Friday, February 13, 2015

The Dharma Civilization Foundation’s Strategic Retreat


On 5-7 February 2015, the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) organized a brainstorm conference called “Strategic Retreat” in SVYASA outside Bengaluru. Coming in the first year of the reputedly Hindu government of Narendra Modi, it could not but serve as an occasion for guiding and correcting the thought informing the present policies. The organizers themselves had appointed someone to produce a professional report, so I can dispense with the details. Here only some conclusions.


1.       The name

As names go, and to the extent that they are important, the names of organizer and event were felicitous.

Dharma is a better and more substantive name than the geographically connoted Hindu. It is exceptional for a non-Indian to call himself a Hindu, but anyone could be a Dharmin. It is even better than the term Sanâtana Dharma, “eternal Dharma”, which is nowadays used as an indigenous name for Hinduism. Both the Bhagavad Gita and the Buddha have said that ”this Dharma is sanâtana”, so the composite name has ancient credentials. Yet, those authorities didn’t use it as a composite name, they just spoke of Dharma and then qualified it as sanâtana, eternal. So, the simple name of the religion Hindus practise, is Dharma. Literally “sustenance”, it effectively means “performing the role befitting your place within the whole”, “doing the needful to maintain the correct relation between the part and the whole”. It encompasses both observing a correct friendship with the other parts through morality (not merely vis-à-vis human beings) and realizing a proper relation with the sacred through rituals, prayers and festivals.   

Civilization is what Hinduism nowadays, like in the preceding millennia, amounts to. Recognizing this, as the founders of the DCF have done, is a great improvement over speaking of a “Hindu nation”. The RSS was born in 1925 during the heyday of nationalism, so in retrospect it is understandable that they tried to force-fit their vision for Hindu society in terms of the nation-state. But in the present, this choice has become indefensible. Hindu states in the past have rarely covered all of India. They were politically independent from one another, but belonged to the same civilization. So, it is better to speak of a Hindu civilization than of a Hindu state.

Strategic is what the Hindu movement has not been thus far. The name at least announced that this meeting was meant to strategize. Strategy implies knowing the battlefield, the Kurukshetra, with its challenges and opportunities. It further requires seeing through the enemy. This is sorely missing in the Hindu movement, which typically swallows the enemy’s own propaganda and does everything to please him. Strategy of course also presupposes knowledge of your own self, not in some spiritual sense but in the practical sense of knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. And this in turn presupposes some knowledge of the other, as it is only the comparative perspective that allows you to estimate the magnitude of your strengths and weaknesses. So, here the Hindu movement has very serious shortcomings, so the conference was out to make a big step forwards.

Retreat is an ambiguous word when coupled with “strategic”. A strategy session inside a yogic retreat centre could be called “Strategic Retreat”, as was the case here. But “strategic retreat” is more usually understood as a step backwards which gives you a strategic advantage  The French call it reculer pour mieux sauter, “stepping backwards to leap all the better”. Thus, in WW2, when the Germans invaded, the Soviet generals advocated a strategic retreat, but Stalin forbade it, and millions were killed or imprisoned. Later in the war, the Germans had to retreat, and their generals planned an orderly regrouping in more defensible positions, but Hitler forbade further retreats, again with millions of unnecessary victims. So, sometimes a strike forward weakens your position on the battlefield, and a strategic retreat is then advisable. In this case, a retreat was needed, because the Hindu movement sometimes behaves like a headless chicken, and in the Modi government too, we see signs of disorientation.

On the other hand, the time has never been as right as now to strike out. With a nominally Hindu government in power, the usual Hindu wailing can be replaced with the desired reforms. That is why the speakers were asked to make their conclusions action-oriented. Unfortunately, while the speakers knew what they were talking about and realized only too well what legislative reforms are needed,  is to be seen whether this vision will translate into political will at the decision-making level.



Compared to the very mixed quality I have witnessed at earlier Hindu conferences, here there was some genuine quality control. Participation was only by invitation, and most speakers were (former) vice-chancellors, professors or professional educators, with a few who were strictly speaking amateurs but had proven themselves as medical doctors or ICT specialists. The work rhythm was intense (8 a.m. to 10 a.m.), the focus high and consistent.

Still, some speeches were again only descriptive rather than action-oriented, starting with an overview of the Vedic tradition and its many auxiliary sciences. A bit of the usual self-praise was not absent either. To be sure, it is very true that the education the Indian youngsters get is still very Eurocentric and downplays or ignores the numerous Indian achievements. But it will not wash to emphasize India’s achievements by belittling others’ achievements. I can alas testify that this tendency is very marked among vocal internet Hindus, but here it was confined to one excursus within one speech. The speaker was a meritorious professor of physics and mathematics, and within his field he informed us of many relevant developments I had not heard about yet; but when he ventured into history, he went badly off track.

He lambasted Greek mathematics and started arguing that the Greek mathematician Euclid had never existed because there were no ancient copies of his book. Whether the author of his book was really called Euclid is up for speculation, just as Chanakya’s real identity is uncertain; but the book was written by someone, and in Greek. Euclid’s work was consistent with the then state of Greek mathematics as attested by numerous sources, and is cited by many in the subsequent centuries. History is more complex than this reliance on only contemporaneous documents and often has to effect its reconstruction of the past through deduction from secondary sources. By the professor’s improvised criteria, the Vedas, which were transmitted orally, are not older than Sayana’s late-medieval commentary on them. The fact that the Mahabharata and many other sources mention them, is no proof by his standards: it may have been a myth or a container term which was given body only later. This mentality of asserting one’s own civilization’s worth by denying or belittling the merits of others is typical for the vengeful mentality of colonial underlings. Decolonization would consist in drawing self-confidence from one’s own history of achievements and looking with equanimity and fellow-joy upon the successes of others.

But that was the only false note, to which I as a history researcher have perhaps devoted an exaggerated attention. Otherwise, it was a feast of information and positive perspectives. Many people came to speak of their own initiatives and the way they had organized things and achieved a revalorization of Dharma in educational method as well as contents.

I was particularly touched by the session on national language. I have always attached great importance to this topic and observed the negative effects of the role of English in India. With facts and figures, it was shown how India could do far better if it followed the example of all the countries that do science an self-government in their own languages. The speakers had also devised a workable scheme to effect the switch from English to Sanskrit and the vernaculars. I had practically given up on this issue because so many policy-makers and even friends active in the Hindu movement had simply accepted the hegemony of English and dismissed all the “useless and unrealistic” ado about the language issue. But here it raised its head again, fresh and alive as ever.        



Quite a few speakers dealt with the problems they had encountered. Many educational institutions are willing to give more attention to Hindu traditions, but ask: “Where are the materials?”, and especially: “Where are the people who can teach them?” The secularist establishment’s decades of wilful neglect has created a yawning gap of missing competence.

The Modi government would like to appoint vice-chancellors of its own choice, less hostile to Hinduism than is mostly the case. But it can hardly find the right people: Hindu-minded, competent, yet part of the academic establishment. That is the result of decades-long Nehruvian hegemony and exclusion of anyone suspected of pro -Hindu leanings, you say? True, but it is also the fruit of decades of neglect of knowledge production by the Sangh Parivar, which took it lying down and never so much as considered a counter-strategy.

Now is not the time to bewail past failings, you say? It is not as if looking past failings in the eye takes much of the time needed elsewhere. This sudden taste for action precluding introspection is but one of the many excuses the Sangh leadership invariably gives on such occasions. It has never learned from the feedback from reality. Indeed, if there is one thing constant in their history, it is the stonewalling of feedback.

On the contrary, it is the lessons from reality that spur us on to action. This retreat threatened to peter out in a non-committal closing session, but then the recurrent complaint inspired a mild little intervention into legislative reality, for scholars an unusual move. Speaker after speaker had noted the hurdle created for Hindus (as opposed to the minorities) to teach Hindu history, which is treated under the header “religion”, or to impart values. Some of them had thought up ways around this but obviously this would only work for their private little initiatives and consumed a lot of energy.

This situation is simply not right, and should be redressed. Now that there is a government claiming some kind of commitment to Dharma, or even just to genuine secularism and fairness, nothing should stand in the way of amending the laws and the articles of the Constitution that stifle dharmic education. These are particularly Art. 28, which prohibits the imparting of “religion” by schools or institutions partly or wholly subsidized by the state and Art. 30, which ensures the “right of minorities to establish educational institutions”. It doesn’t mention the majority but is usually interpreted as withholding the same right from the majority. This is the main reason why the Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission, the Lingayats and the Jains have demanded (and usually acquired) minority status, so as to immunize their institutions from interference by the authorities. The article as it stands or as it is usually interpreted in the most tangible reason for Sampadayas to leave the Hindu fold. It is by definition anti-secular.

A resolution was then swiftly drawn up:  

“We, scholars gathered by the Dharma Civilization Foundation at Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Sansthan on 7 February 2015, request the Government of India to start a process of revising Articles 28 and 30 of the Constitution, so that equality shall be achieved between all religions regarding the right to establish educational institutions and impart the teaching and research on all religious and linguistic systems and traditions.”

A discussion developed about the desirability of this resolution. I myself contributed to the debate by defending the resolution with reference to the myth of Augias. His stable had to be cleaned within a day by Achilles, who realized that the labour would take years. He took a nearby river and changed its course so that it would wash through the stable and clean it forthwith. All these little initiatives to impart values and teach Hindu tradition are like attempts to clean the Augian stable with a toothbrush, while legislative reform can clear all these problems at one stroke. Or if you prefer a Vedic myth: the waters were withheld by a dragon, who imposed increasing drought on suffering humanity, but then Indra slew the dragon and released the waters. Can a BJP Prime Minister become this Indra and release the waters of educational rights, withheld by the secularist dragon, over the Hindus?

This resolution was voted on and accepted by an overwhelming and enthusiastic majority. There were two dissenting voices. Their rather lame arguments were that scholars had no business in trying to influence politics (as if democracy doesn’t imply that any citizen, even a scholar or gathering of scholars, can voice his opinion), and that it would be humiliating for scholars to issue a resolution only to find it ignored. Well, that is a chance to be taken, that is life: not all your desires will be fulfilled, but you have a right to try.

Admittedly, the latter argument gave voice to a realistic apprehension, for it is very possible that in spite of the fears feigned by the secularist media, the BJP once in power will remain stone-deaf to any demand that smells of Hinduism and threatens to be decried by the still-holy secularists. This would mean that their decades of pro-Hindu posturing stand exposed as insincere.  Among Indi-watchers, the BJP has two conflicting reputations: of religious fanatics, and of cynical power-seekers who merely use religion to collect votes. So far, the second one seems much closer to the truth. But the BJP now has the chance to refute it.

The resolution is eminently reasonable, voicing a demand of justice, and addressing a problem that only affects Hindus but without framing it in terms of Hindu politics, merely in terms of secularism and equality. Even the strong pro-economy and anti-religion faction in the BJP cannot object to it. At least, not sincerely. 


1 comment:

VirtualPresence said...

Hi Prof. Elst,

Would it be possible to provide a link to a website that hosts the proceedings of this retreat or minutes of the lectures or even a video recording of it? I wouldn't mind if it is a paid service.

"Strategic is what the Hindu movement has not been thus far."

This has been my opinion since the california textbook case. I think, going forward, it is about articulating actionable items from gatherings of scholars like yourself and others in India and tying it with local groups that can force the hands of govt. and other legislative bodies into enacting reforms.

Given that the RoL and RoP camps have had time and violence on their side, we will have to make a start right away if we are to avoid obsolescence as a civilization.