Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Even more on Hinduism

 (written in January 2018, published in the forthcoming issue of the ICHR bulletin)

What does American academe think about Hinduism nowadays? Well, just like in questions about God, the answer “depends on what you mean by that term”. Geoffrey Oddie, general editor of the series including the present collective book, Hinduism in India, thematizes the term in the first chapter. The original geographical meaning of Hindu as “Indian” remained in use into the late 19th century, when native converts called themselves “Hindu Christians”. Yet since the entry of the Muslims in the Middle Ages, it had acquired a second meaning which gradually became standard, viz. an Indian non-Muslim, a Heathen. Today, it has become quite unacceptable to describe an Indian Muslim or Christian as Hindu, and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat draws a lot of flak when he asserts once more that “every Indian is a Hindu”.

Just like e.g. Greek philosophy, divided in different mutually antagonistic schools yet understood as a single project when looked at from the outside, Hinduism was heavily conscious of its divisions in Shaivas vs. Vaishnavas, Sankhya vs. Vedanta, etc., until confrontation with an outsider made it realize its relative unity. From at least the 13th century, doxographers like Madhavacharya see a pan-Hindu essence, able to compete with the creeds defining Islam and Christianity. In this book, unfortunately, while this is correctly enunciated, it remains only a sociological nod to a human reality but without any ideological flesh: no attempt is made to analyse just what this core could be contentswise.  

This book is, after all, more focused on contemporary Indian sociology than on religious contents through classical or vernacular sources. The latter are featured mostly in the chapters on folk Hinduism (with the “little traditions” contrasting with the Sanskritic “great tradition”), the religious role of ghost-possession, and the modern guru movements. Really existing Hindu society is studied more closely in chapters on its economics, healing traditions, the impact of modernity and specifically of the media, transformations in the institute of marriage, Hindu law, and of course the caste system. The latter chapter is not the usual litany against Hinduism as “nothing but caste religion, the religion that decrees inequality between people”, but juxtaposes that view with its opposite, that “we are so embroiled in understanding caste system that the other salient aspects of caste has been relegated to the back seat” (p.272).

This way, some papers approach scholarly objectivity; but truth to tell, most contributors do show their bias to a limited degree, as they drink in this default position during their Indology studies. Contrary to their Arabic or Chinese counterparts, the Indian Studies departments have been structurally anti-Hindu for decades, so the absorption of this bias is no surprise. Mercifully, it is mostly insinuated here in small doses so that only the expert will notice.

Thus, the Moplah violence during the Khilafat movement was directed against “Kerala landlords” (p.109) as if was merely a social and not a religious struggle, a negationist thesis promoted by the Communists. This way, Hindus are spirited away from the “victim” category and turned into exploiters who only deserved what they got. Likewise, the not-so-innocent Saint Thomas legend, unhistorical (he never set foot in India) anti-Brahmin blood libel (they never murdered him) but profitable to the Christian mission, is uncritically taken for granted (p.103). The Hindus are accused of being “discriminatory” (p.17) because caste-based reservations are (or rather, were) limited to the broadly defined Hindu category, not extending to Christians or Muslims. In fact, this is a logical corollary of Christian and Muslim propaganda that their religions know no caste and that any Dalit convert ceases to be a Dalit. Indeed, when establishing the first caste reservations in 1935, the British expressed willingness to extend this privilege to the missionaries’ flock, but those missionaries refused. They still had a sense of consistency and honour.

In most cases, no malice need be involved: the Indology departments typically attract India-lovers who innocently swallow the uniquely hostile bias without really realizing it. In the section of “secularism”, however, Timothy Lubin makes claims (or merely repeats them, as most authors do) that can’t stand scrutiny at all. Unfocused outsiders may have swallowed them, but to actually prepare a paper on that very subject and then still calling India a “secular state” (p.50), admitting that this claim is criticized yet remaining silent on the prime reason for this criticism, viz. the constitutional as well as the effective discriminations against Hindus and Hinduism esp. in education and temple management, is either blindness or bad faith.

It is the most eminent among the contributors, Robert Eric Frykenberg, who goes the farthest in expressing his bias. He shudders to think what an “absolute majority” for the BJP would do (p.116). Well, since 2014, the party does have an absolute majority, and what calamity has befallen India? To explain the BJP’s policies in the 21st century, he has nothing better to show than the same two worn-out quotes from the RSS leader-to-be, MS Golwalkar, penned down in 1938 (p.116). He likens the Hindu Nationalist organizations to Fascism, in the US the single gravest allegation you can possibly make, and calls them “totalizing, if not totalitarian” (p.116). He slanderously alleges that Hindu leader VD Savarkar was complicit in the Mahatma Gandhi murder, against the police findings and the judicial verdict. Short, the same tone you routinely find in India’s dominant anti-Hindu media, apparently the uncritically swallowed source of his view of Hinduism.  

When I first met him, at Wisconsin University’s Annual South Asia Conference in 1995, the India-watching community was filled with foreboding about an imminent BJP breakthrough to power. The experts were outdoing each other in predicting how terrible BJP rule would be: “They will come down on Dalits and women”, “They will abolish democracy”, “They will throw all Muslims into the Indian Ocean”. None of those academics has ever publicly recanted or apologized, yet the BJP has been in power now for ten years (1998-2004, 2014-18, and even for thirteen days in 1996) and nothing of the sort has happened.

Or has it? Not if you live in the real world, but the parallel world which the Indologists have created for themselves is different. Frykenberg claims the post-Godhra riots (the anti-Hindu Godhra pogrom itself, trigger of what followed, remains unmentioned) resulted in “10,000 Muslims killed”, i.e. reality times ten (p.115). He thinks the Vajpayee government went all out with an “authoritarian agenda of ‘saffronization’ aimed to ‘Hinduize’ all institutions and to bring minority people ‘into the Hindu fold’ by whatever means necessary” (p.115); in reality, the few Hindu Nationalist intellectuals were desperate at the party’s lackadaisical treatment of the cultural frontline, where it left the power equation untouched and proved to have no higher ambition than an ever-elusive pat on the shoulder from the secularists. The term “saffronization” mainly referred to Vajpayee’s creation of a chair for Indian Studies in Oxford, that ended up being given to a vocal enemy of Hindutva.  

It has been the same thing under Narendra Modi: no “draining the swamp”, no overhaul of key educational or research posts, only an inconsequential bias towards Hindutva-reputed artists in the awarding of prizes, and doling out posts to useless gerontocrats as reward for their lifelong service to the party. “BJP secularism” proves to be a very enduring doctrine, the maker of government policy, yet it is steadfastly ignored by the India-watchers. So, next to some informative chapters, a few mainly just tell us what is wrong with present-day Indology, or rather, with “South-Asian Studies”.  

Will Sweetman and Aditya Malik, eds. (under general editor Oddie, Geoffrey): Hinduism in India: Modern and Contemporary Movements (Sage, New Delhi, 2016). Pp. xviii+312. Rs 795/-. ISBN: 978-93-515-0099-5

Dr. Koenraad Elst, Visiting Professor at Indus University, Ahmedabad

1 comment:

Gururaj BN said...

From the days of Indira Gandhi, who recruited Prof.Nurul Hasan and G.Parthasarathy for cleansing Indian history of inconvenient references to Muslims and Christians, the academia in India is deeply entrenched with leftist sympathies. In fact, the present breed of researchers don't even realise that there can be another view point at all. Recently, I read a Ph.D thesis of one Dr.Sridhar Pisse, who has written thesis on Sri.Vyasa Teertha, a 15th-16th century polemist of Dwaita Vedanta, who has also composed devotional songs in Kannada. His thesis is mainly an attack on pro-monarchial attitude of Sri.Vyasa Teertha. I fail to understand how anyone can look for democracy or egalitarianism in 15th-16th century of India, when such a concept was unknown to mankind at that time? But then, scholars are scholars, they live in their own insular world.