Anti-Blackness: A View From Dharmic Life

|| Namaste ||
|| Auṁ Svastir Astu ||

In the days following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer of the United States, the clarion call for action from the afflicted and their allies has been heard by people with Dharmic backgrounds. However, when it comes to responding to it, there is much room for growth, and I believe it is a justifiable observation that our communities have not been as vocal with our support of the push to drive out social and systemic racism as it affects our Black non-binary kin, sisters and brothers and their communities in the US.

Why is this the case? Well, our communities have been dealing with racism in a different way for a few centuries, with methods differing due to what was required by the varying local contexts. But as we are now all part of the United States, reevaluation of our methods for dealing with racism is necessary. Many of us realised that in order to act decisively and with integrity, our own internalised anguish was surfacing. This needed to be dealt with in order for us to understand why it was important to stand with our Black non-binary kin, sisters and brothers in a way that is dissimilar to the manner in which we fight our own battles with racism. Yet, as those issues surfaced, I have come to see that there is definitely no consensus about how they should be channelled and too often, Hindus were invoking vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam (the world is indeed a family) in an alarming approximation of the ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric. African and Africa-diasporic followers of the Dharmas have asked us to do better than this, and I agree.

Colleagues and other critical thinkers from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bhutan or descendants, have been caught off-guard in their responses to the current call to counter social and institutionalised anti-Blackness. To many of them, educated solely in the western method view the descendants of mother Africa as a different race, meaning this is not their fight. The problem is, of course, that in all of the countries mentioned, there is a vast amount of racism, colourism, and casteism that has yet to be successfully analysed and countered in the public sphere, in large part due to the nature of politics and questionable scholarship (both operating in colonial-legacy-mode) in and about the region. Whilst a thorough examination is beyond the scope of this note, the following walks through an overview of the major issues, concluding with a suggested way forward.

Let us start with some research-based framing

Anti-Blackness is not an historically supported notion in South Asian countries – in their inceptions. When the majority of all of the nineteen ancient kingdoms and republics (sixteen Mahājanapadas encompassing people of Drāviḍa, Muṇḍa, Ārya and other ethnicities, plus the Draviḍian Pāṇḍya, Choḷa and Chera kingdoms, 6th-3rd centuries BCE), and the numerous tribes that made up South Asia were comprised of people who had very, very similar phenotypes, owing to an extremely close genotype, to our ancestors in Africa, it is ludicrous to think that those societies wouldn’t view dark skin as normative. Indeed, Śhyāma-Sundara – Black Beauty – is the personification of the Supreme Being for one of the larger ancient religious traditions from the region. The Great Mother, Mahā Kālī, is unreservedly black. The majority of brāhmaṇas (scholars) were as dark-skinned as the śhūdras (workers) and vice-versa. The archetypical antisocial outlier, Rudra, was described as white as snow. We were comfortable in our dark skin. So, why is it that our societies ended up imbibing a need for young women to reach for ‘Fair and Lovely’ creams in the make-up aisle?

It hardly needs restating that creating the notion that a group deserves respect even if undeserved has its roots in various imperialist projects – whether Greece, Rome, or Egypt – commonly known as divide and rule. It also took root in some kingdoms in ancient South Asia around the end of the period when the first megacities emerged in the Gangetic plains (c. 5th century BCE, thousands of years after the first cities in other parts of ancient South Asia). However, this notion was rejected by numerous countries independently first, and then, as they were stitched into the patchwork of empires, individual societies resisted.

They had good ground to do so: The Ṛgveda (Indra, you raise up the oppressed, and the disabled, RV 2.13.12), the Bhagavadgītā (the wise person does not discriminate against living beings on the ground of difference in appearance, BG 5.18) and plentiful others, coupled with the ancient Vedāntic teaching of natural unity through diversity (bhedābheda) – all were very present in the minds of spiritual seekers. Make no mistake: the Āryas thought of themselves as supremely noble, but the Āryas included both the Buddhist and Jain traditions who vociferously countered the varṇa, or class system, of the earlier Āryas. The dichotomy of Ārya and Non-Ārya was based not on race, but on adherence to a culture that was perceived to be ‘noble.’ By the time the early Indo-Āryans of Punjab proliferated the Vedic culture, they were phenotypically quite similar to the rest of their neighbours in the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Localised tribes became Ārya or remained non-Ārya: the Khāsi tribe of Northeastern India, and the Kalāsh of Afghanistan are examples of the numerous tribes who chose to remain isolated from the Ārya culture, whilst living alongside them. The human tendency to tribalism was thus challenged, and so the new modus of identity making centred on adopting a different culture. A close approximation would be the Eastern world’s adoption of Western culture – and even in our modern times, we continue to look down upon those of our own ‘race’ if they do not speak English ‘properly.’

But, aren’t Āryas fairer than Drāviḍas?

That statement is overly simplistic. The lighter complexion of people from the north-west of South Asia is largely a result of the cosmopolitan Indo-Greek civilisation that arose after Alexander rode through in 326BCE, and the subsequent arrival of the Central Asians, Chinese, Arabs, etc. Even before the end of the ancient period, Drāviḍas, Muṇḍas, and numerous other ethnicities and tribes were firmly established in their Ārya identities, enough to establish Mahājanapadas together. I am at a loss to explain why certain contemporary commentators continue to label ancient Indo-Āryas as anti-Black racists; the information does not seem to support this. Colourism does not play a part in pre-colonial Dharmic society as evinced in early Vedic, Saṅgam, Pālī and Prākṛit literature, and racism is the product of colonialism, so we should be careful of presuming to read our 21st century problems into ancient cultures; to do so would be to further colonial methodologies.

South Asian Divide and Rule: Spiritual society vs. Imperial society

As I have said, the imperial project – from whatever time period or geographic region – has ubiquitously deployed divisive tactics to pit indigenous cultures and traditions against one another in order for imperial dominance to be established whilst facing minimal resistance. Certain ancient Indian Kings in expansionist empires looked for the means to execute this. Cue the Mīmāṁsaka Brāhmaṇas, the most common type of court scholars, who began to compose the Dharmaśāstras – here, dharma means law, not spirituality – the most (in)famous of which is the Manusmṛti (the Law Codes of Manu, c. 2nd century BCE). For the first time on such a wide scale, and against the universalist ethical teachings of the Upaniṣads, Vedānta, Yoga, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, Indian societies were being manipulated by the expansionists through these legal codes with jāti (endogamous class) being its most insidious fabrication. Numerous people embraced it because it paid the worldly dividends that protecting one’s spiritual integrity could not. They were further led to believe that this is what the traditions they followed taught. Of note is the fact that even in the odious jāti system, skin-colour did not feature.

Yet, those who knew better, and were actually spiritual, resisted: Buddhists and Jains (and later, Sikhs) are well known for their abiding loathing of Indian jāti-based social structure as it developed. Much less known today (hint: who is educating us?) are the influential Azhwars (from ancient times to the 8th century) and Nayanmars (fl. 6th-8th centuries) who were Vaiṣhṇava and Śhaiva theologians from all types of jātis. Numerous episodes in the lives of the spiritual masters show resistance to jāti divisions as they contradict our spiritualities: the world-renowned Vedāntic Brāhmaṇa, Śaṅkarāchārya’s (c.8th century) famous episode with the chāṇḍāla in Vārāṇasi; Basavanna, who himself actively lifted the oppressed to the heights of their societies – declared that menstruating women could perform any ritual they pleased; Rāmānujāchārya (c. 11th century) fought with royal authorities to let all sections of society enter the regal temples and rejected the call for a brāhmaṇa guru, choosing instead to become a disciple of Kañchipūrṇa, who was of the lowest jātīs in their kingdom.

Even after the first religion-based foreign empires came to South Asia, Vaiṣhṇava and Śhaiva saints – like Kabīr Dās (Muslim-born Vaiṣhṇava) and Lāl Ded (Kāśhmīri Śhaiva Saint poetess) – embraced the humanity of the new arrivals even as those new kings (after 10th century) took thousands into the Arab slave trade after decimating the indigenous peoples of those regions. The newer legal codes composed in the conquered areas already possessed social divisions that enabled it to function to the benefit of the ruling classes in other areas in those empires. As these empires spread across South Asia, social stratification became increasingly commonplace, but even then, there were numerous kingdoms in South Asia that resisted.

How is any of this related to anti-blackness?

In ancient South Asia, therefore, it was not the case that everyone embraced social divisions, and those that existed in autochthonous imperialist projects did not rely on colour based divisions. However other global imperialist projects were about to arrive. In claiming that they needed to ‘civilize’ the world, the white world found its ‘uncivilized‘ fodder: the non-whites. Native Americans, Africans, Asians, and other indigenous peoples the world over: if we had anything of economic value, we were going to be on the receiving end of injustice, and then ‘educated‘ to believe that we indeed deserved the treatment unleashed upon us because of two things: the newly ascribed wickedness of our worldviews and our darkness which was touted to be a visible mark of our heathenness and lack of civilisation. Systemic colourism, racism, casteism, purity/impurity of whole groups of people, and homophobia were taught to the elites of our societies – the newly converted, the literate, the businessmen, the landowners. The British programme of aggressive deployment of educational and infrastructural projects was to benefit the colonials; but we were educated to believe that this is what a magnanimous, superior culture does. Why wouldn’t we want to think like them? It played on numerous whispers from the past but weaponised these sentiments so that the Empire could profit from subjugation, and we’d earn commission.

That is why anti-Blackness in the United States should be a major problem for Indo-Americans and other South Asian-Americans. We cannot let the colonial project with such rotten mindsets succeed. As we slowly work on cleaning our intellects and attitudes from this, we cannot ignore our sisters and brothers whose ancestors were also on the receiving end of the colonials through the transatlantic slave trade. The descendants of the enslaved are living in a land where the descendants of the slaveholders still hold on to the legacies of privileged power. There has not been any meaningful atonement for the atrocities of the slave-trade, and the systems established by slaveholders are still the most powerful in the country. Sure, the anti-racism movements of the 1960s were powerful and achieved some legislative parity; however, the real virus was not eradicated because cultural mindsets are harder to change.

Standing Now

It is high time that we stand with our Black non-binary siblings, sisters, and brothers, and work to root out all anti-black sentiments from our thoughts, words and deeds. As demonstrated, anti-Blackness is not part of our Dharma as established, so perpetuating it would be simply letting the colonial enterprise, and older dynamics of power and subjugation, be victorious.

When called upon, we should also be able to stand against any anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism, etc. not because the west taught us to do it, but because it is in our very ancestry to do so. We must act from an appreciation of the spectrum – the way of Dharma – and not the West’s binary boxing. There may be some of us worried about Hinduphobia, and it definitely exists. But, in the United States, Hinduphobia functions as an emerging part of the legacies of the colonial project. The population most brutally affected by the legacies of the colonial project today are, without a doubt, our Black siblings.

We need to heed our historic call at this moment: our precious Dharmic legacy from time immemorial – to query, to debate, to think critically and to evolve ever more deeply and capaciously. We need to do much-needed work in de-colonizing ourselves; and read more about Dharmic traditions, with their vast and multifarious discourses, and their long-standing tradition of query and reform, so that we may answer our call at this moment with knowledge, and not just rhetoric.

I would also ask that people think hard on their own journeys to the USA. What systems of privilege were at play? Have we actively tried to address them after arrival?

Yes, vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam. The world is indeed one family. We care for all members of our human family equally. But, that is not enough. Even in a struggling family, when one family member has been exploited in the way that they have for so long, it is up to the rest of the family to band together, share any resources, networks, talents and abilities that they have worked for, in order to lift up that long-suffering relative. Families that gloat are a distasteful product of imperialism. Families that enshrine and protect equity for all its members are the families that Dharma cherishes.

How We Can Help:

  • Vote after a thorough examination
      • It is all too easy in this time of misinformation to fall prey to the rhetoric and tabloid journalism masquerading as ‘factual.’ Please do some research for yourself – and be realistic. The majority of politicians are not ideal human beings at the best of times, and during electoral campaigns, the lies come thick and fast. Instead, compare past promises to actions taken. Do they tally? If the choices are harder, which one has better integrity and balance?
  • Spend Responsibly
      • Stop buying or funding those businesses and charities which have investments or directly participate in oppression – from the choices they make in suppliers, to labour conditions and products. If possible, support a smaller but ethical business even if a little more expensive.
  • Donate
      • Support charities and NGOs that are doing both advocacy work and the thankless task of healing. Numerous families have been the victims of police brutality and racism – look for foundations set up to support them, and, especially look for the charities that address the economic imbalance and the related social issues in a given community.
  • Inform Yourself
      • We might feel we are right in our viewpoint but do we have enough facts to have logical discussions without having to rely on emotional argumentation – which usually leads to broken connections? A few example readings are below as a rough guide.
  • Participate in tough discussions
      • When that well-meaning uncle says ‘they shouldn’t protest, they should work hard like us,’ or that aunty says ‘you are getting too tanned – you must be spending too much time in the sun,’ or, ‘don’t hang around with those low-class people,’ it might be worth checking your emotions, and then from a place of compassion, encourage them to think through and empathise with the situation. Maybe they could explain how their Dharma aligns with those statements?
  • Being Humble
      • As you go through this process, you might indeed have enough knowledge to have the ‘authoritative’ view in various arenas. But, humility would let people find out about your depth of knowledge when they engage you in conversation, not because you drop your presumed wokeness on the table. This doesn’t mean you are shying away from anything: far from it. It just means that you aren’t typecast into any box that would preclude you from future conversations on this topic. And, really, who could claim to know everything about this subject?

Further Reading:

The foregoing reflects my current understanding – I am willing to evolve and learn, so if any of the points are of interest, or contrarily, are opposing what you hold, I humbly invite you to engage me in discussions on this. For I firmly follow this polyvalent teaching of the Mahābhārata:

īdṛśān aśivān ghorān ācārān iha jājale |
kevalācaritatvāt tu nipuṇān nāvabudhyase ||
kāraṇād dharmam anvicchen na lokacaritaṁ caret ||

-Mahābhārata 12.254.49

There are, O Jājali, numerous acts of oppression are carried out masquerading as righteous; in fact, they are wicked. You practice them because they have been practiced by everyone from so-called ancient times, but you need to gain further awareness about this. One should practice spiritual ethics guided by logic and reasoning instead of blindly following the ways of others.

|| Hariḥ Auṃ ||

– Brahmachārījī.

Brahmachari V. Sharan, Ph.D., is the Director for Dharmic Life & Hindu Spiritual Advisor, and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.