Monday, May 1, 2017

Speculations about the mental condition of some Hindu Saints

On 1 May 2017, I received an invitation for the release by the Dalai Lama (IIC Delhi, 25 May) of Arun Shourie's new book: TWO SAINTS: Speculation around and about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi (publisher Harper Collins). From the announcement:

"The life of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa ‘enables us to see God face to face’, Gandhiji wrote. Similarly, when someone in his circle was distraught, the Mahatma sent him to spend time at the Ashram of Ramana Maharshi. Such was their stature and influence.

"The Paramahamsa and the Maharshi have been among the greatest spiritual figures of our country. They have transformed the lives of and have been a solace to millions. Moreover, in our tradition, words of such mystics are regarded as conclusive. They have evidentiary status: if they say there is a soul, there is; if they say there is life after death or reincarnation, there is. Their peak, mystic experience is what we yearn to have, even just once.

"But what if several of the experiences they had—the feeling that someone higher is present next to them, the feeling that they are floating above their body, looking down at it; the ‘near-death experience’; the ecstasy; the visions "Did the experiences occur from some ailment? As was alleged in the case of Sri Ramakrishna? From some ‘madness’, which he for long feared had taken hold of him. From the fits that Sri Ramana said he used to have?

"What of the experiences of devotees? Seeing the Master where he wasn’t? Seeing the Master, feeling his presence, after he had passed away? Are these hallucinations? Or do they testify to the Master’s divinity? How would conclusions about their experiences affect their teaching? That the world and everything in it is ‘unreal’?

"In the light of their pristine example, how should we view and what should we do about the godmen and gurus who control vast financial and real estate empires today, to whom lakhs flock? Are they the saints they set themselves up to be or just marketers?

"With the diligence and painstaking research that mark all his work, Arun Shourie probes these questions in the light of the recent breath-taking advances in neuroscience, as well as psychology and sociology. The result is a book of remarkable rigour: an examination—and ultimately reconciliation— of science and faith as also of seemingly antagonistic, irreconcilable worldviews."

As a first reaction to this book, that I haven't seen yet, I must say I am curious to see what Arun Shourie has to reveal about this subject. It is of crucial importance, for numerous Hindus venerate persons. Special persons of great merit, but nonetheless persons with their contingent qualities and experiences. Not quite apaurusheya ("impersonal", said of the Vedas).

In the past I have argued that Mohammed was a textbook case of paranoia, with a central delusion of chosenness nurtured by sensorial hallucinations. The auditive part of those hallucinations became the Quran. This argument built on earlier similar observations: by psychologists, ex-Muslims, Mohammed's own neighbours, and even Mohammed himself. Indeed, upon receiving (or rather, undergoing) his first hallucination, he feared he was becoming mad, or as they called it: possessed by an evil spirit. He even tried to commit suicide to avert the fate of becoming Mecca's village idiot, but his wife Khadija managed to soothe him and accustom him to these recurring hallucinations. She fatefully practised "folie a deux", i.e. supporting an afflicted dear one by entering into his delusion, and thus set the example for all those millions of Muslims who have interiorized and actually believe Mohammed's cardinal delusion: "Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah."

This viewpoint has cost me a lot of bad press: in New-Age and Gandhian-Hindu circles because of their affirmation that "all religions are equally true" and that therefore, "all founders of religion were equally good (c.q. spiritual, enlightened)", and in RSS-BJP circles where they hope to solve the Islam problem on the cheap, viz. by avoiding the tough questions and repeating the lie that "the founder was right and enlightened, it is only some of his followers who has misunderstood or distorted his message". By contrast, it was welcomed by others, including some of the Indic Academy. Yet even among these sympathizers, there sometimes was a sneaking doubt.

"Yes, definitely there was something wrong with Mohammed", they say, "but, errr, could you not argue something similar about some Hindu saints?" Well, unlike Islam, Dharma doesn't stand or fall with the mental condition of one individual. But I do not exclude the possibility that on the margins, some individual had enough of a spiritual aura to attract followers, yet also thrived on a self-delusion.

A friend of mine was the personal disciple of a Lingayat Guru (now deceased), living with him for seven years somewhere outside Dharwad. No snide word about that Guru. However, in that same village, there was a vagrant fellow who, from all episodes my friend described, and from the photograph I saw, appeared to be crazy. Yet, sometimes he was garlanded by the villagers and treated like a saint. Common people do not apply much power of discrimination when they see odd behavior. What is crazy to one is saintly to another. That indeed is why in his beginnings as a cult founder, Mohammed met both skepticism and credulous acceptance.

Among famous Hindu sages, it definitely is Ramakrishna who has most readily been suspected of suffering from a neurological ailment. Not having studied his life and works (save for his attitude to Christianity and Islam), I will not offer an opinion there. About Ramana Maharshi, such suspicions are not usually voiced. Let us see what Shourie makes of these two. In his book about suffering, Does He Understand a Mother's Heart?, he has proven himself skeptical of the Karma doctrine dear to most Hindus. His falling-out with Narendra Modi and the present BJP may have made him even more ready to "hurt Hindu sentiments". Let us see.

Enlightenment is not about "experiences", but about a zero state of consciousness beyond experiencing (which implies that any vision excitedly ascribed to Ramakrishna by his followers was not Enlightenment). Whereas Descartes said that "I think, therefore I am", with "thinking" covering all states of consciousness, and with all these states standing on the side of consciousness in its dualistic opposition to matter; the ancient Indian Sankhya philosophy opposes only pure consciousness, conscious of itself but not "experiencing" anything outside itself, to all matter including all states of applied consciousness (sensory perception, memory, imaginaton...) lined up on the other side. As you know, the intake of substances can trigger altered states of consciousness. For Descartes, this poses a problem, for how can something material affect the separate world of "thinking" (pure plus applied consciousness) ? For Sankhya, the problem doesn't pose itself, for the altered states of consciousness triggered by substances (starting with chocolate taken to soothe depression)  all belong to Nature/Prakrti, as distinct from Purusha, the unit of consciousness. Compare it to a computer: it can reason, it can deduce a conclusion from the data it is fed, yet this process is not conscious.

So, it is a perfectly natural state of affairs from the Sankhya viewpoint if electrodes applied to specific parts of the brain trigger altered states of consciousness. If neurological research, and now perhaps Arun Shourie, confirm this, they may ruffle some feathers among Bhakti (devotional, "religious") Hindus, but they remain within the confines of Hindu philosophy. Many mental phenomena may well fall within the ambit of neurology, many strange experiences may well be triggered by mechanical and material causes; and Hindus may well be called upon to define their spiritual practices anew.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Aurangzeb debate

(reader's letter replying to a review of Audrey Truschke's book Aurangzeb: Man or Myth, in National Interest, 22 April 2017)

Unfortunately, I have no time for a full review of Audrey Truschke’s book, checking primary sources and all that, though if it somehow proves necessary, I will do it anyway. I am presently concentrating on more complex and more important issues in the history of Hindu thought, while the history of Islam has lost my interest because it is so simple and our conclusions about it are not at all threatened with a need for revision. As a doctrine, it is a mistake, and as a historical movement, it has a very negative record vis-à-vis Unbelievers, especially the Hindus. The secularists and their foreign dupes may cry themselves hoarse in their denial of these straightforward and amply proven facts, they don’t stand a chance, though not for want of trying.

Nonetheless, let me offer some general observations. If Hindus are wrong anywhere in their evaluation of Aurangzeb, it is not in misstating his record, which was highly reprehensible even by the standards of his own day. But because of the crimes he undeniably committed against the mass of non-Muslims and against a few unorthodox Muslims, Hindus tend to launch this shrill rhetoric against the person Aurangzeb, as if he were an evil man. He was not.

Unlike Audrey Truschke, I will not have to do a counterfactual whitewash in order to relativize Aurangzeb’s guilt. He did destroy the Kashi Vishvanath, the Krishna Janmabhumi and thousands of other temples, and their ruins or the mosques built in their stead remain as mute witnesses to his practice of iconoclasm. Yet, he was also verifiably a pious and ascetic man. While we cannot look inside his skull to know what he really thought, all contemporaneous documents confirm that he set himself high standards of conduct. For example, he earned his own livelihood and did hold it against his father that he squandered taxpayers’ money on luxuries like building the Taj Mahal.

Among Hindus too, we know of numerous pious and ascetic people, but none of them earned a reputation as an iconoclastic monster. Then what happened in the case of Aurangzeb? The answer is in the contents of the doctrine he came to take ever more seriously: Islam. When people at some point in their lives “get religion”, their freshly upgraded or newfound faith colours the nature of the behavioural changes that ensue. In the case of Islam, the religious enthusiast may take inspiration from the Prophet’s life & works, more than the average Muslims brought up with the same ideals but less inclined to put them into practice. He was a better Muslim than most. Thus, he enacted laws harmful to the interests of the  ruling class but more in keeping with Islamic jurisprudence. But the same devotion and religious earnestness that made him an ascetic, also made him an iconoclast.

Whenever Islamic rulers or warlords feel compelled to provide a justification for their iconoclasm, they point to earlier Islamic leaders’ precedents, but most of all to Mohammed’s own model behaviour, especially the epochal moment after the city of Mecca’s surrender when the Prophet and his son-in-law Ali destroyed the Pagan Kaaba’s 360 idols with their own hands. The job completed, they declared that with this, light had triumphed over darkness; truly a defining moment in Islam’s genesis. Not one Islamic theologian will contradict us when we say that an exemplary Muslim is one who emulates the Prophet.

At the end of his life, Aurangzeb privately repented his policy of iconoclasm, eventhough not deeply enough to reverse it. If no one else can refute gullible apologists like Audrey, let Aurangzeb himself do it. He certainly realized that his policy was too much for his contemporaries to stomach. And again this change of heart had nothing to do with his personality but with his deeply-held faith.  He regretted having destroyed temples not because he was suddenly struck with compassion for the accursed Infidels, but because he had provoked them into rebellions and thus endangered Islam’s position in India. For almost two centuries, Islam had thrived and enjoyed power thanks to a compromise with the Hindu majority: these had a subordinate position, but not emphatically so. Not enough to make them rise in revolt. Now, after Shivaji’s successful rebellion, it was becoming clear that Indian Islam had entered a period of decline. The romantic ideal of emulating the Prophet in every detail had come in the way of Islam’s larger and deeper goal, viz. consolidating and extending its power, ultimately expected (as ordered by the Quran itself) to culminate in world conquest.

Let us note finally that on this issue, Audrey’s book is representative of a wider concern to whitewash Aurangzeb. In their all-out war on Hinduism and specific Hindu ideas, the South Asia scholars tend to practise Groupthink; there is rarely anything original, they only outdo each other in how daring they can make their own articulation of ever the same position. In 2014, I participated in an all-day session on Aurangzeb at the bi-annual conference of the European Association of South-Asian Studies in Zürich. One paper after another highlighted some quotes from contemporaneous writers in praise of Aurangzeb. These are easy to find, as he had the last say over their success or marginalization, even over life and death. On Stalin too, you can easily find many contemporary sources praising him, and then silly academics concluding therefrom that he can’t have been so bad.

Thus, one of the sources was Guru Govind Singh’s Zafar Namah or “victory letter”. If you quote it selectively, you might think he was an admirer and ideological comrade of Aurangzeb’s. But the Guru was strategically with his back against the wall and had to curry favour with the man holding all the cards. So he wrote a diplomatically-worded letter and held his personal opinions to himself (and here is one case where personal relations must have trumped ideology).  It is entirely certain, and academics cover themselves with shame if they cleverly try to deny it, that Govind hated Aurangzeb from the bottom of his heart. Aurangzeb was responsible for the murder of Govind’s father and all four sons. Any proletarian can understand that in private, Govind must have said the worst things about Aurangzeb. You have to be as silly or as partisan as a South Asia scholar to believe that the Guru meant to praise Aurangzeb.

To sum up, the presently-discussed thesis by Audrey Truschke comes to add to the numbers of what formally look like studies in history, but effectively are meant as strikes in the ongoing battle against self-respecting Hinduism.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

The NCERT’s denial of Islamic iconoclasm’s uniqueness


(Pragyata, March 2017) 

During the Rama Janmabhumi commotion ca. 1990, it was the done thing for secularists to deny that Muslims had ever committed destruction of Hindu sacred buildings and statues. This even became the official position worldwide, for practically all Indologists and India-watchers interiorized it and zealously condemned any acknowledgment of Islamic iconoclasm as stemming from “Hindu fanaticism”. However, this position is hard to sustain, because it is so obviously untrue. Therefore, they have recently refined their propaganda strategy, in two ways.

First, they now minimize Islamic iconoclasm, but admit some of it. Not that they would concede the Islamic motivation for this Mandir-and-Murti destruction, but alright, some Muslims had done it. That, after all, is what human beings do, Hindus included, see? As long as Islam remains out of the picture, they are willing to admit a little bit of destruction for the sake of salvaging their own credibility.

Second, they now try to make Hinduism guilty of the crimes of Islam, viz. by providing the inspiration through its own example. Muslims destroyed Hindu temples because Hindus had destroyed Hindu temples. Provincials like our secularists and their foreign imitators try to lead you by the nose towards whatever happened within India’s borders, and never ask, nor want you to ask, what the record of Islam outside India is, including in the period before it entered India. They don’t want you to realize that Islam’s behaviour in India was only a continuation of its behavior in West Asia and around the Mediterranean, starting with Mohammed’s own model behaviour in Arabia.

The secularist narrative is now being propagated everywhere and inserted into the textbooks of history, including in the projected new textbooks mulled over by the National Centre for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). As per the official procedure, there is a provision for feedback from the public. A friend of mine sent in an objection to the NCERT’s scenario. What follows is the NCERT’s response, interspersed with my comments.


“The objection to the cited passage – that temples demonstrated the power and resources of the kings who built them and that is the reason why medieval rulers targeted the temples of rival rulers -- can be substantiated by innumerable references.”

This is sheer bluff. The two examples given do of course not amount to the "innumerable" cases which they mendaciously claim to have. Nor have such numbers of cases been mentioned elsewhere. Yet, given the strong motive the NCERT secularists have to overrule the straightforward narrative of Islamic iconoclasm, they would by now certainly have published a book full of such evidence, and made sure it was quoted in every relevant paper and editorial – if it existed.

Sheer bluff, we said, but in the real world, there is nothing “sheer” about bluff. On the contrary, bluff is a mighty weapon that can produce impressive results. Take the Rama Janmabhumi controversy. The secularists suddenly claimed that all the Muslims and Hindus and Europeans who had unitedly assumed that a Rama temple had stood at the disputed site on which the Babri Masjid had been imposed, had all been wrong. They offered no evidence whatsoever for their proposed scenario (say, a sales contract in which a landlord sold Babar a piece of empty real estate to build a mosque on), and denied the evidence on the opposite side which had existed all along and which accumulated further once the challenge to bring more evidence had been raised.

Though their behaviour was that of conspiracy-mongers, their shrill bluff carried authoritative public opinion with it. They managed to make the Government abandon its plans for a negotiated settlement, they managed to have national and state governments toppled, they managed to trigger a number of bloodbaths, all through “sheer bluff”. Even when they collapsed one after another when questioned in Court, even when their bluff had been exposed (though the media did all they could to hide this development from you), they have never apologized, never publicly admitted how wrong they had been. Bluff can get you very far in life, so the NCERT tries more of it. 

Even the evidential value of their “evidence” is bluff. No matter how many cases of Hindu idol abduction they manage to find, it will never amount to proof for the hypothesis they really want to push: that Muslim conquerors and rulers did what they did because Hindus had inspired them to do it. These conquerors mostly didn’t even know the record of Hindu kings, and at any rate they didn’t care. They would never have wanted to be seen imitating the idolaters and instead invoked the solid justification for iconoclasm within their own tradition. Mohammed himself had set the example, and in his wake came the conquerors of West Asia and the Mediterranean, unaffected by Hindu examples.

Power of discrimination

“Consider the gold statue of Vishnu which was once in the Lakshmana temple of Khajuraho. The statue actually belonged to the rulers of Kangra, it was taken by the Pratiharas and finally by the Candella ruler Yasovarman just before 950 CE (and a near contemporary of Mahmud Ghazni). The inscription in the foundation stone of the Khajuraho Laksmana temple commemorated these events and stated – “With his troops of elephants and horses, Herambapala (Pratihara, ruler of Kanauj) seized it form [the king of Kangra]. Obtaining it from his son, the (Pratihara) prince Devapala, the illustrious (Candella) king Yasovarman – an ornament among kings and a crusher of enemies – performed the ritual establishment of [Vishnu] Vaikuntha [in the Laksmana temple at Khajuraho]”. See, F. Kielhorn. “Inscriptions from Khajuraho”, Epigraphica Indica, vol. 1 (1892), p. 192.”

This example is a beautiful illustration precisely of how Hindu idol-kidnapping differs radically from Islamic idol-breaking. According to the NCERT itself, the Vishnu statue from Khajuraho was abducted not once but twice, and ended up (not walled into a lavatory or underfoot, nor smashed to pieces, but) consecrated as a prominent Murti in a Vaishnava temple, exactly where it belonged. What was abducted, was merely an object of art, duly consecrated. There was no destruction of the religion behind the Murti. It was used for Vaishnava worship in its original site, after it was abducted, and again after Yasovarman abducted it. Further, the worship at the temples robbed of their Murtis, was perfectly allowed to continue, though they would have to install a new Murti.   

By contrast, in Islamic iconoclasm, the goal was to destroy the “idolatrous” religion of which the Murtis were an expression. The destruction of Murtis and the demolition of Mandirs had the purpose of destroying Hinduism or whichever the Pagan religion behind some given Murtis was. When Mahmud Ghaznavi was done destroying the Somnath temple, he did not mean to let Shiva worship resume at the site, not as long as he was militarily in a position to prevent it. While Yasovarman installed the abducted Vishnu Murti for worship, Mahmud Ghaznavi would have the captured Murtis destroyed, or worked them into lavatory walls or into floors in order the humiliate them -- not so much the Murtis themselves but the religion they represented. In destroying the Somnath Shivalingam, he meant to destroy Shiva worship.

One day, a man needed some paper to light a campfire, but he had none. His friend suggested: I have some paper, wait. And he took his wallet to produce a wad of dollar bills. The friend turned out not to see any significance in the dollar bills, only their material dimension. Whether a little rectangle of paper was a currency note worth an exchange value, or a newspaper clipping containing specific information, or merely a blank slip of paper, they were all the same to him: enough paper to light a campfire with. Now that is Nehruvian secularism for you: a deliberate suspension of the power of discrimination. This wilful superficiality claims not to see any difference between abducting an object without any further consequence and destroying this object as part of the attempted destruction of the religion it stands for.


“From a different cultural zone note also the example of the conflict between the soldiers of the Gauda (Bengal) ruler and the ruler of Kashmir, Lalitaditya. The episode concerns the moment when the Bengali rulers chose to attack the idol of Vishnu Parihasakesava who was providentially saved because the soldiers mistook this image of the royal God for another. The Rajatarangini notes – “Though the king was abroad, the priests observed that the soldiers wanted to enter, and they closed the gates of the Parihasakesava shrine. Aroused with boldness, the soldiers got hold of the silver Ramasvamin image, which they mistook for Parihasakesava. They carried it out and ground it into dust. And even as Lalitaditya’s troops who had come out from the city were killing them at each step, the Gaudas continued to break it into particles and scatter them in every direction.” See Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, trans., Rajatarangini, The saga of the Kings of Kashmir, Allahabad: The Indian Press, 1935, pp. 326-28.”

Note firstly that this Lalitaditya episode is also related, complete with the spin dear to the NCERT, in Robert M. Hayden, Aykan Erdemir,Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, Timothy D. Walker, Devika Rangachari, Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Enrique López-Hurtado, and Milica Bakić-Hayden: Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces, 2013, p.136-137. As you can see, the Nehruvian secularist bluff is being spread far and wide and is acquiring the status of academic orthodoxy.

We are here dealing with a typical case of Western imitators, if not careerists who want to serve the current orthodoxy of battling “Islamophobia”. Concerning India, they have completely swallowed the Nehruvian bias. Thus, about Islamic iconoclasm deniers Romila Thapar and Richard Eaton, they say: “As scholars of India in the late 20th century, their aim in doing so is to counter the accusations by Hindu nationalists that the Muslims uniquely violated the sensibilities and rights of Hindus by destroying temples, by showing that Hindu rulers had done much the same thing before Muslims reached India.” (RM Hayden et al.: Antagonistic Tolerance, p.136)

It is in itself commendable that they point out the political intentions of these academics. These have a purpose other than dispassionately seeking the truth, which to Marxists would only be “bourgeois objectivity”. While not in itself disqualifying their research, it should at least set some alarm bells ringing. But this political bias only enjoys the unquestioning approval of the new generation of dupes.

So much have they already interiorized the belief in Hindu iconoclasm that they take it one step further: “From the perspective of the AT [= Antagonistic Tolerance] project, of course it would be surprising if Hindu rulers had not done so.” (RM Hayden et al.: Antagonistic Tolerance, p.136)

Naturally they should think so, for it fits in with the reigning paradigm that “all religions are essentially the same”.

At the end, when practical conclusions are drawn, fashionable academics tend to differentiate again and favour Islam over Hinduism, e.g. by clamouring about “Islamophobia” but ignoring “Hinduphobia” (including their own); but at some point within their narrative, it is useful to put forward the equality and sameness of all religions, viz. in order to preclude or drown out all specific Hindu complaints about distinctly Islamic behaviour.  

Since those authors are only second-hand spokesmen of the Nehruvian view, they sometimes let on facts that, when properly analysed, don’t really fit their narrative, e.g.: “Tantalizingly, Eaton (2000a:293) mentions that temples not identified with royal patrons were generally left unharmed.” (RM Hayden et al.: Antagonistic Tolerance, p.136)

Tantalizing? Only if you pursue the Nehruvian paradigm. In fact it follows logically from the difference between Hinduism and Islam. If at all there were Hindu kings who “harmed” temples because through them they wanted to harm hostile kings, they clearly opted for a policy that constituted another distinction with Muslim iconoclasm: they left politically irrelevant temples untouched. By contrast, when Muslim armies went on an iconoclastic spree, they did not care about these petty considerations, precisely because their motive had nothing to do with “royal patrons” but only with non-Islamic religion.

Thus, when the Ghurid army ca. 1193 destroyed a “thousand” temples in Varanasi (as admitted by Eaton), obviously not all of them had enjoyed royal patronage. But all of them contained Pagan idols, and what was enough to get the Muslim conquerors in a destructive mood. This off-hand refutes the whole point of this new-fangled soft-Marxist hypothesis: that iconoclasm had nothing to do with religion.

Now, as to Lalitaditya, he defeated the Gauda king, invited him with the  Parihasakeshava (Vaishnava) idol as guarantee for the Gauda king’s safety, yet had him murdered. To take revenge, the Gauda servants contrived to visit the relevant shrine in order to destroy this idol. Though they mistook another idol for Parihasakeshava (and apparently the story is gleefully told in order to convey this idol’s supposed cleverness in arranging for its own safety at the expense of another), they did indeed destroy the idol that they could lay their hands on. The fragmentation of the idol is duly described.

So, this indeed is one rare case where Hindus destroyed a Hindu idol. To be sure, they did nothing to Vaishnavism in Kashmir, nor in Bengal, nor anywhere else. They only wanted to get at that particular idol, a radical difference with the numerous campaigns of idol-breaking by Muslims, who were not so fussy. While Hindus did it, Hinduism was not involved. On the contrary, the text itself stipulates that their motive was quite mundane, viz. vengeance for their murdered king. The perpetrators did not quote any Hindu scripture prescribing: “Thou shalt destroy a Parihasakeshava idol whenever thou seest one!” They did not invoke any idol-breaking model behaviour of a Vedic Rishi.

Islamic iconoclasm

We have spent some time writing out several pages in analyzing the NCERT response to an objection. To be sure, a fool can famously ask more questions in a few lines than a normal man can answer in a number of pages. Nevertheless, the fact deserves mention that, through misdirection, the NCERT has succeeded in keeping us busy all while the true answer was so simple. We have been forced to deal with two of the handful of cases of idol-abduction and iconoclasm by Hindus as the supposed reason for Islamic iconoclasm, when in reality, Islamic iconoclasm had nothing to do anything good or bad done by a Hindu. And no secret is made of this in Muslim chronicles, clear enough about the real motive.

Neither the NCERT, nor the Nehruvian historians, nor their foreign followers, has ever succeeded in finding a Muslim chronicle saying that “the Sultan was inspired by Hindu example to destroy idols and demolish temples”. The point, after all, was not finding fault with what Hindus may have done (though finding fault with Hindus is certainly also on the secularists’ agenda), but to explain through Hindu behaviour the known Islamic conduct of iconoclasm. This relation between Islamic iconoclasm and Hindu example has never ever been established. On the contrary, whenever Muslim iconoclasts feel the need to motivate their destructive behaviour, they cite Islamic examples, first of all the destruction of the idols in the Ka’ba by Mohammed himself.

And let alone the words in chronicles or elsewhere, it is actual deeds that prove the radical difference between Islamic iconoclasm and any possible Hindu attitude. The NCERT itself quotes a case where a Vishnu statue was abducted, and then installed for worship by the abductor himself. If such were the example followed by Muslim iconoclasts, we would expect to find mosques where Hindu statues from, say, the Somnath temple or the Rama Janmabhumi temple had been installed. Unlike the Nehruvians, we are not provincials and will not confine ourselves to India, so images of Apollo, Osiris, or any other deity will also do. Pray, NCERT, where is that mosque where an abducted idol has been installed for worship? We are not asking for two examples, just one.

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The Chinese self-designation Hua and the root-word Ᾱrya

(India Facts

It is but rare that I take the trouble to write a mere summary of a paper I have read with increasing enthusiasm. Here is one occasion. It pertains to “The earliest Chinese words for ‘the Chinese’: the phonology, meaning and origin of the epithet ḤaryaᾹrya in East Asia” by Christopher Beckwith, published in Journal Asiatique 304:2 (2016), p.231-248. Some comments and background data are mine, but for the factual frame, the entire credit goes to Beckwith.

I had never suspected that the Chinese word for “Chinese” has a foreign origin. But yes, it does. In fact, the same foreign word has been borrowed twice and yielded two different Chinese words, one of which is widely used as the ethnonym for “Chinese”.

The procedure for adopting a foreign word is to identify it with a similar-sounding Chinese word. The concomitant character has a certain ordinary meaning, and the adopted meaning may be totally different; but when at all possible, preference is given to a similar-sounding character that also has a similar meaning. Thus, “Coca Cola” yields kekoukele 可口可樂, “what a!, mouth, what a!, fun”, more or less the carefree image that this brand tries to propagate. Sometimes a new character is created around an existing character of which the sound is borrowed regardless of the meaning. “Buddha” yields Fo 佛, which came about by composing the root signifying “man” with the existing simple character fu弗, “not”. Though later apologists tried to make sematic sense of it by explaining “not” as an allusion to Buddhist concepts like “emptiness”, it really had to do with the similarity in sound, at least to Chinese ears of the period. Whereas English words in -ize or -ation keep on reminding us of their Greek or Roman origins, the Chinese loanword gives no hint anymore that it is etymologically foreign.

After the legendary ancestral emperors in the -3rd millennium (including the Yellow Emperor, r. -27th century), the first imperial dynasty in the Yellow River basin was called the Xia 夏 dynasty, r. -21st to -16th century. We have no contemporary sources about this Xia dynasty, which is why many scholars dismiss it as a legend or even a propagandistic construction from the time of the Zhou 周 dynasty (-11th to -3rd). The Zhou had come to power through a coup d’état against the earlier Shang 商 dynasty (-16th to -11th), and they invested a lot in justifying this transgression.

The most important instrument they created to this end was the doctrine of the Heavenly Mandate (tianming 天命). This held that the founder of the Zhou dynasty had received a sign from heaven, in the form of a solar eclipse above his capital, that a heavenly mandate to rule had fallen to him because the Shang emperor had squandered it by proving himself decadent, unjust and no longer worthy of it. To anchor this doctrine, the Zhou ideologues claimed that the Shang had no reason to complain, since this coup d’état was only a repeat performance of the way the Shang themselves had come to power at the expense of the preceding dynasty.

The Chinese are strongly conscious of their national history, and even a half-educated Chinese knows that this preceding dynasty was the Xia 夏. However, around the millennium, scholars active in the government-ordered Three Dynasties Project (i.e. Xia-Shang-Zhou) remarked that there were no known sources giving the early Zhou the name or any other data about this first dynasty, so they had to have invented it. Strictly speaking, there may have existed an aristocratic family drawing its name from the genuine Chinese word xia, 夏“summer”, and it may have served as an imperial dynasty, who knows? Then again, the name may have been arbitrarily assigned to an invented ancient dynasty as well.

At any rate, the same word, or etymologically a homophonous loanword which came to be written with the same character, came to serve as the name of “us, Chinese”. According to Beckwith, in this meaning the term does not predate the Warring States period, the final part of the Zhou age (-5th to -3rd). At that time, knowledge was extant about distantly neighbouring countries, including Daxia 大夏, meaning “Greater Bactria” or “the Bactrian Empire”, i.e. Central Asia, then firmly held by the Iranian-speaking Scythians. These were a predominant influence from Croatia to Mongolia, where they imparted their lucrative knowledge of metallurgy and horse-training (Scythian legends pertaining to these skills were interiorized even by the Japanese). Their ancestral heartland was Bactria, i.e. present-day northern Afghanistan and southeastern Uzbekistan around the Amu Darya river (Greek: Oxus), an oasis friendly to agriculture and habitation amidst a harsh and inhospitable region.

The later Chinese tended to identify themselves with their ruling class. The Qin 秦dynasty (-3rd) yielded the international name China, Sanskrit Cīnā; the Han 漢 dynasty (-3rd to +3rd) lent its name to the usual self-designation of the ethnic Chinese as distinct from the minorities within China as “the Han”. It might be that a Chinese elite for some reason had identified itself with the expanding Scythians.

We do find such a reason in the alternative sinification of the same foreign word. Then pronounced very similarly to the character Xia 夏, it is now pronounced Hua and written 華. This character is a self-designation of the Chinese both internally and abroad, e.g. the Chinese minority in Vietnam is known as the Hoa. Its basic meaning is “civilized, elite” (apart from “flower”, with the same character), the opposite meaning of “barbarian”. The Chinese do indeed consider themselves as the civilized ones, as distinct from the barbarians.

The oldest attestation of Hua 華 as a self-designation is among the ruling class of the feudal state of Zhao 趙. Originally, it seems to have distinguished that elite from all others, not just foreigners but also the Chinese commoners in their state of Zhao. This state lay on the northern border, partly in what is now Mongolia, where the Scythians had come to form an elite. Apparently the ruling class there had Scythian origins, had fully assimilated into China but had preserved a collective self-designation referring to their distinctive ethnic origins and its ancestral homeland of Bactria. A millennium earlier, the Zhou had had a similar history as half-barbarians living near the border, getting enlisted as border defence against the all-out barbarians (like the Roman Empire hiring and thus “domesticating” Germans to defend its border against “wild” Germans), becoming fully Chinese in the process, and finally even capturing the Chinese throne. Further, in the classical account, there is even a hint that the Yellow Emperor, kind of the Father of the Nation, had been an immigrant nomad.

As during the Warring States period Zhao was one of the most powerful states (the last to hold out against the Qin 秦 bid to unify the empire under their own rule), this usage percolated among the elites and then also the masses of the neighbouring Chinese states. Except perhaps to aged and highly cultured members of the Zhao elite, no one was aware anymore that Hua 華 had entered Chinese as a loanword, moreover one that designated a foreign nation. Thus, it finally came to mean “we, the Chinese”. It still has that meaning today, along with Zhong, “middle”, from Zhongguo, “the Middle Kingdom, China”. We still see the two together in Zhonghua Minguo 中華民國, “Republic of China”, and Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo, 中華人民共和國, “People’s Republic of China”.

The origin of the words Xia 夏 and Hua 華 is the collective self-designation of the inhabitants of Bactria, a country of which the Greeks rendered the Iranian name as Ariana. This is still the name of Afghanistan’s air company. The Iranians called themselves Aiirya, corresponding to the form Ᾱrya in Sanskrit, Arus in Anatolian (Hittite). In each of these languages, it originally meant “us”, “one of us” (as against “them”), “fellow countryman”. Surrounding or subject nations, and finally the Iranians themselves, used the word as an ethnonym for the Iranians. Indeed, Iran comes from Aiiryānām Khšathra, “kingdom of the Iranians”.

In Vedic Sanskrit, it meant the self-designation of the Paurava tribe within which the composition of the Vedic hymns took place. For non-members culturally influenced by the Vedas, it came to mean “Paurava”, Vedic”. Thus, the name of the modern Hindu reform organization Ᾱrya Samāj, working under the motto: “Back to the Vedas”, means approximately: “Vedicist Society”. The Vedic country, North India, became Ᾱryāvarta, “circle of the Āryas”.

In all cases, the word had an elitist connotation. In India, this could be taken to follow from the reservation of a Vedic initiation to the upper castes, but the elitist usage is probably older. The meaning “noble”, well-known internationally for being mentioned by the Buddha in the “four noble truths” and in the “noble eightfold path”, can be interpreted both as “Vedic” (since the Buddha himself had considered his own teachings as a revival of the Vedic seers’ original instructions before they got corrupted by the priestly class, a less literal way of going “back to the Vedas”); and more generally as “socially upper-class”, and hence metaphorically “morally upper-class”. This is the same semantic evolution as in English, where “noble” originally means: “Characteristic of the hereditary upper class”, but now predominantly has its metaphorical, meaning “morally upright, magnanimous”, as opposed to “petty”. (To pre-empt false conclusions, let me add that the appearance of this word in Chinese long predates the transmission of Buddhism to China.)

At any rate, the Iranians came to boast of their Aiirya-ness, as does Cyrus, founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, in his well-known Cyrus Cylinder inscription of ca. -535. So did the Bactrian aristocracy. It is with this elitist connotation that the word also came to mean “us, Chinese”, whence developed the meaning “the Chinese”.

And so, in the state of Zhao and later in all of China, the character Xia also acquired the meaning of “grandeur (in manners)”, “courtly sense of ceremony”, while the character Hua also came to mean “splendid”, “excellent”. As a name for the Chinese people, Hua is unapologetic in its claim to superiority.

So, the same word came to designate the ethnic specificity of Afghanistan, Iran, North India and China. The unexpected commonality between India and China is reflected in Tibetan. There, the word for the Chinese is Rgya, from Hua, from Ᾱrya; for India it is Rgyagar, apparently from Ᾱryavarta. At any rate, most of Asia called itself Ᾱrya at one time.

Here we are reminded of the Manu Smṛti, in which it is said that even the Greeks and the Chinese (both of whom the Indians met in Bactria) had once been Ᾱrya, but had lapsed from that status due to a lapse from Dharmic norms, a barbarian-type conduct. Manu was not much of a historian, but at least he was right in seeing something Ᾱrya in the Chinese. For us, then, this glimpse into the strange itinerary of the term Ᾱrya is a healthy exposure to the relativity of core Vedic vocabulary.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A diversity of “White saviours”

(Pragyata, 16 Feb 2017)

Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik wonders: “Why do many Indians need White saviours?” ( 26.12.2016) The article is a bit chaotic and overstresses the element “mythology”, but that may be an occupational hazard in a writer on the Mahabharata and Purana stories. At any rate, it seems to have been written without malice, and it deserves an answer. I will give some observations on the stance of “Whites” in general and then explain my own position.

English medium

The first White person to figure in his list of “saviours” is Thomas Babington Macaulay. In the 1830s he pioneered English education in India, at least for the elites, whom he then expected to translate the modern values for the common people. In keeping with the spirit of the times, his reform was explicitly elitist. But with that limitation, it was nonetheless not malicious, contrary to the enemy-image he has acquired. He actually perceived Anglicization as a necessary phase of modernization, in preparation of India’s independence. Nearly a century before the British loyalist Mahatma Gandhi converted to the “total independence” ideal, Macaulay already thought in terms of Indians being independent equals with Britons.

Nonetheless, his policies would lead to the biggest hurdle for India’s decolonization. The maintenance and expansion of his English education (and administration) by Jawaharlal Nehru is ultimately responsible for the major colonial remnant in contemporary India: the dominant position of English. Whatever Macaulay’s good intentions, which counted for the colonial period, they have had a deeply antidemocratic effect in the Indian Republic. As Madhu Kishwar has written: the major determinant of your career chances in India is not your caste or religion, but whether you are fluent in English.

However, only by way of historical reference can this situation be called “colonial”. According to the Constitution, English should have been phased out by 1965; no outside power was involved when the Indian elite (using the Dravidianist misgivings as pretext) sabotaged this switch. This elite profited too much from the disenfranchisement of the Indian commoners by the dominance of English. Without saying it out loud, they thanked Macaulay for their linguistic privileges. (Ambedkarites in the Christian sphere of influence also laud Macaulay for bringing, through English, Western humanitarian and egalitarian values into India.) “Decolonization” implies the belated phasing out of English, but this will involve the defeat not of some foreign colonizer but of the indigenous elite.

Something analogous applies to the entire cultural sphere. Certain colonial injections have been embraced by the indigenous elite, which then imposes them on a war footing on the general population. Case in point is “secularism”, originally a phase of late-Christian society, internalized though heavily distorted by India’s elite, and then imposed on the entire Indian polity. Another example is the teaching of Western thought models in each of the Humanities, to the detriment of indigenous models. This counts in particular for Pattanaik’s own field of mythography, where the ancient indigenous tradition is being subjected to deconstruction by recent Western models.


In some respects, talk of “colonial” and of “decolonization” is embarrassingly obsolete, because the battle lines have fundamentally changed since 1947. Thus, some Hindu Nationalists fulminate against “White” interference and accuse “Sepoys” (Indians collaborating with the colonizers) of “kissing the White a..”; as if there were some “White” conspiracy against today’s India. When “Whites” (to borrow Pattanaik’s racial terminology) care about the rest of the world, it is mostly about the Islamic world as a source of trouble, and about China as a rival. About India, I can testify that very few outsiders care one way or the other. Indians only flatter themselves by imagining India to be the target of a hostile conspiracy. And they are badly living in the past if they imagine that some Westerners are saying to each other: “For Whiteness’ sake, we have to thwart those damn Indians.”

 To the extent that race has any importance at all, the world has really changed, and “anti-racism” has now effectively become the state religion of most Western countries. People of other races take the same positions vis-à-vis India as Whites used to do, for these turn out to follow from certain geopolitical constraints, not racial concerns. In fact, both under a Black Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice) and a Black President (Barack Obama), America’s South Asia policy has been as tilted towards Pakistan and against India as under, say, Richard Nixon. But admittedly, things become easy when you can divide mankind simply by skin colour, so this racial approach is attractive to lazy minds.

The situation that Pattanaik puts up for discussion has little to do with race. That Indian polemicists nonetheless like to speak in terms of race, as if it were 1940, is not so much morally reprehensible for being “racist”. Rest assured, for “Whites”, being considered the culprit of every wrong in the world only evokes a yawn, we’ve heard it so many times. The problem with it is that it shows mental laziness among Indians, both in the form of anachronism, as if on a battlefield you can afford the luxury of anything less than cool realism; and of vicarious self-flattery, as if you are carrying the mantle of genuine fighters against racial discrimination like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela.

Apparently, it feels great to re-enact the moral equation of colonial times, with the colonizer rightly in the dock and you on the moral high ground. It also sounds safely secular, which is why you can always get the whole audience to applaud when you claim aloud that “the British imposed the Partition on India”. This is a blatant lie, but one promoted by the secularist establishment, because it exculpates the Muslim League and its accomplices Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The British firmly opposed the Partition plan, until in March 1947 the newly-appointed last Viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, gave in to the increasingly violent pressure from the Muslim League natives.

That is why I don’t like the use of the term “decolonization” (as opposed to the act of decolonization, wherever needed), eventhough I myself have prominently used it in the past. It is a term of adolescent rebellion against the colonizer as father figure, who in reality has long left the scene. In the land of proud civilization-builders, not just philosophers like Kapila or Yajñavalkya but also scientists like Lagadha and Panini and resourceful strategists like Chanakya and Bajirao, this adolescent behaviour is unbecoming. It is high time for Indians to shed their acquired inferiority complex as colonial underlings and reconnect with their glorious, or at any rate independent, past.

“Decolonization” is also a term of cowardice because it misdirects your combative energies towards a long-dead enemy, thus hiding your fearful appeasement of more immediate enemies. Whoever speaks of “decolonization” thereby shows his own use of colonial categories, with your own destiny still having to be wrested from some foreign authority. In reality, your destiny is yours, and foreign powers only have as much power in India as the Indian authorities themselves give them. Indians are responsible, not colonizers or other foreigners.


Nonetheless, it does almost look like the situation of a colonized nation when you consider the enormous cultural power wielded in India by Western, now mostly American-based, NGOs, think-tanks and institutions of higher learning. They have rarely been set up in order to serve some imperial goal, yet they still embody a very colonial psychology. They still think that India has to be lifted out of its own barbarism. They give themselves a civilizing mission, constantly nurtured with atrocity literature to justify the treatment of Indians as backwards in need of tutelage. But today, this “native barbarism” has been redefined in terms of human rights. American India-watchers and India-meddlers analyse Hinduism as a litany of human rights violations, and present themselves as the saviours whom India’s many oppressed categories have been waiting for.

Pattanaik makes a good observation when he writes that high-profile India-watching academics “need to indulge America’s saviour complex if they need a share of the shrinking funding. The objective of the research needs to alleviate the misery of some victim and challenge a villain. And so, Doniger will provide evidence of how Puranic tales reinforce Brahmin hegemony, while Pollock will begin his essays on Ramayana with reference to Babri Masjid demolition, reminding readers that his paper has a political, not merely a theoretical, purpose.” Exactly.
He also is onto something when he guesses that “European and American academicians have been on the defensive to ensure they do not ‘other’ the East. So now, there is a need to universalise the ‘othering’ process – and show that it happens even in the East, and is not just a Western disease. And so their writings are at pains to constantly point how privileged Hindus have been ‘othering’ the Dalits, Muslims and women, using Sanskrit, Ramayana, Mimamsa, Dharmashastras, and Manusmriti.”
That doesn’t explain everything, but it must be welcomed as a true observation on the “social justice warrior” nature of current Orientalist scholarship. It is scholarly in the sense of coming with lots of footnotes, but not in the sense of being impartisan and objective. Here you should realize its continuity with the colonialist endeavour at its starkest. When Hernán Cortéz conquered Mexico, he used social and ethnic grievances to mobilize the local “lower castes” as cat’s paw against the ruling Aztecs. In both cases, the goal is to dispossess the dominant group among the “savages” and thus bludgeon it into opening up to “civilizing” influences, and the means to achieve this is often an alliance with the groups with grievances against it. 
This is where Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock come into the picture. They are representative of the enormous ideological clout Westerners still wield in India. The  colonial-age Orientalists only conditioned the minds of a small intellectual upper class; today, the Western view of India and Hinduism, through mass education and the media, influences everyone and co-determines policy-making. Because Indians have invited the Donigers and Pollocks in.
From her writings, it appears that Wendy Doniger does not consciously position herself as anti-Hindu. To be sure, she is partisan, e.g. Pattanaik notices that in the dedication to her “banned” book, “Doniger refers to a ‘good fight’ against Hindutva”. But she thinks those who have been identified with the struggle for the Hindu cause have misunderstood their own religion, while she is in fact restoring the “real” Hinduism. She genuinely believes that her Freudian interpretive model of Indian mythology somehow reveals true underlying meanings, the hidden logic of Hinduism.
In fact, it is to a large extent the same approach that Pattanaik has also used to build a career of explaining Hindu stories in a manner acceptable to secularists and poorly rooted anglicized Hindus. In that sense, it is to be welcomed that he is now shifting towards a stance critical of Doniger, apparently under the influence of Rajiv Malhotra’s criticism of his own Donigeresque approach to Indian stories.
Wendy Doniger’s conception of Hinduism deserves a more thorough treatment, much of which has already been pioneered by Rajiv Malhotra. But one general observation, which counts for the whole current of psycho-analytical “deconstruction” of Hinduism, is that the clumsy Freudian concepts she uses are simply not sufficient to understand Hindu explorations of consciousness and human nature. I once heard an Indian psychologist who had guzzled down big doses of this psycho-analytical framework, pontificate that a Guru is followed because he is a “father figure”. You could see him savour this expression, as if he considered what he had said as very profound. Well, there are many types of father figure, but only few have the specific qualities needed to be a Guru; and psycho-analysis has never been able to turn anyone into a Guru in the Hindu sense. The smaller cannot contain the greater.

There is something comical about the psychologist’s attempt to fit the hoary Hindu ideas about the psyche into the modern attempts by his own new-fangled discipline, still groping in the dark. But because Doniger’s flippant approach serves the purpose of belittling and ridiculing Hinduism well, it is welcomed and highlighted by the Indian elite with its many-pronged attack on Hinduism. And she is not even a psychologist: elsewhere, her “alternative” (actually quite conformistic, only a bit more titillating) deconstruction of a religion would have been criticized as not based on any competence.

Politicized philology

Sheldon Pollock, a very good Sanskritist at least in a purely linguistic sense, is more explicitly involved with the anti-Hindu discourse promoted in India by the missionaries and the Ambedkarites, and their first line of attack, the “secularists”. He has pioneered some valid insights into the Sanskrit “cosmopolis”, which did not oppress vernacular languages from Gandhari to Javanese but fruitfully coexisted with them to their mutual benefit. But at the same time, he has helped greatly in belittling and politicizing the Ramayana and in promoting the “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good” thesis.

This is not very original, in fact it is only a sophisticated formulation of widely-held views. Thus, Pattanaik attributes the same viewpoint to another big name we just met: “Doniger’s essays on the Puranas make you see Hinduism as a violent authoritarian force challenged by non-violent egalitarian Buddhism.” But in this discourse of hate, which instrumentalizes Buddhism as a bludgeon to beat Hinduism with, Pollock has gone farther than all others. In 1993 he published a paper arguing that Hinduism (particularly the Mimansa school, Brahminical par excellence) sits at the centre of Nazi doctrine. Yes, it is long ago, and partly explainable from the war psychology emanating from the Ayodhya controversy, in which he explicitly sided with the negationist school denying Islam’s well-documented destructive role in Hindu history. But he has never retracted this position and has remained a leading voice in anti-Hindu and anti-Brahmin discourse.

In this case, as in some other matters (such as the exact place of Christianity in European civilization, often exaggerated in India, e.g. Doniger and Pollock are not motivated by Christian concerns, a secularist position which Pattanaik here acknowledges to be “the hallmark of objectivity in educational circles”), my own role has been to help Indians in better understanding European history wherever it is relevant to Indian debates. The case Pollock has built, is untenable for anyone familiar with the concerned part of European history. What few Indomanic racists have existed in Germany during the century before 1945, were not exactly poles apart from Pollock and the secularists: on the contrary, they shared the latter’s own anti-Brahminism and pro-Buddhism. They considered Brahmins as agents of the “dark indigenous” people mired in superstition and puerile ritualism, who contaminated the pure “Aryan invader” culture, while they held the Buddha to have been a real Aryan trying to restore the genuine and superior Aryan traditions. Hitler was not only an anti-Semite but in passing also a votary of India’s equivalent, anti-Brahminism. That is why Pollock fails to quote from the “National-Socialist Indologists” a single line in praise of Jaimini or Kumarila Bhatta or any other Mimansaka, but has to quote the Buddha’s name several times.  

This little excursus into the nadir of Sheldon Pollock’s scholarship should, however, not obscure the fact that with his erroneous anti-Brahmin spin on the history of German Indology, he is serving an Indian rather than a Western cause. Today, anti-Brahminism comes in as a helpful tool for US-based missionaries to pit Hindus against one another along lines of caste and ethnicity (“Dravidians” and “Adivasis” against “Aryan invaders”), and in the 19th century, it has indeed been launched by missionaries; but it has now mainly become an Indian ideology animating much of Indian culture (Bollywood) and politics. More than some CIA conspiracy, it is this Indian current that Western scholars seek to align with.

Skin colour
“But who does Hindutva turn to for establishing the greatness of Hinduism, and Sanskrit, and Vedas? A European, Koenraad Elst. And an American, David Frawley. So much for ‘decolonising’ the Hindu/Indian mind. So much for swadeshi. Does this reveal our deference to White scholarship? Does this reveal Indians are beyond racism? One wonders if African American Indologists or Chinese American Indologists would ever evoke similar passions.”
The colour obsession, while not entirely absent among the Indian public, does not go very far in explaining our role in Indian politico-cultural discourse. It so happens that “Oriental Philology and History” (one of my diplomas), the proper name of “Orientalism”, was developed in Europe, and some of those roots are still in force, all while it now largely conditions the dominant Indian discourse about India itself. The “White” presence in this line of scholarship was almost a 100% till recently, as the upcoming non-White presence in Western universities (as Indians know all too well) was mostly in Engineering and Medicine, shortcuts to status and wealth, not in the Humanities and certainly not in its more esoteric departments. It is only recently that the children of Asian immigrants have started entering the “Orientalist” sections. But I am sure that the day a Chinese-American, not to mention an Indian-American, starts putting out theses as provocative as Doniger’s or Pollock’s, and from equally prestigious positions, he will evoke similar passions among the affected Hindu public.
The use of Westerners, the reason why they can serve as argument of authority in India, is firstly that in controversies, they count as outsiders, hence more objective; and secondly, that modern culture does indeed count as intrinsically more scientific. The first argument is very weak: those who get close enough to Indian culture to have anything to say about it, have usually befriended one of the warring camps inside India, and hence have become just as partisan as their Indian sources. Thus, practically all the Western press correspondents in Delhi are safely in the pocket of the secularists and cherish a vicarious hatred of assertive Hinduism. This yields what I have called a “circular argument of authority”: Indian secularists feed their Western contacts their own view of the Indian religio-political landscape, and when their Western dupes then go public with these same views, the secularists hold them up as independent confirmation of their views by the scientific West.

Pattanaik is oh so even-handed: “If we attribute strategy to the works of Doniger and Pollock, the same needs to be done to the works of Elst and Frawley.” I don’t know about David’s, but in the case of my own work, I am surprised to learn of its “strategic” dimension. I don’t know of any policy that was inspired by my work.
It seems that we “are catering to a vast latent need of privileged Hindus to feel good about themselves”. I leave it to David to explain his motive (which I think is simply a love of Hindu Dharma, but I admit Pattanaik may consider this naïve), but mine is as follows.
Part of it is again given by Pattanaik himself: “After having been at the receiving end of Orientalist and Marxist criticism since the 19th century, privileged Hindus have not developed requisite skills in the field of humanities to launch a worthwhile defence.”
That much is certainly true: both in India and in the diaspora, talented Indian youngsters have rushed to the Medical and Engineering departments, leaving the Humanities for their not-so-bright brothers and sisters. Hindu activist organizations have never invested in scholarship, and their very few recent attempts to gain a toehold in this little-understood world have been clumsy and unsuccessful. Add to this that in these departments, the Left has built a power position and enforces its vetoes against anyone showing any sign of loyalty to the Hindu cause. So, to say that “Hindus have not developed requisite skills in the field of humanities” is not far off the mark. With my limited means, I used to assume I had something to contribute there, viz. a more accurate picture of Indian history compared to the facile or plainly mischievous assumptions that the Left has tried to instil in the next generations.
Then there is the reason Sir Edmund Hillary gave for climbing the Everest: “Because it was there.” When I noticed the big power-wielders in the Indian landscape with their rope tricks fooling people on the Ayodhya temple or the Aryan debate, the adventurous White man in me was awakened to go “hunting tigers out in Indiah”. That is, at least, if you try to think up a subsconscious personal reason. My conscious reason was that so much bluff as was spread by the Indian intellectual establishment simply had to be answered and defeated.

“Outsourcing the job to White Men is an easy alternative. Particularly those who manage to establish credibility. Frawley does that brilliantly by declaring himself a Hindu, with an evocative title of Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, which makes him a “Brahmin” in Hindu eyes, justified on grounds of his vast knowledge of the Vedic scriptures, and his long practice of Ayurveda and Jyotisha. His wife is Indian, and has the title of Yogini. Elst, by contrast, insists that he is not a Hindu, for he is well aware that no one can be ‘converted’ to Hinduism, that it is linked to birth, and that Hinduism is deeply linked to geography.”
Secularists are fond of saying (and of quoting Westerners to the effect) that “there is no conversion to Hinduism”: to them it means that Hindus are condemned to keeping mum when the missionaries convert to Christianity. By contrast, I do think conversion to Hinduism is possible. Firstly, communities as a whole have done it throughout history; it is between communities that conversion is rare. (If you are a Jat or a Rajput and you convert to Islam, you will still get identified with your caste for generations. Indian Muslims have been tutored to hide this, to uphold the anti-Hindu fiction of an “egalitarian Islam”, but Pakistanis candidly tell you: “I am a Rajput Muslim.”) Secondly, in borderline situations such as a mixed marriage, someone can join a particular Hindu community, on condition that its legitimate members accept you as one of theirs.
And then there are the present circumstances, where Hindus are forced to compete with predators and hence modestly organize Ghar Wâpasi (“return home”), the reconversion of people once estranged from Hinduism. I fully support that policy. It mostly works among villagers, with whom bookish me has little rapport; but if my writing about Islamic scripture can help a Muslim to free himself from his religious conditioning so that he wants to “return home”, I will be most happy.
In spite of all that, I myself have never converted to Hinduism, though I have received initiations from several acknowledged Gurus. I do not sport a Sanskrit name. But that is not at all meant as a tacit criticism of the course David Frawley has chosen.
“Frawley overcomes this bottleneck easily by insisting Vedic civilisation is universal and open to all humanity, and by defining what it means to be a true Brahmin. It is significant, however, that no white convert to Hinduism ever identifies themselves as Vaishyas or Shudras. It is either Brahmin or Kshatriya, that is intellectual and combative – and always superior. So much for ‘division of labour’ thesis of varna.”
The Brahmin name “Shastri” was given to David, it is not he who claimed Brahminhood. As for myself, by traditional definitions of varna, I would of course be a Shudra, and there is nothing wrong with that. A Swiss friend of mine (and of “Vedic socialist” Swami Agnivesh), who lived in an ashram in Rishikesh for years, calls himself Shudrânanda: Shudra and happy to be one! Among great Hindu figures I particularly like, is Sant Ravidas, who was a cobbler on the outskirts of Varanasi. Well, the outskirts of Hinduism, that is where you might situate me.

I feel flattered by Pattanaik’s accurate assessment of the history debates I have participated in: “Elst has done a lot of research on Ayodhya and endeavours to provide evidence to prove the Babri Masjid was indeed built on a site that once housed a Hindu temple. He has strongly challenged views of scholars like Richard Eaton who seek to secularise the iconoclasm of Muslim rulers. The standard trope in modern historical studies seems to be that Hindu temples were destroyed not only by Muslim rulers but also by Hindu rulers as part of establishing their authority. It disregards all Hindu memory and Islamic writing that shows motivation of Muslim rulers at its core was religious, designed to replace the Hindu faith with Islam. This is aligned with Western academic anxiety at being seen as Islamophobic – no points lost if one is Hinduphobic. Elst provides the fodder to challenge this view.”
But here I break ranks with many history-rewriters: “Both Elst and Frawley provide strong arguments to support the ‘Out of India’ theory that seeks to establish India as the true homeland of the Aryan race or Sanskrit language, claiming it gave civilisation to the world.”
 “Despite their deep knowledge of Hinduism, neither Elst nor Frawley, neither Doniger nor Pollock, believe in letting go and moving on, which is the hallmark of Hindu thought, often deemed as a feminine trait. Instead, Elst and Frawley keep drawing attention to injustice done by colonisers, goading Indians to rise up and fight, a violent tendency that is the hallmark of Western thought, often deemed as a masculine trait. Likewise, Doniger and Pollock keep reminding their readers that Hinduism’s seductive ‘spirituality’ must at no point distract one from its communal and casteist truths.”
Wow, psycho-analyzing people from a distance, that must be tough. Look, I don’t understand all this jargon dividing civilizations into “feminine” and stuff. I merely see a debate (about the invasion theory) that has not been satisfactorily concluded yet, so I keep working. That is not an idiosyncratic refusal to let go. After the Ayodhya debate was concluded and the pre-existence of a temple at the site proven and officially accepted, I have left that debate behind me. I let go of it.
By contrast, the injustice done by the Muslim colonisers remains a fact with consequences in the present day, and continuous with some presently existing injustices (violent oppression of Hindus in Muslim-majority states, anti-Hindu discriminations in the Constitution). Letting go of those concerns would be too early. That is just a matter-of-fact view. Myth cannot really throw new light upon it.
Likewise, I assume that Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock take the causes they fight for seriously. In that case, they must realize that those causes are large and not exactly ephemeral: they will still be with us on our dying day. So, people are free to change course in life, but abandoning a project you have worked for before seeing it through is not particularly virtuous. I don’t think sons of the Indian soil like a BR Ambedkar nor a SR Goel abandoned the causes they worked for halfway. It is not always time to “let go”.

Parting shots
So far, so good. But in cauda venenum, the venom is in the tail. I strongly object to Pattanaik’s parting shots.
“So both parties keep the Hindu wound festering. Both also offer the balm of ‘justice’, a Western approach that is politically volatile for India, and commercially lucrative for them.”
The people who created doubts about the temple in Ayodhya, and inflicted the whole controversy on India (and on Hindu communities in Bangladesh and the UK), did unnecessarily revive an old wound and then kept it festering. Those who sought for the exact historical scenario and its doctrinal background did just the opposite. And as for the bystanders who ignore the factual results that the latter have achieved, the too seem to want the controversy to “fester”.
As for “lucrative”, for those familiar with the vetoes and exclusions inflicted upon dissenters by the Humanities establishment in the West and the secularist establishment in India, such a thought is beneath contempt. If “lucre” had been my motive, I would of course have joined the opposite camp.
And here he is really mistaken: “Neither privileges the Indian idea of diversity, that rejects homogeneity, and allows for multiple paradoxical even hierarchical structures to co-exist.” At least when speaking for myself, I can confidently state that on the contrary, my criticism has always been directed precisely against the religions and ideologies that are out to suppress diversity.
The mythographer speaks: “Doniger and Pollock follow the Greek mythic pattern that establishes them as heroes who are in the ‘good fight’ against ‘fascist’ monsters. Elst and Frawley follow the Abrahamic mythic pattern that establishes them as ‘prophets’ leading the enslaved – colonised – Indians back to the ‘Vedic Promised Land’.”
I don’t know how Greek a “good fight” is, but that is indeed how they see their work; and so do we. As for prophets, I don’t really believe in divine spokesmen, so let that sobriquet pass. Perhaps David, who is more of a visionary, could be described in those terms, though he himself, as far as I know, never did. Me, I only see specific errors being made, and I am simply the much-needed schoolteacher wielding his red pencil. If that can lead anyone to his Promised Land, fine, but I don’t even look that far, I just want those errors out of the way. Perhaps Bhangi (sweeper) would be a good caste for me.
But then: “Being placed on a high pedestal is central to both strategies. Criticism also evokes a similar reaction in both sides – they quickly declare themselves as misunderstood heroes and martyrs, and stir up their legion of followers. Doniger and Pollock have inspired an army of activist-academicians who sign petitions to keep ‘dangerous’ Indian leaders and intellectuals out of American universities and even American soil”: Subramanian Swamy, Narendra Modi, and in similar controversies Rajiv Malhotra, the Dharma Civilization Foundation and others. Indeed, the Indological community’s touching (occasional) concern for freedom of speech is not erga omnes. And at that point, any similarity with Frawley and myself ends.
“No dissent is tolerated. If you agree with either side, you become rational scientists for them. If you disagree with them, you become fascists – or racists.” Both Frawley and myself have written thousands of pages. I offer one symbolic rupee for whoever can find any statement to that brandishing effect. On the other hand, I can point to a number of pages in my own work where I go out of my way to defend the freedom of speech of those conspicuously not in agreement with me, esp. Wendy Doniger. No special merit, for if you yourself have been the target of enough exclusions, it comes easily.
It seems we are dealing with an attitude that seeks to come out on top during a argument by picking up the quarrel in the middle and pretending that both sides are equal. A very profitable posture, for it also allows for laziness since you don’t even have to study the contents of what the two sides are saying or doing.
Now that our mythographer has gone off track, he extemporizes all at once about “White Knights” with a “Hindutva obsession”, opposing “multiple truths” and waging a “Crusade against Muslims”, out to “dehumanise” the opposition. Here I confess, I simply can’t keep up with his cannonade. I think he is referring to himself when he speaks of “rejecting the model of conversation”.

Yet, I have hardly any quarrel with Pattanaik’s conclusion: “If we have to truly be decolonised, and truly swadeshi, be it the MK Gandhi or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh variety, we have to overcome our inferiority complexes, and without succumbing to chauvinism, realise that we Indians, with all our shortcomings, do not really need Europeans and Americans to tell us what Hinduism, Sanskrit or Vedas were, are, or should be.”
Well, if you put the issue in those terms, I am all for overcoming inferiority feelings and dependence on others. That is why Indians don’t need Doniger’s eroticized or Pollock’s politicized reading of the Ramayana, and why the interiorization of their approach in the late AK Ramanujan’s or in Pattanaik’s own work was a bad idea. Only, I don’t think that that is because these august scholars are “White”, or “Western”, or even “Indologists”, but merely because they are wrong.

It is no big deal to be wrong once in a while. Fortunately there are others, conversation partners with a verbal red pencil, who are kind enough to correct you. Vishal Agarwal has published a whole book of corrections to the many errors in Wendy Doniger’s not-so-banned “banned book”. I have participated in a whole conference to set Sheldon Pollock’s loaded views of Sanskrit straight. It will not save the world, or even that small part of it that is India, nor that small minority that is still Hindu. But still it is a good clean feeling not to have to live amid untruths, whether lies (oh, how I loathe that term) or, more often, mistakes. Myths are another matter.

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