NPR’s journalistic integrity in reporting involving Hindus has been called into question by several media scholars. Set up by an act of Congress and now a network of over 1,000 public radio stations, NPR has much deeper impact on the collective psyche of America than any other network. Politically motivated or not, historically NPR appears to have maintained a rather negative take on Hindus. A recent incident on the daily talk show, Radio Boston on WBUR, one of the NPR channels highlighted how dropping the anti-Hindu mindset can benefit NPR and the listeners.
Social distancing combined with uncertainty has had multifold impact globally. The crisis of this massive scale has forced people to define and learn new norms of traveling, working, spending, communicating and even intimate necessities like daily meals and access to faith-related activities. What are those norms? How is Coronavirus impacting individual faith? The Radio Boston program on March 30th was dedicated to finding these answers.
Faith gives believers hope in difficult times. Faith provides means to access the inner strength and courage to move forward through the toughest problems like the one we are facing today. Leaders from all faiths are making extra efforts to stay connected with their communities. Radio Boston host Tiziana Dearing elucidated modes, challenges and solutions in an interfaith conversation with three panelists and the listeners. The three panelists were Thomas Groome, professor of theology and religious education at Boston College and past director of the Church in the 21st Century Center, Shaykh Yasir Fahmy, instructor on Muslim Studies at Harvard Divinity School and Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, MA. Though there was no formal representation from the Hindu faith, there was much in the program that reassured Hindu American listeners of the spiritual strength in Hindu ways of living. Moreover, it benefitted WBUR as it helped them fulfill the bigger purpose of the program, which is to instill stability and hope among listeners from all faiths.
Janhavi Wadhwani, a Hindu listener from Newton, MA called in to share her experience. Janhavi is a meditation instructor and has taught to thousands of people for over 20 years through the Art of Living Foundation, a humanitarian and spiritual organization. She shared how the spiritual nature of her practices allows her to not only stay connected with her faith but also help others. Her sharing created a serene, hopeful, calm and accessible space that other callers and the panelists couldn’t resist. The tone and subject of conversation on the show completely changed after Janhavi’s call. Before it was all about challenges and hardship. After the call, the host asked all panelists to share their thoughts on Janhavi’s sharing. The post call show seemed like a celebration of the spiritual core of all religions that stays intact despite of obstacles like social distancing and other issues. That’s good enough and counts as inclusion for many Hindu listeners. There are some listeners though, who care about the cumulative effect of presentation and subliminal messaging in media. They expressed concerned over parts of the show that took liberty to render Hindu practices in Christian, Muslim and Jewish terms in a rather uninformed manner.
Professor Groom’s over simplified explanation of meditation process makes a good case for why the presence of a Hindu scholar was necessary on the show. He/she could clarify that the transcendental style Hindu meditation and contemplative Christian practice are two completely different disciplines. The contemplative Christian practice begins with the word of scripture, Christian or Hebrew, as professor Groome explained. The transcendental style Hindu meditation transcends beyond all words, concepts and ideas. Declaring the two practices as similar is unfair to practitioners of both traditions and does disservice to prospective students. We urge NPR and all its channels to avoid such mishaps in the future with a standing offer of unconditional collaboration.
While we are on the subject of collaboration and unconditional service, there are many other things that the Hindu American community is actively helping with. Dr. Yogesh Rathi, treasurer for the Dharma Center of America shared that Hindus from all paths of life have come together across USA to support those who have lost livelihoods due to the Coronavirus crisis. Hindu volunteers have been tirelessly attending numerous 24x7 helplines to support the senior citizens, patients and the needy. Sanjay Kaul, Vice President, World Hindu Council of America shared that Hindus in the US and around the world are engaged in raising millions to provide medical support to patients and support to the homeless. Several initiatives that support the medical staff with food packets and other essential things have been active in service since the day 1. Anil Sharma of OVBI shared how the Billion Chants project is helping people from around the world to tune into the healing vibrations of chants. The thing is, serving, sharing and caring are at the core of the Hindu faith. Hindus in the US have been invariably supporting thousands of service projects and providing help in all forms for decades.
Mark Lawrence Schrad, associate professor of political science at Vilinova University explains how volunteers, caregivers, doctors, essential workers and many more who are at the frontline to help people in need at this time are the new patriots in an essay that he wrote for the Politico magazine. By that definition, Hindu Americans are a community of patriots. They have always been a community of patriots. Whether they are treated and respected as patriots is a subject to ponder upon. Sanjay Saxena of Satsang Hindu Temple projects greater expansion of scope and reach of service projects run by Hindu Americans with mere acknowledgement from NPR. According to him NPR has been blind to the humongous contributions of Hindu Americans for as long as he can remember. “Why the anti-Hindu stance?”, he asks and calls it completely unreasonable. There is plenty of data and evidence available that support his observation.
Vamsee Juluri, professor of media studies at University of San Francisco has done an extensive study on NPR reporting involving Hindus. His research calibrates the subtle, yet relentless efforts by NPR to demonize and criminalize Hindu sentiments. His research also highlights the deliberate gaps between facts and reporting. You can find his study here. The senior members of the Hindu American community prefer focusing on strengths and keeping up with the purpose of serving over confronting NPR and other western media regarding the bias. Their absolute acceptance of the western media and indifference have allowed the community to excel and progress without baggage. Their self-reliance, hard work and confident attitude have crafted a special place for the Hindu American community as a minority that is progressing at the same rate as the majority in the US. The younger generations of Hindu Americans though feel frustrated. They consider changing the negative narrative about Hinduism in western media, an urgent and worthy cause. Having said that, the fight against Coronavirus comes first.
The present times call for seeing the big picture of the world as one humanity. The Radio Boston program is a great example of what Hindu world can offer. Mere mention of Hindu spirituality elevated the level of the interfaith conversation on the show. It inspired the panelists and listeners to reflect within and find the unending source of hope and courage. The “one world one family” principle that is ingrained in every aspect of the Hindu culture promises many sustainable ways to stay connected to that source. Isn’t that what NPR, WBUR, all media outlets, governments around the world, the elderly and the young in the family, the friends and the loved ones, the colleagues and acquaintances want for each other, especially in this hour of crisis? It’s only with togetherness and awareness can we win this fight. Interfaith conversations can be powerful platforms for bringing about the awareness of the whole, provided we truly embrace inclusivity. Phenomenon like spirituality, especially when it is strongly founded in science and expressed as unconditional service as in the case of Hindu culture, shines through even the darkest clouds of ignorance. That is what empowers the new kind of patriotism.