Dutch maidens & Hinduism
I grew up in an Indian household in a Southern California suburb. My parents were members of the Arya Samaj, a monotheistic Hindu reform movement started in the early 1900s. Our parents spent much of their young lives working, but they found time in the small pockets that remained to preserve their religious traditions; many of my earliest childhood memories are of the havans we attended until I was a teenager. Us kids were working too, working to fit in at school. This meant most of us were confused and embarrassed by the strangeness of the religious traditions. We laughed nervously as we sat cross-legged on stained sheets, stumbling through the pronunciation of absurdly long Sanskrit words, scowling at the old man who poured ghee into a fire.
He scowled back at us.
We understood none of it.
The Arya Samaj chapter in our area was poorly funded, and the parents in the community would hustle hard to find the cheapest location possible for havans.
For a few pivotal years, the cheapest spot was a Dutch community center.
Picture the scene: The same aforementioned stained sheets covering the floor. The (very illegal) fire hazard flickering in the center of the room. A frowning pandit wrapped like a fusion-cuisine burrito in his shawl. The deep-throated sounds of uncles and aunties chanting in Sanskrit. And on the walls? Paintings of busty Dutch maidens in flowery dresses. Drawings of windmills. A clock that displayed the current time in Holland. A photo of cheese.
This was the setting for my introduction to the Vedas.
A few months ago, I created this Substack on a whim.
Then, it just sat there, sad and empty, for months.
Yet to my surprise, I logged in the other day to find that despite my negligence, people had subscribed.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing that.
You helped me get off my ass and write.
More importantly, you helped me realize that I'm not the only one who has spent much of their life without a strong connection to this vast, kaleidoscopic body of texts and practices we call Hinduism. You and I likely grew up without a basic understanding of the philosophy (the philosophies, plural - there are many strands, and they contradict each other by design) underneath the colorful images of gods; of the complex metaphysics that imbue the countless ritual actions; of the deep influence this proto-religion had on everything that came after it. Something critical has been lost during the past few generations - and not just for those of us whose families crossed oceans to start a new life.
Why call it ‘Rational Pagan’?
This newsletter will be based on my own exploration of (translated) texts. I believe there is tremendous value to approaching a subject with beginner's eyes, which is why I chose not to begin the journey through a teacher or the established preconceptions of a specific Hindu sect. I want to read and understand stuff on my own, as much as that is possible. This is unconventional for a philosophical system that places deep value on the guru/disciple relationship, but it feels like the right approach for someone who’s been a contrarian since diapers.
The deeper you dive, the more you realize that Hinduism got stuck in the wrong section of the library. It's a complex mythological and philosophical system - at times clinically rational, and at others delightfully absurd. It’s not a religion in the Western sense. There is no singular book, statement, or set of commandments. I’ve come to think that saying you “believe in Hinduism” is like saying you "believe in Greek philosophy" or "are a follower of rhetoric". Modern sects and reform movements have filtered the dharma (and I don’t necessarily disagree with their motivations), packaging it up so that it better fits into its respective ‘Major World Religion’ bucket alongside Christianity and Islam. While there may be important reasons for doing this, so much is lost in the process.
Even my conditioning has been conditioned.
Most of us lack even a superficial understanding of the thought-systems of our ancestors.
Yet, they surround us in the West anyway, sometimes in ways that feel absurd. Soccer moms of all political persuasions (and bless their hearts - this will not be an angry newsletter about ‘appropriation’ and other micro-aggressions, you can go find plenty of that on Twitter) lay on neatly-arranged mats and chant Aum in ‘yoga’ studios in suburban strip malls. Physicists from Schrodinger to Tesla to Oppenheimer leaned visibly on the Gita and the Upanishads in their writings, the only truly relatable voices they were able to find when they danced at the edges of human understanding. 19th century Transcendantalists and their hippy descendants of the 1970s got much, if not all, of their thinking from Hindu texts like the Upanishads.
If you grew up outside of India, you may believe that our ignorance of tradition is a distinct characteristic of the diaspora. ABCD, as they say. But it's also largely true for those who grew up in India. Regardless of geography, most of us are products of a Western education. We have all been taught, both explicitly and implicitly, to think about our philosophical traditions as backwards and inferior.
Somewhere along the way, we convinced ourselves that our many gods/many books are lesser to their one God/one book, that their weird stories are somehow less weird than our weird stories. Nevermind that Greek philosophy is strikingly similar to Hindu philosophy (and not by chance..we will discuss how many of Plato's ideas came from India). Nevermind that many of the foundations for logic, rhetoric, and of course, modern language itself, came from Sanskrit. Nevermind that the conclusions of Hindu metaphysics are being confirmed by breakthroughs in quantum physics.
If we're being truly honest, most of us still get at least a little embarrassed about the rituals, the traditions, the 'paganism'…and the complicated politics that come with it...embarrassed like that young kid I remember, trying so desperately hard to fit in at school.
One of my favorite hip-hop groups, Black Star, opens their song 'Brown-Skinned Lady' with dialog from the 1989 film Chameleon Street:
"- I'm a victim of 400 years of conditioning.
- Shut up.
- The Man has programmed my conditioning
- Even my conditioning has been conditioned."
This newsletter is part of my attempt to undo some of this conditioning.
This being the first issue, there are a few things that I should say:
First. if you know me from the technology world and it isn't yet abundantly clear, there will be nothing about FinTech, startups, or angel investing in this newsletter (unless that "startup" is a tribe of scrappy Vedic nomads who got in a cave, invented a sophisticated language, and leveraged this new platform to create the world's oldest philosophical system...okay, I'll stop now).
Second. If you came here looking for a guru, I'm 1000% not your guy.
I can't read Sanskrit. I haven't spent the past decade meditating in a cave in the Himalayas. I don't have a graduate degree in Eastern religion or philosophy (which as we may discuss one of these days, might be a good thing). I don't even live in India. I live in Oakland, California, a place that isn't especially famous for its long line of Hindu masters (though we do boast an amazing number of oddly flexible women with Ganesh tattoos).
I am just a dude who has wanted to dive deeper into Hindu philosophy and mythology for years, but then went to college and got a job and started a family and founded a company and got divorced and started another company and then had a major health issue, etc. etc. it goes on and on, just like your life. Point is, I'm finally doing it, and I thought maybe you could benefit from reading some of this stuff. .
Third. I led with the story of busty Dutch maidens on purpose. If you are easily offended, it would save us both some time and emotional effort if you just unsubscribed now. This is not a safe space, whether you are 'woke' or 'hindutva' or whatever. There will be irreverent takes, statements that are offensive to both sides of whatever political spectrum you are on, things that overly sensitive people will call ‘blasphemous’, etc., etc.
(Most likely, there won't be anything that offensive, but who knows 🤷🏽♂️, so gotta say it).
Also, I will get things wrong sometimes. Other times, very, very wrong.
You are about to join me on an intellectual journey that spans thousands of years and a range of philosophical thought that only seems to grow in vastness the more you explore.
Thank you again for reading! This is more fun to do with friends, and I appreciate you joining me.
PS If you find value in my writing, I’d love to hear from you. Also, if you have friends who could benefit from this newsletter, I'd appreciate you sharing it with them 🙏🏽