Note: This isn’t an exhaustive theological discussion, but is mostly a reflection and the beginning of something more (I hope).
Having recently read this article in the LA Times, https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-indian-immigrants-20180813-story.html, I was surprised to learn about the increasing number of Indian refugees, and at the U.S.-Mexico border of all places. It gave me some cause for reflection about what my relationship to migration, refuge, and borders were.
In many parts of the world, we are witnessing the movement of people in mass migrations due to persecution, violence, or other forms of oppression. In Southeast Asia, the Rohingya flee religious persecution and violence at the hands of the state; Syrians and Afghanis are leaving their homes in search of safety in Europe and elsewhere; Hindus continue to flee Pakistan and languish in refugee camps; and closer to home, the humanitarian crisis of Central American refugees in detention centers persists at the U.S.-Mexico border. The appearance of Indian refugees at the border simply renews the sense of urgency about the issues facing refugees and migrants more broadly.
As a child of immigrants, a Hindu, and a Sankethi American person, the topic of borders and passage between worlds gives me much pause for thought. A great deal of my community’s history is bound up in migration and crossing borders, and so these crises particularly stand out to me. This aspect of my community’s story is not often told, and so I am sharing it here for our collective reflection.
My community fled Tamil Nadu due to increasing social upheaval during the Pandya Civil War in the 12th century, settling down in what is now Hassan district in the state of Karnataka. In addition, our community faced persecution at the hands of the local priesthood, who opposed our leader, Nacharamma, because she dared to teach the scripture to women. Even after soundly defeating the priests in poetry-combat (ಅವಧಾನ - avadhāna), she was humiliated in front of the entire community, and denounced the male priesthood, declaring that she would take her followers with her elsewhere and that the priests would have no successors if they did not allow her to leave. The priests relented, and asked for her forgiveness; moved by their repentance, Nacharamma advised to never let power and tradition cloud our judgement, because God is beyond both. Upon arriving at the banks of the Kaveri River in present-day Hassan, Nacharamma’s last message to us was to have faith in the divinity within, to be empowered to shape our own destiny by working our own fields, being responsible for our own education and lives and never allow others to control us for their own gain.
Over time, our community was subject to pressure from local Brahmins to convert from Smarta Śaivism to Śrī Vaiṣṇavism, the latter being the prevalent sect in the Vijayanagara Empire at the time. While we did convert for some time and then returned to our original beliefs, that memory is nonetheless a part of our history. Our community still worships both Śiva and Viṣṇu alike, keeping both Śaivite and Vaiṣṇavite names. We hold no ill will toward Śrī Vaiṣṇavas, being major proponents in Carnatic music, whose corpus is strongly defined by Vaiṣṇava devotional compositions. Yet, living in the diaspora, I know that it can seem as though we do not thoroughly or clearly belong anywhere. We are a mishmash of South Indian traditions, histories, and beliefs near and far; I seem to be between that world and this one in the U.S. Yet I believe that the elucidates an important truth: the fact that all worlds converge to one.
The experience of being neither here nor there, common in immigrant narratives, is often pegged as negative, a kind of beautified suffering. Perhaps that is a useful image, but I believe it can also be considered a empowering experience. As Reverend Peter Phan puts it in his discussion of immigrants and their relationship to their homeland and the diaspora, “Being in-between is, paradoxically, being neither this nor that but also being both this and that” (Phan Kindle Location 321). Brahman is similarly described in the Īśavāsya Upaniṣad: “It moves and It moves not; It is far and It is near; It is within all this and It is also outside all this” (Īśavāsya Upaniṣad 4–5). The radical inclusiveness of brahman is experienced by immigrants and their children, feeling caught between two worlds, but in fact inhabit a third which encompasses and transcends the first two.
The power to break the illusory chains that bind us through wisdom, to instruct others with our experience is something I have gleaned from my community’s history. It is because of this tradition of mercy, wisdom, and trueness to Self that I see the possibility of a Hindu theology of border-crossing. For me, as a Sankethi, simply bowing down to temporal authority and adhering to tradition without thinking is simply not acceptable. To tackle borders, we must identify the world as it is in reality: un-bordered, limitless, and unrestrained.
Wendy Brown, in her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, writes that the idea of walls and borders as strictly defined entities ironically evoke that which they seek to negate; a wall is only performative of a political sovereignty which it does not possess. Brown writes that borders and walls, “officially aimed at protecting putatively free, open, lawful, and secular societies from the trespass, exploitation, or attack… are built of suspended law and inadvertently produce a collective ethos and subjectivity that is defensive, parochial, nationalistic, and militarized” (Brown 40).
Similarly, in the context of Hindu theology, the border poses no inherent, lasting challenge to the imperishable ātman (Self), because it itself is a constructed and transient entity. Attempting to contend that the United States and Mexico are ontologically existent entities belies their physical, political, cultural, and existential continuity. Being sustained by laws, which are mutable and fallible, a border of a nation merely highlights the ineffability of personhood and divinity, because it cannot really keep anyone out of it. Laws purport to defend and sustain, but lose their efficacy beyond the border it establishes.
Borders, and more broadly the act of categorization, fail to restrain the worth and latent potential emergent from ātman, which is identical with brahman (reality). In the Kena Upaniṣad, the Vedic deities Indra, Vayu, and Agni all fail to identify brahman because they do not realize their power and very selves are brahman (Kena 4.1–4.3). The false imagining of brahman as separate from oneself produces ignorance, and this insight strikes at the heart of the problem of national power manifest as the act of distinguishing two nations through ephemeral criteria like borders. One cannot actually divide the two, remove one from the other, without admitting that such a duality is at most transitory.
Employing this understanding to uplift migrants who transgress these inefficacious borders, Hindus are able to realize the innate kinship they share with these people. The act of crossing borders as Nacharamma does, or as the Mexican migrant family does, is a beneficent act; to go beyond the world of division of genders or the world of division between nations and wealth is to show the seekers of freedom the world of non-duality. The ātman in a Mexican migrant is like the one in an Indian American, which is why we are able to bear witness to our shared humanity. “As butter lies hidden within milk, the Self is hidden in the hearts of all” (Amṛtabiṃdu 20). There is nothing essential that separates us, and therefore there is no basis for unequal treatment.
India’s predicament with Pakistan further shows the inefficacy of borders as a means for peace or safety. The two countries are respectively seen as “Hindu” and “Muslim”, under the assumption that these are discrete, unchanging, and non-fluid categories. However, because ātman-brahman defies any means to categorize or limit it, taking the India-Pakistan border as a serious delineation of groups within humanity is a serious problem. Pakistani Hindus and Indian Muslims endure many of the same plights, yet their publics behave as though they are incongruous with their nation’s identities. This points to a shared quality of ātman, which defies any and all description, restriction, and division.
Further consider the case of citizenship laws, like those in Bhutan and Myanmar, which attempted to define the citizen through the length of their residence in the country and their ethnic affiliations relative to the majorities. Such temporal considerations of one’s humanity and inclusion in the body politic of a nation run contrary to the equality of humanity that undergirds its diversity. By creating divisions in citizenship, rights, and physical residence, political entities attempt to assume the power to define human worth, which is unalterable. Constructing a comprehensive theology of borders requires more thought than given in this reflection of mine, but I hope that this is a start. Above all, it must uphold the truth of non-duality in a non-dogmatic manner, in a way that affirms people’s unity in diversity, as per the Tejobiṃdu Upaniṣad, “Though the three guṇas emanate from him [Viṣṇu], He is infinite and invisible. Though all the galaxies emerge from him, He is without form and unconditioned” (Tejobiṃdu 5–6).
As a concluding thought, I recall the words of the Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa: “All this world is born from you [Gaṇeśa], all this world subsists in you, this entire world fades back to you, this entire world is risen from you”. Considering one of Gaṇeśa’s epithets as Uddaṃḍa (“rebellious, mischievous, unchained”), it is fitting that He as an expression of Brahman is inclusive and all-embracing. Ātman cannot be restrained, for it cries out the name of God, rejoices in its freedom, and is all-knowing.
For Hindus in living in immigrant communities, and the Asian diaspora more broadly, reflecting on migration from our own experience and others in a theological or spiritual context can help us develop a greater sympathy and empathy for the plight endured by refugees and other immigrants who experience oppression. It is a form of साधन (sādhana) to reflect on God, and seeing Them in all creation and creation in ourselves helps us to remember the call to shared humanity (वासुदैव कुटुंबकं - vāsudaiva kuṭuṃbakaṃ). This divine imperative to love and seek God in creation is the essence of bhakti, captured in a number of Upaniṣads (Īśavāsya 6–7, Taittirīya 2.6, Amṛtabiṃdu 20–22, Tejobiṃdu, Bṛhadāraṇyaka 2.4.5)., as well as other Hindu scriptures.
The Remover of Obstacles, this way, can be conceptualized as the Remover of Borders, granting free passage and safety to all those who traverse the infinite splendor of God’s creation. It illuminates all creation and is source of inherent liberty, creative spirit, and worth in all things. The Kena Upaniṣad captures it beautifully, explaining the spirit of love and compassion that is necessary to Brahman-realization:
“The light of Brahman flashes in lightning;
The light of Brahman flashes in our eyes.
It is the power of Brahman that makes
The mind to think, desire, and will. Therefore
Use this power to meditate on Brahman.
He is the inmost Self of everyone;
He alone is worthy of all our love.
Meditate upon him in all. Those who
Meditate upon him are dear to all.” (4.4–4.6)
Brown, Wendy. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Zone Books, 2017.
Phan, Peter C.. Christianity with an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making . Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.