Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reza Pirbhai and Voice of India

One article Meera Nanda quotes, and which she has also used as a source, is by Dr. Reza Pirbhai, Associate Professor of South-Asian Studies at Louisiana State University. Reza Pirbhai published his piece in a prestigious Cambridge (UK) periodical, Modern Intellectual History (vol.5.1, 2008, p.27-53). It is titled “Demons in Hindutva. Writing a Theology for Hindu Nationalism”. It exemplifies what is wrong with our university education.

The author has gone through a lot of Voice of India literature, at least those books that are on-line. (I(This paper cost him and his library little.) He is also less troubled by a personal anti-Hindu animus than Meera Nanda. For a non-Hindu, he displays the normal scepticism of Hinduism, whereas Meera Nanda as a born Hindu has the usual neurotic relation with her own hated religion. But he has the general Nehruvian hatred of Hinduism, and that is good enough to earn him a good post and publishing avenue.

Voice of India and Hinduism

In his depiction of Voice of India, Pirbhai gives many quotes and there is not much wrong with it, save for a persistent bias. Thus, he calls Voice of India “Hindutva” and claims that it wants to create “a theology for Hindu Nationalism”. I have never known Sita Ram Goel to espouse “Hindutva” and as early as 1964, when he turned down M.S. Golwalkar’s offer to lead the Vishva Hindu Parishad (after Golwalkar had replied in the negative to Goel’s question whether he would be allowed to make his own statements), he had formed a negative opinion about the Hindu Nationalist movement. Rather, it is correct to say that he offered an ideology to Hindu society as a whole, not to the Hindutva movement specifically. He was well aware how the Communists in spite of their limited numbers were able to transform a society by means of intellectual control, and he wanted an answer to that; the Hindutva movement did not.

Pirbhai is not too far off the mark when he writes: “Voice of India, in fact, was established to provide the Sangh Parivar ‘a full-blooded Hindu ideology of its own and process all events, movements, parties and public figures in terms of that ideology, rather than live on borrowed slogans or hand to mouth ideas invoked on the spur of the moment’.” (p.29, with reference to S.R. Goel: How I Became a Hindu.) The only correction needed is that he wanted to give this analysis to Hindu society as a whole rather than to the Sangh Parivar, which is determined to live on borrowed slogans or hand to mouth ideas.

Pirbhai uses postmodern categories like “the Self-Other dichotomy” and the “Orientalist construction of Hinduism”. He replaces facts with theories, e.g. German Orientalist Paul Deussen (d.1919), who visited British India in 1892-93 and saw Swami Vivekananda (p.35) is here turned into a major influence (“Thanks to the overarching influence of Deussen’s monistic positivism”, p.51) though most Voice of India authors never even mentioned him.

He doles out dismissive labels, e.g.: ”Perhaps most telling is [Kanayalal M.] Talreja’s lifting of a line from Paine’s Age of Reason, characteristically torn out of context, in which Paine describes the Bible as the ‘word of a demon’.” (p.46, with reference to Talreja’s non-Voice of India book Holy Vedas and Holy Bible) How so, torn out of context? It is a historical fact that Thomas Paine fell from great popularity to equally great marginality when in his last work he attacked Christianity.

He is very sure of himself and doesn’t need evidence: he is “reading between the lines” (p.29); he notices, when studying Vivekananda, that a certain idea is “clearly the fruit of his study with Deussen” (p.39); and he sees Ram Swarup “in an obvious capitulation” (p.49) to the BJP’s pro-Israeli line. According to Pirbhai, “Reading Voice of India’s theology, it is clear to see why the Sangh Parivar’s leadership distanced itself from Swarup and Goel, accusing them of ‘strong language’.” (p.49) Not so clear to him: the real reason has more to do with laziness and fear, viz. the fear that the Sangh leadership and its followers won’t be able to handle complex categories of ideology.

All well considered, this is not harsh at all: “Swarup puts it most succinctly in ‘A need to face the truth’, making what seems the most repeated statement in Voice of India writings, that ‘the problem is not Muslims but Islam’.” (p.45-46) The problem is not people, but the ideology that estranges these people from their fellow-men. But intellectuals are willing to sacrifice people to an idea, such as Islam.

The attitude towards the Jews takes a lot of his attention. According to Pirbhai, Voice of India recently changed its thinking about the Jews, and is now more sympathetic to the Zionist project than it used to be. In fact, if Hindutva has anything to do with Voice of India, the first utterances of Hindutva always sympathized with the Zionist project. The epoch-making books Hindutva by V.D. Savarkar (1924) and We by M.S. Golwalkar (1939) already expressed their support for Zionism. The Hindu movement has always evinced its admiration for the Jewish readiness to revive the ancient Hebrew language where Hindus were not successful at reviving Sanskrit even as their second language. There is no indication that Ram Swarup or Sita Ram Goel were ever more negative about Judaism. They did not believe in Biblical prophecy, but at least Judaism had never done any harm to Hindu society, much in contrast with Christianity and Islam. As Meera Nanda writes: “Judaism is exempted from this critique of monotheism because eventhough Jews believe in one god, their god is exclusively the god of Jews alone.” (2009:108)

The main Voice of India authors were quite aware of historicity, and how religions change: “As Swarup puts it, Islam is ‘the most malevolent of these residues’ of ‘Semitism’, and Muslims alone are sealed ‘off from every shade of empiricism, rationalism, universalism, humanism and liberalism, the hallmarks of Hindu as well as of modern Western culture.” (p.50, with reference to Hindu Society under Siege, ch.2: “The residue of Islamism”; the author was in fact Sita Ram Goel, not Ram Swarup, but let that pass.) So, Judaism has changed, Christianity was forced to change, but Islam is most faithful to its source.

In passing, Pirbhai expresses his anger at earlier authors for espousing a similar Hindu chauvinism”: “Gandhi declared himself a ‘servant of Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews’ in the early twentieth century, but prized Hinduism ‘above all other religions’ for specifically doctrinal considerations (...) And finally, in 1908, Ghose sought to prove that Hinduism was the only ‘eternal’ and ‘universal religion which embraces all others (...) given as a charge to the Aryan race to preserve through the ages’ by arguing that ‘Semitic’ religions are comparatively ‘narrow’, ‘sectarian’ and ‘of limited purpose’.” (p.38) Voice of India is part of a Hindu tradition.

Pirbhai is at his best when he sums up Voice of India thinking as devising an ideology “rationally akin to the Enlightenment without falling prey to materialism”. (p.52) For some reason he, along with the Sangh, he considers this a “staggeringly harsh theology”. (p.51) Maybe it is just “secular” in the real sense of the term.

Orientalists inventing Hinduism

Reza Pirbhai asks what is this ideology. And here he starts replacing the facts he is supposed to be analysing with the theory which he is espousing: “An answer is complicated by the fact that the cadre of contributors to Voice of India claim to follow directly in the footsteps of every major colonial-era intellectual. Further complicating matters, the perspectives such intellectuals uphold stem from a dialectical process initiated in the nineteenth century, involving Brahmanical traditionalism, European ‘Orientalism’, British colonial modes of authority, and the anticolonial pull of nationalism, not to mention the social and strucutural features of South Asia that offered them all fuel.” (p.30) So, “the crux of Voice of India’s theology is provided by the contents of fin de si├Ęcle German indology, carried forward in Vivekananda’s works and superimposed on [Aurobindo] Ghose’s and Gandhi’s deployment of precolonial Brahmanism’s ‘divine’ Self and ‘demonic’ Other.” (p.32)

I have never been aware of this: though Ram Swarup, S.R.Goel and their guest authors highly respected Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, their main source of inspiration was historical reality, stretching back much farther than the colonial era. For Hinduism, their main source was the Mahabharata and the other classical Sanskrit works.

But for Pirbhai, that doesn’t count, for he subscribes to the theory that Hinduism is not the most ancient religion but one of the youngest religions, not predating the 19th century: “The doctrines and practices presented as ‘Hinduism’ by colonial-era Hindu intellectuals and their postcolonial heirs did not exist prior to the British colonization of South Asia. Instead, a vast array of Sanskrit texts, supplemented by variegated vernacular and oral traditions, were the norm.” (p.32)

It doesn’t matter to him that Voice of India in fact opposes the tendency to embrace Western influences. As written by Goel in Hindu Society under Siege, 1981, ch.4: “The residue of Macaulaysm”: “Now it is English Utilitarianism, now German Idealism, now Russian Nihilism, now French Positivism or Existentialism, now American Consumerism – whatever be the dominant trend is the West, it immediately finds its flock among the educated Hindus.” But alright, it is possible that the very same people who oppose Western influences today have interiorized a Western influence from the 19th century, viz. the “Orientalist construction of Hinduism”. At least on one condition: that there was such a thing.

Eventhough the theory that Hinduism as a self-conscious religion is a colonial construct is popular with many academics, both in the West and in India, and now also including Reza Pirbhai, it has been firmly refuted by solidly secularist scholars such as David N. Lorenzen (Who Invented Hinduism? Essays on Religion in History, Yoda Press, Delhi 2006, esp. the essay “Who invented Hinduism?”, p.1-36) and Andrew J. Nicholson (Unifying Hinduism. Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History, Columbia University Press, New York 2010). The latter shows that many Hindu thinkers in the Muslim period already sought a common denominator of the sects and schools that made up the Hindu commonwealth. But it is the former we will quote at some length.

David Lorenzen names Bipan Chandra, Gyanendra Pandey and Veena Das as some of the academics who teach or taught that Hindu identity does not predate the 19th century, along with a number of Americans. But he quotes a number of Hindu vernacular poets from well before the colonial era who show an awareness of Hindu identity. For instance, the 16th-century Maharashtrian poet Eknath gives a dialogue between a “Hindu” and a Muslim, Hindu-Turka-samvada, in which both sides affirm the strong points of their own religion and lambast the weak points of the other’s religion. Lorenzen fails to remark, in passing, that only Hindus have written such self-criticism, not Muslims. Also in the 16th century, the Ramanandi biographer Anantadas wrote a similar text about the 15th-century poet Kabir. In the Kabir-Bijak, this Kabir himself wrote another text confronting “Hindu” and “Turk” and their respective religions.

A hundred years before Kabir, the romance Kirtilata was written by the poet Vidyapati. Lorenzen observes: “Vidyapati’s description of the Muslim quarter of this city [Jonapur] is imbued with a sharp anti-Muslim bias.” No, Vidyapati was not prejudiced, he knew the Muslims at close quarters and when he wrote something negative about them, he just wrote what his eyes had seen. But Lorenzen himself has a secularist bias. Anyway, here is Vidyapati’s testimony: “The Hindus and Turks live close together. Each makes fun of the other’s religion. (dhamme) (...) The Turks coerce passers-by into doing forced labour. Grabbing hold of a Brahmin boy, they put a cow’s vagina on his head. They rub out his tilak and break his sacred thread. (...) They destroy temples and construct mosques.”

We have it from an eyewitness that Muslims in 1400 practised slave-taking, forced conversion and temple destruction, precisely the thing that everybody knows but that secularists try to deny. But more importantly, he proves that Hinduism as a religious category existed, a full four centuries before Pirbhai says that British Orientalists invented it. Lorenzen quotes an even earlier source to the same effect, viz. the Prithviraj Raso, a historical romance composed not long after the defeat of its hero, King Prithviraj, in 1192. Muslims sources from that period are even more unambiguous and numerous: they had no problem distinguishing between Muslims and Kafirs, and all Indian Kafirs (Pagans) were called Hindus.

As Lorenzen puts it in his conclusion, “one can see the family resemblance of beliefs and practices taking a recognizably Hindu shape in the early Puranas, roughly around the period 300-600.” But Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel went even further back. The Mahabharata does not contain the word Hindu, but it is the foremost Hindu scripture, and the main source of inspiration to Voice of India.

Falsifying history

What troubles Pirbhai most is Voice of India’s steadfast accusation that Islam meant nothing but harm to Hindu society, which he tries to minimize by calling it “Orientalist”: “Voice of India’s catalogue is most heavily laden with books and articles devoted to rehashing or reprinting Orientalist ahistories on the violence perpetrated by Muslims on Hindus (...) In such works, the writings of William Muir (d.1905), David Margoliouth (d.1940), Henry Elliot and other Orientalists are liberally employed, and Ram Swarup is even credited with forewords for reprints of Muir’s Life of Mahomet (1894) and Margoliouth’s Mohammed and the Rise of Islam (1905) – two works heavily criticized for their anti-Muslim biases from the moment of their publication. The gist of this strain of Voice of India works can be boiled down to the list of charges issued in the ‘preface’ of Hindu Temples:What Happened to Them? Echoing Orientalist ahistories exactly, that list includes ‘the destruction of Hindu temples’, ‘mass slaughter of people not only during war but also after the armies of Islam emerged victorious’” etc. (p.42-43)

The interesting point is that Pirbhai dismisses the discoveries by Orientalists about Muslim atrocities against the Hindus as ahistorical. In reality, by far the most sources about these Muslim atrocities are contemporaneous and by Muslims themselves. Not for nothing, H.M. Elliot’s magnum opus (with John Dowson, London 1867-77) is called History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, and its 8 volumes consist of nothing but translations of mostly Persian chronicles. The Voice of India historians Harsh Narain and K.S. Lal used many other Muslim sources besides. In 1991, Voice of India has published a rare Hindu account of the same, V.S. Bhatnagar, tra.: Padmanabha’s Kanhadade Prabandha (India’s Greatest Patriotic Saga of Medieval Times). In 2009, it brought out a translation of the 15th-century Muslim source Tohfatu’l Ahbab, viz. Kashinath Pandit tra.: A Muslim Missionary in Mediaeval Kashmir, in which the protagonist demolishes more temples in inhospitable Gilgit and Baltistan during his lifetime than the secularists are willing to concede for the whole Subcontinent during a thousand years.

So, we can just enjoy Pirbhai’s frantic attempts to deny history, e.g.: “by the early nineteenth century, it was conventional to accuse Muslim ‘invaders’ of ending a Hindu ‘Golden Age’ by undermining Hindu political sovereignty, destroying Hindu religious institutions, eroding the Hindu character, and, as in the case of Henry Elliot’s (d.1853) works, even significantly reducing the Hindu population by means of ‘massacres and murders’.”(p.33-34) There was nothing Golden about the Gupta age, except that it was an age of sovereignty, and compared to foreign enslavement, any nation would come to consider that a Golden Age.

He is well aware that either he is right and Voice of India is wrong, or he is a member of the tribe of history-deniers: “Those who challenge the Orientalist perspective are merely labelled ‘negationists’ and equated with Holocaust deniers who ‘conceal’, ‘minimize’ or ‘whitewash’ facts.” (p.44) He lists the fine fleur of the Indian intellectuals among the negationists as if that constitutes proof of anything, but does not bother to refute the Voice of India vision of Islamic history.

Pirbhai, a closet White Supremacist, persists in his colonial fixation: “Of course, Orientalist tropes concerning Muslim ‘atrocities’ are nothing new among Hindu intellectuals (...) Nor is the persistence of Orientalist misrepresentations particular to Hindutva circles.” (p.43) With this, he also attacks their Western counterparts, naming specifically Robert Spencer, Bat Ye’or and Ibn Warraq (of Lebanese, Egyptian and Pakistani provenance, respectively).

In his overestimation of Voice of India, he concludes: “Voice of India ideals have been successfully employed in rallying support for Sangh Parivar campaigns in India, extending from the Babri Mosque (Ayodhya campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s to the Gujarat ‘massacres’ of 2002, all of which have claimed thousands of mostly Muslim lives and played a part in bringing Sangh Parivar parties to the highest echelons of state power from the mid-1990s to 2004. They have also been responsive enough to globalization to successfully assimilate non-Indians like Franwley and Elst, attract diasporic Indians like Kak, and find common voice with ‘neoconservative Christians’ like Spencer, ‘rightist Jews’ like Ye’or and ‘secular humanists’ like Ibn Warraq.” (p.52-53)

Pirbhai does make a distinction, though: “Voice of India does not subscribe to the variety of anti-Islamic perspectives composed by the likes of Spencer and Ye’or, who imply that the Quranic message is inherently aggressive and therefore not divine. Nor is it accurate to consider Voice of India’s polemics a mere adoption of Jewish and Christian religious writings, past and present, that paint Mohammed’s claims (but not those of Biblical prophets) as ‘fraudulent’ revelations, perhaps even ‘Satanically’ inspired. Rather, Voice of India frames the concept of prophethood itself within a Vivekanandan approach to precolonial Brahmanism, rendering the revelations of all ‘Semitic’ prophets warped by delusions and demonic intervention. It is in recognition of this demonic source of inspiration that Goel ultimately declares that “it is a sin to regard’ Judaism, Christianity and Islam ‘as religions in any sense of the term’, meaning that the latter are to be identified with the anti-religious ‘powers of darkness’ also behind such ‘materialist’ creeds as Nazism, communism and Nehruism. The only solution for followers of such creeds, therefore, is ‘reconversion’ to the source of all ancient spirituality and civilization: ‘Hinduism’.” (p.49, with reference to Goel: Defence of Hindu Society).


Voice of India has also invested in refuting the Aryan Invasion Theory. Here, Pirbhai is totally off the mark: “Frawley makes room for another Orientalist trope – the ‘Indian’ origins of the ‘Aryan race’” (p.41) Except for the first generation, most Orientalists in the 19th and 20th century were convinced of the AIT, as the Indian secularists still are. Not that they conspired against India, as some Hindutva myth-makers think, but they didn’t know better than to believe the most popular theory around. If anything, it is the Nehruvians including Pirbhai himself who follow the Orientalists.

Finally, let us remark that Pirbhai cites the Voice of India mission statement (p.40), e.g.: “our only weapon is truth”. And after reading this paper, we find more truth on the side of Voice of India than on the side of the author.


Shankar Sharan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shankar Sharan said...

This is really superb! One article which has the capacity to shake any left-secular genuine student. Genuine, i.e., believing in the Nehruvian constructs of history, polity of India but yet not become a vested interest.

In fact, reading this series on Meera Nanda one finds answer to the question: why leftists meticulously shun 'communal' authors, scholars to be point of de-facto untouchability. Not to share dias with them , not to include any of the writings in course-list, not even to bring their books in libraries. Even ridiculing and abusing a fellow lefty if he/she try to discuss a point raised by a Sita Ram Goel or Elst soberly. This is strictly prohibited in left-wing cericles. Why?
This piece on Pirbhai and Meera provides the answer. Because young and genuine learners may be infected by the potent weapon of truth, the only weapon with the VOI.
Hence, not only the falsification of history, but also untouchability practiced by Bipin Chandras, Romila Thapars et el.

Shankar Sharan said...

Request to read my above comment with these corrections:
In second para, 'to the point' instead of 'to be point'; 'left-wing circles' instead of 'left-wing cericles'.