Friday, January 20, 2017

Doors of Valhalla

When the author of a book on Germanic religion turns out to be Vincent Ongkowidjojo, you readily know that on facts, you cannot go wrong. He knows the material, partly because he brings to it the philological and mythographical methods he acquired as an Orientalist, being by training a specialist of the Ancient Near East. Meanwhile he mastered Old Norse, as shown once more in the present book, Doors of Valhalla, through original translations of two of the most important hymns from the Edda: Voluspa and Lokasenna.  (A practical suggestion for the reader: read those translations, printed at the end of the book, first. At the end of your reading, you can go over them again and see how your understanding of them has deepened.)

For this book, he called in Maria Kvilhaug to write a preface on “the ‘worlds’ of Old Norse mythology”, and David Parry to contribute an afterword. Kvilhaug discusses the 7 heavenly worlds (heard of Breidablik, “broad view”, called “the most beautiful place in heaven”?—p.12) and the 12 worlds, corresponding to forces within us. These are different from the better-known 9 -heims or worlds on the Yggdrasil.

Parry analyzes why a return to Christianity would not be the right answer to the need for re-enchanting the world. He considers it ethically in error, and not genuinely resonating with us because not ancestral. He is a great fan of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he calls a crypto-Pagan. Wittgenstein was a conservative at heart, an anti-relativist who nonetheless was against the absolutism of limited causes (notably against Bertrand Russell’s self-righteousness about his liberal causes). Parry especially likes this Wittgenstein witticism: “Not how the world is, is mystical; but that it is.” 

An aside: political shadows

On his mother’s side, Ongkowidjojo is Flemish, and on his father’s side Chinese. This explains his Indonesian name: the Chinese settlers there were forced by law to take an indigenous name. Some politically conscious well-wishers of the Norse religion, Asatrú or Vortrú (“Loyalty to the Aesir” c.q. “Ancestral loyalty”), will heave a sigh of relief upon hearing of his visibly exotic ancestry.
After World War II, Pagan Revivalism had acquired the odium of association with the Nazis. Thus, in the Baltic states including Finland, Pagans were mostly nationalists and fiercely opposed to the Soviet bid to annex their countries, so they sided with the Germans. (Not necessarily with Nazism, but in wartime psychology, those distinctions were not made, also because they sported the indigenous swastika, wrongly identified as Nazi.) In the Netherlands, the few who took scholarly interest in their ancient traditions, were roped in for the Nazi occupiers’ nativist cultural policy, and branded afterwards as having been “wrong” during the war.

In reality, the stereotyping of neo-Pagans as tainted with Nazism is a gross optical mistake. The Pagan revival started in the Romantic age, when nobody had heard of National-Socialism yet, and more in Britain than in Germany. Adolf Hitler ridiculed neo-Paganism, which he found flaky, past-oriented and thus un-Germanic. By contrast, the top anti-Nazi Winston Churchill was an ordained Druid. Today, there are actively Left-wing neo-Pagan groups, with the German Pagan scene split down the middle between Left and Right. This politicized stereotype, though definitely waning, is nonetheless a fact of life that one still encounters sometimes. Enters Mr. Ongkowidjojo whose very existence, by a sheer accident of birth, refutes that impression. As does his writing, which reveals what profound worldview had been obscured by this political taboo.

The fact that I am sensitive at all to this aspect of the matter bespeaks a trauma of my generation, now greying. In our young days, Pagans were battered by endless slandering from the mainstream media (whose then monopoly on the information and opinion flow was fearsomely absolute), together with their numerous dupes and parrots in the bourgeoisie. I am happy to see that this is far less the case for the upcoming generation. If they think I just made a bizarre and uncalled-for digression into politics, so much the better.  

Pagan revival

After Christianity fell out of favour among a majority of Europeans, numerous people set out on a search in all directions for an alternative religion to fill the “god-shaped hole” (as Salman Rushdie put it) that the parental religion left behind.

The first generations of neo-Pagans took the bare bones of whatever traditions they found, adding their own fantasy to give meaning to these. Or in some cases they even dogmatically refused to see a deeper meaning, arguing that all this airy-fairy spirituality is “un-Germanic” and “not fit for European man”. They took all the war scenes in the Edda stories literally, and their idea of Valhalla was as an endless battlefield where fighting was only interrupted with drinking: the life-style of a football hooligan. Their ideal of Paganism was what they had imbibed: the Christian stereotype of the Pagan as a rugged barbarian. The appeal of this sort of religion was consequently confined to hooligan types.

But then the realization gained currency that our ancestors were not all beer-benumbed, nor all that unique. The search for a deeper meaning in life, that animates the post-Christian seekers, existed already among our Pagan ancestors and certainly must have inspired their writings. The higher the spiritual reaches we go, the more the traditions converge. When speculating on the spiritual meaning of the myths, it is only right that similarities with other spiritualities are assumed, though at the same time we should warn against the temptation of facilely reading too many similarities in them.

Many people who participate in Asatrú rituals, otherwise also practise yoga or qigong, as well as the related Oriental or Occidental martial arts. They will probably like Ongkowidjojo’s foray into universal spirituality, unlike a dwindling hard core that still reduces Asatrú to its ethnic dimension. In principle, he is right to go there. It is very likely that the tradition expressed through the Edda layer, is but the skeletal remains of a deeper spirituality. Partly this is unrecoverable, because it is the subtlest and most precious layer of the Pagan tradition that has been most thoroughly wiped out by Christianity. Partly it can be reconstructed with the help of living Oriental models, and partly, some motifs are just universal.  


In the chapters on the Edda’s contents, Ongkowidjojo goes into great detail and reports a lot of background facts. He draws attention to numerous divine figures and narrative themes that even many Asatrúar will never have heard of. Norse mythology is far more complex than most of us had realized. This is specially true for the Edda’s celebrated Voluspa hymn (“prognosis by the seeress”), nearly impenetrable without competent explanation. An unforewarned reader would never get the conceptual background out of reading the bare Edda text itself. We refer to the book itself for that.
The Lokasenna (“Loki’s scolding tirade”, his outburst against the gods) is more straightforward. 

Ongkowidjojo reviews and analyzes the many faces of Loki, the trickster-god. In some respects, the god is merely uttering a rough version of the received barroom wisdom, e.g. on the much-stereotyped topic of the weaker sex (p.285-287): “Loki regards the goddesses as inferior. Through them, he hopes to hurt the gods”, as when he “accuses all the goddesses of being unfaithful”. In more moderate tones, our omniscient writer sums up: “Their means of defence consist of words instead of weapons. (…) They care about reputation. They hope to gain standing through their husbands. While this makes the women dependent, it also shows their willingness to connect. One last major trait is shared. Almost everyone of the Asynjur [goddesses] possesses the ability to tell the future.”

Some critical readers of a Nietzschean bent might disapprove of the tinge of moralism in Ongkowidjojo’s analysis: “Loki’s true motive is to disclose the gods’ masquerade. (…) he senses their hypocrisy. Consequently, he make it his mission to shake the very foundation of Asgard’s ethics. (…) he wants to wake up the gods and point out their demise. While the Aesir become decadent and inactive, Loki incites them to action.” (p.291) Then again, it is a good thing that he triest o see the loftier motives behind this tirade by Loki, who is simply treated as the bad guy in the text itself.

Like many modern writers on the world’s mythologies, he sees the dramatis personae as symbols or personifications of a particular virtue or tendency. Thus: “Fenrir symbolizes fear. Odin faces him but proves unable to vanquish the wolf. His son Vidar takes his place (…) Vidar is responsibility.(…) and stoically deals with the situation. Vidar is known as the silent god. (…) Another of his traits in indifference. This explains his detachment from the material world and from the lower Self. Because of his dispassion he is able to defeat the wolf.” (p.100)


With his wide knowledge of other mythologies, Ongkowidjojo makes some conscientious comparisons. Thus: “The northern anthropogenesis is based on a heathen ritual in which wooden idols were prepared to serve as a medium for the spirit of a god. These so-called pole gods were endowed with the breath of life”, which points to an old relic of an inauguration ritual” common to much of mankind. (p.110) the author compares this with the “Opening of the Mouth ritual from Ancient Egypt”. I would add the very similar Hindu procedure of Prana Pratishtha (“establishing life-breath”), in which a sculpted piece of wood or stone is infused with the god’s presence.

The context here is the qualities of three gods that have to be infused in a cultic object. These three are personified as Odin, for önd, “life breath”; Hoenir, for ódr, “consciousness”; and Lodur, for , “skill, appearance”. Önd, “breath”, “is similar to Chinese qi”, and “in Christianized times, the term also referred to spirit, even the Holy Spirit”. (p.111) The Christian Trinity, which flies in the face of the strict monotheism of its parent religion Judaism and of Islam, must have been inserted into the monotheist tradition from the Hellenistic version of an Indo-European model, where threefold thought-forms are rife. So, our author analyses the Germanic trinity of three brothers (p.123 ff.): in the Voluspa, they are called Odin, Hoenir and Lodur, the same three with a wide area of application.

The myth of a drink conferring immortality, captured by a solar eagle sent by the gods, is quite widespread. The Norse mjödr, “mead”, corresponds both etymologically and culturally to Vedic madhu, “honey, sweet”, another name for soma, the psychedelic brew. It also ties in with the Gilgamesh Epic and other sources. He concurs with Svava Jakobsdottir that this Scandinavian myth “compares to other IE myths about the theft of a sacred drink” (p.162).

Sacrifice is a common theme in most mythologies, and Ongkowidjojo naturally ties it in with an equally universal spiritual path: “A sense of sacrifice is evoked by Odin’s death. Alfather sacrifices himself in the fight because he belongs to the old world. When he dies, he makes room for the younger generation. Vidar is one of those promising gods. (…) They are the seeds of new aspects of consciousness to be unfolded after initiation.” (p.100)

Number symbolism

Number symbolism, here as in other mythologies, is very important. Often the names that are included in a sevenfold, ninefold or twelvefold are exchangeable for others, as long as the number remains the same.

The very first page shows a magic-type square made up of 9 runes. Already on p.10 we learn that in the “hall of friends”, the number 12 is quite important. The All-Father has one seat, with twelve for the other gods; that is, the centre surrounded by a Round Table of the 12 signs of the Zodiac, just like the Greek 12 gods (Dodekatheon) and the Vedic twelve suns (Aditya), reproduced in Japanese Buddhist temples as the 12 heavens (Ten): “There are twelve Aesir. In ancient times, the number had more significance than the composition of the group.” (p. 245) The signs of the Zodiac are also linked to Hercules’ twelve labours as well as to the stages of Thor’s and Odin’s careers.

Similarly, the author devotes a chapter to “The seven and the nine” (p.21 ff.) Rather than just summarizing this very important subject, we would like to draw attention to what we consider to be a weak point in this otherwise excellent book.


The author endeavours to link Norse mythology with other systems of spirituality, where the symbol value of the mythic characters corresponds with themes on or phases of the spiritual path. That much is in itself very commendable, as we know little of the spiritual practice in the society that engendered this mythology. Greek and Vedic religions provide the historically most relevant points of comparison, but the author has opted instead for Theosophy, not older than the late 19th century, and related modern authors.   

On p.23, he lists all the great names of Theo- and Anthroposophy, each with his own system of 6 to 9 “planes” of existence, from the physical to the spiritual. These 9 he doesn’t mention again, but equates them to the nine worlds: 1. Helheim = physical; 2-3. Niflheim and Svartalfheim = ethereal; 4. Jotunheim = emotional; 5. Midgard = mental; 6. Asgard = causal; 7. Vanaheim = intuitional; 8. Alfheim = spiritual; 9. Muspelheim = monadic. Further, Ginnungagap = the logoic plane, whatever that may be according to the Theosophists. This correspondence is questionable and will certainly be challenged by some lovers of Nordic mythology, but has no further importance for the narrative. The idea behind it, however, is essential for this book: that the nine worlds are not only a descriptive worldview but also a guide for action, a map on a path that we are expected to walk.   

Another heritage from Theosophy is more pervasive: the Seven Rays. Take for instance, in the middle of a discourse on Eddaic psychology: “Hroering [= “stirring”, cfr. the Dutch word be-roering], whether emotional or mental, is connected with Ray Four and secondarily with Ray Six.” (p.112) What to make of this?

The doctrine of the Seven Rays finds its origins in the Vedas, where there is a sparing mention of the Sapta Rashmi, the “seven rays”. This notion is not further developed there. When Theosophist Alice Bailey takes it up in the early twentieth century, it has become a cornerstone of her worldview.  They are detailed as 1. Power/Will; 2. Love/Wisdom; 3. Active Intelligence; 4. Harmony; 5. Concrete knowledge; 6. Devotion; and 7. Ceremonial Order. Ongkowidjojo links them to 1. Thor; 2. Odin; 3. Mimir; 4. Freyja; 5. Heimdal; 6. Vidar; 7. Balder. (p.37)

With any such “world models”, you can make approximations between one member of the list (one of the 22 great arcana of the Tarot, the 8 trigrams or 64 hexagrams of the Yijing, the 12 signs of the Zodiac etc.) and any given person, including each of the Nordic gods. Hence not much fault can be found with the author’s attempt to find a correspondence between hroering and Ray 4 or Ray 6. But the question is whether it adds anything that was not already present in the lore about the Nordic theo- and anthropology. Instead of saying that something “connects with Ray 6”, you might simply say that it is “devoted” or “devotional”.

I can’t see much surplus value in this esoteric angle. In principle, yes, but at least in this instance, no. The main reason is that his choice of esoteric tradition leaves much to be desired. Theosophy and allied esotericists like Dion Fortune and Rudolf Steiner were very second-hand. They didn’t fully grasp the Hindu-Buddhist traditions they were grappling with, and moreover tried to link it to or combine it with budding Western sciences like psychology. Note that after their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, their worldview has not evolved or put to creative use ever since, only widely parroted. A sure sign of their immaturity is their bombastic use of complicated jargon drawn from different existing traditions not forming a logical whole.

So, I would suggest the reader to skip the (usually brief) passages about the supposed Theosophical angle and concentrate on Vincent Ongkowidjojo’s explanation of the Edda, spiced up with comparisons with other mythologies and genuinely traditional worldviews. On that condition, you have a very good book before you, one that genuinely contributes to our more sophisticated understanding of the Edda.

Vincent Ongkowidjojo: Doors of Valhalla, An Esoteric Interpretation of Norse Mythology, Mandrake, Oxford 2016

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Indraprastha vs. Dînpanah: nothing communal about "Indraprastha"

(Swarajya, 3 Dec. 2016)

Indraprastha was the town founded by the Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame as their capital. Here, the eldest among them, Yudhishthira, became the “ruler of righteousness” (dharma-râja). More than three thousand years later, on 22-23 November 2016, the Draupadi Dream Trust held the first Indraprastha Conference in the National Museum, Delhi. This was part of a larger initiative on Indraprastha, with an exhibition in the Purana Qila (Old Fort). This fort itself had been built over the ancient site of Indraprastha, now partly made visible by archaeological excavations.

Among secularists, there is predictably an attempt to sow doubt about this. In his 2015 book Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi, Rana Safvi argues that the finds under the Purana Qila have not been established to be the Pandavas’s city, which was but “mythological”. In particular, they are claimed not to contain the characteristic Painted Grey Ware, as per the 1954 excavations by India’s top archaeologist BB Lal. However, 62 years later, the nonagenarian Lal edited the brochure of the present exhibition and, taking into account several excavations since then (which Safvi feigns to ignore), he asserts that PGW was indeed found there, and that it was certainly the city of the Pandavas. Mehrauli was not the oldest part of Delhi, Indraprastha was.

(This repeats two earlier and similar attempts at secularist deception, involving the very same archaeologist. When Lal discovered the temple’s pillar-bases underneath the Babri Masjid, the secularists started nitpicking about his field-notes, when his final report was already in the public domain and affirmed the existence of the temple remains. And till today, defenders of the Aryan Invasion Theory keep on citing as proof of the invasion the identification by the young Lal of the PGW as showing the Aryan invaders on their way deeper into India, a view that he has long dismissed as immature. As ought to be well-known, Lal has for decades testified that there is no proof for this invasion whatsoever, and that Vedic India and the Harappan civilization were two sides of the same coin. In all the three cases, the secularists cite an early or even a non-existent position of Lal’s to trump his well-known mature position.) 


A prastha is an open space, a clearing in the forest where you go and settle, a “colony”. Thus, a vanaprastha, an elderly person who withdraws from society, is “one who goes and settles in the forest” or “one who has the forest as his colony”.

The new town was dedicated to Indra. He was the god of the thunderstorm that puts an end to the oppressive summer heat and opens the rainy season. That is why among the 12 Vedic solar months or half-seasons, he rules the first month of the rainy season. As the Rg-Vedic seer Vasishtha says in his celebrated Hymn of the Frogs, both the priests and the frogs croak with joy when the first rainstorm breaks: the frogs because of the advent of water, the priests because of the manifestation of their god, Indra. Implicitly, the priests’ recitation is humorously likened to the frogs’ croaking.

He was also the slayer of the dragon Vrtra, a model for all the dragon-slayers in the world, such as Zeus killing Typhon, or Saint George, or Siegfried, or Beowulf. In Iran, he was transformed into a demon, but his nickname Verethragna (Vedic Vrtrahan, “Vrtra-slayer”) then became a popular god in its own right. There, we have an Indra on the side of both good and evil.

Less poetically and more philosophically, the Atharva-Veda puts him at the centre of the sophisticated concept of Indrajâla, “Indra’s net”. In this net, a diamond in every knot reflects every other diamond knot, and thus the whole. The West needed another four thousand years to develop the similar concept of the “holographic paradigm”.

In India, Indra’s cult gradually declined after the Mahabharata age. Originally an embodiment of masculine stength, he becomes the subject of poetic variations extolling his (and his wife Shachi’s) sexual prowess. Like his Greek counterpart Zeus, he gets involved in flings on the side, such as with sage Gautama’s wife Ahilya. While becoming a character of fun, he further gets disavowed by the Mahabharata hero Krishna. In the famous Govardhan episode, Krishna lifts a mountain and holds it like an umbrella over the common people to protect them from the storm, embodiment of Indra’s wrath. This spurs on the further decline of the Vedic gods and their replacement with the now-familiar Hindu pantheon. By the time Hindus start building temples in the last centuries BCE, Indra is no longer worshiped.

However, the Buddha arrived just in time for Indra to play  a role in his career. it was Indra himself who persuaded the freshly awakened Shakyamuni to start preaching his newfound path. Buddhist monks then spread the cult of Indra to foreign lands as far as Japan. Indra’s weapon, the lightning or vajra, became the emblem of instant Enlightenment. The sought-after “Self-nature” (Chinese zixing) is present all the time, deep in all of us; but when we embark on the path of meditation and finally awaken to it, it strikes like lightning.

Dînpanah and the religion

When the Muslim conquerors incorporated the area into their capital and built the Old Fort there, it was apparently not a case of “a Hindu sacred site destroyed to make way for a showpiece of Muslim power”. Indraprastha had largely fallen in disuse centuries before the conquests, leaving pride of place to other parts of Delhi. Still, the conquerors were aware of the site’s past as Indraprastha, for in his Ain-i-Akbari, Moghul chronicler Abu’l Fazl writes that it had been built on the site of “Indrapat”. There was probably no explicitly communal angle to it when the Muslim rulers chose the Indraprastha site.

That changed when the second Moghul emperor Humayun decided to reorganize the area as his own glimpse of paradise, calling it Dînpanah, “refuge of Islam”. Dîn is the general Semitic word for “justice, righteousness”, even “religion” (roughly, dharma). It was in this sense that the syncretistic emperor Akbar was to use it when he founded the Dîn-i-Ilâhî, the “divine religion”. This new religion was meant as a confluence between Hinduism and Islam, symbolized by Akbar’s newly-founded city of Ilâh-âbâd (“divine city”, wrongly transcribed by the British as Allahabad) on the Ganga-Yamuna confluence. But this religion did not exist yet in Humayun’s time.

Akbar’s usage of Dîn accorded with its original Semitic meaning once used by the Arab Pagans. But it deviated from the meaning that Mohammed had conferred on the term during his rulership in Arabia: specifically the religion of Islam. It is in this more limited sense that the word came to be used in names like Saifu’d-dîn, “sword of Islam”, and likewise in Humayun’s Dînpanah, “refuge of Islam”. Humayun’s rulership of Delhi was short-lived, and when he finally recovered it, he found his Dînpanah in disarray. He did not get a chance to rebuild it for he died soon after. So, it only had a very fleeting existence and made no mark at all in Delhi’s long history. By contrast, the earlier town of Indraprastha had existed for many centuries.

Recently, some well-meaning but illiterate bureaucrat came up with the idea that Lutyens’ Delhi should be renamed as Dînpanah. However, naming a central neighbourhood of Delhi after a particular religion might not go down well with the preponderantly secular-minded population. Probably the bureaucrats who considered naming the area’s development project Dînpanah had not considered this because they had not realized the meaning of Dîn. At any rate, the plan was shelved when they learned of the far better credentials of Indraprastha.

The god

 Now, some usual suspects will object upon hearing anything with the Vedic god Indra in it: “Communal!” They are mistaken. There is nothing communal about the Holographic Paradigm. There is nothing communal about sudden Awakening. He is the same stormgod whom we find the world over: Zeus among the Greeks, Jupiter among the Romans, Thor among the Vikings (whence Thursday), Marduk in Babylon, Ba’al in the Levant. Note how Indra is likened to a bull, how Zeus seduced princess Europa in the shape of a bull, and how Ba’al was famously worshipped as a bull in the Biblical episode of the Golden Calf.

In fact, in the Golden Calf events, two faces of the storm-god were in confrontation: not just Ba’al but even Moses’ god Yahweh are evolutes of essentially the same god. A lesser-known face of the storm-god was indeed Yahweh among the Midianite Beduins in northwestern Arabia. Among them, then led by chieftain Jethro, the fugitive Egyptian prince Moses found asylum. That is when he acquired both a wife and a new religion. Yes, Yahweh was originally an Arab storm-god, whose name was misinterpreted by the Bible authors as “He who is”. His name stems from a verbal root h-w-h also attested in the Quran, and meaning “to move in the sky”. This is both in the sense of the storm-wind’s blowing (an image of the palpable though subtle power of heaven) and of an eagle swooping down to catch its prey (an image of the sudden whims of destiny).

This Yahweh, this choleric storm-god, was then taken to Egypt, apparently in the age when some of Pharaoh Akhnaton’s monotheistic reform was in the air. Next, he led Moses and the Israelites in the legendary Exodus through the desert. He remained powerful, sovereign and choleric, but was theologically transformed into the Biblical “jealous god”, who tolerates no second god beside him. This Yahweh, the sender of prophets, was later to be embraced by Mohammed under the name Allah, from al-Ilâh, “the god”.

Long live Indraprastha!

So, everybody can feel happy with the name Indraprastha. No Muslim invader ever destroyed a temple to Indra, for he had been worshipped before the Hindus even used idols housed in temples. Indra throwing the lightning (elsewhere “Thor’s hammer”) is an apt image of a heavenly intervention in earthly affairs. Everybody naturally considers thunder and lightning to be the prime symbol of heaven’s unchained might over us. Thus there is nothing communal about this name, on the contrary: Indra’s thunder-storms are a pan-religious symbol, an embodiment of the basic unity underlying the plurality of religions.

Indraprastha  was founded as the capital of the Pandavas’ small-time kingdom but the area was destined by fate to become the capital of the Delhi Sultanate, the Moghul Empire, Samrat Hemachandra’s short-lived Empire, British India spanning the whole Subcontinent, and now the Indian Republic. It is a source of pride, and worth celebrating, that here, the “righteous ruler” once chose to highlight the great universal ideas personified in Indra. Therefore, the open-minded Delhiites all agree: Indraprastha amar rahe!

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Academic bullies

 (Pragyata, 30 November 2016)



Audrey Truschke is a Professor of Religious Studies in Stanford, California, and has gained some fame with her work on the patronage of Sanskrit by the Moghuls. In order to get that far, she had to toe the ideologically mandatory line: neither in America nor in India does the Hindu-baiting establishment allow a dissident to get seriously established in the academic world. Predictably, we see her elaborating the same positions already taken by an earlier generation of academics, such as whitewashing Aurangzeb. Not that this was a hard job for her: one gets the impression that she is a true believer and really means what she says. Then again, she may have done an excellent job of creating the desired impression all while secretly knowing better.



Her position in the article “The Right’s problem with history” (DNA, 26 Oct. 2016) is summed up as: “Unable to defend a fabricated history of India on scholarly grounds, many foot soldiers of the Hindu Right have turned to another response: bullying.” It would be normal to compare secularist historians and their Western dupes with people of the same rank, namely different-minded historians, in this case belonging to the “Hindu Right”. These are not exactly numerous, having been blocked systematically from academe by the single permitted opinion in both India and America, but they exist. Yet, they and their output are absent from her paper. From a street bully, I would expect a denunciation of street bullies, and from an academic a polemic against her own peers.

The photograph accompanying the article tells it all. If it had been about her own school of history, the picture would have shown established historians involved in this debate, such as Wendy Doniger or Sheldon Pollock. But now that the opposition is at issue, it shows a group of non-historians, not in an airconditioned college hall but in a street demonstration exercising their freedom of expression. The reader is expected to recognize them as representatives of the “Hindu Right”, and as “bullies”.

She testifies to verbal attacks she herself has endured “from members of the Hindu Right”, and which she evaluates as “vicious personal attacks on the basis of my perceived religion, gender and race”. Correction: she could have maintained the very same religion, gender and race and yet never be attacked by those same Hindus (indeed, most Jewish female whites have never experienced such attacks), if she had not belonged to the “scholars who work on South Asia” and who have earned a reputation as Hindu-baiters. She has been attacked on the basis of what she has written, nothing else.

But it is true, and deplorable, that an uncouth but vocal class of people clothe their denunciations of an ideological position in foul personal attacks. It so happens that I know her plight very well, for me too, I receive my share of what some would call “hate mail” when I express skepticism of beliefs dear to Hindu traditionalists (e.g. the eternity of Sanskrit, the supernatural origins of the Vedas, the Rama Setu, or the Krishna Bhakti verses in the Gita). And also when going against the dogmas of her own school, such as that Muslim rule in India was benign, or that Sanskrit has an origin of white invaders oppressing black natives. Nothing dangerous, though, and I doubt her claim of “physical attacks” on Indologists, unless she means the egg thrown at Wendy Doniger in London.

From the start, Truschke tries to capture the moral high ground by citing one of her lambasters as tweeting: “Gas this Jew.” In America, such reference to the Holocaust is absolutely not done, and Indian secularist circles adopt the same sensitivities once they see these as valid for the trend-setting West. To the Hindu mainstream, this hyperfocus on anything associated with the WW2 is not there, and they had no history with Antisemitism; but still this quote would be unacceptable there, for regardless of what Jews exactly believe, Hindus tend to respect other faiths.

However, her claim might be correct (not sure there), for there are indeed some Hindu hotheads who have adopted this kind of rhetoric. In pre-internet days, they would brew their own conspiracy theories, but now the access to websites carrying elaborate Western conspiracy theories, starring the Zionist World Conspiracy, entices them into using this kind of language. Certainly deplorable, but not at all representative for the “Hindu Right”: hardly even for its bullies, not for its leaders (both VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar described the Jews as role models for loyalty to one’s own roots) and not at all for the “Hindu Right” scholars whom she is carefully ignoring.


Academic bullying   

This “bullying” had best been compared to the “bullying” on the other side. Like, for instance, the two attempts by Leftist students to silence me, as a twice scheduled speaker, at the Madison WI South Asia Conference in 1996 and a private event preceding it, hosted by Prof. Andrew Sihler. Or the successful protests against the Dharma Civilization Foundation’s offer to fund a chair at UC Irvine, when so many US chairs are comfortably being funded by the Saudis.

But on Truschke’s own side, the dividing line between bullies and academics is not so neat. Why stoop to street bullying if you have tenure? It is far more effective, then, to resort to academic bullying. Thus, in their intervention in the California Textbook Affair, where Hindu parents had sought to edit blatantly anti-Hindu passages, the explicitly partisan intervening professors even managed to get themselves recognized as arbiters in the matter. This would have been unthinkable if those bullies had not been established academics. (And this I can say eventhough my criticism of the Hindu parents’ positions exists in cold print.) Her focus on street bullies has the effect of misdirecting the reader’s attention, away from the more consequential phenomenon of academic bullying.

I myself have been barred from several Indologist forums by active intervention or passive complicity of the same Professors who otherwise clamour “censorship!” when anything at all happens to a book they favour. Thus, they are so very sensitive that they dramatically talked of “threats to freedom of speech” when AK Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas, a book belittling a Hindu scripture, was not selected as required reading in Delhi University, though otherwise it remained freely available. They claim to champion “freedom of speech!” when Wendy Doniger’s error-ridden book Hinduism was withdrawn from circulation, though it was never legally banned but was left available for another publisher; who did indeed come forward, so that the book is again lawfully omnipresent. But when I appealed to them to intervene for annulling my banning from the Religion in South Asia (RISA) list, which had been done in violation of its own charter, they all looked the other way. 

A recent example. In 2014, I read a paper on the Rg-Vedic seer Vasishtha and his relative divinization in a panel on “divinization” at the European Conference for South Asia Studies in Zürich. My paper was enthusiastically received, also by the panel’s organizers when I sent in the final version for publication. First they accepted it, but then, I received an embarrassed e-mail from the organizers stating that they could not include my paper, without any reason given. Upon my enquiring, the half-line reply said that it did not fit their project. In all its insignificance, this still managed to be a blatant lie, and their earlier acceptance confirmed that this could not have been the reason. But some higher up had warned them that I am to be treated as excluded, just like on many other occasions.

Far more seriously, both in America and in India, scholars suspected of pro-Hindu sympathies are blocked in their access to academe, and their work gets studiously ignored. For India, a tip of the blanket over this hushed-up phenomenon was lifted by Dr. A. Devahuti: Bias in Indian Historiography (1980). It is seriously in need of an update, but I am given to understand that one is forthcoming. For America, a start was made by Rajiv Malhotra with his books Invading the Sacred (2007) and Academic Hinduphobia (2016).




Coming to contents, Truschke accuses “Hindu Right-wingers” of attacks on “academics”. I would have expected them to attack “anti-Hindu Left-wingers”, and indeed I learn that this is exactly how they see it,-- and how they see her. If she doesn’t like being characterized this way, she is herewith invited to stop calling her adversaries similar names. The binary Left/Right is at least problematic here, yet for a quarter century I have seen this scheme used to explain matters. Except that the Left doesn’t call itself Left: it treats itself as the natural centre, and anything to its right is deemed politically coloured: “Right” or very easily “extreme Right”.

Anyway, she calls “alleged Hinduphobia” nothing more than “a strawman stand-in for any idea that undercuts Hindutva ideology”. The term was made popular by Rajiv Malhotra, whom I have never known to swear by “Hindutva”, a specific term literally translated as “Hindu-ness” but now effectively meaning “the RSS tradition of Hindu Nationalism”. At any rate, one does not have to follow Hindutva, or even be a Hindu or an Indian, to observe that American India-watchers utter a strong anti-Hindu prejudice in their publications. Not to look too far, I can find an example in myself: I have written a number of publications criticizing both Hindutva as an ideology and the Hindutva organizations, yet I can off-hand enumerate dozens of illustrations of Hindu-baiting by supposed India experts in the West as well as by their Indian counterparts. 

At most, one can critize the term “Hinduphobia” for being etymologically less than exact. Words in -phobia normally indicate an irrational fear, and fear is not the attitude in which Hinduism is approached. The term was coined on the model of Islamophobia, a weaponized word meant to provoke hatred, yet now a thoroughly accepted and integrated term among progressive academics. A -phobia is normally a psychiatric term and its use to denote political adversaries is of a kind with the Soviet custom of locking up dissidents in mental hospitals. And indeed, people shielding Islam from proper enquiry do treat their opponents as mentally warped marginals. But the core of truth in the reprehensible term “Islamophobia” is at least that it points to “fear of Islam”, a religion which its critics do indeed diagnose as fearsome. Hinduism, by contrast, has been criticized as cruel, evil, superstitious, ridiculous, but not as a threat. It is only Hindus who flatter themselves that the “Abrahamics” want to destroy Hinduism because they fear it as being superior and more attractive.

The use of the term Hinduphobia is predicated upon the already existing acceptance and use of the term Islamophobia. If the UN, the governments of the US and EU etc., and the pan-Islamic pressure group OIC, were to give up this ugly and vicious term, then the Hinduphobia term so disliked by Truschke would lapse with it and get replaced again by the older and more accurate term Hindu-baiting. But until then, it throws the Islamophile and Hindu-baiting scholars of Truschke’s persuasion back on the bare fact that they themselves have and display the kind of prejudice against Hinduism of which they accuse the Islam critics.



According to Truschke, “a toxic combination of two realities fuel the Hindu Right’s onslaught against scholars of South Asia: Hindu nationalist ideology rests heavily on a specific vision of Indian history, and that version of history is transparently false.”

Now it gets interesting, with two competing views of Indian history, one true and one false: “Hindu nationalists claim that India’s past featured the glorious flourishing of a narrowly defined Hinduism that was savagely interrupted by anybody non-Hindu, especially Muslims. However, the real story of Indian history is much more complicated and interesting.”

A “narrowly defined Hinduism” is only projected into the Hindu past by semi-literate non-historians who do indeed man the middle ranks of the uniformed RSS. No serious Hindu historian, not the lamented Jadunath Sarkar, RC Majumdar, Harsh Narain or KS Lal, nor contempory scholars like Bharat Gupt or Meenakshi Jain, would be foolish enough to simply deny the “diversity and syncretism” that Truschke sees in India’s past. But here again, we see how Truschke has chosen not to address the scholars of a competing persuasion, but the village bumpkins.

In one sense, however, even the most sophisticated historians will affirm that India’s past was indeed “glorious”. And it was not at all “complicated”: India was simply independent. Yes, ancient India had its problems too, it had local wars, it was not paradise on earth, but in one decisive respect, Indians under Muslim or British occupation correctly remembered it as “glorious”: it ruled itself. When the British told Mahatma Gandhi that his hoped-for independence would only throw India back into its headaches of casteism, communalism and the rest, he aswered that India would of course have its problems, “but they will be our own”. Compared to being under foreign tutelage, such self-rule is nothing less than glorious.

This brings us to Truschke’s own field of research: “Especially problematic for Hindu nationalists is current scholarship on Indo-Islamic rule, a fertile period for cross-cultural contacts and interreligious exchanges. This vibrant past is rightly a source of pride and inspiration for many Indians, but the Hindu Right sees only an inconvenient challenge to their monolithic narrative of Hindu civilisation under Islamic siege.”

Note how two issues are artfully mixed up here: the questionable monolithic view of Hinduism and the very correct view of a Hindu civilization besieged and raped by Islam. It is true that non-historian “Hindu nationalists” are rather inaccurate in their “monolithic narrative of Hindu civilisation”; but it is not true that the period of “Indo-Islamic rule” is a “source of pride and inspiration”, nor that it is contested only by “Hindu nationalists”. Her notion of “current scholarship” is of course limited to her own school of thought, heavily overrepresented in academe, partly due to its aggressive policy of exclusion vis-à-vis others.

There are admittedly those who identify with foreign colonizers: many Indian Muslims identify with Mohammed bin Qasim and with the Moghuls (whom Pakistan considers as the real founders of their Indo-Islamic state), and many Nehruvian secularists share and continue the British opinions about India and Hinduism. But those who identify with India, even if they admit some good aspects of these colonizations, do not take any pride at all in having been subjugated. Yes, there were instances of collaboration with the colonizers, such as the hundreds of thousands of Indians whose sweat made the “British” railway network possible, or the Rajputs whose daughters filled the Moghul harems in exchange for their fathers’ careers in the Moghul army. But those instances are at most understandable, a lesser evil in difficult circumstances, but not a source of “pride and inspiration”.

A few episodes of Muslim occupation were indeed “vibrant”, viz. after Akbar’s realistic appreciations of the existing power equations persuaded him to rule with rather than against his Hindu subjects. Then, as everybody already knew, Hindus did indeed give their cultural best, rebuilding the temples which the Sultanate has demolished (and which would again be demolished by Aurangzeb),-- a tribute to the vitality of Hindu civilization even under adverse circumstances. And some Muslims did indeed engage in “interreligious exchanges”, such as Dara Shikoh translating the Upanishads into Persian; later, he was beheaded for apostasy.

But even then, academics had better use their critical sense when interpreting these episodes, rather than piously taking them at face value. In the Zürich conference already mentioned, I heard an “academic” describe how contemporary Hindi writers praised Aurangzeb, the dispenser of their destinies. Well, many eulogies of Stalin can also be cited, including by comrades fallen from grace and praising Stalin even during their acceptance speeches of the death penalty; but it would be a very bad historian, even if sporting academic titles, who flatly deduces therefrom that Stalin a benign ruler. Govind Singh’s “Victory Letter” to Emperor Aurangzeb was, in all seriousness, included among the sources of praise, leaving unmentioned that Aurangzeb had murdered Govind’s father and four sons. Every village bumpkin can deduce that Govind hated Aurangezb more than any other person in the world, and that he was only being diplomatic in his writing because of the power equation. Academics laugh at kooks who believe in aliens, but it took an academic, no less, to discover an alien who actually admired the murderer of his father and sons.

According to Truschke’s admission, a lot of Hindus are “happy to underscore the violence and bloodshed unleashed by many Indo-Islamic rulers”, but she wrongly identifies them as “Hindu Right”. It doesn’t require a specific ideological commitment nor even any religious identity to observe well-documented historical facts. Mostly documented by the Muslim perpetrators themselves, that is. Thus, like Truschke herself, I am neither Hindu nor Indian, yet I can read for myself with what explicit glee the Muslim chroniclers described temple destructions and massacres of Unbelievers.


The mistake of plagiarism

“In contrast to the detailed work of academics, the Hindu nationalist vision of India’s past stands on precarious to non-existent historical evidence. As a result, the Hindu Right cannot engage with Indologists on scholarly grounds. Indeed, the few Hindutva ideologues who have attempted to produce scholarship are typically tripped up by rookie mistakes—such as misusing evidence, plagiarism, and overly broad arguments—and so find themselves ignored by the academic community.”

The inclusion of “plagiarism” among her list of “rookie mistakes” gives away that she is fulminating specifically against the work of Rajiv Malhotra, whom she is careful not to mention by name. For his book Indra’s Net, he was famously accused of plagiarism (by a mission mentor), for he quotes the American scholar Andrew Nicholson’s book Unifying Hinduism, in which he concurs with the same position that Hinduism had elaborated its common doctrinal backbone long before the Orientalists “invented Hinduism”. In fact, he only used Nicholson as a source to prove that Westerners too could acquire this insight, there was nothing “Hindu nationalist” about it. And he amply quoted him in so many words, though a few times, for the flow of the narrative, he merely rephrased the theses of this much-quoted author. By that standard, most papers contain plagiarism; but what passes unnoticed elsewhere becomes a scandal when done by a self-identifying Hindu.

Yet, numerous Indologists started a holier-than-thou tirade against the “plagiarism”, a comical drama to watch. Malhotra then walked the extra mile writing Nicholson out of his narrative and quoting original sources instead (thereby incidentally showing the amount of plagiarism that Nicholson himself had committed, though no Indologist ever remarked on that). But this inconvenient development was given the silent treatment, and Truschke still presupposes that there ever was a substantive “plagiarism” case against Malhotra, and by extension against the whole “Hindu Right”.

Malhotra has indeed been “ignored by the academic community”—until he found the way to make his critique non-ignorable. That indeed shows a lot of skill in dealing with the way of the world, for until then, Hindus had only painstakingly proven themselves right and the “academics” wrong, but had had no impact at all. By contrast, Malhotra, by personalizing his argument into specific dissections of the work of leading scholars such as Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock or Anantanand Rambachan, has earned a session at the annual conference of the trend-setting American Academy of Religion. On Indological discussion forums, his input is frequently mentioned, though the academics mostly keep up their airs of pooh-poohing that interloper, in a bid to justify their ignoring his actual critique of their own work.

By the way, notice my term: a “self-identifying Hindu”. As the case of Malhotra has amply exemplified, it suffices to stand up as a Hindu, or to own up Hinduism, in order to be dubbed “Hindu Rightist”, “Hindutva ideologue”, as well as “fanatic”. “rookie” and all the fair names Hindus have been called by Prof. Truschke’s august school of thought. To them, the acceptable Hindu, or what Malhotra calls a “sepoy”, is one who never identifies as a Hindu, but rather as “Indian” (or better, “Bengali”, “Malayali” etc.), “low-caste”, and ideologically “secularist”. The exception is when countering criticism from self-identified Hindus, for then, he is expected to say: “But me too, I am a Hindu!” That way, he can fulfil his main task: as long as there are Hindus, he must deny them the right to speak on behalf of Hinduism and to give it a presence at the conversation between worldviews.



History debates

Most Hindu scholars had or have not found the way to impose their viewpoint on the sphere of discourse yet. In the case of objective scholars among non-Hindus, this would not have mattered. It is, after all, their own job to trace any material relevant to their field of research, including obscure works by other scholars, even adversaries. But in this case, there are some cornerstones of the Indological worldview which tolerate no criticism nor alternatives, so these are to be carefully ignored.

Thus, Shrikant Talageri’s case against the Aryan Invasion Theory, the bedrock of the “academic” view of ancient Hindu history, is painstaking, detailed, voluminous, factual and well-formulated, yet Truschke’s own entire tribe of “academics” simply goes on ignoring his case without bothering to refute it. (Well, there are two articles talking down to him, but we mean actual refutations, not mere denials.) If academics were to live up to the reputation they have among laymen, they would have set aside their current business to deal with this fundamental challenge to their worldview.

Or take A Secular Agenda by Arun Shourie, PhD from Syracure NY and stunningly successful Disinvestment Minister in the AB Vajpayee Government, when India scored its highest economic growth figures. It was a very important book, and it left no stone standing of the common assumption among so-called experts that India (with its religion-based civil codes and its discriminatory laws against Hinduism) is a secular state, i.e. a state in which all citizens are equal before the law, regardless of their religion. Though the book deconstructs the bedrock on which the “experts” have built their view of modern India, they have never formulated a refutation. Instead, they just keep on repeating their own deluded assumption, as in: “The BJP threatens India’s structure as a secular state.” (Actually, the BJP does not, and India is not.) They can do so because they are secure in the knowledge that, among the audiences that matter, their camp controls the sphere of discourse. Concerning the interface between religion and modern politics, the established “academic” view is not just defective, it is an outrageous failure.

Or consider historian Prof. KS Lal’s works on caste and religion, refuting with primary data the seeming truism, launched by the Communist Party ideologue MN Roy and now omnipresent in the textbooks, that the lowest castes converted en masse to Islam because of its claimed message of equality. Islam mainly won over the urban middle castes (and not because of eguality, a value rejected as ingratitude towards the Dispenser of destinies in the Quran, but because of the privileges vis-à-vis non-Muslims), not the Untouchables. Again, the silent treatment has been the only response the “experts” could muster.


The Ayodhya affair

It is uncommon for Audrey Truschke and the opposite school to have any kind of direct debate at all. In the US this was, until Rajiv Malhotra, unthinkable for lack of any pro-Hindu school willing and able to stand up to the overwhelming anti-Hindu bias among those Indologists willing to wade into any controversial subject. But in India, there have been a few such confrontations. And on those occasions, the “academics” did not cover themselves with glory.

One consequential instance in India was the Ayodhya scholars’ debate in the winter of 1990-1991, organized by the Janata (Left-populist) government headed by Chandra Shekhar. This was won hands down by the scholars affirming the existence of a Hindu temple underneath the Babri Masjid, first against a delegation of Muslim leaders unfamiliar with historical methodology, selected by the Babri Masjid Action Committee, then against a group of Marxist academics called in by that same Committee for saving the day. The latter’s position was but an elaboration of the official orthodoxy created by a group of academics from JNU when they issued a statement, The Political Abuse of History (1989), denying the existence of temple remains underneath the Babri Masjid. It had been taken over as Gospel truth by most of the academic and journalistic India-watchers in the West, including Truschke’s mentors. They kept the lid on the debate’s outcome.

More detail about the controversy can be found in my paper The Three Ayodhya Debates (2011). But since I do not hold an academic chair, she might not take me serious, so let that pass. Instead, I may refer her to the excellent book Rama’s Ayodhya (2013) by Prof. Meenakshi Jain of DU. No Indian or Western academic has refuted it or even formally taken cognizance of it. After Court-ordered excavations in 2003 had definitively confirmed the existence of the temple, acknowledged in the Court verdict of 2010, they have all turned conspicuously silent on Ayodhya.

Indeed, what insiders knew all along, has now become official: the stance of the “academics”, both Indian and Western, has been an outrageous failure. It relied entirely on the authority of a few “experts” already known for their anti-Hindu positions. Their “expertise” fell through completely once they were cross-examined on the witness stand, as amply documented by  Prof. Jain.

That those “experts” didn’t manage to uphold their case against the temple was a surprise only to their dupes, including the American India-watchers. At least, I assume these were dupes and had genuinely swallowed the no-temple claim (“concocted by the wily Hindu fundamentalists”). The alternative is that they were deliberate accomplices in the Ayodhya deception, an artificial controversy that killed thousands and brought down several governments. I would prefer not to think such things about scholars like Audrey Truschke and her mentors. 

A remarkable aspect of the experts’ fall from grace was the smugness with which they took the witness stand. They had not deemed it necessary to brush up their knowledge of Ayodhya, or to give their ill-founded statements of opinion a more solid basis at least after the fact. They had for so long publicly pretended, as Truschke now does, that the Hindu side merely consisted of a bunch of deplorables, that they didn’t see the need to gear up for the confrontation.  



The Ayodhya controversy was part of a larger issue, viz. Islamic iconoclasm, which victimized many thousands of places of worship in India and abroad, starting with Arabia. Or at least, that is how historians like Sita Ram Goel and Profs. Harsh Narain, KS Lal, Saradindu Mukherji saw it: turn this one controversy into an occasion for educating the public about the ideological causes of the iconoclasm that hit Hindu society so hard and so consistently for over a millennium. But the RSS-BJP preferred to put the entire focus on their one toy in Ayodhya, and obscure or even deny the Islamic motive behind it. (The ideological impotence and non-interest on their part provides yet another contrast with the academics’ imaginary construction of a wily, resourceful and highly motivated Hindu movement.)

As part of his effort, Goel published a two-volume book giving a list of two thousand purposely demolished temples, mostly replaced by mosques. The part on the theology of iconoclasm proved irrefutable, and has never even been gainsaid on any of its specifics. The list of two thousand temples equally stands entirely unshaken, as so many challenges to the reigning school that tries to downplay the tradition of iconoclasm pioneered by the Prophet. Ever since, the dominant policy has been to disregard Goel’s work and carry on whitewashing the record of Islam regardless.

Since stray new proofs of Muslim temple destruction keep popping up, that school has developed an alternative discursive strategy to prevent such cases from suggesting their own logical conclusion. It now preaches that a few temple destructions have indeed taken place, but channels this admission towards a counterintuitive explanation: that Hinduism is to be blamed for these, not Islam. The core of truth is that a handful of cases have been documented of ancient Hindu kings abducting prestigious idols from their adversaries’ main temples, just as happened in Mesopotamia and other Pagan cultures. These are then presented as the source of inspiration for Aurangzeb’s wholesale destruction (documented in his own court chronicles) of thousands of temples and many more idols.

Not that any of the many Muslim iconoclasts ever testified that such was his inspiration. Their motivation, whenever explicitly stated, and whether inside or outside of India, is invariably purely Islamic. Since the negationist school is unable to document its thesis, let me show them by example how to do it.

Kashinath Pandit’s book A Muslim Missionary in Mediaeval Kashmir (Delhi 2009) contains a translation of the Tohfatu’l Ahbab, the biography of the 15th-century Islamic missionary Shamsu’d-Din Araki by his younger contemporary Muhammad Ali Kashmiri. After describing the many temple demolitions Araki wrought or triggered in thinly populated Kashmir (many more than the “eighty” which the secularists are willing to concede on Richard Eaton’s authority for all of India during the whole Muslim period), the biographer gives Araki’s motivation in practising all this iconoclasm.

Does he say: “Araki then recalled the story how a Hindu king ran off with an idol and thereby felt an urge to do something entirely different: destroy all the idols and their idol-houses with it”? No, he recounts the standard Islamic narrative of the Kaaba: it was built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham for monotheistic worship (thus yielding a far more authoritave precedent than idol theft by an Infidel king), until unbelievers made it “a place for the idols and a house for the statues. Some Quraish chieftains (…) turned this House of God into the abode of devilish and satanic people. For innumerable years, this house of divine light and bliss became the worshiping place for sorcerers and depraved people and the centre of worshippers of idols (made of stones).”

Fortunately, this injustice didn’t last, neither in Mecca nor in Kashmir: “When the last of the prophets (Muhammad) saw this situation, he lifted Imam ‘Ali Murtaza on his shoulders so that defiled and impure idols and images were struck down in the House of God. (…) In the same manner, Kashmir was a den of wicked people, the source of infidelity and a mine of corruption and aberration.” (p.258)

And then the enumeration of Hindu sacred places levelled and mosques built in their stead resumes. An extra detail of interest for all those who idealize Sufis is that the text lists many occasions when “Sufis” and “Derwishes” participated in massacres and temple demolitions.

At any rate, that is what a Muslim testimony of the motive for temple destructions looks like. At least in the real world, not in the make-believe world of our “academics”. I had already challenged Richard Eaton (the originator of this thesis, a self-described Marxist) and his followers to come up with such evidence in 1999, but nothing has ever materialized. Come on, Prof. Truschke, you can make an excellent career move by producing this proof.

To sum up: on the one hand, we have Islamic icononoclasts and their contemporary supporters saying in so many words that Islam made them do it. Moderns who highlight this evidence are, in Truschke’s estimation, “bullies”. On the other, we have no evidence at all for the claim that the Islamic iconoclasts, intent on destroying Hinduism itself through its icons, took inspiration from Hindu icon-stealers, who installed the icon in their own temple for continued worship (as if abduction, wanting to have something close to you, were the same thing as murder, i.e. wanting something to disappear from this world). This claim is nothing more than special pleading. Yet, people who propagate it are, in Truschke’s description, “academics”.



The bourgeoisie sets great store by status. Scholars go by a different criterion: knowledge. They know, through learning or personal experience, that for some of the great insights and discoveries we are indebted to outsiders and amateurs; and that quite a few of their colleagues have big titles and positions not corresponding to their actual knowledge. They also know that holding (or at least uttering) the required opinions can make or break an academic career: either formally, as when a non-Anglican could not get admission to Oxford University, or informally, as under the reign of progressivist conformism today.

To think highly of the academic world presupposes a link between scientific achievement and academic rank, and this largely makes sense in the exact sciences. In the humanities, especially in the social “science” and literature departments, this link is also deduced, but only as a parasitical extension of the conventions in the exact sciences. Much of what passes for scholarship these days is only ideology wrapped into jargon. Some sophomores take it seriously: having just gained entry into the academic world, they idealize it and are proud of their belonging to a higher world distinct from lay society. And most laymen believe it: over-awed by status, they assume that academic status presupposes both knowledge and objectivity, the basis of academic authority.

There exists a test for objective knowledge: a good theory predicts. Physicists who know the relevant parameters of an object in motion, can predict its location at future times. Well, how about the predictions by the academic India-watchers? In the mid-1990s, when the BJP’s imminent coming to power was a much-discussed probability, top academics predicted that a BJP government would turn India into a Vedic dictatorship, whatever that may be. They were put in the wrong even swifter than expected: in 1996, BJP leader AB Vajpayee was Prime Minister for 13 days, then lost the vote of confidence, and instead of seizing power for good, he meekly stepped down. Academics predicted the victimization of Dalits and women, gas chambers, “all the Indian Muslims thrown into the Indian Ocean”, and what not. Well, the BJP has been in power from 1998 till 2004, and since 2014: where are those gas chambers? 

Scholars of modern India, as well as historians of fields relevant for contemporary political debates, have a lot to be modest about. They may have academic positions, but their record is not such that they are in a position to talk down to outsiders, the way Audrey Truschke now does.

Read more!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Modi Government as an Exponent of BJP Secularism

(Now that the Annual Conference of the American Academy of Religion is only a few days away, let me present the abstract plus explanation I sent in for last year's conference. It was written in February 2015 and draws attention to an important phenomenon with a strong and hitherto unrefuted predictive power, viz. the BJP variety of secularism. The AAR's "experts" were not interested, preferring their prestigious delusions to the hard facts.)

AB Vajpayee's NDA Government (1998-2004) heavily disappointed the experts who had predicted "all Moslims into the Indian Ocean" or similar doomsday scenarios -- or rather, it put them squarely in the wrong. Hindu "fascism" as a threat to democracy? When Vajpayee narrowly lost a confidence vote, he meekly stepped down. War against Pakistan? Though Pakistan unilaterally invaded India (Kargil 1999), Vajpayee forbade the Army to strike at the invaders' base across the border, and later opened a peace process, making symbolic concessions which Congress had always refused. Isolationism? He threw the Indian media market open to foreign media ownership, a move opposed by India's entire political spectrum. The only "Hindutva" thing the NDA ever did was HRD Minister MM Joshi's clumsy overhaul of the recommended history schoolbooks, changing nothing dramatic and easily reversed. When the Government created a Chair for Indic Studies in Oxford ("saffronization!"), it selected an outspoken opponent for the job, in the vain hope of receiving a pat on the back from its declared enemies.

With the hindsight knowledge of historical reality, it would be embarrassing to reproduce the predictions by Indian and foreign experts. Today, anti-BJP discourse is less shrill, but still confidently classifies the BJP among the "Hindu Right". This implies a prediction that once in power, the BJP would pursue distinctly pro-Hindu policies. However, in the light of our experience with the Vajpayee Government, it is no surprise that the present Government led by Narendra Modi fails to live up to this learned prediction, at least for now. (Of course, this paper will be updated by November as new developments take place.)

In spite of having a more homogeneous majority, it is reluctant to do anything pro-Hindu or perceivable as anti-minority. On the contrary, one of its first acts was to decree a new subsidy to Islamic schools. The stray Hindutva statements by loose cannon (Akshay Maharaj, Jyoti Niranjan) were followed by retractions, condemnations by Government spokesmen, and indignant innuendos by Modi-friendly journalists (Tavleen Singh, Swapan Dasgupta). Public reconversions by the allied VHP, heavily publicized and demonized by the media, were promptly discouraged by the Government. Having learned from Vajpayee's 2004 defeat, though, Modi does “keep the pot boiling”, does regularly throw crumbs of inconsequential Hindu symbolism to his support base, all while not formally changing anything. 

However, if many BJP workers are disappointed with this Government, is not for what it does but mainly for what it persistently fails to do. Thus, it inducted no figures with a strongly ideological profile (Arun Shourie, Subramanian Swamy). Likewise, some public figures who had crossed the floor (e.g. Madhu Kishwar) were conspicuously not rewarded -- a fact not considered here for disgruntled ego reasons but for illustrating the BJP's lack of strategy: it doesn't put people who have actually sacrificed for the BJP to any use, while awarding positions of influence to unreliable newcomers motivated by sheer opportunism. While some things on the Hindu agenda are either useless to Hinduism (e.g. declaring a "Hindu Rashtra") and others would arouse violent protests for which the media are sure to blame Modi (e.g. a Common Civil Code, though "secular" par excellence), others are perfectly feasible and, moreover, turn out to be the most consequential for the flourishing of Hinduism.

In particular, the amending of Constitutional Articles 28 and 30, which (de facto c.q. formally) discriminate against Hinduism in education, does not take away any rights from the minorities, yet lifts an enormous burden from Hindu organizations investing in education and eliminates a major reason for Hindu sects (Arya Samaj, RK Mission, Lingayats, Jains) to have themselves judicially declared non-Hindu minorities. Similarly, eliminating the legal basis of the discrimination against Hinduism in temple management, with rich temples (but not mosques or churches) nationalized and their income pocketed by politicians or diverted to non-Hindu purposes, would give an enormous boost to Hindu religious and cultural life, without impinging upon the rights of the minorities. It has to be noted, however, and it buttresses my case for "BJP secularism", that temple management is partly a competence of the States, and that BJP State Governments have not made the difference. At any rate, there are meaningful things a BJP Government could do specifically for Hinduism without endangering its non-religious agenda (development, cleaning India etc.) or its international standing, yet it chooses not to do them.        

As for the Hindutva fits and starts of some BJP members, now considered extremists but in fact only representative of what the erstwhile Jan Sangh (1952-77, predecessor of the BJP) stood for, it should be easy to bring them in line around a more reasonable but still credibly pro-Hindu programme. It is here that the BJP is most conspicuously failing -- conspicuous at least to insiders, for 99% of the outside literature about the BJP never mentions this phenomenon. Contrary to a consensus among academic and journalistic India-watchers, the supposed “Hindu extremist” party has no Hindu agenda. It relies on pro-Hindu workers to do the campaigning legwork, but once in power it cold-shoulders them, it publicizes and pursues an agenda of economic development only, and it tries to curry favour with the secularists.

The main reason is the long-standing deliberate lack of investment (pioneered by MS Golwalkar) in an intellectual and strategic vision of its own, the spurning of any analysis of the forces in the field and of the potential and limitations of the situation. It therefore also lacks competent personnel for the ideological struggle, e.g. for a textbook overhaul or, now, for nominating politically friendly new Vice-Chancellors. Consequently, most BJP leaders have an enormous inferiority complex vis-à-vis the secularists and, even when in office, try to live up to the norms laid down by their opponents.

This is hardly the impression created by most experts; but the primary data, the only source to which this paper pledges loyalty, tell a clear story: the present BJP is only termed a Hindu party in deference to the distant memory of its initial orientation.


Like the previous BJP Government, the present one fails to live up to the oft-heard predictions of strident pro-Hindu and anti-minority policies. This is due to a phenomenon insufficiently realized by most India-watchers: a desire to live up to the norms upheld by the secularists and an interiorization of the disinterest in "outdated" Hindu concerns, not just among the numerous opportunists who have flocked to the new party in power, but even in the loyal core of the BJP's personnel. Based on insider sources, this paper enumerates the data establishing the reality of "BJP secularism" and analyses the reasons for this emerging phenomenon.

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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Vandalism sanctified by scripture

(After Hindu activists demolished a mosque in a small town in Rajasthan, the on-line magazine OutlookIndia published a comment with an entirely predictable message by the well-known secularist Yoginder Sikand.  At the editor's invitation, I wrote the following rebuttal, published on 31 August 2001.)

In his article "Sanctified Vandalism As A Political Tool" (, Aug. 23, 2001), Yoginder Sikand tries to explain away Muslim iconoclasm as marginal and uncharacteristic, all while accusing the Hindus and others of just such iconoclasm.  In both endeavours, he predictably relies on Richard Eatons book Essays on Islam and Indian History (OUP Delhi 2000).

According to Sikand, Eaton clearly shows that cases of destruction of places of worship were not restricted to Muslim rulers alone.  He recounts numerous instances of Hindu kings having torn down Hindu temples, in addition to Jaina and Buddhist shrines.  He says that these must be seen as, above all, powerful politically symbolic acts. Follows a list of such allegations against historical Hindu kings.

As it takes at least a page to evaluate or refute an allegation uttered in a single sentence, I cannot discuss those allegations here, so I will accept for the sake of argument that there have indeed been instances of Hindu kings looting Hindu idols and destroying Hindu temples for political purposes.  However, it is obvious that these do not create Sikand's desired impression of symmetry between Hindu and Muslim iconoclasm.  Such symmetry would require that like Hindu kings, whose goal was political rather than religious, Muslim kings also destroyed places of worship of their own religion.  Eaton and Sikand would succeed in blurring the contrast between Hindu and Muslim attitudes to places of worship if they could present a sizable list of mosques destroyed by Muslim conquerors.

In a further attempt to blame even Islamic iconoclasm on the alleged Hindu example, Sikand quotes Eaton again: It is clear that temples had been the natural sites for the contestation of kingly authority well before the coming of Muslim Turks to India.  Not surprisingly, Turkish invaders, when attempting to plant their own rule in early medieval India, followed and continued established patterns. How strange then that the Muslim records never invoke the Hindu example: invariably they cite Islamic scripture and precedent as justification for desecrating Pagan temples.  As we shall see, the justification was provided outside of the Hindu sphere of influence in 7th-century Arabia.

But at least Sikand admits the fact of Islamic iconoclasm: It is true that, as the historical records show, some Muslim kings did indeed destroy Hindu temples.  This even Muslims themselves would hardly dispute. However, Sikand claims that unnamed Hindutva sources have grossly exaggerated the record of Islamic temple destruction: Richard Eaton points out that of the sixty thousand-odd cases of temple destruction by Muslim rulers cited by contemporary Hindutva sources one may identify only eighty instances whose historicity appears to be reasonably certain.

In his seminal book Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them, independent Hindu historian Sita Ram Goel has listed two thousand cases where a mosque was built in forcible replacement of a Hindu temple.  Not one of these verifiable items has been proven false, not by Sikand nor by Eaton or other eminent historians.  It is also instructive to see for oneself what Eaton's purported eighty cases are, on pp. 128-132 of his book.  These turn out not to concern individual places of worship, but campaigns of destruction affecting whole cities with numerous temples at once.  Among the items on Eaton's list, we find Delhi under Mohammed Ghori's onslaught, 1193, or Benares under the Ghurid conquest, 1194, and again under Aurangzeb's temple-destruction campaign, 1669. On each of these three occasions, literally hundreds of temples were sacked.  In the case of Delhi, we all know how the single Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque replaced 27 temples, incorporating their rubble.  At this rate, Eaton's eighty instances easily match Goel's two thousand, perhaps even the unnamed Hindutva author's sixty thousand.

Sikand continues with the oft-used argument: Caution must be exercised in accepting the narratives provided by medieval writers about the exploits of kings, including their feats of temple destruction.  Most historians were employees of the royal courts, and they tended to exaggerate the exploits of the kings in order to present them as great champions of Islam, an image that hardly fits the facts that we know about them. So, as Sikand admits in so many words, the Muslim chroniclers were collectively convinced that they could enhance the standing of their patrons as champions of Islam by attributing to them feats of temple destruction.  Perhaps some of them were liars, as Sikand alleges, and merely attributed these feats of temple destruction to kings who had no such merit.  But fact is: all of them, liars as well as truth-tellers, acted on the collectively accepted premise that a good Muslim ruler is one who extirpates idolatry including its material places and objects of worship.  They all believed that Islam justifies and requires the destruction of idol temples.  And rest assured that, like the Taliban, they had received a far more thorough training in Islamic theology than Eaton or Sikand.

In a further attempt to minimize Muslim iconoclasm, Sikand claims: As in the case of Hindu rulers attacks on temples, Eaton says that almost all instances of Muslim rulers destroying Hindu shrines were recorded in the wake of their capture of enemy territory.  Once these territories were fully integrated into their dominions, few temples were targetted.  This itself clearly shows that these acts were motivated, above all, by political concerns and not by a religious impulse to extirpate idolatry.

In fact, there were plenty of cases of temple destruction unrelated to conquest, the best-known being Aurangzebs razing of thousands of temples which his predecessors had allowed to come up.  But I concede that stable Muslim kingdoms often allowed less prominent temples to function, most openly the Moghul empire from Akbar to Shah Jahan.  This was precisely because they could only achieve stability by making a compromise with the majority population.

Islamic clerics could preach all they wanted about Islamic purity and the extirpation of idolatry, but rulers had to face battlefield realities (apart from being constrained by the never-ending faction fights within the Muslim elite) and were forced to understand that they could not afford to provoke Hindus too far.

Akbar's genius consisted in enlisting enough Hindu support or acquiescence to maintain a stable Muslim empire.  After Aurangzeb broke Akbar's compromise, the Moghul empire started falling apart under the pressure of the Maratha, Jat, Rajput and Sikh rebellions, thus proving the need for compromise a contrario.

In order to justify this compromise theologically, the zimma system originally designed for Christians and Jews (but excluding polytheists, a category comprising Hindus) was adapted to Indian conditions.  This zimma or "charter of toleration" implied the imposition of a number of humiliating constraints on the non-Muslim subjects or zimmi-s, such as the toleration tax or jizya, but at least it allowed them to continue practising their religion in a discreet manner.  The long-term design was to make the non-Islamic religions die out gradually by imposing permanent incentives for conversion to Islam, as witnessed by the slow plummeting of Christian demography in Egypt or Syria, from over 90% in the 7th century via some 50% in the 12th century to about 10% today.  The system had the same impact in South Asia, yielding Muslim majorities in the areas longest or most intensely under Muslim control.

To varying extents, the zimma system could include permission to rebuild destroyed churches or temples.  But even then, non-Muslim places of worship, though tolerated in principle, were not safe from Muslim destruction or expropriation.  The Ummayad mosque in Damascus was once a cathedral, as was the Aya Sophia in Istambul; the Mezquita of Cordova was built in replacement of a demolished church.  Eaton and Sikand can propose their rosy scenario of Islamic iconoclasts emulating an imaginary Hindu iconoclasm only by keeping the non-Indian part of Muslim history out of view.  It is entirely clear from the Muslim records that these temple-destroyers consciously repeated in India what earlier Muslim rulers had done in West Asia.  The first of these rulers was the Prophet Mohammed himself.  And this brings us to the crux of Sikands argument.

When the Taliban ordered the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, a secularist choir assured us that this had nothing to do with genuine Islam.  To me it seems rather pretentious for secularists with their studied ignorance of religions to claim better knowledge of Islam than the Taliban, the "students (of Islam)", whose mental horizon consists of nothing but the detailed knowledge of Islamic theology and jurisprudence.  Nonetheless, Sikand repeats the exercise: "Most importantly, a distinction must be made between Islamic commandments, on the one hand, and the acts of individual Muslims on the other.  The Quran in no way sanctions the destruction of the places of worship of people of other faiths."

In deciding what is genuinely Islamic and what is not, it must be borne in mind that Islamic law is very largely based on the precedents set by the Prophet.  Thus, it is lawful to kill Rushdie because the Prophet himself had had his critics executed or murdered.  Likewise, the Taliban could justify their destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas with reference to Prophet's own exemplary iconoclasm.  The primary Islamic sources on the Prophet's career (the Hadis and Sira) teach us that during his conquest of Arabia, he did destroy all functioning temples of the Arab Pagans, as well as a Christian church.  When he was clearly winning the war, many tribes chose to avoid humiliation and martyrdom by crossing over to his side, but he would only allow them to join him on condition that they first destroy their idols.  The truly crucial event was Prophet's entry into the Kaaba, the central shrine of Arabia's native religion, where he and his nephew Ali smashed the 360 idols with their own hands.

When prophet Mohammed appeared on the scene, Arabia was a multicultural country endowed with Pagan shrines, churches, synagogues and Zoroastrian fire-temples.  When he died, all the non-Muslims had been
converted, expelled or killed, and their places of worship laid waste or turned into mosques.  As he had ordered before his death, only one religion remained in Arabia. If we were to believe Yoginder Sikand, Mohammed'
s iconoclasm was non-Islamic.  In reality, Mohammed's conduct is the definitional standard of what it is to be a good Muslim.

It is true that the Quran has little to say on temple destruction, though it is very eloquent on Mohammed's programme of replacing all other religions with his own (which obviously implies replacing temples with mosques).  Yet, the Quran too provides justification for the smashing of the objects of non-Islamic worship.  It claims that Abraham was the ancestor of the Arabs through Ismail, that his father had been an idol-maker, that he himself ordered the idols of his tribe destroyed (Q.37:93), and that he built the Kaaba as the first mosque, free of idols. It further describes how Abraham was rewarded for these virtuous acts.  Obviously it cannot be un-Islamic to emulate a man described by the Quran as the first Muslim and favoured by Allah.

If Abraham existed at all, the only source about him is the Bible, which carries none of this "information".  It tells us that Ismail was the son of Abraham's Egyptian concubine Hagar, and that she took her son back to Egypt; Arabia is not in the picture at all.  Nor do pre-Islamic Arab inscriptions mention Abraham, or Ismail or their purported aniconic worship in the Kaaba.  The Quranic story about them is pure myth.  Considering the secularist record on lambasting myths, I wonder why Sikand has not bothered to pour scorn on this Quranic myth yet.

All the same, Islamic apologists regularly. justify the desecration of the Kaaba by Prophet Mohammed as a mere restoration of Abraham's monotheistic mosque which had been usurped by the polytheists.  This happens to be exactly the justification given by Hindus for the demolition of the Babri Masjid, with this difference that the preexistence of a Hindu temple at the Babri Masjid site is a historical fact, while the preexistence of monotheistic and aniconic worship established by Abraham at the Kaaba is pure myth.  At any rate, the Islamic account itself establishes that the model man Prophet Mohammed desecrated the Kaaba and forcibly turned it into a mosque, setting an example, particularly, for Mahmud Ghaznavi, Aurangzeb and the Taliban to emulate.

Let us conclude with a comment on Sikand's conclusion: "Hindus and Muslims alike, then, have been equally guilty of destroying places of worship, and, in this regard, as in any other, neither has a monopoly of virtue or vice.  The destruction of the mosque in Rajasthan and building a temple in its place, like the tearing down of the Babri Masjid by Hindutva zealots or the vandalism of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, shows how sanctified vandalism and medieval notions of the politics of revenge are still alive and thriving in our part of the world."

Look how claims are smuggled into this conclusion which have not been established in Sikand's argumentation.  Even by Sikand's own figures, Hindus and Muslims were far from "equally" guilty, as a handful of alleged cases of temple destruction by Hindus do not equal the "eighty" well-attested Islamic cases.  Also, the notion of revenge, attributed here to Hindus and Muslims alike, does not apply to both.  The Hindu kar sevaks in Ayodhya were arguably taking revenge for the destruction of the pre-existing Rama Mandir, but the Islamic destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was not a case of revenge on anyone.  The Taliban or Afghan Islam in general had not been hurt or threatened by Buddhists or by any other religion.  Their iconoclasm was not a case of vengeance, but of unilateral and unprovoked aggression.

Nobody in this forum, or so I hope, claims a "monopoly of virtue" for the members of one religion, nor that of vice for those of another.  The problem with religions is that they can make virtuous people commit vicious acts out of innocent piety, viz. by ordaining vicious behaviour as divinely sanctioned.  In spite of Sikand's attempt to whitewash Aurangzeb, evidence remains plentiful that this Moghul emperor committed acts of persecution and iconoclasm which would generally be considered vicious (they certainly would if committed by Hindutva activists, witness the torrent of abuse after the demolition of the Babri Masjid).  Yet, by all accounts, Aurangzeb was a virtuous man, not given to self-indulgence, eager to fulfil his duties.  Likewise, the Kashmiri "militants" who massacre Hindus are not people of evil character.  They have left fairly cosy jobs or schools behind to put their lives on the line for their ideal, viz. bringing Kashmir under Islamic rule.  It is the contents of their religion which makes them cross the line between their own goodness and the evil of their terrorist acts.  The problem is not Muslims, the problem is Islam. 

The founding texts as well as the history of Islam testify to the profound link between iconoclasm and the basic injunction of the Prophet, viz. that "until ye believe in Allah alone, enmity and hate shall reign between us" (Q.60:4), i.e. between Muslims and non-Muslims.  I can understand that a peace-loving Muslim who is comfortable with religious pluralism would have problems with this quotation, and generally with the unpleasant record of the founder and role model of his religion.  Having wrestled with the Catholic faith in which I grew up, I know from experience that outgrowing one's religion can be a long and painful process.  Regarding a Muslim's reluctance to face these facts, I would therefore counsel compassion and patience.

But Yoginder Sikand doesn't have this excuse.  For him as a secularist, facing and affirming the defects of religions should come naturally.  One of the best-documented defects of any religion is the role of Islamic doctrine in the destruction of other people's cultural treasures, rivalled only by Christianity in some of its phases, and surpassed only in the 20th century by Communism.  A secularist should subject the record of Islam to criticism, not to a whitewash.

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