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Anand Venkatkrishnan, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice”

Simran Jeet Singh: Thank you for watching the Religion News Service series, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice.” I’m your host, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. And this episode is part of the second season of our series, which we filmed late in 2020. The first season, which was entitled, “Becoming Less Racist,” can be viewed on […]

Simran Jeet Singh:

Thank you for watching the Religion News Service series, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice.” I’m your host, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. And this episode is part of the second season of our series, which we filmed late in 2020. The first season, which was entitled, “Becoming Less Racist,” can be viewed on religion We thank Columbia University and Trinity University for their support in making the second season possible.

I have to acknowledge that I’m currently sitting in my apartment in Manhattan, which is traditionally the land of the Lenape, the Indigenous nation that made their homes here, raised their kids her and buried their dead here. They were removed from these lands by European colonizers so the city could be built. We’re grateful to build them, not pay people for stewarding, stewarding this land over the centuries.

So now on to Dr. Anand Venkatkrishnan, he’s an intellectual historian of religion in South Asia and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He’s a friend of mine. We actually did our graduate work together at Columbia. We were both PhD students in the department of religion together. And I’ve come to know him well and really respect and admire the way he carries himself in this world. He’s, he’s one of the smartest people I know, and that I’ve known.

His current book in progress is called “Love in the Time of Scholarship.” It’s about the Bhagavata Purana, an Indian intellectual history, and it looks at the relationship of bhakti, religion as lived affect and with philosophy as intellectual practice. His second project is titled “Left-Handed Practice.” And it concerns a group of loosely affiliated religious intellectuals in the 20th century, but significant ties with the Indian political left. Before his current role in Chicago, Anand was a preceptor in Sanskrit in the department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University.

We are close enough and we’ve become close enough that I can tell you that Anand fills his spare time, despite being so smart, he fills his spare time, doing fun, fun stuff that we all love. Sports commentary, pop culture. I think that’s where we connect more than anywhere else. So, I’m excited to have Anand here.

We’re going to spend some time today talking about caste, racism, the connections between the two. And I couldn’t think of anyone better to guide us through this conversation than Anand, so, so let’s just jump right into it, brother. Tell us a little bit about your childhood and your background. Where did you grow up and what was your upbringing like?

Anand Venkatkrishnan:

So, thanks Simran. Thanks again for inviting me. It’s a real pleasure to be here. I’m embarrassed by being thought of as an expert in any of these matters. But I hope our conversation today is helpful in some way. I grew up in the Bay Area in California, was born on the East Coast, upstate New York, but moved out there very quickly after I was born. And so, I’m effectively a, a California kid. Properly speaking, I grew up in Silicon Valley the heart of the beast.

And I guess to talk about my politicization let’s say, which gets into both of the issues that we’re interested in today, both race and cast , coming up through the California public school system I had a fairly good understanding of the specific histories that I was inhabiting of in the, in the in the land in which I grew up, of the Native people there, of the displacement that had occurred to make space for white settlers , of the activism of the mid 20th century in civil rights and Black liberation. All of these were actually a constitutive part of my high school education. And paired with that was a kind of a base level of multiculturalism that we thought was the norm. And we growing up in the sort of era of the Rainbow Coalition assuming that those kinds of connections and histories and solidarities were the norm and that the retrograde traditions of white supremacy were a thing of the past. We couldn’t have been more wrong. But it’s to give you a sense of the ethos with which I was raised.

So, people like, I was very influenced by you mentioned James Baldwin when you began your comments, reading him in high school. Reading people like John Steinbeck to understand the California’s migrant history. reading Howard Zinn. and then only more specifically regarding my upbringing in the South Asian community, reading someone like VJ Pershant. all of these people taken together I guess were very formative for me when, even when I was a teenager. And so that is sort of helped shape my understanding of my own position within the, let’s call it the racial caste system in the United States. Having a good sense that I was a beneficiary of some structures and targeted by others.

But because I grew up in a predominantly brown and also Black and brown community there was never a sense of feeling marginalized. In fact, quite the opposite. So that however had sort of a flip side. I grew up in a very large Hindu community in the Bay area. And I’m something of a preacher’s kid, probably some of you here understand that term. I was a priest’s kid. And you know, that tends to do two kinds of things. You are, you either end up doing exactly what your dad did, or you do the exact opposite. And in my sense, in my case, it was a little bit of both. I happened to work on the particular intellectual and philosophical tradition that my community was interested in.

And also, I do it from a rather different academic perspective. Growing up in that community and it’s just probably part of the experience of many South Asians in America, caste was always an unstated term. It’s a little bit like thinking about when people call themselves apolitical. sometimes that’s sort of code for, we don’t really want to, it’s in our interest not to talk about the politics that we have. And so that’s how sort of it came down to me as sort of an unspoken, unuttered presence. It I can talk about how that sort of thinking about caste more deeply came to me, but that postdates my time in my childhood. So, if you’d like to move on, I can.


Yeah, no, I appreciate that. Yeah. So, so just give us a sense of it’s, it’s really interesting to hear you say this. I mean, in part, because it’s so different from my own experience growing up in Texas, and we’ve talked about this, that I, I grew up in a place where there weren’t people of our South Asian heritage and really, we didn’t have these kinds of conversations where, or even skirt around them because they just weren’t a part of our existence.

And so, I’d love to hear you dig a little bit deeper in terms of yourself a s a teenager who is thinking about, I mean, you’re, it’s relatively young to be thinking about whiteness and race. And then also to be thinking about caste and, and what does that look like for you as someone who’s trying to figure it out, what did it seem like there was always a clear answer? Was there confusion? Did you feel like you were split between worlds?


So, thanks for that question. I think what was extremely important to me at the time, the most important thing to me, was the sort of going very deeply into the religious tradition that I in, had inherited. I do so now as a historian, but then it was as a committed participant. And what that meant for me was thinking about the very individualized version that, or way in which I was a participant. And in many ways, it was the clash of the individual with the community that much more defined my, that is to say my own religious community, that defined my existence outside of school, much more than, than anything else.

So, whereas, you know, within school it’s again, it’s the sort of there is an assumed multiculturalism, there’s pluralism. There is an assumed sort of base level left liberal political sense of agreement. There wasn’t so much tension there, but it really had to do much more for me, the tensions were much more internal to the community.

One way that I can put this is that one of the difficulties that I had that perhaps would later would prefigure my understanding of how caste plays a role in in the world, in which I was in was the problem that I encountered with the, the sense of universality that was promulgated by the community in which I was in. this is not uncommon to any religious community, but for me, it was a tension between thinking about Hinduism, for instance, as a unified whole, something that had a singular message, something that had specific essence and contrasting that with the exceptionally region-specific, family-specific, culture- specific, language-specific nature of the traditions that we’re part of, you know, my family, for instance. Right? So, it was more navigating that tension between what does one make of the, the claim to universalism when really the dimensions of the tradition, as I understand it are so very pluralistic and very diverse and very specific.

So that paired with, you know, an understanding of or a move into, to thinking more historically and thinking about changes within over time, those were more of those are the kinds of tensions that that characterized my thinking at the time. I can add one more thing, which is that I think I also had a significant interest in the relationship between religion and social justice and the community as I experienced it was not very interested in those links.

So, while it was very important to me to think of my ethical interests as being derived from my religious background, or at least seeing religion and ethics as having similar drives, it, it was not incumbent on me to carry on that in terms of the community. So maybe these are some of the things that prefigure later, the later attentions.


Yeah. I, I appreciate that. I I’m, I’m, I’m really struck by, by imagining you as someone who’s trying to figure out the world and part of what you’re describing in terms of a religious sort of reconciling of these claims versus experiences that, that seems really familiar to me. And in the social justice piece, I can see that as well.

I guess let’s, let’s move into well, let me, let me, let’s hold onto your formation a little bit more in your childhood. And, and can you talk to us about what it’s like to grow up as a Hindu in this country? I know your experience is particular and that you, you grew up in an area where there were more, I mean, you were part of a family and part of the community, but what about this sort of racialization of it? I know you said you felt like you weren’t an outsider, at least you weren’t marginalized when you were growing up, but when you looked up at the national scene, right, like you and I are big sports fans, or when you look at movies and you see the ways in which your community is represented or not represented did that play a role in your formation in any way? In your self-understanding or how you saw your community?


Yeah, thanks for that question. There is a particular nexus in California between let’s say sort of a new age-y left-wing hippies and the Orthodox Hindu community. Those aren’t as polar opposites, as you might imagine. They’re very, very melded together. So, I was very conscious of sort of inheriting those multiple strands and comfortable, let’s say with the with the diversity that, that entailed. yeah.

In terms of the racialization of Hindus in America that was certainly a significant piece of growing up. But I, I, again, I have to say that this is just an accident of my personality, that I did not entirely see it as self-determining or determinant of my self-definition. Right? That again, it was precisely in reading people like Baldwin, that the reason I initially was so attracted to him was because of Go Tell it on the Mountain, because of what he talked about, the experience of being a preacher’s kid. And it’s actually, that was what resonated with me first and foremost, that identity, which is so familiar in American on the whole that then, you know I started to understand the other part of his work.

So, I do have to come back to the centrality of religion as a defining factor in my early life. And in so far as it fed into interest in, you know, how, what it meant to be racialized, it was in the ethical sense of knowing who had the short end of the stick in this country.


That’s great. I appreciate that. And thanks, thanks for letting me push a little bit. Let’s, let’s move into this sort of next phase of your formation. And you’ve talked a few times about, well, this was, this was pre I dunno, pre-cognizant, and it’s pre- consciousness of these sorts of issues, right? When maybe we in racial justice circles, we use the term race-consciousness. So maybe it’s preconscious, right? You’re not fully in touch, in tune with what caste means and what race means, or at least how these things manifest themselves in your life.

And so, so what is the next phase in your process and in terms of how you experienced these and also how you understand them?


Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think there’s a couple of things here. So one, when I went to college, I became a classics major. I was interested in antiquity and Greek and Latin. I had studied Sanskrit as a kid with a private tutor and sort of got back into it through my study of the classics. And it, that quickly shifted me away from the mainstreams to the, of the classics. I don’t think I would have described it as such then, but now realize that probably racial factors had a significant, had a lot to do with that that there is for all of the you know, self-recrimination of classics programs, there’s still an implied sort of racial dimension to it and a certain set of closed ranks. So, I wanted to move outside that, that field and, and pursue my interests in this language and, and my interests in well, the intellectual history of, of this language more.

So, and it, but it wasn’t really until coming to New York that I had much more of a, of an encounter with a different kind of, first of all, a different kind of South Asian community and both along class terms and also ethnic terms. And also, and much more of an introduction to the presence of Dalit activism. So, I’m coming to New York and the five years I spent their meeting activists within the Dalit community meeting broader range of South Asian activists, actually teaching students in on long Island from West Indian, Caribbean, Indo Caribbean communities, but also getting involved with organizations like DRUM, Desis Rising Up and Moving, Chaya, which works on housing within Queens and also not New York specific, but SADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive. sort of becoming much more aware of and, and meeting frankly, a lot of these people gave me a different sort of take on things.


Yeah. Can you, can you tell us, tell us a little bit about how that perspective well, w what is the new perspective or what is this perspective that, that forms during this period? And then I, and then I want to ask you how someone opens themselves up to such a change, right? Like it’s not easy to change perspectives or embrace something that’s new. And so, so what is it, what does it take to get there for something?


Yeah. Maybe I can tell a story to illustrate that. I met I met a gentleman who was who began his PhD at Union Theological Seminary with a friend of mine, John Thatamanil and he was from a Dalit Christian community in India, in South India. And we had a conversation, and I expected us to, to have a connection over the fact of being preacher’s kids like I opened up today. But it was a very different conversation. And it was or at least it certainly did not seem that that was the connection that would be most central in his mind. In His mind, the, the connection and the antagonistic connection was one of caste. And it was a conversation like that that made me sort of realize where I previously as a scholar of Hinduism had had an intellectualized understanding of the history of caste within tradition it wasn’t until being confronted to acknowledge specific inheritances and as they exist in everyday life and determined one’s position that I took a closer look at those sorts of movements and what was it required to actually build relationships with people like my friend.


Yeah, that’s a great story. And so, I guess the question that strikes me immediately is, is the process then, is it one of connection, right? Like, so you have this relationship that sparks your interest. And then you look externally, right? Like you look at, you, look at history, you look at movements and then you internalize that? Or you are there some process of, I mean, I can imagine it being flipped and saying, you meet this person, you change internally, and then you say, Oh, I’m interested in learning more. Right? Like, how does, how does this work?


That’s a great question. Maybe something like that. I mean so, you know, I mean, as a, as a scholar or a student we can, you know, there, there are certain ways to think about caste as, as a student of South Asian religion and Hinduism particular. Right? So, this is the external dimension, right? Where you understand that there are different ways to approach this question. One is the ideological study of the sort of normative, the prescriptive ideals that are enshrined for instance, in religious language. There is a historical approach, which excavates the political dimensions of caste and it’s change over time, particularly the role of colonialism and so forth. And then there’s an anthropological dimension, which is to understand its everyday manifestations and its effects.

And you come to learn all of these things as a scholar. But that for me, it took these encounters and friendships to be confronted with the need to actively participate in de naturalizing certain inherited ways of being. So, I don’t know that one necessarily led to the other or leads to the other, although I would place the emphasis on the friendships and the relationships that I built.  And we can continue to talk about that and come back to that. But that’s what I would like to highlight.


Yeah. I appreciate that. There’s a nice analog here between casteism and racism that I want to explore. And what I’m hearing you say now is, and I really appreciate this point, that there is there’s the intellectual realization of the issue right? Of the oppression. And so, we can learn about racism all we want. And typically, the, the position of especially post-Civil Rights era in this colorblind sort of landscape has been, you know, I know about racism, I’m not a racist, I’m not doing anything racist. And that was pretty much the, this sort of standard issue approach to racism. And in the past few months, we’ve, we got them into at least collectively, right? These aren’t new ideas, but collectively there, there’s been a real attention and a reckoning with anti-racism, which is not a neutral or apolitical or passive approach to saying, I know it, and I’m not a part of it. It’s saying I’m actively going to work against it. And that’s what I’m hearing you say that shift happens in this moment. That there is a proactive it’s, it’s almost like there’s a recognition of a moment in which, and maybe it wasn’t exactly an aha moment for you.

Maybe, maybe this story is just illustrative. But it sounds like there was, there was a real transformation with within you during this period of your life where you said I wasn’t about that, but, but I wasn’t doing anything about that. And I I’d be interested in hearing from you what, what work you did or so, so tell us a little bit about that process, like what led you actually to being like, I want to change, I want to be more proactive? And then what steps did you take? What did you do for yourself to actually take you there?


So, I think you’re absolutely right. You know, when, when you use the word, when we use the word, like casteism you know, there’s different dimensions to that, right? There’s caste prejudice, right? Which is a question of attitudes, perhaps unconscious, perhaps unknowing, perhaps conscious, perhaps willing. But often that word, the -ism diffuses the problem into one of attitude. And which is why, for instance, with racism, we need words like structural or institutional racism.

And the same is true of, of caste. Right? It’s like it’s like the word classism, which is a little bit weird, right?  Which is that if only our attitudes towards others were different than we could take care of the situation versus for instance, class conflict. And so, the two dimensions, right, one of acknowledging and addressing with others the question of caste prejudice, which is a question of attitudes, paired with addressing the broader one, which is caste exploitation and caste depression.

Both of these kinds of came hand in hand for me as among the things that I felt it was ethically necessary to participate in both as a person of South Asian origin well of privileged caste and class status, but also as an American. So, I would sort of put it alongside my education in feminism among other things.  This was another dimension of that. What did that mean in practical terms? A few things. one is being apprised of and being involved in particular Dalit movements in the United States. Ambedkarite ones. Getting to know people involved, getting to share resources, getting to open spaces within the spaces I had access to for that kind of work. My, the space that I’m involved in is an educational one. It’s an institute of higher education. So, they’re very specific turns or specific spaces that that I can open up there.

Another one is pedagogically. Right? How does one teach Hinduism, for instance? How does one teach the study of religion in South Asia? How does one frame the history of religion on the sub-continent and in the diaspora? Taking into account what activists urge has been a significant dimension of my pedagogical practice as well.

So those are just two very brief instances. Maybe you can ask some more things and they’ll lead to others. But I did want to add that one personal dimension of this for me was you know, you asked me beforehand in preparing for this day, what do we do with this knowledge? And this is part of the answer to that question. Or maybe there’s also a personal spiritual dimension to this.

Prior to some of the COVID restrictions I made it a point to actually go to gurdwara regularly. The one in Boston when I was living there, I think it’s in Everett. And the reason is I love the food in general, but also the teachings of the, of the Sants, the Santabani, specifically of Ravi Das, and going and participating in a community in which in which these ideals of anti-casteism, are, or anti-caste ideals are spoken and are constitutive.

This is extremely important to me. Obviously, there are other traditions, including the Hindu that have resources for this. But I went to the gurdwara as a Hindu, right? Not as one who was trying to escape it. Right? So, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll share that and then maybe we can move on.


Yeah. I’m loving this conversation and, you know, I, I actually, when I was imagining this conversation, I was, I was thinking, Oh, Anand is a fancy professor of South Asian history. Maybe he can do a deep dive on, on caste and what it means and, and all those things. But I think knowing this audience and, and knowing the resources we have access to, right? Like we have a general sense of what it is. And, and I think it’s more important to me and actually more interesting to me to learn about what a transformation looks like. And that’s why I keep going back to that part of your experience, because I think a lot of us are looking for transformation. We, we realize that we have these ideas and we’re becoming increasingly aware that we have these ideas somehow stuck inside of us and we don’t know what to do with them.

And so, I really appreciate your, your specific examples of, of what worked for you in terms of dealing with these, these ideas, of what it means to live ethically. But I, I have one more question there and that is what, what did you do you find to be important values? Right? So, so let me say it this way. We, in order to do this sort of inner work it requires some skills but it also re requires, you know, we often talk about open minds and soft hearts, right? Or things like that. Folded hands and lowered shoulders. Right? We, we hear all these sorts of frames, frames, and cliches. But what, what do you think prepared you that when you were met with these relationships, that you were ready to, to, to open yourself up to change?


Thanks for that question. I don’t know that I can answer that actually on about myself. But I will say that I take inspiration from historical figures. you know, in the question of what do we do with this knowledge as a historian there is there’s deep power in historical analogy, as much as well, we want to see the specificity and contingency of particular moments in time.

There is still a great deal of power in seeing oneself in the past and vice versa. So, for instance, I, you know, in learning more about the life of BRA who said, who gave the most practical teaching in this regard, which is educate, agitate, organize, learning about his conversion to Buddhism, and what that meant for him was really helpful in thinking about the, as you say, the sort of external and internal dimensions together. He was a significant advocate of Immediate political equality for the Dalits he represented and attempted it best to enshrine that in the Indian Constitution. But Buddhism for him also represented an Indian, the non-Western source of revolutionary thought. For him, religion was precisely that dimension of hearts and minds that could provide the ground on which to translate the ideals of democratic politics. And learning about how important that was for him, someone who is deeply influenced by Columbia’s own John Dewey and yet saw that there needed to be Something else in his view of religion that helped pave that ground or, or, or lay that groundwork that was learning about that was very influential to me.

So, it comes back to me to the experience of becoming friends, really becoming friends with people. What does that mean? For me, it, it was becoming friends with people based on what they do and not necessarily on a sense of, out of a sense of shared politics.  If one takes communism seriously, it’s about relations, right? It’s about changing one’s relations. And you know, extracting oneself from capitalist modes of relations. So that translated to me in reworking my understanding of, of my participation in, in caste domination. Right?

It’s fundamentally about reshaping relations and what is required in that may be very difficult, but the only way to do it for me was to participate in and support from whatever background I could the movements that that try to ameliorate the situation. So, I think I’ll, I’ll, I’ll leave it there. I mean, there, we haven’t really sort of dug deep into the sort of race caste comparisons per se. And we can, but I’ll, I’ll leave it open.


I’d love to do that. I just, I just want to ask you one question before we get there, and this is also, also a provocative personal one, but I’ll, I’ll, I’ll share my side first and if you feel comfortable, I’d love to hear from you. I mean, your, your point about relationships is such an interesting one, as we think about our own identities. And you know, my, my sense of Sikhism growing up has always been that it’s a, it’s a pluralistic tradition and that everyone is equally divine. And this, you know, we learned this from day one.

But at the same time growing up it always felt It always felt like my people were where the, like my people, the people who would really get me, were the people of my own faith in the way that so many of us think. And it wasn’t until much later, actually when I moved to New York and started having access to Sikhs to hang out with and being like, wait, like, I, I, I feel so much more attuned and in line with my friends who were of different backgrounds, because we have shared values and we are interested in similar, you know, all these, all these kinds of things.

So, like it was in retrospect, it was, it was kind of a ridiculous thing to expect, but it seems like a natural thing that a lot of us anticipate. And so, can you talk just briefly about this process. Is, is it, does it sound familiar to you? And if so, what allows you to open up beyond the rigidity of identities? Especially in a context where caste is such a rigid identity, and it’s such a hard thing to break through.


So that’s a great question and, and way to put it. I think I actually had a very different experience which is that what I, what I came to appreciate about the tradition that I inherited with all of its promise and its peril was that there was much less of a sense in my understanding of who counted and who didn’t. Which is why I talked about going to the gurdwara as a Hindu. Right? There was no sense in which that was something I shouldn’t do or that there is one or the other thing that I can or can’t do while claiming this, while laying claim to something that it is perhaps, I have been interpolated into, but, but certainly have to acknowledge as an ascriptive identity.

So, there was no sense in which being X required me to be not Y. And what I’ve taken from that into my current thinking is as a historian one of the advantages of studying the past, a world that does not look very much like our own, is that there is no one way of being, believing, or belonging in the world and that our current ways are by no means uniquely privileged.

So, there is no necessary reason that I couldn’t you know see the, what Whitman would have called the multitudes, right, as, as part of my, the way that I, that I moved into and met people very different from you.


Yeah, I love, I love that answer because what it, what it reminds me of is where do our senses of these rigid boundaries come from, right? Like they are largely colonialist and white supremacists at the end of the day. And so, these feelings of, I have to stick with my people because someone has defined these as being my people. Like that’s, that’s not something you need to buy into.

So, there’s something really liberating about what you’re saying. I, I, I really appreciate you bringing it back to, to the value of studying history. And of course, this is what will happen when you get to history nerds on the call together. Like this, the answer is always studied. Study the past.


Yeah. Yeah. And we’re always going to talk about ascriptive identity and status.


Yeah, exactly. And yeah, it always comes back to colonialism too.


The original pick and roll.


Yeah, so, so, okay. So, let’s, let’s talk about this this relationship that we’re, we’re drawing between caste and caste and racism, because they’re not the same thing. They have their own histories. They, they play out in different ways. But it is a useful analog. And so, I’d love for you to sort of help us think through how does it work? How does it not work? What should we be careful about? I think, especially as, you know, Isabel Wilkerson’s book has just come out. It’s fantastic. If you all haven’t read it, highly recommended. But yeah, I think a lot of people are, are sort of thinking about the relationship between caste and racism.


Yeah. I mean, I think you’ve covered it just about as well as I would. you know, from, from scholarly perspective, there’s a great deal of, there are a great deal of resources in this respect. This is not a new analogy.  Both activists and scholars have attempted to understand the, these comparative or these ascriptive statuses in in comparative ways. Obviously, it’s returned with the publication of Isabel Wilkerson’s book.

And there have been, you know, many it’s prompted many conversations that revisit some of the older and to some extent, not superseded conversation among people like Gerald Bearman, for instance, and, and Oliver Cox who had along you know exchange about this back in the 1960s. In some ways we’re, we’re still working within that frame. And it’s a useful one to, to think with as the comparison is back in in everyday view. from a sort of a personal perspective, yeah.

I mean, I, I think that there, there are many reasons for bringing these terms together. both to sort of point out the unevenness of South Asians in the United States making immediate claims to being racialized in similar ways as African Americans, when they have their own forms of social stratification to deal with. And at the same time a history of drawing these sorts of connections that has generated great deal of solidarity between marginalized communities in the United States.

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