Some Hindus ask me, as a sympathizing outsider, if I have any advice for them when they want to revive their fortunes. In principle, I have no advice; it would be arrogant to pretend to know something that the people concerned are not so sure about. But then again, Hindus are no different from others, they are subject to the same laws, so an approximative knowledge of their condition is enough to predict where they are moving and to say what they have to do to make the best of it. So, here goes.
The first thing Hindus have to do, is to know themselves. The great problem of Hindus today is that they have become sleep-walkers, forgetful of their civilization. It gets worse with every passing year, as the ever-larger Hindu middle-class is becoming Americanized both in consumer patterns and in values. Their knowledge of Western films and music is becoming bigger as their knowledge of Hindu tradition is lessening. And the worst is that increasing numbers take pride in their ignorance.
In the past, it didn’t matter if you skipped religion classes. You would just breathe Hinduism. You would know the tales from the Mahabharata and the Puranas through songs and theatre plays performed in your village square. Girls would learn Hindu traditions from their mothers and pass them on to their own children. But that can no longer be taken for granted.
In a way, the world has become more conducive to Christian-style religion. NRI-PIOs congregate in their temples the way Christians gather in their churches. They organize Sunday school for their children the way they learnt from their Protestant neighbours. India itself is becoming similar, if only because the same family pattern with two wage-earners is being transplanted. You can study religion on your own, the way the first Christians practised their religion (even in secret), against or at least without support from your surroundings. At any rate, unlike in the past, if you don’t make a deliberate choice to do something about your religion, chances are that you won’t.
To Hindus, this is a new situation. In days gone by, religion was just there, you fell in line with your surroundings, you did as everyone did. Now, to an increasing extent, you have to make a choice for it. The law of inertia is no longer working for Hinduism; it starts to work against it. The missionaries know this; the Hindus, I am not so sure.
But they can save their Hinduism by practising it. The very first result is that they themselves will realize again what Hinduism is all about. Not otherworldly Hinduism but the kind that Krishna preached, on the Kurukshetra, with the real enemies and opportunities and the real world.
For Hindus abroad, depending on circumstances, knowledge of Indian languages is probably lost. In a few places, native languages are perhaps viable, like Hindi in Suriname or Tamil in Singapore. If Hindu families can speak their Indian language inside the home and transmit it to the children, so much the better. But in mixed families and in oceans of powerful languages like the Anglosphere, children or grandchildren are bound to take to the language of their surroundings, so it is a waste to still your guilt feelings as an immigrant by forcing your children to learn a smattering of Bengali or Kannada. It is better to teach your children Hindu values, and if this has to take the form of a language, let it be Sankrit, the key to the main Hindu scriptures. For the rest, let them acquire a thorough grounding in Hindu stories and ritual, in English or whatever vernacular they take to, rather than investing your and their precious time in a language that is bound to die.
In India itself, English should be shown its place as first foreign language. Mind you, mine is a position against self-interest, for I will never have more fluency in an Indian language than in English; by contrast, all Indians and Westerners pleading for English happen to be self-serving. At any rate, an anti-English stand is not voguish, now that Indian politicians are not just sending their own children to English-medium schools while promoting vernacular-medium education for the common man, but openly replace vernacular with English schooling. This is a political choice: either Panjabis and Malayalis will speak English with each other, like Danes with Koreans or Congolese with Pakistanis; or they will speak an Indian language. If you want Indian unity, you’d better aim for an Indian language that will set India apart from the Anglosphere.
That Indian language can only be Sanskrit. At this distance, we can say that it was a fateful day when the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad, cast the deciding vote in the Constituent Assembly in favour of Hindi as link language, to the detriment of the other candidate, Sanskrit. Hindi was not accepted by the chauvinist speakers of the other vernaculars. One of the good reasons was that it was but a recent language, a common denominator between old literary languages like Braj Bhasha, Awadhi, Rajasthani and others. Hindi as it is, was deemed vulgar by speakers of highly civilized non-Hindi languages like Bengali or Telugu. It didn’t have the kind of prestige that could overrule such objections.
By contrast, Sanskrit if chosen as the link language would have sent a cry of admiration through countries like China and Japan, Russia and Germany, France and America. The state of Israel, that chose to make Biblical Hebrew its first language, would have understood very well that India made its main Scriptural medium into its second language. The Flemish, who waged a struggle against French-language masses all while accepting Latin masses as a matter of course, would have understood it if the Indians had preferred their common sacred language over a vernacular. Even the Muslim world would have understood it. Most importantly, it would have been accepted by the Indian people. Speakers of the constituent members of the Hindi commonwealth would have had no objection, and speakers of non-Hindi languages (even Tamil chauvinists) would have had fewer objections than against Hindi. As for the English-speaking elite, it would militate no harder against one Indian language than against another.
The vote in the Constituent Assembly, fifty-fifty between Sanskrit and shuddh Hindi, shows how far India has slipped, and what an outrageous failure the so-called Hindu Nationalist movement has been. If the vote were held today, it would rather be fifty-fifty between English and Bollywood Hindi, i.e. Urdu. The secularists were then a small coterie around Nehru, now the same stream of opinion controls all the cultural and other institutions. Back then, a vote for English would be unthinkable, now the same taboo counts almost for a vote against English. The Muslims were only 10% and smarting under their guilt for the Partition, not in a position to make demands; now they are 15% and growing fast, and in active opposition to every language policy that smells of either Hinduism or nationalism. Sanskrit has been borrowed heavily by the South-Indian languages and would be welcomed by their speakers (so would shuddh Hindi, for that matter, and for the same reason), whereas “Hindustani” or Urdu brings Hindi a lot closer to the official language of Pakistan but at a greater distance from the Southern languages of India itself.
So, you have a choice. Supporting Bollywood Hindi will make Indian unity weaker and the Muslim factor stronger. But more importantly, supporting English will make Indian unity and democracy weaker, and the hold of the secularist elite stronger. By contrast, supporting Sanskrit will make Indian unity stronger, along with popular access to the Hindu tradition. Whether India as a unified state survives, depends on many things, but English will certainly not be a factor of unity. A Kannadiga may speak English with a native of Karachi or Chittagong, as he would with a native of Hong Kong or Cairo or anywhere, without sharing a national state with them; and the same counts for a native of Mumbai or Delhi.
Admittedly, Sanskrit is a difficult language, but then it is equally difficult for everyone. And if one positive development can be mentioned since 1947, it is the decreased importance of caste pride, which led many upper-caste people to have a sneaking sympathy for the Nehruvian anti-Sanskrit policy, which at least kept Sanskrit out of the hands of the lower castes. One of the formative episodes in Dr. Ambedkar’s life was when he was denied the right to study Sanskrit in school because of his low caste. It helped make him a partisan of Sanskrit as national link language, a choice not followed by his so-called followers in the Dalit movement. They favour English, a choice unthinkable to the freedom struggle generation.
So, the anti-Sanskrit forces are a lot stronger than in the late forties, when they very narrowly won the day. Still Sanskrit is the only chance the lovers of India have. Hindi failed, and English will only weaken Indian unity, apart from being an utterly undignified choice of link language. Brace yourselves for a difficult struggle – or for national disintegration.
3. Build your own Hindu organization
It is counterproductive to hope for tangible results from the Sangh Parivar. In most respects, they achieved nothing for the Hindus. A few merits go to their credit, viz. relief work and, in some areas, security for Hindus threatened by aggressive “minorities” (i.e. the local branches of international religions with a lot of support from abroad). Important as these merits undoubtedly are, they do not justify the Sangh Parivar’s national claims for the “awakening of the Hindus”. On the contrary, the Sangh Parivar has done its bit for keeping the Hindus asleep. They have misdirected their flock and neglected a number of concerns of those Hindus who were awake.
One good thing the Sangh did, was to organize. I call upon you to do the same. Unfortunately, the Sangh saw this as a goal in itself. It forgot to make self-organization subservient to a Hindu vision, because it had none.
However, that criticism of the Sangh has been expressed enough times and on enough forums. Repeating it is only one form of what Rajiv Malhotra calls “mouse-clicking Hindu activism”, a useless activity that may be ego-flattering but otherwise makes no difference. It may be necessary to keep Hindus from a mistaken line of involvement, but it has mostly outlived its use now. The thing to do is simply to set up your own Hindu centre of activity and ignore the ideological line of the Sangh.
The focus may be very different depending on local needs. Physical security is an important concern in areas where the so-called minorities are strong and growing, like West Bengal and Kerala. That is why the Hindu Samhati in West Bengal is so important: it promises to be more effective than the RSS, and has so far also lived up to its promise. It channels the natural Hindu capacity for self-defence. In opulent areas where Hindu self-forgetfulness due to the invasion of American consumerism is a greater menace, by contrast, the focus may be more on Hindu identity and the revival of Hindu knowledge.
The national and international dimension can be taken care of far more easily that in the past, thanks to the internet. The pure communication dimension of this transregional cooperation will take care of itself. But is there a need of some more formal way of grouping along national and international lines? In particular, shouldn’t there be a party like the BJP?
If there were an effective lobby group, like the Jewish lobby in the US, there would be no need of a Hindu political party. There is no Jewish political party, but both the Democrats and the Republicans do their best to curry the favour of the Jewish lobby. For the impartisan form, the VHP (World Hindu Council) has in the past approached all political parties with its “Hindu agenda”, but in practice it only counted on the BJP. And even this party did not do the Hindu lobby’s bidding, e.g. whereas the VHP’s Hindu agenda of 1996 contained an anti-abortion item, in keeping with the Brahmanic-Shastric interdiction of abortion, the BJP programme (in keeping with most other parties’ and governments’) was all for birth-control by any means necessary, including legal abortion. So Hindus don’t consist of the right human material to form an effective lobby-group pressurizing political parties.
A party like the BJP is better than nothing, according to many Hindus. While it fails to do anything for Hindu causes, at least when it is in power nothing will be done against the Hindus, unlike the other parties; or so they say. The opening of Indian media ownership under the NDA regime can be given as a counterexample, a BJP-engineered disaster for Hindu society; but we don’t want to be difficult. Well, let the BJP exist, it will do so anyway, but let that not stop you from doing anything on your own.
Once you’ve built up something, it will automatically become the lobby that some were dreaming of. The BJP, and perhaps other parties, will seek your approval when making its programme, your support during the campaign. It always does so when it sees people who know what they want; it did so with the secularists, and it will do so again with Hindus. This will put you in a position to make demands. The BJP will make some of your programme its own if it has the impression that you are consistent and credible. All this and more will accrue to those who really do something and get started.
4. Let the facts speak for themselves
According to Rajiv Malhotra, Hindus are “under-informed and over-opinionated”. I already had that impression, but being a foreigner, I had no business saying it. However, if an Indian says it, it deserves to be quoted. They haven’t done their “Purva-Paksha”, their study of the opponent’s viewpoint, and -- now I quote Sita Ram Goel -- yet “they think they know everything about everything”. I have, for instance, made many an argument with Hindus who claimed to know more of my home religion, Christianity, than I myself did. Perhaps it is an atavistic behaviour pattern dating back to the time when India was on top of the world, and when Indians had a superiority rather than their present inferiority complex.
On the internet, I have come across many Hindus who were ill-mannered and unwilling to abide by the general rules of good conduct. That will not influence my opinions too seriously, because my mind has by now been made up, but it will affect those of many others. What they prove is that a good cause can be spoilt by bad servants. They give a good message a bad name by their lack of self-control.
They feel good about themselves because they had their say. They think it is impressive if they shove it into the other side’s face. But what they never do, is listen to feedback. Am I achieving what I set out to achieve? Well, the problem with most of these folks is that they don’t really want to achieve anything. The thought of getting somewhere just doesn’t cross their minds. They merely want an emotional kick, a feeling of having said it in a way that the other side, or more likely the sympathizing reader (they are not aware of another side), is unlikely to forget. They want to live out what is inside of them, and the result be damned.
The fact that they are participating in discussions on Hinduism and its plight at least proves they feel that something is not right. Let that be a start. For the rest, you have your own teachers to go to. You don’t need me to tell you that self-control (in Sanskrit: yoga) is better for you and for everyone than self-indulgence. You have Hindu civilization for that.
Hindu tradition teaches you all about Purva-Paksha, the “earlier wing” against which your own viewpoint is the counter-wing. It teaches you that you first have to acquaint yourself with what the others are saying before you can answer them. Short, it doesn’t want you to be lazy. It doesn’t want you to take the laughable posture of pretending you know it all without studying. By extension, it teaches you to take into account what the others say in answering you. It wants you to learn from their feedback. Thus, there has never been a Hindu who has convinced an outsider by means of a false (P.N. Oak-ian) etymology, it has solely earned them ridicule; only Hindus fall for this kind of “argument”, and that should tell you something.
How does this work out in practice? Instead of letting your emotions take centre-stage, you should let the facts speak for themselves. That works best. Isn’t it funny, Hindus who have the facts as their best friends yet want to hide these behind their own anger? In making your point, you should first of all let reality do the talking. Nothing convinces as much as reality does.
And yet, reality is not enough. Some Hindus know how to let reality speak and how to make their own emotions shut up, yet their performance is insufficient. For instance, so many times already I have received copies of Nathuram Godse’s speech about Mahatma Gandhi. Hindus think they are meritorious by spreading the word and propagating Godse’s speech, because it stays close to the facts,and because it is itself a historical fact. But except for a secularist of sorts (Ashis Nandy), I am the only author of an analysis of Godse’s speech. Many Hindus admire Godse, but they don’t bother to stop and think about his speech. They merely repeat it, mantra-like, without adding anything to it.
So, once in a while it is necessary to think things over. Was Nathuram Gods right? Was he more right in his words than in his act? What was the result of his act? Discussion forums are an excellent place to make a start. The “wisdom of crowds” is represented there, and I have already learnt a lot from it, even from the most ordinary people who have their moments of brilliance too, and their area of expertise. Hindus could learn a lot too, and train themselves in making up their own minds and influencing other people’s.
5. Don’t create false problems
According to textbooks, Hindus and especially low-castes (who were only induced into Hinduism by the evil Aryan invaders) are fed up with “empty ritual”. That is, according to the secularists, why they want to leave Hinduism. If you see Christians eat the flesh of Christ, just remember that they would never want to be Hindus and condemned to doing “empty rituals”.
In reality, there may be some things in Hinduism that trouble them, but “empty ritual” is not it. Take it from an eyewitness to the slow death of a religious culture, Christianity in Europe, who has seen numerous contemporaries sigh: “Yes, Christianity is a pack of fairy-tales, but where will I find such a good ritual setting for my funeral as a mass in church, conducted by a real priest?” Religion may be nonsense, but ritual is very important. So, when I see Hindus on internet lists complain about “empty ritual”, I know they are just rattling off what they learned in their Jesuit school. Of course, the Jesuits know the value of ritual and also practice it, but to Hindu pupils they teach about its emptiness.
Ritual will take care of itself, it gets reborn easily, but some matters are more serious when they are made into problems. One perfectly false issue that has been keeping Hindus busy for a century and a half (if not for a thousand years) is polytheism vs. monotheism. Pharaoh Akhenaten, Moses and Mohammed thought they stumbled upon some important realization when they declared monotheism true and polytheism false. Against them, some Hindus defend their ancestral polytheism, which nowadays is a brave thing to do. Others, whom the Buddha called lickspittles, try to curry favour with their enemies by espousing monotheism. To have an edge over other Hindus, they declare that the others have not understood how a single God is hiding behind the seeming multiplicity of Vedic gods.
But the truth of the matter is that the Vedic seers didn’t cared two hoots for this quarrel between monotheists and polytheists. The divine manifests itself as one or as many, and both could be lived with. You should not import into Hinduism a problem that only your enemies created, and in the name of which they have destroyed your idols and temples.
A related “problem” is that of idolatry. For thousands of years, Hindus have depicted the divine through paintings and sculptures. To be sure, they also worshipped in the open air, with the wind as the natural idol of Vayu, the thunder as the natural idol of Indra, and so on. But surely the culture of artificial idols has so long and so intimately been interwoven with living Hinduism that we can call idolatry Hindu par excellence. So, it is safe to ignore those Hindus who, wanting to cozy up to their self-described enemies, suddenly “discover” that the Hindus have always been oppressed by false and evil idolatry.
The so-called problems of polytheism and idolatry are false problems floated by those Hindus who want to feel superior to other Hindus, viz. by bathing in the reflected glory of Christianity and Islam. Hindus had better concentrate on real issues, like how to maintain their Hinduism in a sea of hostile forces, or how to save girl babies.
One very good thing by which Hinduism stood out, both in its Vedic and its Puranic phase, was its unbridled creativity. Today, this is what is sorely lacking. Sita Ram Goel diagnosed the Hindu activists among his fellow students ca. 1940 as the most mediocre of the lot. Those who had nothing to offer individually gravitated towards causes which tilted them above themselves but to which they themselves had indeed little to offer. They gave their time and energy, nobody can deny them this dedication, but a winning movement cannot be built exclusively of such grey people.
The creative people are on the other side. Most Bollywood actors and directors are either on the anti-Hindu or, at best, on the mindlessly Hindu side. They have named their industry after its American counterpart and some say their product is lousy, but at least they know how to attract money and they certainly have a good time. Hindus ought to feel jealous, if at all they have the ambition to do as well as Bollywood.
Creativity was to be found in the late M.F. Husain, hated by the Hindus and disliked by a great many Muslims too. He was driven by hate, old and uninspired hate, but undeniably he created things in painting. Hindus could do nothing but demand a ban, the most humourless and uncreative solution. No Hindu came forward to be the anti-Husain, let alone some original way to silence him.
It was different once. Every art form was steered to new heights by Hindu artists. Every province of India had its own variation of the performing arts. In the visual arts, no tradition was a match for the richness in characters that the fable collections, epics and Puranas had to offer. Whereas Chinese and Japanese classical music are museum pieces next to omnipresent Western classical music (at performing which the East-Asians excel), Indian classical music remains as the only rival. More individualistic yet more complex, it differs from European classical music the way adult music differs from children’s songs. Hindus are fairly good at maintaining what was great among the inventions of their ancestors, but not so good at giving a creative answer to today’s challenges.
So, gird up your loins to start anew. Create Hindu art. Let it not be an imitation of Western “modern art”, the West is fed up with it and you have no need of Indians pretending to like it. Forget about trying to be original, just be Hindu and your originality will take care of itself. Except for calendar artists, no artist wants to be known as a Hindu, so by doing Hindu art you automatically stand out.
The greatest thing about Hinduism for all its adherents are its festivals. As long as people celebrate these, the religion will exist. Just apply the Americans proverb: “If it’s fun, it gets done.” The same counts for the more serious Hindu business, like meditation. It is not airy-fairy, as Westerners imagine, but very down-to-earth, the most realistic thing in the world. But it is also the happiest thing, the source of joy.
And judging by this criterion, Hinduism is alive and kicking. So, I am not all that pessimistic about the future. You simply have to do what it takes.
(first published on the Hindu Human Rights website, ca. 17 May 2012)