less deserving human lice.

India is presently heralded as a rising economic star so can it provide any alternatives? This will no doubt be laughed off. After all people leave India in droves in order to come to America and many do very well indeed. The converse is not true. With its cheek-by-jowl poverty with super-rich how can a country like India hope to teach anything to America ? But looked at from another perspective it is perhaps rather surprising that with all its extremes of wealth India does not suffer even more fractious labour relations and social dysfunctionality. That is now changing as India imports some of the worst aspects of western civilisation, notably its glitzy false veneer, the now derided ‘bling-bling’ of fast cars, designer goods and half-naked girls which have saturated MTV watched by the mindless automata of a generation X. Yet at the same time there is also a revival of ancient Indian spirituality and philosophy with figures such as Swami Ramdev. This is key to understanding why wide disparity in wealth and status has not degenerated into an anti-social apocalypse.

American society would never tolerate such disparity and it is ominous how as the BBC Panorama programme exposed, you now have Americans driven by poverty to live in the drains of Las Vegas and the collapse of Detroit to eke out an existence in woodland tents because even the homeless shelters are overcrowded. America could grow on uninhibited capitalism because in the nineteenth century this was a vast hinterland with massive resources just waiting to be exploited. That is no longer the case as America is dependent on Arab oil and the economic generosity of China .

India poverty, famine

India is poor because the very free market laissez-fair system which brought prosperity and national clout to America and its former colonial master of Britain was disastrous to India . Just like the advent of the constitutional monarchy after the 1688 Glorious Revolution was a progressive stride for Great Britain but an unmitigated disaster for Ireland, so India’s first brush with capitalism involved weavers having their hands amputated and logistic controls placed in order that India’s industry could not compete with Britain.

Dinesh D’Souza may give ‘Two Cheers for Colonialism’ and stress the imperial legacy of rule of law, parliamentary democracy and the sonnets of Shakespeare as beneficial legacies. But at the time the harsh reality was poverty, starvation and destitution on a mass scale just as it was in Ireland in 1846 during the Potato Famine. What has been derided after independence as the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ by Lord Desai was in fact the result of state planning and interference based upon the very same bankrupt Marxist philosophy which this failed academic desperately clings to like a limpet. In doing so he ignores the very real ‘Hindu’ rate of growth which has powered the economic engine that is an Indian success story, namely the state of Gujarat under the vision of BJP Chief minister Narendra modiBJP- Narendra Modi

Following reforms by Narasimha rao in 1991 India has of course opened up. While its growth has been impressive there is no doubt that stark contrasts in wealth remain making the BJP appear foolish, insulting to millions and certainly very premature with its slogan of ‘India Shining’. But beyond all the MTV style generation X mindless glitz there has indeed been a Hindu rate of growth. India has remained comparatively cohesive because of its pervading Hindu ethos. It is this deep ancient philosophy which made India a pioneer in the very elements which have become essential to western civilisation, notably decimal numbers and the invention of zero. Now that very same ethos is providing the foundation in revolutionary standards in health care. In a complete contrast to both the selfish fundamentalism of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and the Puritan-Calvinist castigation that some people are born damned and inferior.

Hindu Dharma needs to be seen within the framework of the traditional extended Hindu family, which plays the role of a surrogate welfare state. In this context, and in stark contrast to both Ayn Rand and Pat Robertson, the wealth  a person acquires is not for just their own benefit but for the welfare of the extended family and others. One has a responsibility towards those members of one’s family who cannot maintain themselves. In another stark contrast to Objectivism any giving that is motivated by selfish considerations loses its value from the spiritual point of view: which of course has no place in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, Selfish Capitalism or America ’s Religious Christian Right.

The Bhagavad Gita speaks of three types of giving:

  • A gift that is given without any expectation of appreciation or reward is beneficial to both giver and recipient.
  • A gift that is given reluctantly and with the expectation of some advantage is harmful to both giver and recipient.Krishna & Arjuna
  • A gift that is given without any regard for the feelings of the recipient and at the wrong time, so causing embarrassment to the recipient, is again harmful to both giver and recipient.

Before being despoiled by colonialism India had these very values as the norm. The Chinese scholar Hiuen-Tsiang visited India in the seventh century during the period of the Indian king Harshavardhana. He recounted the king’s generous sharing of his wealth with his people. Similarly, the kings of Thanjavur in the nineteenth century were renowned for establishing chatrams, centres of hospitality located along the road to pilgrim centres, which took care of

India Templethe needy, the sick and those who died in their care. But with the advent of colonialism, chatrams were deprived of this important role and as a result today ithese traditional institutions of hospitality are scenes of hunger, starvation and deprivation. Raja Sarfoji, the king of Thanjavur, in a letter to the British colonial masters in 1801, implored them to ensure that this tradition of hospitality would not be curtailed or done away with.

However for India ’s colonial masters these traditional institutions of hospitality were seen as a wasteful use of resources. The Indian kings were warned against directing funds to their maintenance, and elite Indians were quick to internalise this attitude. With the Famine Commission Report of 1880, an elaborate state-controlled bureaucratic management of supply and distribution of food was introduced, thus discouraging the existing centres of hospitality and undermining the religious and cultural values underpinning them. Dana includes selfless service or seva to those in need. Most Hindus are familiar with the story of King Rantideva, who was known for his generosity. When his kingdom was struck by a devastating famine, he wanted to share the suffering of his subjects and so fasted for 48 days until all his people were fed. When he was about to break his fast with a glass of water he heard the cry of a thirsty man. He gave his glass of water to the man. As he was about to take a morsel of food, there appeared an unexpected hungry guest to whom he gave it.

Fortunately the materialist neo-feudalism as exhibited most dramatically in American Christian fundamentalism, Selfish Capitalism and Objectivism could not kill off ancient India ’s spirituality completely.

On 23 November 1990 Sathya Sai Baba announced the building of super speciality hospital in Puttaparthi in south India . This was inaugurated a year later by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. In 2001 a sister facility was opened at Whitefield in Bengalaru. These hospitals have 500 beds, 19 operating rooms, 11 ICUs, 4 Cardiac Cath Labs and speciality departments of cardiac sciences, urology, ophthalmology, orthopaedics, gastroenterology, plastic surgery, and neurosciences.

Thousands of operations take place every year. But the most amazing thing about these medical facilities in India is that they are all free for those who cannot afford to pay. Thousands of volunteer staff provide top quality medical care for India ’s most deprived and poverty stricken. Under the Sri Sathya Sai Healthcare Project private hospitals offer a specific number of beds for the free treatment of patients. In addition mobile medical centres now operate across villages in India .

Sai Baba

“But it is not just in India . In 2009 the Sri Sathya Sai International Centre for Medical Services was established with its main hub in Los Angeles . From here world class medical caps are run around the globe. This does not halt at mere medical care. In Africa and South-East Asia the organisation had distributed mosquito nets impregnated with insecticide in order to combat malaria with 85,000 distributed in Kenya alone reducing the incidence of malaria by half. Mass immunisation programmes are processed along with education on hygiene and healthy living to reduce illness in the first pace. Unlike America where rapacious pharmaceutical firms and health insurance companies use their allies in the churches and legislature to ensure that adequate health care becomes only the preserve of the wealthy, Sai organisations work to prevent actual disease and sickness appearing in the first place so that those from deprived backgrounds are not reduced into further debt from exorbitant medical expenses or forced to go in desperation to the well funded American backed fundamentalist Christian churches which operate in India, and indeed in their home countries, to use forms of ‘miracle’ cures: effectively medieval style witchcraft and quackery to cure everything from AIDS to unemployment”. Sai Baba emphasised treating the patient and not merely the disease. In the words of David F Moxam, president and CEO of Authentic Inc, in Texas :

“The vision, compassion and professionalism of yourself and the members of the Sri Saithya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences is, and remains, an inspiration for all of us. It makes us all feel good to be human and be a small part of such a wonderful dedication to our fellow man.”

It is certainly a lesson which should be well-heeded by Moxam’s fellow Americans. As the debate of health care provision rages and

Image of Sai Baba serving the poor

America’s self-righteous ‘Christocrats’ join Objectivists in averting their gaze from those less fortunate than themselves it may well be Hindu organisations such as that of Sathya Sai Baba which will need to make the world’s most powerful and richest nation reassess its moral and spiritual values. While Robertson, Yohannen and D’Souza rage about India and demonic Hinduism, one can at least say that India is a poorer country and hence one can expect the mass poverty which is encountered. But in America ?

This is the richest and most powerful nation on earth, arguably the most successful society ever. Yet as Panorama revealed children go to school, hungry as their parents are forced to rely on free food handouts or eat rats. People live in drains literally beneath the glitzy glamour of Las Vegas . An operation for a hernia can mean losing one’s home to pay for the cost. A British medical charity that operated in the Amazon jungles now offers free medical and dental surgery to ordinary Americans who queue up in the bitter cold of an early morning just to be checked over for conditions such as rotting teeth because they simply cannot afford a visit to the doctor or dentist. How can a civilised society tolerate this in the name of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’? Perhaps it is time that India returned the ‘favour’ bestowed upon it by missionaries so eager to exploit poverty and desperation by guiding the richest nation in the world in the concepts of Hindu sewa and dana: terminology which it has yet to learn. 

About The Author

Ranbir Singh : Writer and lecturer, HHR chairman : BA (Honours) History, MA History from School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London : , Have lectured previously at De Montfort University, London School of Economics, Contributor to various political and human rights discussion outfits.

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