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What does it mean to be transgendered in India?: GetReligion, April 18, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Get Religion, Hinduism, Press criticism.
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Is it possible to write intelligently about sex in the non-Western world for an American media audience? Or, is our culture so narcissistic, so incurious, so parochial that a newspaper would be wasting its time in attempting to explain the difference between our world view and their’s?

A recent spate of articles in the American press about Tuesday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court creating a “third gender” under law prompted these musings. Stories in the Washington Post and MSNBC about the Indian court ruling are so slanted for an American audience (and these outlet’s particular audiences) that there is but a tenuous link between their reporting and reality.

The pro forma MSNBC story begins:

Transgender people in India no longer have to categorize themselves as “male” or “female” in official documents. India’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling Tuesday that allows hundreds of thousands of transgender people to identify themselves as a third gender. Human rights groups are lauding the decision as historic and groundbreaking.

The article follows a standard formula for legal news and provides snippets from the decision.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the court wrote. “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of the two head judges on the Supreme Court bench, told the court.

The article notes what the implication of the ruling might be:

The high court has ordered the government to allocate public sector jobs to transgender people, known as “hijras” and include them in welfare programs.

And also offers comments from a high profile transgender activist and refers to arguments made in the brief. It then offers political and legal context to the ruling and closes with a word of hope from the LGBT community.

While India now recognizes the transgender community as a third gender, the ruling only applies to transgender people and not gays, lesbians or bisexuals. In December, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 court order that decriminalized homosexuality, reinstating a ban on gay sex. India’s general elections will be held on May 16, and LGBT rights activists hope the new parliament will repeal the anti-gay law.

All in all the structure and tone of this story is what one would expect of an MSNBC story about an American court decision on transgender issues. Voices opposed to the ruling would have provided balance and developing the apparent contradictions between this latest ruling and the December 2013 ruling criminalizing gay sex would have been welcome.

Yet, this is not a story about America, but India. And the American left-liberal model, with all of the assumptions implicit in that world view, does not work.

First off, can we assume that an American transgendered person is the same as an Indian transgendered person, or what the article calls a hijra?

According to the leading study on India’s transgendered community, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India by Gayatri Reddy, hijras are:

phenotypic men who wear female clothing, and ideally renounce sexual desire and practice by undergoing a sacrificial emasculation — that is, the excision of the penis and testicles — dedicated to the goddess Bedhraj Mata. Subsequently they are believed to be endowed with the power to confer children on newlyweds or newborn children.

Hijras do not occupy the same place in Indian culture as the transgendered do in America. First hijras are almost exclusively male to female. Second they have a quasi-religious cultural roll in Hindu society and have been present, though on the fringes of that society, for thousands of years.

Can we also assume that gender identity in America is equal to gender identity in India? In her monograph Reddy notes that by the 3rd Century (AD or CE) the view that there were three genders was being debated in Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jain thought. For Brahmans sexual identity was founded upon the presence or absence of certain primary sexual characteristics. For Buddhists it was controlled by procreation with the impotent consigned to the third sex. But the Jains argued that biology was only one marker of sexual identity. One’s psychological gender was as important as one’s physiological gender in establishing sexual identity.

And, what is the role of Islam in all of this. Hijra is an Urdu word and Indian popular culture associates hijras with those parts of India where Muslim influence is strongest.

And, how can we understand the court’s decision’s recognizing a third sex yet upholding criminal penalties for homosexuality? I am no scholar of Indian law, but could the quasi-religious understanding of the hijras be at work? It seems India’s courts are moving in an opposite direction than America’s — in the West sexual identity is tied closely to sexual activity while the Indian courts seem to separate the two.

Let me say that the issue being addressed by this post is not the moral worth of transgendered people or the rights and wrongs of the Indian court decision. Nor am I saying that every foreign news story be accompanied by a scholarly monograph.

I am asking whether it is possible to understand the issue of the hijra without a single reference to religion in the MSNBC story? Treating this story as if it were an exotic version of Bowers v. Hardwick may come naturally to an American newspaper, but it leaves the reader ignorant of what has happened.

No sex please, we’re Indian: Get Religion, January 9, 2014 January 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hinduism, Press criticism.
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Rape and religion returned to the front pages of India’s newspapers this week after a judge in Delhi stated premarital sex was sinful.

The Hindu reported:

Pre-marital sex is “immoral” and against the “tenets of every religion”, a Delhi court has said while holding that every act of sexual intercourse between two adults on the promise of marriage does not become rape. Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat also held that a woman, especially grown up, educated and office-going, who has sexual intercourse on the assurance of marriage does so “at her own peril”.

According to The Times of India, Judge Bhat, who presides over a court set up last year in response to the nationally publicized gang rape and murder wrote:

When a grown up woman subjects herself to sexual intercourse with a friend or colleague on the latter’s promise that he would marry her, she does so at her own peril. She must be taken to understand the consequences of her act and must know that there is no guarantee that the boy would fulfil his promise. He may or may not do so. She must understand that she is engaging in an act which not only is immoral but also against the tenets of every religion. No religion in the world allows pre-marital sex.

The BBC picked up this story as well. It added this explanation for Western audiences in its story “Indian judge says pre-marital sex ‘against religion’”:

Pre-marital sex remains a cultural taboo in India. Last year, a court in Delhi said live-in relationships were immoral and an “infamous product of Western culture”.

But the BBC goes no further in offering context or an explanation (it appears to be a re-write of an AFP story, which may be a mitigating factor). Even though the lede and headline of the BBC story makes explicit reference to religion, this angle is not developed. This criticism does not fall only on the BBC, the Indian press has also shied away from developing the religious angle to this story and has been content to publish only the judge’s obiter ditca.

The press has not remained silent in discussing Judge Bhat’s remarks — but the conversation has been channeled into discussions of gender and women’s rights.

Why the reticence? In a series of GetReligion posts, TMatt has addressed whether the Indian press avoids reporting on the religion and caste angles to a story. In a 2010 post entitled “Life and death (and faith) in India,” he wrote:

… I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

The Indian press as well as the BBC and the wire service reports on Judge Bhat’s decision are continuing this trend of avoiding religion in reporting. An in depth article from the Wall Street Journal last November entitled “Indian Rape Law Offers Desperate Last Resort” sticks to culture only.

While the Indian press may be restrained to report on religion, should the BBC frame the story in a faith-free atmosphere? Were India a fiercely secular society, such an omission might be justified. But it is not — nor are the rates of pre-marital sex comparable to the West. A study by the International Institute for Population Studies estimated that 3 per cent of women had engaged in pre-marital sex.

Why? Perhaps it is because sexuality for a woman in the Vedic tradition of Hindu culture is controlled by her age and marital status. It frames virginity, chastity and celibacy as being appropriate for distinct periods of life. Virginity is expected of a woman before marriage and chastity is expected within marriage. Celibacy, as signaled by an ascetic withdrawal from the obligations of marriage and family life, takes place at the end of life with abstinence being a liberation of the self from worldly attachments. While Tantric cults exalted women in worship, their sexual mores did not extend to a modern notion of female sexual autonomy. While the ideal seldom governs the real, it must be stated that pre-marital sex simply does not work within the Hindu worldview.

Discussions of sexuality in India seem to go in two directions: blame the English and the golden past.

As the BBC noted an Indian court blames the penchant for some to engage in premarital sex as an “infamous product of Western culture.” Homosexuality and the country’s sodomy laws are also laid at the door of the British too.

Or we go to the opposite extreme and hear of a mythologized past where openness and a lack of hypocrisy ruled. This is the Kama Sutra narrative, but it is not history. It is more a product of the nationalist aspirations of the rising middle classes. A macedoine of anti-colonialism with a dash of “Orientalism”, seasoned with a repressed Westerners and liberated Orientals. However the Kama Sutra narrative of Indian sexuality is largely irrelevant to an understanding of its modern manifestations and as sociologist Sanjay Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi writes:

is best confined to expensive coffee table books of our ‘glorious’ past that was supposedly destroyed by foreign invaders.

There is no middle ground in reporting on sex in India. Silence or secularism governs the discussion. While this may be the environment in which the Indian press must work, should we not expect more of the BBC and the western wire services?

First printed in Get Religion.

Attack on Bible Study leaves 1 dead in India: The Church of England Newspaper, September 9, 2012 p 7. September 13, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Church of South India, Hinduism, Persecution.
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Hindu nationalists attacked a Church of South India (CSI) prayer meeting last week in Tamil Nadu, leaving one man dead and a dozen injured.

On 26 August 2012 supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)attempted to break up a prayer service led by a CSI minister at the home of one of his parishioners in Sasthancode village in the Diocese of Kanyakumari.  One church member is alleged to have invited a friend, a Hindu woman, to attend the Bible study, prompting protests from Hindu militants the pastor was seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity. Two Christians were hospitalized following the attack and the melee spread to the neighboring village of Nadaikavu where a Christian man, Edwin Raj (29), was allegedly beaten to death by Hindu extremists.

The Indian press reports the police have charged seven BJP party members in connection with the attack and are also seeking to question the Kanyakumari district BJP party chief over his role in the pogrom.  A curfew and ban on public assembly was also imposed by police on 29 August to prevent further violence.

The BJP is alleged to have tested police resolve by staging a protest march the next day.  Approximately 800 BJP cadres including the Tamil Nadu BJP party leader, Mr. Pon Radhakrishnan, were arrested on 30 August in Marthandam.

BJP national secretary Muralidhar Rao denounced the arrests saying the incident was a Christian provocation.  “This entire act of falsely implicating the BJP leader and innocent people was part of the attempt by police to please local churches and Christians at the behest of certain political leaders,” he said in a statement to the press.

Mr. Rao said the invitation to a Hindu woman to attend a Bible study angered local Hindus.  The local BJP party chief had been present in an attempt to defuse the tension, however the violence began when members of the Bible study attacked Hindu protestors.

Sajan George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) told the Catholic news service, AsiaNews the situation in Kanyakumari was “rapidly deteriorating.”

“The central government and that of Tamil Nadu must do something. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right and the basis of any healthy society. Such hostility and intolerance are a bad omen for India. If the whole population is not guaranteed freedom of worship, Christians could become second class citizens,” he said.

First printed in The Church of England Newspaper.

Sex and the Single Indian: Get Religion, September 7, 2012 September 7, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hinduism, Popular Culture.
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The BBC’s inability to comprehend religion is not a new story at GetReligion. Often as not the corporation appears oblivious to the faith dimension of a story. I should say the BBC’s religion reporters are a professional lot and there are a number of fine specialty programs that treat faith issues well and when it focuses on religion it does a good job. It is outside the religion ghetto that the BBC fails to “get religion.”

This item, “Virginity cream sparks Indian sex debate”, is an example of the BBC’s failure to comprehend the faith element of a story.

It begins:

An Indian company has launched what it claims is the country’s first vagina tightening cream, saying it will make women feel “like a virgin” again. The company says it is about empowering women, but critics say it is doing the opposite. The BBC’s Rajini Vaidyanathan in Mumbai reports.

It is certainly a bold claim. As the music starts playing on the advertisement for the 18 Again cream, a sari-clad woman is singing and dancing. It is an unusual take on Bollywood. “I feel like a virgin,” she croons, although the advert makes it clear she is not. Her shocked in-laws look on, before her husband joins her for some salsa-style dancing. “Feels like the very first time,” she continues, as she is twirled around. Cut away to her mother-in-law who begins by responding with a disgusted look on her face, but by the end of the advert even she has been won over, and is seen buying the product online.

This video is designed to market a vaginal “rejuvenation and tightening” product, which was launched this month in India. The makers of 18 Again, the Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company Ultratech, say it is the first of its kind in India (similar creams are already available in other parts of the world such as the USA), and fills a gap in the market.

The article starts off with a few facts about the product but then turns into a discussion of the importance of virginity for women. It states:

… the company’s advertising strategy has attracted criticism from some doctors, women’s groups and social media users, who say the product reinforces the widely held view in India that pre-marital sex is something to be frowned upon, a taboo which is even seen as sinful by some.

The clause that ends this paragraph frames the rest of the story: “which is even seen as sinful by some.”

The BBC then lines up critics of 18 Again: doctors, activists and bloggers whose objections are that the add campaign reinforces a taboo on pre-marital sex.

Objection one comes from Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women who says “this kind of cream is utter nonsense, and could give some women an inferiority complex,” as it reaffirms

a patriarchal view that is held by many here – the notion that men want all women to be virgins until their wedding night. “Why should women remain a virgin until marriage? It is a woman’s right to have sexual relations with a man, but society here still says they should not until they are brides.”

Second comes the doctor with the sex-advice column in the newspapers.

“Being a virgin is still prized, and I don’t think attitudes will change in this century,” says Dr Mahinda Watsa, a gynaecologist who writes a popular sexual advice column in the Mumbai Mirror and Bangalore Mirror newspaper. … Men still hope they’re marrying a virgin, but more girls in India, at least in the towns and cities, are having sex before.”

And then we move to the internet. Man (woman) in the street comments followed by Dr Nisreen Nakhoda, “a GP who advises on sexual health for the medical website MDhil” who questions the science behind the product, and observes:

The young generation wants to be hip and cool and try out sex before marriage, but they’re still brought up in the traditional set up where it’s taboo to have sex before marriage. This leads to a lot of confusion in many teenagers. On one hand you’re supposed to be the traditional demure Indian bride, but on the other hand, you don’t want to have to wait for sex because people are marrying later. Temptations are coming their way and people are no longer resisting,” says Dr Nakhoda.

Any comment representing a voice in support of the traditional view? No, but the BBC does provides a sidebar which begins with this questionable statement:

Ancient India has always been celebrated for its openness and lack of hypocrisy, for its modernity and inclusive attitude; but in one aspect, it has remained rigid: the need for women to be virgins.

But closes with the admission that virginity is a religious issue and is:

Considered to be a spiritual obligation, Hindu wedding ceremonies even today centre round the Kanyadaan, which literally translates as the gift of a virgin.

From the start the BBC has framed this story in a faith-free atmosphere.  We see this in the line about some “even” seeing pre-marital sex as being sinful. Who might these people be? Answer: India’s Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Parsis to name but a few.

Were India a fiercely secular society, such an omission might be justified. But it is not — nor are the rates of pre-marital sex comparable to the West. A study by the International Institute for Population Studies estimated that 3 per cent of women had engaged in pre-marital sex.

Why? Perhaps it is because sexuality for a woman in the Vedic tradition of Hindu culture is controlled by her age and marital status. It frames virginity, chastity and celibacy as being appropriate for distinct periods of life. Virginity is expected of a woman before marriage and chastity is expected within marriage. Celibacy, as signaled by an ascetic withdrawal from the obligations of marriage and family life, takes place at the end of life with abstinence being a liberation of the self from worldly attachments. While Tantric cults exalted women in worship, their sexual mores did not extend to a modern notion of female sexual autonomy. While the ideal seldom governs the real, it must be stated that pre-marital sex simply does not work within the Hindu worldview.

From what I have read, discussions of sexuality in India often turn to a mythologized past where it is claimed “openness and a lack of hypocrisy” ruled. This is the Kama Sutra narrative, but it is not history. It is more a product of the nationalist aspirations of the rising middle classes of the Twentieth century, mixed with anti-colonialism, coupled with a dash of “Orientalism” — a belief in repressed Westerners and liberated Orientals. However the Kama Sutra narrative of Indian sexuality is largely irrelevant to an understanding of its modern manifestations and as sociologist Sanjay Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi writes:

is best confined to expensive coffee table books of our ‘glorious’ past that was supposedly destroyed by foreign invaders.

Does the BBC truly believe that it is not necessary to note the objections that might come from religious scruples? I do not believe I am being too harsh. Though an off color topic, the story was not treated in a light tone. It was given the full BBC treatment — 1400 words including an analysis side bar. Yet the final result was one-sided and woefully incomplete.

Bottom line — a poor outing once again for the BBC.

First printed at GetReligion.

Hindu state prayers draw protests from church leaders: The Church of England Newspaper, August 19, 2012 August 19, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Church of South India, Hinduism, Politics.
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A Hindu priest in Karnataka performing an abhishekha by pouring libations on the image of the deity being worshiped, amidst the chanting of mantras.

Government plans to pay Hindu temples to offer prayers to propitiate the gods and ask for rain for the drought stricken Karnataka State in Southern India have prompted outrage by Church leaders and secularists. The BJP-led state government’s funding for Hindu rituals violates India’s secular constitution, critics charge, and will inflame sectarian tensions.

Last month the Karnataka Department of Revenue released a circular to 34,000 Hindu temples asking it to conduct “abhishekha”, “varuna mantra”, “jalabhishekha and other rituals on 27 July and 2 August as it was “convinced” that it was necessary to conduct these rituals in view of the seveare drought, and “for the welfare of people and cattle”. Upon performing the prayers, the government led by Jagadish Shettar would give each temple Rs 5000.

India’s monsoon June to September monsoon season began late this year and has so far provided inadequate rains, leading to fears of famine. The northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab, which produce over 60 per cent of India’s grain crop has seen 65 per cent less rain this year than the long-term average, Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in New Delhi reports.

Nation-wide, the monsoon has been more than 20 percent below its average, sparking fears of drought. “Lack of rain is a worry for everyone … Let everyone pray for rain. But we cannot approve of the government spending money to conduct prayers in temples,” the Rt. Rev. John S. Sadananda, Bishop in the Karnataka Southern Diocese of the Church of South India (CSI), told ENI.

“The government should have spent that money to help farmers” affected by the drought the bishop said.

Writing in Mainstream magazine, Fr. Ambrose Pinto SJ of St Joseph’s College in Bangalore said the state’s support of one religious faith violates the Indian constitution.

Article 27 of the Indian Constitution “rules out public funding of religion,” he noted, but the Karnataka government “has extensively funded religious groups.”

Fr. Pinto added the constitution’s “Article 15(1) states that the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion. With the grant of money to temples and issue of circular to conduct rituals there to bring down rain from heavens, the State has violated all these norms.”

Indian secularism is committed to the idea of “principled distance” from all religions and strict neutrality in matters of religious practices, he argued. “It is only when the state maintains an equal distance from all religions, the state can put an end to inhuman practices of religions like untouchability, child marriages and devadasi system and initiate progressive changes by framing laws towards communities oppressed and suppressed sometimes with the legitimacy derived from religion.”

The BJP government in Karnataka has abandoned the progressive principles of a modern democratic society and was “taking people back into superstitions, encouraging beliefs and myths. It is in the interest of the secular state therefore citizens irrespective of religions may have to come together to defeat the sinister designs of the State Government,” Fr. Pinto said.

First printed in The Church of England Newspaper.

The Devil wears Yoga: Get Religion, December 3, 2011 December 4, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hinduism.
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The Daily Telegraph has been having a great deal of fun with a story about the former exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth. The 86-year old priest had been invited to a film festival to speak before the screening of The Rite, a new release starring Anthony Hopkins.

In the course of his remarks, Fr. Amorth denounced yoga as Satanic and said the Harry Potter novels were tools of the devil. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! — yes, he really did say that.

The Telegraph sub-editor who came up with the title for this article, “Harry Potter and yoga are evil says Catholic Church exorcist,” should see a little extra in his pay packet this week, as this is a Google search engine dream. If he had only been able to work in Justin Bieber he could have crashed the Telegraph’s servers.

While the story is great fun and smartly written, I came away from it thinking it was not fair. It links the pope to Fr. Amorth’s over the top comments and gives the impression the exorcist’s views are those of the Catholic Church. The Telegraph also avoids the question of the spiritual roots of yoga.

It opens strongly:

Father Gabriele Amorth, who for years was the Vatican’s chief exorcist and claims to have cleansed hundreds of people of evil spirits, said yoga is Satanic because it leads to a worship of Hinduism and “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation”.

Reading JK Rowling’s  Harry Potter books is no less dangerous, said the 86-year-old priest, who is the honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, which he founded in 1990, and whose favourite film is the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist.

This sort of thing is great fun for a reporter — no hemming and hawing nor any need to ask Fr. Amorth what he really thinks. The story then quotes the exorcist and provides some foundation for the opening lede.

The Harry Potter books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, “seem innocuous” but in fact encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry, Father Amorth said.

“Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,” he told a film festival in Umbria this week, where he was invited to introduce The Rite, a film about exorcism starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest.

“In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses,” said the priest, who in 1986 was appointed the chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.

“Satan is always hidden and what he most wants is for us not to believe in his existence. He studies every one of us and our tendencies towards good and evil, and then he offers temptations.” Science was incapable of explaining evil, said Father Amorth, who has written two books on his experiences as an exorcist. “It’s not worth a jot. The scientist simply explores what God has already created.”

How about that! What a great line … yoga is Satanic and leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter. There is plenty in that sentence to upset the average Telegraph reader as she peruses the paper with her morning tea (hopefully before her yoga class.) The second half of Fr. Amorth’s quotes are less vigorous and taken by themselves do not raise any eyebrows. At this point the Telegraph seeks to place Fr. Amorth’s views in context — but it does so in a somewhat oleaginous way.

His views may seem extreme, but in fact reflect previous warnings by Pope Benedict XVI, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy.

In 1999, six years before he succeeded John Paul II as Pope, he issued a document which warned Roman Catholics of the dangers of yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation and other ‘eastern’ practises.

They could “degenerate into a cult of the body” that debases Christian prayer, the document said.

Yoga poses could create a feeling of well-being in the body but it was erroneous to confuse that with “the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit,” the document said.

The “enforcer” line was fun for a few weeks mid 2005, but is a bit stale at this point. However, this linkage between Fr. Amorth’s the devil wears yoga pants and reads Harry Potter and the Catholic Church’s warnings against the New Age won’t do. “Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life. A Christian reflection on the New Age” lays out the church’s teaching on “some of the traditions which flow into New Age … ancient Egyptian occult practices, Cabbalism, early Christian gnosticism, Sufism, the lore of the Druids, Celtic Christianity, mediaeval alchemy, Renaissance hermeticism, Zen Buddhism, Yoga and so on.”

This has nothing to do with yoga poses, and everything to do with the spiritual practices of yoga. The Vatican document explains:

Yoga, zen, transcendental meditation and tantric exercises lead to an experience of self-fulfilment or enlightenment. Peak-experiences (reliving one’s birth, travelling to the gates of death, biofeedback, dance and even drugs – anything which can provoke an altered state of consciousness) are believed to lead to unity and enlightenment. Since there is only one Mind, some people can be channels for higher beings. Every part of this single universal being has contact with every other part. The classic approach in New Age is transpersonal psychology, whose main concepts are the Universal Mind, the Higher Self, the collective and personal unconscious and the individual ego. The Higher Self is our real identity, a bridge between God as divine Mind and humanity. Spiritual development is contact with the Higher Self, which overcomes all forms of dualism between subject and object, life and death, psyche and soma, the self and the fragmentary aspects of the self. Our limited personality is like a shadow or a dream created by the real self. The Higher Self contains the memories of earlier (re-)incarnations.

The philosophical premise then of yoga is one that profoundly conflicts with the Christian world view. However, this review is not the place for a full discussion of the church’s teachings on this point. Suffice it to say the potted explanation provided by the Telegraph is not adequate to the task of explaining why the Catholic Church is uneasy with yoga.

The article then turns to critiques of Fr. Amorth’s views, noting “Italian yoga schools said Father Amorth’s criticism was absurd.”

“It’s a theory — if one can call it a theory — that is totally without foundation. Yoga is not a religion or a spiritual practise. It doesn’t have even the slightest connection with Satanism or Satanic sects.” Giorgio Furlan, the founder of the Yoga Academy of Rome, said yoga had nothing to do with religion, “least of all Satanism.” “Whoever says that shows that they know absolutely nothing about yoga,” he said.

While yoga instructors are given a voice denying the religious nature of yoga, the Telegraph neglects to offer the views of Hindu groups or religion scholars who might hold a contrary position — not about Satanism, but yoga’s spiritual/religious nature.

My colleague at GetReligion, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, has pointed to American examples of the sort of error the Telegraph has made, accepting without question the premise that yoga is not spiritual. My purpose, however, is not to debate these issues — nor defend Fr. Amorth from the charge that he is a nut, nor argue that he is a saintly man of God. The problem with this story, as journalism, is that the Telegraph errs in ignoring what MZ Hemingway calls the “religious dimensions of yoga and what it means, in a religious sense, to practice yoga.” The editorial voice of the Telegraph story is that an aged Catholic exorcist has gone a bit mad and said some silly things about stretching exercises. There really is more to it than that.

Is this story fair to Fr. Amorth, to yoga, to Hinduism, to the pope? I say no. Am I being fair to the Telegraph? What say you GetReligion readers?

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Destroyer of worlds … an Indian iconoclasm: Get Religion, November 8, 2011 November 8, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hinduism, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Located just below the logo at the top of this page is the quote “the press …  just doesn’t get religion.” This is the mantra of GetReligion, a website dedicated to critiquing religion reporting in the secular media.  (Independent and denominational religion publications such as my own Church of England Newspaper fall outside our remit.)

The articles on this website examine religion “ghosts” in stories — when questions of faith, belief or religious identity animate an issue but are neglected in the article. Other GetReligion stories laud reporters or newspapers for providing context, insight or understanding of the faith issues at play. We also point out errors, false assumptions and omissions found in the in coverage of the familiar as well as the exotic.

Many answer the question “why” these mistakes are made by reference to the banishment of religion from education and the public square. But a lack of understanding of the faith is not solely a function of secularization. One need only turn to the India — a country steeped in religion — to see this.

Asian News International (ANI) — an Indian wire service — ran a story last week with the somewhat bald headline “Man attacks church in Mangalore.” It reported:

In a freak incident, a man broke into the St. Alphonsa Church in Mangalore and damaged an idol of Jesus Christ on Thursday. The man has been identified as Shiva, a resident of Jalligudde. It was learnt that he went into the priest’s private chambers, removed his clothes and tried to wear the holy vestments, before he was discovered by a couple of students staying at a hostel attached to the church. He damaged the main idol of Christ and the Holy Cross placed inside the church. He also broke both the arms of the idol.


The lede in DNA — an English-language daily broadsheet published in Bombay — opened with the damage also. “Drunk youngster damages church in Bangalore”  (Some problem here with the headline. Bangalore is the capital of Karnataka and 250 km northwest of Mangalore, Karnataka’s main seaport).

Church attack returned to haunt Mangalore on Thursday night when an unemployed man, in an inebriated state, vandalised St Alphonsa Church near Kankanady Market in the south Karnataka city. In the third such incident in a fortnight, Shiva Bajal, 24, damaged the grottoes of Jesus and Mary. He also damaged the furniture in the main hall of the church and tried desecrating the altar. Further damage to the church was prevented when a group of people from the parish apprehended Bajal. The inebriated man continued his rampage and also tried to assault Shibbi, a priest.

The Daijiworld television network broadcast a report on the attack showing the wrecked church. (The report starts about 40 seconds after the video begins — following the commercial). The Hindu — one of India’s oldest (1878) and largest circulation (1.5 million) English-language newspapers — also highlighted the damage:

Between 8.30 p.m. and 9 p.m., a man entered the church, attacked the statue of Jesus with a candle stand, and went to the sacristy where he inflicted more damage. The man, since identified as Shiva, broke an idol of Jesus and threw a copy of the Bible on the floor. He threw the monstrance (a golden-coloured article about a foot in height which is used for the Adoration), and a stole that is used in a number of sacraments, Assistant Parish Priest Shibbi Puthiyara said.

But unlike the other reports, it gave some context to the attack for the non-Christian reader. It interviewed one of the parishioners who witnessed the attack, and quoted her as saying:

“The monstrance is so sacred that it is held only with the stole.” … “The man damaged the statue of Jesus, the monstrance, and the stole. All three are considered sacred,” she said.

All of these reports highlight the religious issues involved and treat seriously the concerns and anger of the congregation. However, the language used in the ANI article, for example, is incorrect. While I know a few hard-shell Protestants who would argue the Roman Catholic Church’s use of statues in their churches is “idolatry”, the statue of Jesus is not an “idol” in the sense that an Indian reader would understand the word.

Nor is the priority given by the Indian reports to the damaged statue or liturgical vestments over the destroyed monstrance correct. This can best be illustrated by comparing the press statement put out by the local Catholic bishop and the newspaper reports. On 5 Nov 2011 Bishop Aloysius Paul D’Souza of Mangalore wrote:

The Catholic Church dedicated to St Alphonsa in Kankanady was attacked by a miscreant on Thursday November 3 night. The holy monstrance was desecrated and statues of Jesus were damaged.

The monstrance was “desecrated” and the statues “damaged”, the bishop reported. Why the difference? Two words: Real Presence.

For the Roman Catholic the Eucharistic elements, or gifts, are transformed at the moment of consecration into the Body and Blood of Christ — not only spiritually transformed but substantially transformed, retaining only the the appearance or accidents of bread and wine. They are the Body and Blood of Christ. The elements in the monstrance were damaged and thereby desecrated or profaned. This nicety is missing from the Indian accounts save for The Hindu.

Turning the glass the other way round, while a Western reader might bristle at the idol reference would he catch the symbolism of the name of the attacker: Shiva?  In the Hindu pantheon Shiva is the destroyer.

Some may recognize this through a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita made famous by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Upon witnessing the world’s first nuclear explosion in 1945, Oppenheimer — the director of the Manhattan Project — said the brought the epic Hindu poem to mind.

“Now I am become Death [Shiva], the destroyer of worlds,” Oppenheimer said citing Chapter 11 verse 32 of the Bhagavad Gita when seeing the destructive power of an atomic blast.

For an Indian audience, the irony of a man names Shiva destroying things would be obvious. For a Western audience calling a statue of Jesus an idol is thoughtless or a deliberately provocative statement — both have meanings bellow the surface. A good reporter is one who informs his readers without being didactic and who is able to catch the nuances in a story to give it shape and context. I wish there were more of them.

 Image of the monstrance and of Shiva via Shutterstock.

First published by GetReligion.

Los Angeles apologizes to Hindus for evagelizing: CEN 1.25.08 p 7. January 27, 2008

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Hinduism, Los Angeles.
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hare-krishna.jpgThe Bishop of Los Angeles has issued an apology to Hindus for Christian attempts to convert them, and authorized a joint Hindu-Anglican service at St John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles—permitting Hindu devotees to receive the consecrated elements.

The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno apologized for past incidents of Christian discrimination against Hindus, and vowed not to proselytize non-Christians, in a statement read on his behalf by suffragan Bishop Chester Talton.

“I believe that the world cannot afford for us to repeat the errors of our past, in which we sought to dominate rather than to serve,” the bishop’s statement said as reported by the Los Angeles Times. “In this spirit, and in order to take another step in building trust between our two great religious traditions, I offer a sincere apology to the Hindu religious community.”

Accompanied by music performed provided by a Hare Krishna and the St John’s cathedral choirs a Eucharist was celebrated and the Hindus invited to receive the consecrated elements, though some Hindus who abstain from alcohol received only the host, the Los Angeles Times said.

Added to the Communion service was a veneration of an icon. While a Hindu band sang a hymn the Anglican celebrant anointed the icon with sandalwood paste, draped a garland of flowers over the icon and lit a lamp, “as a sign of Christ, the light in the darkness.”

The Diocese of Los Angeles’ ecumenical and interfaith officer called the service unprecedented for the Episcopal Church. American canon law forbids the distribution of the consecrated elements to the un-baptized, but no sanctions have been levied on those bishops and clergy who regularly violate these rules.

The diocese reported the Eucharist was celebrated according to the liturgy of the Church of South India and the “tradition of Bede Griffiths” and incorporated an “Arati, the Service of Light, and Kirtan, congregational chanting of the Holy Names.”