Sunday, December 30, 2012

Vijayanagar negationism

                In several articles and speeches since at least 2004 (“Trapped in the ruins”, The Guardian, 20 March 2004), and especially in the commotion provoked by Girish Karnad’s speech in Mumbai (autumn 2012), William Dalrymple has condemned Nobel prize winner V.S. Naipaul for writing that the Vijayanagar empire was a Hindu bastion besieged by Muslim states. The famous writer has taken the ruins of vast Vijayanagar as illustration of how Hinduism is a “wounded civilization”, viz. wounded by Islam. Dalrymple’s counter-arguments against this conflictual view of Indian history consist in bits of Islamic influence in the Vijayanagar kings’ court life, such as Hindu courtiers wearing Muslim dress, Hindu armies adopting techniques borrowed from the Muslims, styles of palace architecture and the Persian nomenclature of political functions; and conversely, elements of Hinduism in Muslims courts and households, e.g. the Muslim festival of Muharram looking like the Kumbha Mela of the Hindus.


Secularism and Vijayanagar

                As is all too common in Nehruvian-secularist discourse, Dalrymple’s analysis of the role of Islam in India stands out by its superficiality. Whenever a Hindu temple or a Muslim festival is found to employ personnel belonging to the opposite religion, secular journalists go gaga and report on this victory of syncretism over religious orthodoxy. Secular historians including Dalrymple do likewise about religious cross-pollination in the past.

                It is true that Hindus are eager to integrate foreign elements from their surroundings, from Hellenistic astrology (now mis-termed “Vedic astrology”) in the past to the English language and American consumerism today. So Hindu courts adopted styles and terminology from their Muslim counterparts. They even enlisted Muslim mercenaries in their armies, so “secular” were they. We could say that Hindus are multicultural at heart, or open-minded. But that quality didn’t get rewarded, except with a betrayal by their Muslim regiments during the battle of Talikota (1565): they defected to the enemy, in which they recognized fellow-Muslims. When the chips were down, Hindu open-mindedness and syncretism were powerless against their heartfelt belief in Islamic solidarity. In September 2012, Dalrymple went to Hyderabad to praise the city and its erstwhile Muslim dynasty as a centre of Hindu-Muslim syncretism; but fact is that after Partition, the ruler of Hyderabad opted for Pakistan, against multicultural India. When the chips are down, secular superficiality is no match for hard-headed orthodoxy.

                Muslims too sometimes adopted Hindu elements. However, it would be unhistorical to assume a symmetry with what the Hindus did. Hindus really adopted foreign elements, but most Muslims largely just retained Hindu elements which had always been part of their culture and which lingered on after conversion. Thus, the Pakistanis held it against the Bengalis in their artificial Muslim state (1947-71) that their language was very Sanskritic, not using the Arabic script, and that their womenfolk “still” wore saris and no veils. The Bengali Muslims did this not because they had “adopted” elements from Hinduism, but because they had retained many elements from the Hindu culture of their forefathers. “Pakistan” means the “land of the pure”, i.e. those who have overcome the taints of Paganism, the very syncretism which Dalrymple celebrates. Maybe it is in the fitness of things that a historian should sing paeans to this religious syncretism for, as far as Islam is concerned, it is a thing of the past.

                A second difference between Hindus and Muslims practicing syncretism is that in the case of Muslims, this practice was in spite of their religion, due to a hasty (and therefore incomplete) conversion under duress and a lack of sufficient policing by proper Islamic authorities. If, as claimed by Dalrymple, a Sultan of Bijapur venerated both goddess Saraswati and prophet Mohammed, it only proves that he hadn’t interiorized Mohammed’s strictures against idolatry yet. In more recent times, though, this condition has largely been remedied. Secular journalists now have to search hard for cases of Muslims caught doing Hindu things, for such Muslims become rare. Modern methods of education and social control have wiped out most traces of Hinduism. Thus, since their independence, the Bengali Muslims have made great strides in de-hinduizing themselves, as by widely adopting proper Islamic dress codes. The Tabligh (“propaganda”) movement as well as informal efforts by clerics everywhere have gone a long way to “islamize the Muslims”, i.e. to destroy all remnants of Hinduism still lingering among them.


Hindu iconoclasm?

                Another unhistorical item in the secular view of Islam in India is the total absence of an Islamic prehistory outside India. Yet, all Muslims know about this history to some extent and base their laws and actions upon it. In particular, they know about Mohammed’s career in Arabia and seek to replicate it, from wearing “the beard of the Prophet” to emulating his campaigns against Paganism.

Dalrymple, like all Nehruvians, makes much of the work of the American Marxist historian Richard Eaton. This man is famous for saying that the Muslims have indeed destroyed many Hindu temples (thousands, according to his very incomplete list, though grouped as the oft-quoted “eighty”), but that they based themselves for this conduct on Hindu precedent. Indeed, he has found a handful of cases of Hindu conquerors “looting” temples belonging to the defeated kings, typically abducting the main idol to install it in their own capital. This implies a very superficial equating between stealing an idol (but leaving the worship of the god concerned intact, and even continuing it in another temple) and destroying temples as a  way of humiliating and ultimately destroying their religion itself. But we already said that secularists are superficial. However, he forgets to tell his readers that he has found no case at all of a Muslim temple-destroyer citing these alleged Hindu precedents. If they try to justify their conduct, it is by citing Mohammed’s Arab precedents. The most famous case is the Kaaba in Mecca, where the Prophet and his nephew Ali destroyed 360 idols with their own hands. What the Muslims did to Vijayanagar was only an imitation of what the Prophet had done so many times in Arabia, only on a much larger scale.

From historians like Eaton and Dalrymple, we expect a more international view of history than what they offer in their account of Islamic destructions in India. They try to confine their explanations to one country, whereas Islam is globalist par excellence. By contrast, Naipaul does reckon with international cultural processes, in particular the impact of Islam among the converted peoples, not only in South but also in West and Southeast Asia. He observes that they have been estranged from themselves, alienated from their roots, and therefore suffering from a neurosis.

So, Naipaul is right and Dalrymple wrong in their respective assessments of the role of Islam in India. Yet, in one respect, Naipaul is indeed mistaken. In his books Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, he analyses the impact of Islam among the non-Arab converts, but assumes that for Arabs, Islam is more natural. True, the Arabs did not have to adopt a foreign language for religious purposes, they did not have to sacrifice their own national traditions in name-giving; but otherwise they too had to adopt a religion that wasn’t theirs. The Arabs were Pagans who worshipped many gods and tolerated many religions (Jews, Zoroastrians, various Christian Churches) in their midst. Mohammed made it his life’s work to destroy their multicultural society and replace it with a homogeneous Islamic one. Not exactly the syncretism which Dalrymple waxes so eloquent about.


Colonial “Orientalism”?

                Did Muslims “contribute” to Indian culture, as Dalrymple claims? Here too, we should distinguish between what Islam enjoins and what people who happen to be Muslims do. Thus, he says that Muslims contributed to Indian music. I am quite illiterate on art history, but I’ll take his word for it. However, if they did, they did it is spite of Islam, and not because of it. Mohammed closed his ears not to hear the music, and orthodox rulers like Aurangzeb and Ayatollah Khomeini issued measures against it. Likewise, the Moghul school of painting shows that human beings are inexorably fond of visual art, but does not disprove that Islam frowns on it.

Also, while some tourists fall for the Taj Mahal, which Naipaul so dislikes, the Indo-Saracenic architecture extant does not nullify the destruction of many more beautiful buildings which could have attracted far more tourists. In what sense is it a “contribution” anyway? Rather than filling a void, it is at best a replacement of existing Hindu architecture with new Muslim architecture. Similarly, if no Muslim music (or rather, music by Muslims) had entered India, then native Hindu music would have flourished more, and who is Dalrymple to say that Hindu music is inferior?                 

Another discursive strategy of the secularists, applied here by Dalrymple, is to blame the colonial view of history. Naipaul is said to be inspired by colonial Orientalists and to merely repeat their findings. This plays on the strong anti-Westernism among Indians. But it is factually incorrect: Naipaul cites earlier sources (e.g. Dalrymple omits Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveler who only described witnessed Sultanate cruelty to the Hindus with his own eyes) as well as the findings of contemporaneous archaeologists. Moreover, even the colonial historians only repeat what older native sources tell them. The destruction of Vijayanagar is a historical fact and an event that took place with no colonizers around. Unless you mean the Muslim rulers.



In the West, we are familiar with the phenomenon of Holocaust negationism. While most people firmly disbelieve the negationists, some will at least appreciate their character: they are making a lot of financial, social and professional sacrifices for their beliefs. The ostracism they suffer is fierce. Even those who are skeptical of their position agree that negationists at least have the courage of their conviction.

In India, and increasingly also in the West and in international institutions, we are faced with a similar phenomenon, viz. Jihad negationism. This is the denial of aggression and atrocities motivated by Islam. Among the differences, we note those in social position of the deniers and those in the contents of the denial. Jihad deniers are not marginals who have sacrificed a career to their convictions, on the contrary; they serve their careers greatly by uttering the politically palatable “truth”. In India, any zero can become a celebrity overnight by publishing a condemnation of the “communalists” and taking a stand for Jihad denial and history distortion. The universities are full of them, while people who stand by genuine history are kept out. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, most of these negationists hold forth on the higher humbug (as historian Paul Johnson observed) and declare themselves “secular”.

Whereas the Holocaust lasted only four years and took place in war circumstances and largely in secret (historians are still troubled over the absence of an order by Adolf Hitler for the Holocaust, a fact which gives a handle to the deniers), Jihad started during the life of Mohammed and continues till today, entirely openly, proudly testified by the perpetrators themselves. From the biography and the biographical collections of the Prophet (Sira, Ahadith) through medieval chronicles and travel diaries down to the farewell letters or videos left by hundreds of suicide terrorists today, there are literally thousands of sources by Muslims attesting that Islam made them do it. But whereas I take Muslims seriously and believe them at their word when they explain their motivation, some people overrule this manifold testimony and decide that the Muslims concerned meant something else. 

The most favoured explanation is that British colonialism and now American imperialism inflicted poverty on them and this made them do it, though they clothed it in Islamic discourse. You see, the billionaire Osama bin Laden, whose family has a long-standing friendship with the Bush family, was so poor that he saw no option but to hijack some airplanes and fly them into the World Trade Center. What else was he to do? And Mohammed, way back in the 7th century, already the ruler of Medina and much of the Arabian peninsula, just had to have his critics murdered or, as soon as he could afford it, formally executed. He had to take hostages and permit his men to rape them; nay, he just had to force the Jewish woman Rayhana into concubinage after murdering her relatives. If you don’t like what he did, blame Britain and America. Their colonialism and imperialism made him do it! Under the colonial dispensation which didn’t exist yet, he Muslim troops who were paid by the Vijayanagar emperor had no other option but to betray their employer and side with his opponents who, just by coincidence, happened to be Muslim as well. And if you don’t believe this, the secularists will come up with another story.



India is experiencing a regime of history denial. In this sense, the West is more and more becoming like India. There are some old professors of Islam or religion (and I know a few) who hold the historical view, viz. that Mohammed (if he existed at all) was mentally afflicted, that Islam consists of a manifold folie à deux (“madness with two”, where a wife supports and increasingly shares her husband’s self-delusion), and that it always was a political religion which spread by destroying other religions. But among the younger professors, it is hard to find any who are so forthright. There is a demand for reassurance about Islam, and universities only recruit personnel who provide that. Indeed, many teach false history in good faith, thinking that untruth about the past in this case is defensible because it fosters better interreligious relations in the present. Some even believe their own stories, just like the layman who is meant to lap them up. Such is also my impression of William Dalrymple.



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Saturday, December 29, 2012

An Indian sceptic

At long last, I have read Prof. Daya Krishna’s book Indian Philosophy. A Counter Perspective (OUP, Delhi 1996 (1991)). When the book first came out, I had just resolved that the contemporary history of India’s communal situation was more an urgent need than the abstruse philosophies which I had come to Varanasi to study. Also, I was convinced that young people have little to say in philosophy, that first you have to prove yourself in more mundane pursuits, of which one had forced itself upon me. In subsequent years, I did read some books on Indian philosophy, including Daya Krishna’s own edited volume Discussion and Debate in Indian Philosophy (2004), but I didn’t follow the subject closely.

And when at last I was drawn to reading this book when it was presented to me, it was still not because by now I had come to value philosophy once more, but because Daya Krishna (1924-2007) had been a member of the Changers’ Club, the debating circle of friends at Delhi University, featuring the later journalist Girilal Jain, economists Ram Swarup and Raj Krishna and historian Sita Ram Goel. To my knowledge, just one member is still alive, and with her I only talked briefly in 2009. Daya Krishna died just when I had made up my mind to interview him about the Changers’ Club and later developments, so that didn’t work out. But I trust that up there, he is taking it philosophically.  

In some chapters, Daya Krishna seems to talk as if he takes for granted that the Vedas are apaurusheya, “impersonal”, i.e. of supernatural origin, but in Indian Philosophy he musters arguments why the Vedas are just human literature. Thus, the existence of different versions of the Yajurveda was consciously countenanced by the Yajurvedic rishis: “Obviously, they would not have regarded it as apaurusheya or revealed” (p.84). Repetition of Vedic verses is another key to the natural process of intertextuality: ”It is not only that a very large number of Mantras from the Rgveda are repeated in the other Vedas, but that there are substantial repetitions in the Rgveda itself.” (p.86)

 The rishis freely borrowed from each other, they could see far because they stood on the shoulders of giants: “But if this was the relation of one Vedic rsi to another, how can that relation be understood either in terms of apaurusheyatva or revelation, or even in terms of Vedic authority?” (p.86) Answer: it cannot, i.e. it should not be understood as a divine revelation like what is claimed for the Ten Commandments or the Quran. It must be seen as just a collection of hymns to (not from) the gods by human poets. We know their names, their genealogies (with one of them the brother or the grandfather of another), their whereabouts, roughly also their chronology, so we are very much dealing with a human composition.

                In traditionalist circles it would be sacrilege to say this, but: “In fact, the very large proliferation of the shakhas [‘branches’, channels of transmission], at least as mentioned in the tradition, testifies to the fact that the Rishis of those days treated their Vedic patrimony with a degree of freedom that seems sacrilegious when viewed in the perspective of attitudes with which the Vedas have been traditionally looked at for a long time. (…) the Vedas were regarded in a totally different way in Vedic times.” (p.84) So, next time I say this, I can quote a Indian authority for it, and that will hopefully silence those who see Western conspiracies against Hinduism everywhere.

                Enthusiasm oozes out when he  describes the ancient Hindu philosophies. Today’s devout God-fearing Hindus, temple-goers and practitioners of a daily puja, would not feel at home with the old-school Hindu philosophers, many of whom were functionally or even explicitly atheist. Daya Krishna cites Karl Potter with approval: “If, for example, one chooses the second century AD, one would discover that ‘the major systems extant at that time – Samkhya, Mimansa, Nyaya and Vaisesika, Jainism, the several schools of Buddhism, and Carvaka – are none of them theistic’. But ‘if one slices instead at, say, the fourteenth century AD, one finds that Nyaya-Vaisesika has become pronouncedly theistic, that Buddhism and Carvaka had disappeared, and that several varieties of theistic Vedanta have come into prominence.’” (p.40) I guess that proves God punishes those who don’t believe in Him with disappearance. But it also shows in passing that medieval and modern Hindus are very different from their ancient ancestors, including the rishis they swear by.

Daya Krishna questions two common assumptions, viz. that Indian philosophy is “spiritual”, and that it is chiefly concerned with moksha, “liberation”. Of course much philosophizing was technical and not concerned with meditation and liberation. For instance, Nyaya philosophy has a lot to say on what philosophers call epistemology, i.e. the ways of knowing, but it has less  to offer to those who are eager for liberation. The philosopher quotes a list of mundane works (p.33-34), including treatises on painting and on eroticism, that start out with a promise that the knowledge provided here will lead to moksha. This was just a convention, a work that wanted to draw attention to itself just had to announce itself as a way to liberation; and the reader should use his own discrimination to decide which books really deal with liberation.

The difference between Indian schools of philosophy lies not in their respective conceptions of moksha. They quarrel about metaphysical or epistemological issues, about how many fundamental building blocks the cosmos has, or about the status of the Vedas – but rarely about the need for, and even less about the way to liberation. Moksha was taken for granted, at least in the age that concerns us here, after the introduction of alphabetic writing in India ca. 300 BC. The way towards liberation was generically called yoga, and its modus operandi was left to teachers in confidential settings.

Coming to the Upanishads, it is their classification that arouses unorthodox suspicions. According to Daya Krishna: “Most are not independent works, but selections made out of a pre-existing text”. (p.104), which raises questions, such as: who made the selection, and why? Thus, the Aitareya Upanishad forms the middle part of the Aitareya Aranyaka, the Kena forms the 10th chapter of the Jaiminiya Upanishad-Brahmana, the Taittiriya is the 7th to 9th chapter of Taittiriya Aranyaka, while the Katha is part of the Taittiriya Brahmana.

Daya Krishna wisely avoids pronouncing on the difficult question of their absolute chronology, but he observes that in relative order, Upanishad is a genre stretching from the old Upanishads which are embedded in Vedic literature, through the middle ones to a host of late ones as recent as the Muslim period. Again, the fact that many clearly postdate the Vedic period (even by the large definition of “Vedic” current in India) casts doubt on their status of apaurusheyatva. Here too, we know the situation and the story of Yajnavalkya, Satyakama Jabala, Uddalaka Aruni and others seers, as of any human writers.

Briefly, Daya Krishna was a Hindu philosopher who knew his classics very well, and who took a questioning position. He was not a secularist, the kind who know next to nothing of their tradition yet condemn it out of hand anyway. But he was not a believer either, aware as he was of the contradiction between the common beliefs about Vedic literature and what the Vedas themselves say. 

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A debate with an eminent historian

Recently an e-mail exchange took place between my friend K. Venkat and the retired “eminent historian” Prof. Harbans Mukhia. Venkat himself gave a fitting reply to the august scholar’s opinions, which is circulating on the net (I received a copy on 9 Dec. 2012). Herewith I want to formulate my own comment.

Prof. Mukhia replied to a critical query about Islamic history in India: “If you derive all your knowledge of medieval Indian history from ‘historians’ like Sita Ram Goel and Koenraad Elst and so forth, this is the shoddy history you will land up with. Sita Ram Goel was a publisher and seller of RSS books and his knowledge of history was confined to what he had learnt in the RSS shakhas. And the Belgian Elst is an hony. member of the VHP and knows no Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, any Indian language, much less Persian, so essential for getting to know medieval Indian history. And since Persian is not taught in the shakhas, Goel had no inkling of it either.”

Let us first set the language allegation straight before addressing the historical and political issues. Sita Ram Goel (1921-2003) had Hindi as mother tongue, a language in which he published several historical novels that were praised precisely for their pure and imaginative language. He went to an Urdu-medium school where Persian was part of the curriculum. He graduated from Delhi University where he studied History through the medium of English, a language in which he published many books. After his studies he lived in Bengal for a decade and became fluent in Bengali. He also read the Mahabharata and other Hindu classics in the original Sanskrit. As for myself, since Harbans Mukhia is unimpressed by real-life experience, let me just point to the testimony of my diplomas: I studied Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian, apart from Chinese and a number of European languages. After health problems starting in 2000, I haven’t been to India much, so my colloquial Hindi has become distinctly rusty; but I can still consult writings in that language. I also learned a smattering of classical Tamil a few years ago as well as biblical Hebrew and modern Arabic in my student days, now all but forgotten but I still know the grammar and some religious terminology. In all more than enough to do history.

Sita Ram Goel was a lifelong critic of the RSS, but unlike Mukhia, he knew what he was talking about. Already as a student, he remarked that only mediocre fellow-students were going to shakhas whereas the brighter ones were concentrating on other pursuits or were seduced by Communism. Anyone who has read some of his work (but that is where the problem for Mukhia arises) has seen for himself that its message is quite different from the RSS line.   

Mukhia continues: “In the shakhas, they do tell you that Aurangzeb demolished temples and erected mosques in lieu of them (which he did at Mathura and Varanasi), but they never tell you that he was also giving monetary and land grants to other Hindu temples, including some in Varanasi itself, the original document for which is on display at the Bharat Kala Bhavan on BHU campus. Historians KK Datta and Jnana Prakash have also published numerous documents of Aurangzeb giving such grants to temples, maths and other Hindu institutions, and many more remain unpublished. Naturally ‘historians’ like Goel and Elst wouldn't know of them, nor would care to know.”

It is not only in the shakhas that they tell you this. Aurangzeb himself gave orders for a general destruction of temples and literally demolished thousands of them. Many other Muslim rulers acted likewise. No amount of special pleading by the eminent historians can change Islam’s record in this regard. It is possible that earlier, Aurangzeb gave some grants to Hindu institutions, as had been the Moghul dynasty’s policy since Akbar. We should of course not take Mukhia’s word for it (the eminent historians have a well-established reputation for mendaciousness), and “numerous” is certainly an exaggeration, but it remains possible. This only shows the inertia of changing a policy, as well as Aurangzeb’s increase in devotion to Islam, from a compromise-prone successor of Akbar to a zealous activist for Islam, which does not tolerate idolatry.

One issue where the much-maligned RSS is clearly wrong in its assessment of Aurangzeb, is its condemnation of him as a fanatic person. The said grants to temples, if true, may further prove a point that I have had to make repeatedly: it is not true that Aurangzeb was a cruel character, he was not more so than his less notorious predecessors. If he was cruel and fatatic, it was because he started taking the core doctrine of Islam to his heart. He was a pious person, more than is good for a ruler, so he became increasingly averse to the religious compromise on which his great-grandfather Akbar had built the Moghul empire. So at some point in his advancing years, not his personal predilection but his growing commitment to Islam took over. That is when he ordered all Pagan temples destroyed: when the Moghul empire became truly Islamic at last. But the RSS is fearful to say this, so it tells itself and its listeners that Islam is okay but that Aurangzeb “misunderstood” his religion due to his cruel and fanatic personality.

 The professor has some advice for my friend: “If you really want to study history look at the works of professional historians -- Tara Chand, RP Tripathi, Mohd. Habib, ABM Habibullah, Satish Chandra, Irfan Habib, RM Eaton, Cynthia Talbot and many other stalwarts who gave their life time to studying medieval history from the original Persian sources, not from third rate and motivated translations like History of India as Told by its Own Historians. Motivated? Sir Henry Elliott, who compiled this 8-volume series, wrote in his Preface: The series is being compiled ‘to let the bombastic babus of India know how terrible Indians' life was until the British came to their rescue’!! So, Sir Elliott translated only those passages from the Persian language chronicles of medieval India which spoke of Muslims' atrocities on the Hindus!! He will tell you that Aurangzeb demolished temples, but not that he also patronised them!!! Much like the RSS does now and chaps like Goel and Elst follow in their footsteps.”

See, the eminent historians are as good at the use of exclamation marks as your average Hindutva internet warrior. And yes, Elliott was guilty of espousing the same theory which the eminent historians have been spreading, viz. that the British took India from the Moghuls, omitting the successful Hindu effort to liberate most of India from Muslim occupation and then succumbing to the British. But that doesn’t make his translations wrong. He selected those parts which would be most telling for the atrocities undergone by the Hindus under Muslim rule so that they would appreciate British rule by contrast – and then translated these faithfully. He reminded his Hindu readers that their “own historians” (meaning India-based Muslim chroniclers) had reported these Islamic atrocities. Anyway, I would like to see the secular improvement, e.g. how do you translate the frequently-used Arabic verb q-t-l, Persian kushtan, both meaning “kill”. There aren’t too many nuances to that, are there?

Elliott’s translations were correct, but yes, they were selective. Secularists would have preferred to plough through an 88-volume rather than an 8-volume translation. But they are at liberty to go through all the untranslated parts and try to find a refutation there of what was described so explicitly in the translated parts. The Muslim chroniclers were in no mind to undo all the destruction they had evoked, so in the less dramatic parts of their work, they explored more leisurely subjects but refrained from trying their hand at what the secularists would like to read there, viz. any refutation of the grim picture they had first painted, and which Elliott and others have ably translated.

For lack of facts, Prof. Mukhia likes to throw names around instead. But a real historian remains unimpressed by this show of name-dropping. The fact that Prof. Mukhia has many like-minded colleagues in academe while his opponents have to remain on the outside is not the result of better competence among his friends, but of a deliberate policy in university nominations. Any young historian who lets on too early that he has pro-Hindu convictions, will see his entry into academe barred. Word will spread around that this man is “dangerous to India’s secular fabric” and he will be excluded. There have been some old historians who entered the profession before their cards were on the table and who only became forthright critics of Islam at the end of their careers, the likes of Prof. Harsh Narain and Prof. K.S. Lal, both since long deceased. Today among university historians, the school that sets the record on Islam straight is simply non-existent.

Fortunately, the political equation that makes the present secular-Islamic bias possible, is bound to come to an end one day. The elderly Prof. Mukhia won’t live to see that revolution anymore, but it is sure to happen. The truth which the eminent historians have long suppressed, will shine in the open. On that day, I wouldn’t like  to be called Harbans Mukhia.

The professor concludes: “I know this would have no effect on you. But just by chance if you can pick up enough courage to study history on your own and not parrot the history taught in the shakhas. Best wishes, Harbans Mukhia”

            It seems Harbans Mukhia mistook his correspondent for some fanatic Hindutvavadi, the kind who remains impervious to facts. Not that I know many such cases, for even the most extreme ones I’ve met remain true to a central fact that really occurred, viz. Islamic atrocities against Hindus. Some of them have personally lived through the Islamic carnage at the time of Partition or during the Bangladesh liberation war, massacres which completely dwarfed all Indian religious riots put together (including the largest of them all, the killing of three thousand Sikhs by Congress secularists in 1984). But this correspondent is a successful cyberprofessional in Silicon Valley, who has made a more sophisticated study of just what it was that Islam wrought in India.

            The greatest insult which the eminent historians could fling at Sita Ram Goel or myself is that we are “parroting history taught in the shakhas”. First off, I don’t even know what history they teach there. I have visited a few shakhas and can’t remember any history being taught there. I speculate it is streamlined to fit the Hindu and nationalist narrative, or at least that Mukhia wants to convey that impression. So be it, but historians have other sources for their history-writing and are not parrots of a party or movement. The main exception are the Indian secularists, whose conclusions are invariably those desired and taught by the Nehruvian rulers.

            A second mail by the professor starts out by ridiculing the RSS concept of history: “First, the RSS rant started in the 1960s with the figure of 300 temples destroyed by the Muslim rulers; then in the 70s another 0 was added. Yet another got added in the 80s. But by the 90s the Sangh Parivar ran out of 0s, so they adopted another arithmetical formula of multiplying by 2 and the figure now stood at a respectable 60,000.”

            This claim may be true or not, but I am not privy to RSS historiography. As a matter of fact, 60,000 may just happen to be a good number, for the documented cases of temple destruction (and they already run into the thousands) are necessarily only a fraction of the more everyday cases, which must have been even more numerous. But we as historians can only deal with documented cases, especially since these are difficult enough. Indeed, of the ca. 2,000 cases listed by Sita Ram Goel, and more than 20 years after having been out in the open, not one has been refuted by Prof. Mukhia and his school.

So, like most secularists, he goes hiding behind an American self-described Marxist, Prof. Richard Eaton: “RM Eaton, who would necessarily be suspect in your eyes because he is a an American historian, examined the number of temples destroyed in the whole expanse of medieval India from 1200 to 1760 and came to the figure of 80. He has located the exact source of information or each demolition and put all the information in a tabular form. His brilliant article is called ‘Temple Desecration in Medieval India'. By the way, Eaton is aware of the figure of 60,000 handed out to credulous people like Sita Ram Goel, Koenraad Elst and yourself.”

In several respects, Eaton’s count is incomplete. Muslims destroyed Hindu temples before 1200 and after 1760 too, witness the near-absence of the once-numerous Hindu temples in Pakistan, witness the regular occurrence of temple destruction in Bangla Desh. It is also seriously false that for this period, Eaton’s count is complete. How could it be? Off-hand, Venkat could name a few cases from his own Tamil village, which was only briefly touched by the Islamic invasions but nonetheless already lost several temples, and they don’t figure in Eaton’s list. Archeologists regularly find remains of destroyed temples, often underneath mosques, which do not and cannot figure in Eaton’s list. Finally, one item on Eaton’s list doesn’t mean one temple destroyed. The thousand temples destroyed in Varanasi during Mohammed Ghori’s advances ca. 1194 form only one item on his list. What Mukhia calls “eighty” is in fact thousands of temple demolitions. So in spite of his Islam-friendly intentions, Eaton has only proven what Hindus have been saying all along: Islam has destroyed thousands of temples. 

I had in fact answered Eaton’s list and explanation when they were published: “Vandalism sanctified by scripture”, Outlook India, 31 Aug. 2001 ( Needless to say, my arguments have never been refuted by anyone. Secular historians are so sure about controlling the information flow through education and the media that they don’t bother to interfere when their falsehoods are exposed. In the article, I also mention Eaton’s sidekick Yoginder Sikand, then a furious Hindu-hater and secularist journalist. But in the meantime, he has recanted and exposed the whole self-serving buffoonery that does by the name secularism: “Why I Gave Up On 'Social Activism'”,, 19 April, 2012 (

Prof. Mukhia goes on: “Incidentally, Hindu temples were also demolished by Hindu rulers long before Muslims came to India. King Harsha of Kashmir had appointed an officer, devopatananayaka (officer in-charge of uprooting of gods) as reported by Kalhana's Rajatarangini and mosques were also destroyed by the Hindu rulers in medieval India. Details of it can be found in my book, The Mughals of India. Incidentally, I have never been funded by any US agency, University or institution and all my education has been in India, and all schooling in Hindi medium. This is just to guard you against the stupidity of levying charges such as you have done against the most outstanding Indian historian of our time, Romila Thapar.”

As for Harsha, chronicler Kalhana says: “Prompted by the Turks in his employ, he behaved like a Turk.” It is simply not true that his case exemplifies a Hindu type of iconoclasm. On the contrary, he merely shows the influence of Islamic iconoclasm. Half-literate secularists keep on repeating this story a decade after it has been refuted in my paper “Harsha of Kashmir, a Hindu iconoclast?”, ch.4 of my book Ayodhya: the Case against the Temple (Delhi 2002;
            It should be granted to Prof. Harbans Mukhia, as to his colleague Prof. Irfan Habib, that they have faithfully followed the old Nehruvian line of distrusting the “foreign hand”, particularly the Americans. This is very unlike their colleague Prof. Romila Thapar, who has been lavishly sponsored in Washington DC. And among their generation, this was still exceptional. Indian secularists were admired from afar, followed by the leading American scholars of India, like Prof. Paul Brass or Prof. Robert Frykenberg, but keeping their distance because of the reigning anti-Americanism. Now however, Indian academics of the right persuasion are openly courted and hosted by American colleagues.

 Returning to the subject-matter, the professor asks: “But the question is more complex: how is it that Aurangzeb, an orthodox Muslim on RSS account, waited for 21 years after coming to the throne to reimpose the jazia? You remember the date of its abolition by Akbar but not one of its reimposition which is 1679. How did he keep his religious zeal in check for 21 long years when he was the undisputed sovereign of India? And why was he giving grants to temples while he was keen on demolishing it? The questions is WHY?”

“The answer is that huge and complex empires are not governed by religious zeal of its rulers but by an enormously complex interaction of political, administrative, cultural, social and religious considerations. Remember Rajiv Gandhi passing a Bill in Parliament after the Shah Bano judgment of the Supreme Court and getting the doors to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid disputed site opened almost simultaneously? Was he being a zealous Muslim or a zealous Hindu or just a clever political manipulator?”

Strictly speaking, not the Government but the Court opened the locks of the Ayodhya building. But it stands to reason that the two played together, and that the Court executed the policy desired by the Government. At any rate, yes, Rajiv Gandhi was a clever manipulator, zealous only in furthering his personal power and wealth. He intended to solve the communal situation bloodlessly by handing the Hindus full control of Ayodhya (including the right to rebuild a temple instead of the Babri Masjid) and giving the Muslims other goodies, such as a Sharia-inspired change in the law  on Muslim divorce or the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. This not-so-principled but very practical policy, typical of the “Congress culture”, would have succeeded but for the intervention of the eminent historians and like-minded intellectuals: they raised the stakes on Ayodhya and the Babri Masjid (“the bulwark of India’s secular polity”, etc.) so much that the Government could no longer pursue its pragmatic give-and-take plan. The result was endless religious riots, the surreptitious demolition, and more riots culminating in the Muslim bomb attacks on Mumbai of 12 March 1993, which pioneered a new Muslim tactic repeated in many other bomb attacks including those on the US of 11 September 2001. The eminent historians have blod on their hands. 

It is also true that the Moghul empire was based on a religious compromise, that Aurangzeb’s conversion to a more principled Islamic policy jeopardized this compromise, and thereby endangered the empire itself. At the end of his life, amid Hindu rebellions, Aurangzeb understood this well enough. But he was too much of a pious Muslim to turn the clock back.

“As for Sita Ram Goel -- he used to rant regularly in the Indian Express about the little that RSS had taught him of history: Islam teaches you intolerance, every Muslim ruler was inspired by Islam to destroy Hindu temples and Hindu society etc. etc. and how Marxist historians cannot face up to the truth of all his rants. You obviously read all this avidly. You obviously did not read 'Reflections of the Past' in the same paper dated 30.4.1989 by a non-descript historian called Harbans Mukhia. Since that date, Sita Ram Goel did not write a thing at least in the Indian Express. Please check it out; it should be available on the IE website. If not, you will find it in the same non-descript historian's book Issues in Indian History, Politics and Society, pp. 31-34. Please forgive me for advertising my own writings; I avoided reference to myself in my earlier response, but since you were out to challenge us secular historians, I felt compelled to reverse my earlier decision. In any case you wouldn't have heard of many historians anyway; the RSS never lets you know that they exist.”

Well, I didn’t know about this episode. 1989 is the year when I first met Sita Ram Goel, at the end of the year. Arun Shourie was then the editor of Indian Express, and in that capacity, he published a number of articles that went against the secularist opinion. In his books on religion and communalism, he made use of insight he had learned from Goel. It is very much news to me, and does indeed sound highly unlikely, that Shourie would have censored Goel. And it sounds completely ridiculous to assume that Goel laid his pen aside because of what an eminent historian wrote. For the next 14 years, Goel keept on writing forcefully against all anti-Hindu forces including those represented by Mukhia.

As a parting-shot, the eminent historian informs us a bit more about his locus standi regarding translations: “By the way, the translations of the medieval Indian Persian texts are quite often atrocious. I happen to know because my doctorate at Delhi University back in 1969 was an evaluation of these texts. It is called Historians and Historiography During the Reign of Akbar.”

As already said, “killing” is something that happened frequently when Muslims encountered Hindus, and the Muslim chroniclers thus had to describe this process quite often. Harbans Mukhia has not convinced us that under the hands of the translators, “killing” only got mentioned as a mistranslation of, say, “tolerating”. Maybe the more abstruse elements in the narrative were subject to mistranslation, but the relation between Hindus and Muslims was pretty straightforward and hard to mistake for friendship.

The august professor bids us goodbye: “Voila, this is my last intervention in this so-called debate. I have better things to do than rectifying the RSS version of history. Best wishes, Harbans Mukhia”. Amen to that.

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A Nazi Out-of-India Theory?

While we were working on the argumentation against the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), an improper and utterly false argument against the presumed association of the rivaling Out-of-India Theory (OIT) with Nazi Germany was being prepared in high places. This becomes clear from a refutation of the latter in a paper published by the International Journal of Hindu Studies (no.16 = 2012, p.189-252), and written by the German scholar Reinhold Grünendahl (Göttingen): “History in the making: on Sheldon Pollock’s ‘NS Indology’ and Vishwa Adluri’s ‘Pride and prejudice’”.

The homeland debate
Ultimately, a question of ancient history, such as the location of the homeland of the Indo-European language family inside or outside of India, will not be decided by its real or putative association with political tendencies in the modern age. Thus, when Hindus are writing for the umpteenth time that the AIT stems from colonialism and racism, they may be wrong or they may be right, but at any rate they are wasting their breath. Historians know that even a theory generateHistory plays out in a time when other concerns were at stake than in the presentd by the wrong motives may prove to be right, and even a point of view stemming from noble political positions may be wrong. We all would like to domesticate history into political usefulness for today, but have to acknowledge that it doesn’t work that way.
All the same, the AIT school do occasionally try to blacken the Hindu nationalist movement’s newfound enthusiasm for the OIT with a wrong political association, viz. by fitting it into their well-established narrative that somehow this is a “fascist” movement. Thus, in a newspaper column, Robert Zydenbos (“An obscurantist argument”, Indian Express, 12-12-1993) tried to associate Navaratna Rajaram’s arguments for the OIT with Adolf Hitler’s National-Socialism. More crassly, Yoginder Sikand (“Exploding the Aryan myth”, Observer of Business and Politics, 30-10-1993) likewise tried to link the OIT with Nazi Germany, playing on their common concern for (but diametrically opposite interpretation of) the term Arya.
Of course, nobody who follows the debate, closely or even from afar, can be taken in by this. Very obviously, the Nazis themselves never believed in the OIT but were more ardent than most in espousing the AIT. Practically all Westerners at the time, and many Indians as well (including the Hindu nationalist leader of Congress, Balagangadhara Tilak, and the ideologue of the Hindutva movement, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar), took the AIT for granted. The Nazis had an extra reason for putting their faith in it, viz. that the AIT served as the perfect illustration to the Nazi worldview. The Aryan immigrants had demonstrated their superiority, they had sought to protect it by instituting a colour-based (to the Nazis: race-based) caste system, and they had lost part of their European quality by succumbing to race-mixing nonetheless. So, if anyone should be likened to Hitler, it is the AIT advocates themselves, including Zydenbos and Sikand. The OIT school rarely misses a chance to highlight this political identification of the AIT: with British imperialism as well as with European racism epitomized by the Nazis.
We may assume that Zydenbos was a newcomer to this debate, that he objected to the OIT in good faith and that he hadn’t informed himself of the Nazi view on the homeland question. But two decades down the line, the AIT belief has definitely lost its innocence. And already back then, a specialist like Columbia professor Sheldon Pollock published a paper titled: “Deep Orientalism? Notes on Sanskrit and power beyond the Raj” (in Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, eds.: Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, UPenn Press 1993, p.76-133), which includes a chapter titled “Ex Oriente Nox: Indology in the Total State” (p.86-96). He and his acolytes have since kept on elaborating this thesis, viz. that Germany invested much in Indology and used it in its project of self-definition as “Aryans” contrasting with the “Semites”. A recent example of this polemic is Vishwa Adluri’s paper in Pollock’s defence, “Pride and prejudice: Orientalism and German Indology” (International Journal of Hindu Studies, 15 (=2011), p.253-294).
While we, both in the OIT and AIT camp, were concentrating on the scientific evidence pertaining to the homeland and to the direction of the Indo-European expansion, someone somewhere was working on a large-scale and truly daring attempt to finally link the OIT to the National-Socialist regime. Nonetheless, a Hindu industrialist recently donated Pollock a fabulous sum of money for his work on Sanskrit literature, trusting him more with this heritage than other Indologists including the native scholars, both traditional and university-trained, who are far better at home in Sanskrit and financially far cheaper than an American academic. So, this highly reputed Sanskrit specialist sharpened his long-standing hatred of the Hindu nationalist movement into a paper alleging that Indology in general and the OIT in particular was much beloved of the Nazi establishment.

Edward Said
In this paper, Pollock at first seeks to supplement Edward Said’s unjustly famous thesis Orientalism (1978) with the German chapter which Said purposely left out. If truthful, such a chapter would have refuted Said’s whole theory, viz. that “Orientalism” was nothing but the intellectual chapter of the political-economic colonial entreprise. The mainstay of “Orientalist” scholarship was Central Europe, then thoroughly German-speaking at least at the intellectual level. Prussia only had colonies at a late date and far from the lands that interested the Orientalists, while the other countries involved, including the Austro-Hungarian empire, had no colonies at all. In the colonial countries too, many Orientalists were by no means part of the colonial entreprise (pace Said’s conspiracy theory), but in the German-speaking world, there was not even a colonial entreprise to integrate the Orientalist endeavour in; yet Orientalism flourished there like nowhere else. Moreover, Orientalism took wing when the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Oriental neighbor, the Ottoman Empire, was by no means a colony but a threat and an equal trading-partner.
             Indeed, even in its better-developed “British” part, Said’s theory was deeply flawed from the beginning, and the numerous errors of detail as well as the general error of his theory  have ably been pointed out by Robert Irwin (For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and Their Enemies, Allan Lane, London 2006) and Ibn Warraq (Defending the West. A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Prometheus, Amherst NY, 2007). A comprehensive work on German-language Oriental scholarship has been produced by Suzanne Marchand (German Orientalism in the Age of Empire. Religion, Race and Scholarship, German Historical Institute, Washington DC, and Cambridge University Press, 2009). With the benefit of hindsight, we can now pass judgment on Said’s influential publication which has seriously damaged the fair name of the academic discipline called “Orientalism”.

Academics who still rely on Said’s thesis, actually rely on a profoundly mistaken and highly politicized piece of scholarship. His thesis is a thin attempt at justification for anti-Westernism. Much as this is in vogue among Hindus, they are only making fools of themselves by espousing Said’s conspiracy theory. For everyone, it is  academically weak and factually full of mistakes, but for Muslims at least, they would be supporting their own man. They would be cheering for a Dhimmi, someone upholding Islamic causes, in that as well as in other books. In supporting Said, Pollock is true to his own camp, i.e. the anti-Hindu coalition. But for Hindus, there is nothing in it, they are cheering for someone serving a declared enemy.

What Nazi rule really meant for Orientalism
                Grünendahl cites  many examples where Pollock and his defender Adluri manipulate quotations to make past authors witnesses for their accusations. I vaguely knew that Pollock was wrong in associating the OIT with National-Socialism, but not that he was so spectacularly wrong. His thesis is first of all that India was a central concern for the Nazis. This is put forward most emphatically (but only with bluff) by Pollock and, on his authority, generally taken for granted. Adluri elaborates that Germany was very worried about building its “identity” as contrasting with the Semitic heritage and the Semitic people in their midst, and used India for that purpose.
But Grünendahl shows from old and neutral sources that the Indology departments received no special attention, that they were small compared to Ancient Near-Eastern Studies, Sinology etc., and that the Nazi period showed no special interest in Orientalism in general or Indology in particular. If anything, they suffered in their orientation on India from the reigning emphasis on “Indo-Germanic studies”.
Marchand notes that the number of German Oriental scholars as a whole fell from 360 in 1931 to 180 in 1940. [2009:488] What connection she cites between Indology and the Nazis [2009:499] is wholly based on Pollock, who estimates that one-third of the (only!) ca. twenty-five Indology professors in the Third Reich were active in the National-Socialist party or in the SS. This is the only time she cites him in her 526-page book. (She also naïvely gives credence to other anti-Hindu scholars such as Reza Pirbhai, p.311.) According to her: “Worst of all among the Indologist collaborators was Walter Wüst, the Vedic specialist at the University of Munich who became the director of the SS Ahnenerbe.” [p.499] But Wüst is not known to have championed the OIT, on the contrary. The Nazi regime’s favourite historian H.K.F. Günther believed the homeland lay in Southeastern Europe. This was the reigning opinion in Europe, challenged only by some Nazis who insisted on Germany or Scandinavia as the homeland. All of them agreed that the Indo-European language family had only reached India through an Aryan invasion.
Let us add that Marchand agrees to include among the Nazi Indologists Paul Thieme, the revered teacher of Michael Witzel; and he was, like his more militant pupil, a believer in the AIT. According to Marchand, one of the Nazi concerns in Oriental scholarship was “the refutation of the Jewish origins of monotheism” (p.489) namely in Mazdeism. The picture of religion in National-Socialism was complex and diverse, but belief in the superiority of monotheism was unchallenged. Like racism, it was then part of the general consensus.  
She also notes that: “Among the Islamicists, there were also numerous collaborators (…)  things looked rather promising for this bunch  in the period 1936-39” when the Nazi leaders Joseph Goebbels and Baldur von Schirach toured the Middle East, and the Islamologists were used to liaise with Muslim leaders like the Jerusalem Mufti, so that they “successfully disseminated Nazi ideas throughout the Middle East”. [2009:490] Wouldn’t that be a good topic for Orientalist scholars: Islamic-Nazi similarities as the reason for Nazi-Muslim friendships?
                The Nazi concern for “Aryans” speaking “Indo-Germanic” (innocently so named after its two extremes: Indo-Aryan in Bengal and Germanic in Iceland) or Indo-European, now and originally conceived as a language family but then also conceived as a racial unit, couldn’t seriously be bothered with India.  Their main concern was with the North, so Grünendahl argues:

“The fundamental flaw of Pollock’s narrative is that it hinges entirely on the exact reverse of the ‘Nordic’ notion. This reversal, which provides the basis for the ‘founding myth’ of the entire discourse machinery he set in motion, is enshrined in the grotesque proposition that ‘the Germans… continued, however subliminally, to hold the nineteenth-century conviction that the origin of European civilization was to be found in India  (or at least that India constituted a genetically related sibling)’ (1993:77) Even to the Romantic period [end of 18th, early 19th century, when this notion was upheld by Johann Herder], this assertion only holds with considerable qualifications (…) To make it the basis for theorizing any aspect of the NS period is rendered absurd by the above-mentioned texts alone”. [p.199]


Hitler on the Hindus

Reference is to texts revealing Hitler’s position on the Hindus. In 1920 already, he laid his cards on the table, and would never waver from this position, not in Mein Kampf, which disparages Hindus as also German neo-Pagans, not in his speeches nor in his wartime table talks. There he had evolved to mocking religion in general and his native Catholicism specifically, though he appreciated its organization and mass psychology and its anti-caste way of recruiting its priests from the people rather than from a separate priestly caste (yes, Hitler was also a comrade-at-arms of Pollock in their common anti-Brahminism). He only knew of the Hindus through the lens of the AIT:

“While Hitler does refer to ‘the Hindus’, he does so not with the intent to employ them as distant relatives in the ‘creation of Indo-German as counteridentity’ (Pollock 1993:83), but merely as an illustration of ‘racial decline’ (Rassensenkung) due to the destruction of ‘national purity’ (nationale Reinheit.)” (p.218, with reference to Adolf Hitler 1980 (1920): “Warum sind wir Antisemiten?” in Eberhard Jäckel and Axel Kuhn, eds: Hitlers sämtliche Aufzeichnungen, 1905-1924, p.184-204: specifically p.195-196)

So, Hitler’s rare utterance on the Hindus was a racial interpretation of the AIT. These are his own words (1980/1920:195): “Wir wissen, dass die Hindu in Indien ein Volk sind, gemischt aus den hochstehenden arischen Einwanderern und der dunkelschwarzen Urbevölkerung, und dass dieses Volk heute die folgen trägt; denn es ist auch das Sklavenvolk einer Rasse, die uns in vielen Punkten nahezu als zweite Judenheit erscheinen darf.” (“We know  that the Hindus in India are a people mixed from the lofty Aryan immigrants and the dark-black aboriginal population, and that this people is bearing the consequences today; for it is also the slave people of a race that almost seems like a second Jewry.”)
For Grünendahl, this is merely an example of how the primary sources of German history contradict the free-for-all that amateur historians make of it, in this case the manipulated narrative by Sheldon Pollock. He sounds like defending Germany’s true history against American (and then, by imitation, Indian) distortions. Probably he doesn’t realize that this distortion, about the presumed Nazi love for the OIT, constitutes Pollock’s ultimate motive. We don’t want to pretend to read inside a man’s skull, so we will not speak out on his intimate motives. But the objective finality of his thesis is at any rate to blacken the OIT by associating it with National-Socialism. Reality, however, is just the opposite: more even than other Europeans, the Nazis espoused and upheld the AIT. Hitler-Pollock, same struggle!

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sick with “identity”


On 14 November 2012, Prof. Deepak Sarma posted an article on Huffington Post, titled “White Hindu converts: mimicry or mockery?” In that blog, he defines Hindus in America as an ethnic group animated by a memory of the colonized condition. It should, he argues, mistrust attempts by white Americans to convert to their religion. These whites only mimic “their imaginary (and often Orientalist) archetypal ‘Hindu’ in order to reverse-assimilate, to deny their colonial histories, to (futilely) color their lives, and, paradoxically, to be marginalized”.

Before we can begin discussing this thesis, we note that one word already stands out: “Orientalist”. Indeed, Sarma is one of those Hindus who take Edward Said’s theory of “Orientalism” seriously, even to the point of making their own whole work a footnote to Said’s magnum opus. But Said’s influential book has been refuted as both riddled with factual errors and being in essence a grand conspiracy theory. It is plainly shameful for an academic to be seen in Said’s company and to use the neutral term “Orientalism” in Said’s pejorative sense. But for a Muslim, at least, it is a form of championing his own cause: he merely quotes a Dhimmi (a self-humiliating “tolerated” non-Muslim, for that is what the Palestinian Christian Said was), a defender of Islamic interests, who found a new way of overruling all the scientific research that Western scholars (a.k.a. Orientalists) had done on Islam. But for a Hindu, it is sheer buffoonery to treat Said as a scholarly authority. It seems that Sarma never grew up to doubt the pious lies he was taught in school.



Now, to come to Sarma’s own thesis: we find that he does not mention the contents of Hindu tradition, eventhough therein lies the only interest that Hinduism has for its converts. Most white converts by far don’t care to join Hindu society as such, and know little about mundane Hindu reality. They only know their guru, maybe his ashram in India, and some pretty ancient Hindu scriptures. That is their limited view of Hinduism, and that is what some convert to it. In this, most of them have no consciousness at all about colonial history, known to our generation only through the history books. It is simply not true that they do it because they want to “identify with the subaltern group and can transform from the oppressor to the oppressed, from the colonizer to the colonized”. Oppression is not what people think about when they think of India, which has been independent for as long as 95% of the Indians can remember. Thus, if India suffers from widespread corruption, it was not inflicted by or inherited from the British, but is the doing of its own citizens, and everybody knows it. In his university’s ivory tower, Sarma may obsess over long-gone colonialism, but most people don’t.

Moreover, while for British youngsters colonial India is a dim reality they once heard of from their grandparents, for Americans it was never a reality at all, unless you mean that they opposed it. Like the Indians, the Americans saw themselves as having acquired their freedom from British colonialism. It was American journalists who gave a global platform to Mahatma Gandhi and cheered for his struggle against colonialism. I will not go into the complex situation of the continental Europeans, who were no party to India’s colonization but took it for granted (and of whose countries some gave independence to their colonies under American pressure), or to the Irish, who took part in the British conquest of India all while their own homeland was in a colonized condition for far longer than India. At any rate, it is bad history to identify American whites with colonialism. It may have escaped the racially-obsessed Prof. Sarma’s attention, but there were white anti-colonialists too.


Tribal conversions

The professor is badly informed when he claims: “Surely such an imagined transformation is only available to those who are privileged in the first place.” Can only “privileged” whites make a conversion across Christian/Dharmic boundaries? Not at all: a majority of Indian Christians consist of people from an underprivileged Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe background. That is the comparison which this subject calls for: if there are American “whites” (in fact, blacks too) who convert to Hinduism, there are many more Hindus (or whatever you want to call them; let us say “Indian religionists”) who have converted to Christianity. And against the hurdles which Deepak Sarma wants to throw in the way of Western would-be converts to Hinduism, brown converts are courted by and welcomed with open arms into Christianity. In fact, he need not even go back to his homeland to see this phenomenon: in America itself, many second-generation Hindus are eagerly converted by Evangelical Christians. Some of the most successful politicians of Indian descent are in this case.   

Indeed, we see a strange alliance emerge. While American Christians have no option but to tolerate the conversion of some of their members to Hinduism, they do try to prevent this development. Indeed, after the seeming elopement of the children of Christian parents with Hindu gurus (or with Japanese Zen Buddhism, or with secular Leftism) in the 60s and 70s, the American Churches devised strategies to keep or to win back their flock, strategies which have been copied in other Christian countries. Now, they get the objective support of a born Brahmin who tries to limit entry to Hinduism to native Hindus, or at least to non-white people.

This is in fact a new form of an old phenomenon: Brahmins trying to limit the entry to Hinduism. A number of times, Hindu rulers have tried to reconvert populations that had gone over to Islam under duress or social pressure, but Brahmins prevented them. I am not in favour of the game of blaming the Brahmin caste, but here they really have committed an error which Deepak Sarma is now repeating.


Expansive Hinduism

Hinduism, as Sarma’s aged colleague Prof. Arvind Sharma has shown, was a missionary religion for very long. Indeed, this is how Vedic tradition spread from the Northwest of the Subcontinent: tribes in South and East India collectively joined, embraced the Hindu epics, employed Brahmin priests whom they welcomed and allowed to settle, and generally added Hindu culture to their own tribal culture, which largely survived in Hindu form.  A difference with Christianity was that it did not require its newcomers to abjure any past religion. Most of the tribe’s ancestral tradition persisted under the aegis of Hinduism.

Another difference was that it was mostly tribes as a whole that joined Hinduism, while Christianity converted individuals. Sometimes these were followed by their families or communities, sometimes not. Sometimes this conversion split communities down the middle and pitted converts against non-converts – the very reason Mahatma Gandhi and many other Hindus have given to oppose conversions. Differences of “identity” were taken for granted, tribal life in the forests of Andhra was very different from the Vedic cattle-raisers’ life on the plains of Haryana or the urban life in the West-Panjabi town of Harappa; but Hinduism took all those differences along in its capacious bosom, just as it can give a place to white citizens of Los Angeles along with sun-tanned whites of Jammu or the dark brown natives of Chennai.

A third difference is that ancestral religions were followed as a matter of tradition, because people had learned it from their parents and the elders of the tribe, whereas many (though not all) conversions to Christianity took place because the converts were convinced of the truth of their newfound belief system. In the case of Indian tribes adopting Vedicism/Brahminism, this same consideration may have played a role for a certain elite though not for the masses, but in the case of Christianity it is really typical. It is ironic that a religion of which the core doctrines (e.g. mortality as a consequence of primeval sin; Jesus as son of God; his resurrection; its power to free man from sin and from mortality) are demonstrably untrue, put such an emphasis on its truth claim. This may be explained by the cultural milieu in which it came into being, the Hellenistic emphasis on truth claims, but that circumstance does not yet make the beliefs true. However, many people were convinced they were, and therefore converted.

Most Western converts to Hinduism follow the Christian model of conversion at least in this second and third respects. They convert as individuals, not collectively (though when you look at life in Ashrams, they end up intermarrying far more with each other than with native Hindus, thus forming a separate caste of Western Hindus); and they become Hindu because they believe the core doctrines of Hinduism are true. Prof. Sarma’s considerations of colonialism, identity or privilege don’t figure in this process at all.


Campus dogmas

American universities are deeply sick with a hyperfocus on sociological issues, most of all on “identity”. Last month I attended the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion, a forum which ought to focus on higher issues transcending the mundane problems of communal “identity”. But instead, the majority of papers dealt, explicitly or implicitly, with these question of identity. At least I met one (non-academic) Hindu scholar who soberly remarked that identity is just there, that it is a coincidental starting-point from which you embark on more engaging projects such as religion. But in Deepak Sarma we have an academic who, instead of playing the game while at work but laughing at it when at home, takes the new dogma seriously. He really believes in the salvific power of “identity”. He really thinks of himself as “colonized”, though he has never lived through the colonial period in his homeland, nor in America. By contrast, the question of the truth of Hinduism does not enter his mind (or at least his article) at all, even when it is all-important to the people he lambasts, the white converts.

Sarma does have a point where he observes that some Western converts “claim to be more ‘authentic’ than Diaspora Hindus”. Yes, and this is even more remarkable when you realize that most converts don’t know of the many inter-Hindu discussions where Hindus complain about their (or each other’s) decadence. Hindu society in India and even more in America does have its problems, and converts are free from that particular history. Indeed, they often totally ignorant of it. Thus, many of them are totally innocent of how Hinduism in its homeland is besieged by certain movements, including the Hindu-born secularists, and how the Hindus they meet are to various extents trying to live up to the standards set by their enemies (e.g. those Hindus who try to prove to the Christian missionaries, but firstly to each other, that Hinduism is monotheistic). They only know the ideal Hinduism laid down in ancient books such as the Upanishads or the Yoga Sutra, and judge the native Hindus they meet by this yardstick.

They should not do this, they should keep in mind a fundamental humility and willingness to learn. Whatever the situation of these diasporic Hindus, and whatever the compromises with modern society they have had to make, both in their homeland and in their country of settlement, they have lived the really existing Hinduism all their lives, and converts could learn a few things from them. But the Western converts’ attitude is understandable (not justifiable) when you compare it with the Western Communists of yore who met people from the countries where the really existing Communism was in power: they were disappointed at the corruption in the Soviet Union, the conformism of the Chinese, or the backwardness of North Korea. This reality fell short of the Communism of their dreams, or rather, the Communism of the textbooks. They wanted the Communism as it should have been, and now they want the Hinduism of the textbooks, as it should have been. Of course most real Hindus don’t live up to the standards of a Yajnavalkya or a Patanjali; but converts of whatever colour are inspired by Yajnavalkya or Patanjali and want to be like them, not like Deepak Sarma.


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