Senior Director, Communications, Hindu American Foundation Mat McDermott talks to CSP on plant based diets, Hinduism and countering negativity in cultural interactions.
How did your engagement with Hinduism begin.
I first really encountered Hinduism personally in the mid 1990s, through the writings and teachings of Sivaya Subramuniyasami.
Immediately it all made intuitive sense to me. It was about at the same time I began to meditate and practice yoga asana — something I’ve done ever since. A few years earlier I had started eating a vegetarian diet, influenced by some people I had met that were part of ISKCON. In 1999 I made my first journey to India and encountered Hinduism in its native land. It wasn’t until approximately 2005 or so that I started publicly identifying as Hindu. Prior to that I would have said something like I was spiritual but not religious or that I philosophically identified with Hinduism but didn’t considered myself Hindu, per se.
As part of the Communications team at the Hindu American Foundation, what influence do you think the voice of your organization has in countering Hindu phobia in American society today?
Countering Hinduphobia is really part of just educating the American public about Hinduism as a religion and Hindus as a people. Religious literacy in the US is very low — for all religions — and simply accurately informing people about the breadth of Hindu philosophy and practice, countering stereotypes and misinformation, is a big part of our work.
How important is it to highlight Indic traditions of food in the global context? India's preference for vegetarian food predated modern day trends towards veganism and vegetarianism?
Highlighting Indic traditions of food I think is important when talking about vegetarian or vegan diets because it provides such a rich culinary tradition that can be looked up to by anyone who is interested in improving their nutrition, reducing suffering to other animals, and reducing the ecological impact of their food choices.
(Listen to Mat's interview with Nirva Patel:
You refer to the earth as a mother, giving her a higher place than the Western Green activists who look at it as a home. What are your thoughts on seeing her as Bhu Devi?
I think the major difference between the way the dharmic traditions view our planet and the Western environmental advocates do is that seeing Earth as Bhu Devi creates an additional layer of emotional connection, that is sometimes missing in Western environmental advocacy — which isn’t to say that the emotional connection isn’t there at all in Western environmental thought, it’s just that adding the spiritual component adds another layer to the connection.
What are your thoughts on an Ayurvedic diet for well-being and wellness.
I think Ayurvedic principles can provide a useful foundation and guidance for health and wellbeing.
How can Indian soft power be driven by the diaspora abroad? While Indians occupy top positions in different industries, does their opinion count when it comes to how the world perceived India and Indian culture?
Honestly, I’m not quite sure if Indians being in top positions at corporations in the US much affects public opinion of India or Indian culture unless those people make a point of highlighting their roots, their Indian-ness.
Does India have to fear appropriation of her knowledge systems. How can we seek acknowledgement for her contributions....something that accounts for greater soft power standing.
I do think many traditional knowledge systems of India have been appropriated, used without adequate recognition of their origins. Sometimes this has been literal appropriation as in when traditional medicines have been tried to be patented by corporations. Other times it’s not recognizing or downplaying the origins of something like yoga. The challenge in the latter case is encouraging the practice of yoga, while both recognizing its origins culturally and allowing it to continue to evolve and change with the times.
The world at large is trying to separate Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma from these practices. How do we make sure that these are not seen as 'secular' offerings innimical to Hindu interests?
It’s an ongoing challenge for which, I don’t think, there is one solution. I will say that what I am increasingly finding important when making sure the roots of something like yoga are adequately acknowledged is remembering principles of ahimsa and santosha when communicating these concerns, avoiding coming across as combative. As frustrating as it can be at times, being combative in communication just evokes a defensiveness in the listener that makes understanding and communication harder.
What role does the Western media play in damaging India's image abroad. Why do you think it is more rampant than before. How can institutions like Hindu American deal with this?
First, I’m not sure if it is more rampant than before, really. I will say that much Western media continues to view India through colonial and post-colonial stereotypes, very simplified, and with lack of understanding of the history of both the modern nation of India and the ancient civilization of India that extended well beyond the borders of the modern nation. What organizations like Hindu American Foundation can do is to point out when reporters get the practice of Hinduism wrong and try to educate them on how to report accurately on the tradition. It’s an ongoing and long-term effort to a problem that won’t be solved quickly.
How can revisiting Indian history help in creating a new idea of India.
It’s beyond ‘revisiting’ Indian history. For so many people it’s visiting Indian history for the first time, if we’re talking about the breadth and complexity of Indian history — accurately and honestly discussing that history, rather than only looking at how colonial historians presented it. India and Indian civilization has so much to offer the modern world and an accurate, complete portrayal of that history is crucial in helping show that to the world. Of course, showing that to the world means largely in the West. For whatever political tensions now exist between the nations nearby India, the history and heritage of India is certainly acknowledged and respected by these nations, to a greater degree than exists in Europe and the Americans, I think.