Beliefnet News

By Robert Travis Scott
2008 Religion News Service

CHANDIGARH, India — When Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal converted to Catholicism during high school and college, he took a momentous step away from his inherited faith of Hinduism, the prevalent religion of his parents’ generation and Indian homeland.
But among Jindal’s relatives and among Hindus in India generally, his decision to adopt the Christian way is strongly supported.
Jindal’s personal path to Christianity was aided by an open-minded attitude among his relatives about theology. His infrequent visits to India as a child gave him little chance to acquire a deeply ingrained appreciation for Hindu culture.
His relatives’ perspective reflects a tolerant side of Hinduism, which for thousands of years has survived philosophical transformations, rebellious counter-religions and numerous sects, only to claim them all in time as part of the infinitely flexible cosmos of Hindu faith.
“If you find and see that you get more peace of mind, more solace, in that religion, then why not change religion?” said Jindal’s uncle Subhash Gupta, a practicing Hindu. “In India, many people change to the Christian religion. And I can understand that some people maybe find Christian religion more satisfying to their needs.”
Jindal, who was sworn in as governor Monday, grew up in Baton Rouge, La., under the guidance of Hindu parents. On a few occasions, he spent time with Hindu relatives in India. One of his earliest mentors was his multifaceted maternal grandfather, Krishan Gupta, a Punjab banking executive who was widely read and believed in the equality of religions.
Jindal would spend much of his time on those visits in his grandfather’s home, a place full of books, including the popular Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. Gupta could read Urdu and was familiar with the Quran.
“They had a great relationship,” Subhash Gupta said.
The young Jindal posed “questions after questions” to the elder Gupta about Indian religion and philosophy. The grandfather “was amazed to see that such a question was coming out from this age of boy,” Gupta said.
Jindal’s aunt, Nirmal Aggarwal of New Delhi, also recalls a special bond between Jindal and her father, Krishan. She said Jindal’s conversion to Catholicism was a natural and spiritually healthy move.
“I am happy with it … because I think it is his own affair,”
Aggarwal said. “I really respect his decision. All religions, I think, they believe in one divine power, that is God.”
Although the relatives’ opinions might seem magnanimous, their views are typically Hindu. India’s large-circulation national newspapers viewed Jindal’s election as front-page news, and for the most part his conversion to Catholicism has received less comment than criticisms of his infrequent visits and seeming lack of interest in his parents’ home country.
India’s revered national figure Mahatma Gandhi espoused religious tolerance because he believed there were many paths to God — so long as the pursuit was sincere. Pandit Deoki Nandan Shastri, a Hindu holy man in Varanasi, made a similar point.
“Hindu is not a religion,” he said. “Hinduism is a way of life.”
“You pray to Christ, I pray to Rama, he prays to Muhammad,” he said.
“We are going the same way. God is one. His name is called a thousand names.”
Jindal has routinely delivered testimonies about his faith at Protestant and Catholic churches across Louisiana. It was a grass-roots approach aimed at least partially at making conservative voters feel comfortable with the notion that this son of immigrants was just a regular Louisiana guy.
When he explored Christianity in high school and college, he delved into the works of historic Christian writers and debated their philosophies with student friends and preachers.
While a sophomore at Brown University, Jindal was baptized a Catholic, a rite his parents did not attend. But when his wife, Supriya, also converted after the couple married, Jindal’s parents and her parents were present for her baptism.
Jindal’s parents, Amar and Raj Jindal, are practicing Hindus and emphasize that they are monotheists. Hindus say they believe in one God, who also takes the form of a trinity.
In addition, Hinduism recognizes thousands, and by some counts millions, of deities who are considered incarnations, or avatars, of the one God, sent to Earth to right some wrong.
Few Hindus worship Jesus Christ, but they might easily accept the idea that he was an avatar. Or they might draw a parallel between their worship of various Hindu deities and Catholic prayers to saints as couriers to God.
Most Hindus select one or at most a few deities to function as their personal gateways to an understanding of God and spiritual truths. They similarly might choose gurus to guide them, a type of holy worker that would have been in short supply in the United States during Jindal’s youth.
As Hindu children grow up, the parents encourage them to choose their own personal deities. The chosen gods are represented at home with small statues and pictures.
Members of most Hindu households do puja, or worship, at shrines in their homes morning and night. Jindal’s maternal grandmother would not enter the kitchen in the morning before saying prayers.
According to Jindal’s relatives, many Hindu stories were related to him as a boy. The incredible variety of scripture provides rich allegories, but it also makes Hinduism appear unfixed on any central liturgy. As some scholars have observed, Hinduism is not one codified religion, but a compilation of thousands of smaller belief systems.
While Jindal was exposed to Hindu theology during his boyhood, his relationship to Hindu culture was unlike the experience of children growing up in Punjab, where religion permeates everyday life in myriad ways.
Usha Gupta, the wife of Jindal’s uncle, Subhash, said Hinduism is difficult to instill in a child in the United States because the traditions and scriptural teachings are hard to come by there.
In her mind, Jindal’s adoption of Christianity was both laudable and practical for daily life in the United States, she said. “It is just a matter of faith in any form that brings you closer to the values of humanity,” Usha Gupta said.
Jindal’s other aunt, Pushpa Bansal of Mehal Kalan, said she did not know whether Jindal was a Hindu or Christian, and she was not concerned either way.
“She doesn’t mind if Bobby adopts the culture of that country, because he is living there,” a translator quoted Bansal as saying. “He should and he must adopt the culture of that country. She is delighted that he is more loyal to that country, that land where he lives.”
(Robert Travis Scott writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus