Thursday, September 5, 2013

A sociologist on religion and secularism

On 27 August 2013, the Jesuit think-tank UCSIA inside Antwerp University (Universitair Centrum Sint-Ignatius Antwerpen) hosted, as part of its series on “Religion, Culture and Society”, a lecture by the sociologist of religion, José Casanova of Georgetown University. He spoke with a heavy Spanish accent about “Types of Secular States and Regimes of Religious Pluralism: USA, India, China”.

Casanova noted a veritable paradigm shift among his colleagues. We live in an era of globalization of both the religions and secularism, and under an increasing familiarity with an Increasing diversity of religions. The scholars are now admitting that their secularization thesis (that modernization would lead to a decrease in religiosity everywhere) is not correct. Religion has adapted and made many gains even in formerly secularized circles and societies. We live in a postsecular world. He also saw a shift in methodology: religious scholarship is increasingly interdisciplinary and studies religion and the secular in their mutual relation.

There are two types of secular state: assertive or aggressive secularism in order to free politics from religion, as in France and now in China; and secularism as the dis- or non-establishing of a state religion, striving for neutrality between the different denominations, as in the US and to a large extent in India.

In Europe, there were since ca. four centuries mostly confessional states under the principle “Cuius region, illius et religio”, i.e. “to whom the region belongs, his is also the religion”. In a certain  sense, this arrangement has continued after the population has largely secularized. This means that while all West-European countries have a large “unchurching”, no country has crossed the line from having Catholicism as the state religion to being in majority Protestant; or vice versa. Many Europeans associate modernization with secularization. So, there has been an unchurching but no conversion. In America, by contrast, many unchurched people joined a religion (or as they call it in the US, a religious “denomination”) after finding a place in American society, and associated it with the progress that America would bring.

On China and India, he introduced himself as a dilettante, a mere sociologist. Let us reassure him: nothing to worry about, with his sociological glasses on  he would not stand out in a typical South-Asian Studies department. There, Sanskrit and classical studies are neglected and shunned (because deemed fostering “Hindu fundamentalism”) while the focus has shifted to studying social groups oppressing or oppressed by caste and other so-called evils of Hindu society. He proposed to concentrate on religion. 

In mainland China, the official policy has been a rejection of religion (“smash temples  and build schools”). In the Marxist scheme of things, religion is part of the childhood of mankind, which we have outgrown in this age of science. Even before China became Communist, the modernizing processes were deemed to be hampered by traditions and religion. These were considered “feudal” vices. Zongjiao, “religion”, is a 19th-century neologism, and strictly denotes a sectarian group. With the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and since, the toleration of religion has gradually increased. Now religion is used to some extent for harmonious social development. Half the Chinese books on religion are less than ten years old. Chinese folk religion or minxin (short for minjian xinyang) , “people’s faith” is the most popular religion in China, in which most people participate to some extent, e.g. by celebrating Chinese New Year. However, the five religions recognized by the state are Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism; others, including native sects such as the “evil sect” of Falungong, are illegal. However, these five are not really equal, for Daoism and Buddhism have a weaker sense of membership (and hence exclusivity and militancy) than the other three. Only 10% of the population is member of a religion. Members of the ruling Communist Party are required to be atheist.

India, by contrast, chose for a mobilization of the religions, as the annihilation of religion was deemed impossible. Religion permeates the whole society and, like in Northern Ireland, religious identity proves very resilient: even a declared atheist, depending on his provenance, is deemed a “Hindu atheist” or a “Muslim atheist”. According to Rajeev Bhargava, India’s secularism is no copy of Western secularism, based on keeping or creating a distance in the relation between religion and the state. Instead, it embraces religion, but tries to keep neutrality between the different religions. Except that it makes a distinction between the majority and the minorities, which get privileged in the Constitution, the laws and political practice, in order to protect them from the majority. Thus, a parliamentary majority involving non-Hindus imposed reforms on Hinduism but does not touch Muslim law. Even Casanova, unlike most Westerners, was aware that India discriminates against the majority.

In fact, India is not a secular state at all. Casanova is a well-meaning but unforewarned Westerner swallowing and reproducing what he is spoon-fed by Bhargava. The latter is a cunning representative of India’s rulers, who has an interest in pretending that India practices “secularism”, and that anything that might seem unsecular to Westerners is due not to a defect in India’s secularism but to the observers being Westerners who don’t understand India’s unique approach to secularism. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

India does not satisfy a minimum definition of a secular state (which means Bhargava and all the other self-described secularists are wrong). This does not follow from Indian secularism being Indian as against Western, but from it being secularism. First of all, a minimum condition of a secular state is that all citizens have to abide by the same laws. In India, by contrast, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis have separate law  codes, at least for marriage, family matters and inheritance. Most parties allow this constitutional non-secularism. The only major party that promises real secularism, i.e. a Common Civil Code, is the Hindu nationalist BJP, which is (paradoxically and counterfactually) accused of being “a threat to Indian secularism”. Secondly, the anti-majority discrimination is not “secular”, and by definition it is not secular in the sense of “neutral” between different worldviews. It is inconceivable that the American Constitution would prohibit a Protestant citizen from becoming President, or any other office. To apply an example really on the statute books in India, it is inconceivable that the American Constitution would allow the religious minorities to set up state-subsidized faith schools but withhold this right from Protestants, forcing Protestants to redefine themselves as a non-Protestant religious minority, the way the Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission have gone to court to get themselves recognized as non-Hindu minorities.

It may also interest some people that Casanova reaffirmed the observation that conversion is the most revolutionary event, and not only demographic. Among those who are left behind as loyal members of their parental religion, it triggers a crisis as if their central beliefs were overturned. Well, Mahatma Gandhi would have approved, for in Indian society such as it is, conversion cuts families or communities down the middle. For this reason, he was dead against conversion. His opinion that it should be outlawed, however, was overruled by the secularists who took power upon decolonization, for in the Constitution they gave a guarantee of “freedom of religion”, including “propagation” (i.e. missionary activity). This too was a serious discrimination, for implying “propagation” in the free practice of religion accords with the historical experience of Christians and Muslims but not of Hindus or Parsis. Eventhough in Western circles some travelling Gurus have advertised their “path”, Hindus traditionally don’t really propagate, and many communities don’t accept converts. For Parsis, any form of conversion into their religion is excluded. So the freedom to propagate does not count for them. It was only given a place in the Constitution to satisfy Christians and Muslims, the groups served by the secularists.

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The   Gatherings of the Elders. The beginnings of a Pagan international




Since 2003, the International Council for Cultural Studies has organized a five-day “International Conference and Gathering of Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures” every third year. Participants include spokesmen of the Maori, Yoruba, Maya, Lakota etc. religions, as well as neo-Druids, Romuva Lithuanians etc. Each of the conferences took place in India, with the main organizational input and sponsoring provided by the ICCS’s American chapter. The sources of inspiration for what started as a Hindu outreach to the world’s other remaining or reviving Pagans are several, but can be traced to Hindu philosopher Ram Swarup (1920-1998). His critiques of Christianity and Islam and particularly his defence of polytheism conclude with an appeal to global Pagan solidarity and networking. The triannual Gathering of Elders has become the Pagan International that he hoped for: genuinely global, rooted in genuine religions and with a positive message. 


A first impression

In early March 2012, the Dev Sanskriti University campus of the sacred city of Haridwar in the foothills of the Himalaya saw the “Fourth Conference and Gathering of the Elders of the Ancient Traditions and Cultures". Present were spokesmen from Native American, Yoruba, Maori and many other “Indigenous” Pagan traditions, as well as some European and Euro-American Neo-Pagans, altogether more than 400 delegates representing more than 50 traditions.

A report describes the opening of the Gathering thus: “The conference started with a colorful procession by all the delegates in their traditional attires accompanied with rhythmic dances to the tunes of trumpets and beating of drums. The procession went around the campus of Dev Samskriti Vishwa Vidyalaya (DSVV) and culminated at the spacious and modern Mrtyunjaya Auditorium. Latvians with their baritone prayers, Maoris in colorful attire and dancing Damais from Karnali (Nepal) were the attraction throughout the procession.” [Samvada 2012]

This is an account of the inaugural session: “Prof. Dr. Radhey Shyam Dwivedi, President ICCS [International Center of Cultural Studies], USA, welcomed the delegates to the Conference. He mentioned that we are all a large family and this was a gathering of relatives. This was followed by prayers by 23 representative individuals and groups of various traditions like, Mayan, Maori, Druid, Navajo, Cham, Romuva,.. ” [Samvada 2012]

            And this is what the participants did there: “The typical daily schedule started with the demonstration of ceremonies and rituals of the different cultures. Several similarities like use of fire, water for their performance was quite evident. There were also many that were unique. (…) Worshipping Nature was the underlying principle of these cultures and traditions. Though in different ways, they all worshipped the five basic elements of Nature i.e. Earth, Air, Water, Fire and Sky. ‘Love Mother Earth’ was the message that emanated from all these rituals and religious ceremonies.” [Samvada 2012]

To sum up the message of the event: Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam [“Science of the Seers Residential-School”, with headquarters near Coimbatore and a centre in Saylorsburg PA], delivered the Keynote Address. He said that as ‘managing trustees’ of the indigenous traditions and colorful cultures, we need to protect all that we have inherited from our ancestors.” [Samvada 2012]

And finally, “[the] University of World Ancient Traditions and Cultural Heritage, USA (UWATCH), awarded honorary Ph.D. degrees to five eminent personalities for their knowledge of the tradition, distinguished leadership and outstanding social service to their respective traditions. Dr. Pranav Pandya (Chancellor of the host university) and Dr. Mohan Bhagwat conferred the degrees to the recipients. Brief introduction of the five recipients is as follows. The awardees were Kenneth Kennedy of New Zealanda Kaumatua (Elder) of the Te Arawa tribe and an acknowledged expert in Maori Language and culture; Alejandro Cirilo Perez Oxlaj of Guatemalaa Grand Elder of the National Council of Elders of Mayas, Xincas and Garifunas of Guatemala; Jonas Trinkunas of Lithuania – a father figure in the revival and popularization of the ancient Baltic faiths of the Lithuanians and chairman of the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER); Grand Chief Stan Beardy of CanadaGrand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation; and Shri Jagdeo Ram UraonPresident of Akhil Bharatiya Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram [“All-India Tribal Welfare Hermitage”]. This was followed by soul-stirring traditional prayers by Pat McCabe, a Navajo from USA, and Solyomfi Nagy Zoltan of Hungary, representing the White Horse tradition of the Huns.” [Samvada 2012]

So, that was the atmosphere. Object of this paper is to map out the contours of what looks like a fledgling Pagan International.



The Gathering of the Elders

The First International Conference of Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures
took place in February 2003 in Mumbai, India. Is was self-described as “organized by World Council of Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures (WCEAT), a non-political, non-religious, non-profit socio-cultural forum of ICCS Inc.”, i.e. the
International Council for Cultural Studies, a loose-structured forum founded °1999. The theme was Mitakuye Oyasin – We are all related”. The five-day conference attracted representatives of indigenous cultures from 30 countries including Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, USA, Canada, Austria, Mauritius, Ecuador, Zambia, Lithuania, and Trinidad and Tobago. The 148 papers presented pertained to themes like the concept and role of Elders in Ancient Traditions, existing threats to the Ancient Traditions from various sources, and the revival of Ancient Traditions.

 The 184 delegates unanimously passed the “Mumbai Manifesto”, which says in its preamble:

“In the midst of tremendous strides in scientific and technological progress and material comforts, there is an urgent need for spiritual and moral resurgence for ensuring the well-being of the human family, for preserving the larger living world and for strengthening the foundations of durable universal peace. All human beings are born equal and have equal rights to live peacefully on Mother Earth, and peace and prosperity at global level can be realized only when the conflicts within and between the communities vanish and we develop the spirit of tolerance.”

The Second International Conference of Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures, focusing on “Spirituality Beyond Religions”, was held in Jaipur, India, in February 2006, with representatives of indigenous cultures from 42 countries.

The Third International Conference of Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures took place in Nagpur, India, in January-February 2009. The theme was Renaissance of the Ancient Traditions: Challenges and Solutions”, and 357 delegates from 32 countries attended. As in Jaipur, the foreign participants also spoke at a number of local schools to teach the pupils that there is a larger array of religions than those few they meet in their surroundings. They passed a resolution, saying:

We, the participants of the Third International Conference and Gathering of the Elders of the Ancient Traditions and Cultures, firmly believe that, being the children of Mother Earth, we are all one: interrelated, interconnected and share the same spirit of oneness despite our own unique individual identity. We believe that renaissance is not just a revival of antiquity but also an application to a new life in new ways. It will lead to an elevated life of mutual understanding, sharing, tolerance, respect and peaceful coexistence.”

            The fourth, as said, took place in 2012 in Haridwar, and its theme was “Nourishing the Balance in the Universe”. The event was jointly organized by International Center for Cultural Studies (ICCS), Dev Samskriti Vishwa Vidyalaya (DSVV) and co-sponsored by the Council of Elders of Mayas, Xincas and Garifunas, the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER) and the Children of Mother Earth. A total of 458 delegates from 33 countries, including 178 from outside India, participated in the conference.

So, a steady practice of tri-annual global conferences of Pagans seems to be taking root. While the participants come from many countries, the Gatherings of the Elders have all taken place in India so far, and the organizational legwork and financial responsibility are mostly borne by Hindus.



Bilateral conferences

For attracting a truly representative sample of Pagan and Indigenous religionists to these global conferences, the organizers built on the bilateral relations established between the Hindu core group and a number of Pagan and Indigenous traditions during local conferences in 1995-2006: with the Maori tradition, Lithuanian Romuva, African and African-descended religions, Lakota, Haudenosaunee Amerindians, Hopi and Maya.

The organizing institution, the ICCS, was founded in Nagpur in 1994 by Prof. S.W. Bakhle. [Organiser 2011] Nagpur, near the geographical heart of India, is where the headquarters of the Hindu nationalist movement striya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Corps, °1925) lie. It is also where co-founder Yashwant Pathak studied before relocating to London, Jerusalem and finally the US. After a stay in Kenya, where he came across the book African Religions and Philosophy by Dr. John Mbiti, he returned to Nagpur with the plan to found an institute for Indo-African studies, which was indeed the initial orientation of the ICCS. The Nagpur centre’s publications include Ancient Afro-Hindu Cultural Affinity, Indo-Native American Cultural Similarities, Decolonizing the Mind, Indo-Aztec Cultural Affinity, Indo-Inca Cultural Panorama, Maya-Hindu Hermanos (“brothers”), The Afghan Connection. [ICCS 2012] Its first conference was on “Afro-Hindu Cultural Similarities”, in Nagpur 1995, held at Prof. Pathak’s initiative after his stay in Africa.

The first ICCS conference outside India had been about “Preservation of Ancient Cultures and Globalization Scenario”, in Hamilton, New Zealand, November 2002. In practice, this was largely a Hindu-Maori meeting. Along the same lines, local conferences establishing friendship between Hindus and local traditions have been held:

·         Indo-Romuva Cultural Conference in Atlantic City, USA, October 2003 on the commonalities between Baltic and Indian Vedic traditions, including a session on the “influence of Hindu culture on rebirth of Lithuanian culture”;

·         Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples”, mainly the African and African-originated peoples, was the theme of a conference held in Washington DC, March 2004, in collaboration with The African Traditional Spiritual Coalition, comprising 14 Spiritual Houses rooted in the Akan, Kamitic, Vodoun and Yoruba Traditions;

·         Hindu-Lakota conference in Pineridge SD, July 2004;

·         Conference about common traditions and interests of Hindus and Haudenosaunee (“”Longhouse People”: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora) in Rochester NY, September 2004.

·         Conference on “Hindu–Maya Cultural Similarities”, Maya Village Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, May 2005, in collaboration with the Council of Elders of the Sacred Mayas, Guatemala.

·         “Hindu-Hopi Joint Workshop”, Sedona, AZ, March-April 2006.

Local bilateral conferences keep on taking place, e.g. the Hindu-Maori conference of October 2012 in New Zealand. From its press release:

“The first Hui (gathering) of Maori Indians with the theme ’Coming together, working together, growing together’ was a real success. It was organised under the auspices of the Hindu Council of New Zealand. More than 80 delegates, aged from 1 year to 79 years old, participated [...].  It commenced with a powhiri (official Maori welcome) on Friday, 5 October and closed with poroporoaki’s (farewell speeches) on Sunday, 7 October 2012. […] The sessions concluded on the Sunday with two panel discussions – the first on ‘Inter-cultural Relationships’ chaired by Teena Jaram and the other on ‘Growing up Indo-Maori’ chaired by Raewyn Bhana. [....] As a meat-free event, participants were treated to delicious vegetarian dishes […] The Hindu Council of New Zealand also announced the formation of the International Centre for Cultural Studies (ICCS Aotearoa) and the Aotearoa Bharat Friendship Society (ABFS). The Hui is a step forward in Hindu-Maori whakawhanaungatanga (relations). […] participants are already thinking about likely topics and workshops for next year’s Hui such as Indian mihi and whakapapa, language and religion, and the development of whakapapa connecting participants. Rotorua will be the venue of the next Maori-Indian Hui to be held in October 2013.  It will run alongside the Rotorua Deepawali Festival.” [Hindu Council NZ 2012]

Further, ICCS conferences have pertained to:

·         “Science of Survival in the Ancient Traditions and Cultures: Hands on experience with the Traditional Techniques of Survival”, Rochester, NY, April-May 2005, to “explore ancient traditions that predate the ‘Christian era’ and their application in today’s society”.

·         “Ancient Family Traditions of Asian, African, Latin, Hebrew and Native
American Cultures and their Relevance in Modern Times”,
Atlanta GA, September 2005.

·         Achieving Inner and Outer Balance in the Ancient Traditions and Cultures: Exploring Ancient Paths to Emotional Well-Being”, Rochester NY, August 2006.

·         “Spirituality in Indigenous Cultures and Religious Traditions”, Lanham MD, October 2009.

·         “Continuity and Connectivity in the World’s Ancient Traditions and Cultures”, Newport VA, October 2010.

·         “Eastern and Indigenous Perspectives on Sustainability and Conflict Resolution”, Tampa FL, November 2011.

Of course, outside the ICCS, such bilateral conferences also take place, though not so frequently. One hears little of bilateral initiatives between Wiccans and Asatruar, for instance. The problem  is that if locally, different Pagan traditions co-exist, it is precisely because there are differences of opinion so serious that they preclude even occasional collaboration. Alternatively, through migration, different traditions may come to co-exist innocently, and then meetings and friendly relations may become possible. That is precisely the situation of the Hindu diaspora.



Yashwant Pathak


Co-founder and animator of the ICCS and convenor of these tri-annual Gatherings is Yashwant Pathak (°1955), Professor of Pharmacy, mostly at Sullivan University, Louisville KY, and author/editor of a number of specialized books in that field. He is an office-bearer of the Hindu nationalist mass-movement RSS, with some 6 million members the largest Non-Governmental Organization in the world. All office-bearers mentioned on the website of the ICCS’s US chapter have Hindu names.

The main thing to understand about this movement is indeed its roots in Hindu revivalism. The first Gathering took place in Mumbai “in association with Vishwa Adhyayan Kendra, Mumbai; Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini International and SNDT Womens’ University, Mumbai”. To outsiders, these names may not mean much, but insiders know that the VAK (°1997) and the RMP (°1989) are members of the Sangh Parivar, the “family” of organizations around the RSS. The highlight of this year’s conference in Haridwar was the conferral of honorary doctorates by an important leader called Mohan Bhagwat. Those who are in the know, are aware that he is the Sarsanghcālak, “he who walks at the head of the association”, the RSS President.

To relativize this, it may be pointed out that most Hindu organizations have organizational or at least friendly ties with the RSS. When former RSS president Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiyya) visited the Netherlands, he made sure to pay a visit to the aged Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, who lived in a castle in Vlodrop. When Financial Times correspondent Edward Luce tried to get in touch with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, he received his reply through the RSS. [Luce 2006:180] Most Gurus are hand in glove with the RSS, and those who aren’t, usually have a quarrel with the RSS on intra-Hindu doctrinal matters (like caste: conservative leaders don’t like the RSS’s reformist line), not on the points which have given the RSS its bad name viz. its real or perceived attitude to Muslims and Christians. Conversely, those who speak out against the RSS, more often than not can also be quoted as speaking out against Hinduism itself. Usually, turning against Hindu nationalism means turning against Hinduism itself. There are also Hindu arguments against the RSS and its political wing, the Bhāratīya Janatā Pārti (“Indian People’s Party”,BJP) [see Elst 1997], but they are espoused only by a small minority. If common Hindus have their doubts about the Hindu quality of the RSS-BJP, they are reminded by Hinduism’s declared enemies that RSS and Hinduism are virtual synonyms.

And even the RSS record as supposedly anti-Christian or anti-Muslim is not what it seems to be if you believe the Indian “secularist” elite or the India-watching “experts” in the West. Thus, most India-watchers predicted in the early nineties that if the BJP came to power, it would “put the Muslims in gas chambers”, but when it effectively came to power (1998-2004), nothing of the kind happened. Religious riots were fewer than before, and the party took peace initiatives towards Pakistan in spite of the Pak-initiated Kargil war of 1999. Even the lone Gujarat riots of March 2002, making over 800 Muslim and over 200 Hindu victims, were a moderate affair compared with the 80s and early 90s, when religious riots were a frequent occurrence under non-BJP governments, and were far smaller (though they received far more media coverage) than the killing of some 3,000 Sikhs by the secular Congress activists in 1984. The RSS weekly Organiser never contains fundamental criticism of Islam. Indian Muslims are quick to take offence and demand the banning of books or cartoons; but they have rarely if ever singled out an RSS publication.

It should also be understood that the word “nationalism”, which has acquired a negative meaning in the West, does’t have this connotation in the ex-colonized world. In India and many other countries, it has the very positive connotation of the anti-colonial freedom struggle. That (and its decisive role in holding Srinagar against the Pakistani invaders, 1947, and in the resistance war against the Chinese invasion, 1962) is where the RSS, as an offshoot of the Indian National Congress in the 1920s, earned its reputation for “nationalism”.

Yashwant Pathak told us that so far, no negative reaction has been noticed from among foreign guests to the RSS, which is not involved in organizing the Gatherings in any case. [Pathak 2012]

The good thing about Hindu nationalists, poor as they tend to be in intellectual sophistication, is that they are disciplined workers and easily move into action. Recent economic developments also means that they have a lot of money at their disposal and are capable of organizing a global platform. This is why the ICCS has succeeded where others kept on speculating or where they had begun the work but then failed.



Sources of inspiration: the Amerindians’ Gathering of the Elders

            Among the sources of inspiration which gave US-based Hindus the idea of a Pagan International, was actual attempts by surviving Pagan communities to keep their traditions alive. These are not hard to come by in America: many Amerindians are in this situation and some have given visiting Hindus a warm welcome. Yashwant Pathak first learned of the Amerindian efforts through Hindu friends who had visited native American reservations and discussed the similarities in these cultures and the role of the elders. Pathak personally worked in tribal areas of India and was first hand witness to the role of elders in such traditions and cultures, and discovered the same fact among Maoris and Australian Aboriginals.

            Thus, the Amerindian natives of British Columbia already had a tradition of annual gatherings where ceremonies are held and issues discussed. Just recently, they concluded the “36th Gathering of the Elders of British Columbia”. [BC Elders 2012] It is from this meeting between Hindus and Amerindian traditionalists that the global Gatherings of the Elders emerged.


Sources of inspiration: the WCER

Another factor in its genesis was the precedent of the World Council of Ethnic Religions, founded in Vilnius in 1998. Hampered by intellectual and organizational amateurism, it looked still-born and only gained a second lease of life after refounding itself in 2010 as the European Congress of Ethnic Religions, a name acknowledging the fact that it had attracted only a European membership, and no doubt also inspired by the lure of EU sponsoring. But the idea of a global federation of pre-Christian religions had been launched and was taken up by the ICCS. Note how the ECER’s Bologna Declaration (2010) reaffirms the privileged relations of world Pagans with Hinduism:

“We also decided to strengthen our ties with the Parliament of World Religions and work together with India’s cultural and religious organizations.” [AVA 2010, ECER 2010]

At any rate, the Gatherings of the Elders set out to do what the WCER had promised to do at its founding: bring together all the world’s surviving Pagans.



Sources of inspiration: Ram Swarup

A rarely-mentioned but all-important source of inspiration was the Hindu philosopher Ram Swarup (1920-1998). He was an Economics graduate from Delhi University but otherwise kept himself far from the academic circuit. A Gandhian freedom fighter in his young days, then evolving through Leftism to active anti-Communism in the 1950s, he turned to cultural and religious questions, writing critiques of Christianity and Islam [1992, 2009] and a major defence of polytheism:

“And yet the birth of Many Gods will not herald the death of One God; on the other hand, it will enrich and deepen our understanding of both. For One God and Many Gods are spiritually one. (…) A purely monotheistic unity fails to represent the living unity of the Spirit and expresses merely the intellect’s love of the uniform and the general. Similarly, purely polytheistic Gods without any principle of unity amongst them lose their inner coherence. (…) The Vedic approach is probably the best. It gives unity without sacrificing diversity. (…) Monotheism is not saved by polytheism, nor polytheism by monotheism, but both are saved by going deep into the life of the soul. (…) Depending on the cultures in which they were born, mystics have given monotheistic as well as polytheistic renderings and interpretations of their inner life and experiences.” [Swarup 1980:128-133; likewise 2000, 2009 passim].

He advocated the survival of the remaining Pagan religions and the revival of the eclipsed pre-Christian religions, with a guiding role for Hinduism as the largest among them, endowed with the oldest unbroken literate tradition. He also explicitly sympathized with the Amerindian cause. [e.g. Swarup 1991, repro. in Swarup 2009:126-129]

Ram Swarup lived like a hermit and was averse to travelling, so his outreach to the surviving Pagan traditions elsewhere remained largely theoretical. However, while no formal links can be established, his posthumous role in the creation of this Hindu-initiated Pagan International is undeniable. Yashwant Pathak confirmed that his attention had been drawn by an article on Ram Swarup, that he then read Ram Swarup’s own publications and finally visited him in person. [Pathak 2012]        


Sources of inspiration: the Tribal Welfare Centre

The Vanavāsī Kalyān Āśram (“Forest-Dwellers’ Welfare Hermitage”) was founded in Jashpur in 1952 by Ramakant Keshav Deshpande, who worked with the Department of Tribal Welfare and was an RSS member. Strengthening contacts with the tribals was also a pet project of the late RSS leader Moropant Pingle, who helped Yashwant Pathak in his tribal contacts, and of the dynamic leader of the RSS-affiliated World Hindu Council, Swami Vigyananda.

The history of the VKA is one of the most successful chapters of the Hindu nationalist movement’s history. Since the British days, the Christian missionaries had felt entitled to the souls of the tribal population, whom they could hope to convert more easily than the organized Hindu population. They labeled the tribals as Ādivāsī-s, “Aboriginals”, a Sanskrit word that gave the false impression of native familiarity with the new-fangled theory that the tribals were native and the non-tribals were invaders from abroad. This theory played into the hand of a colonial strategy to classify the mainstream Hindus as earlier invaders, no more (or no less) entitled to the Indian soil than the British. They posited that Hindus are related to the tribals the way Euro-Americans are to Amerindians.  As a historical theory, this is controversial at best; but nonetheless, it became the dominant way of looking at the tribals.

The missionary strategy involves delinking of the tribals from Hindu society at the cultural and religious level, arguing that they espouse a totally different religion than Hinduism. Thus, they say that the Santal tribe (whose language was promoted to official language status by the BJP government) is monotheistic, worshipping Sing Bonga, the sun god, alone. That is not true, there are many Bongas (gods) in the Santal pantheon. But even if they worship the sun god, wasn’t the quarrel between conquistador Francisco Pizarro and the Inca Athahualpa precisely about the latter’s worshipping the sun god instead of Jesus (“Your god died on the cross, but our god rises every day”). Isn’t sun worship precisely the most popular form of Pagan worship which both the Bible (Deut. 4:19, 2 Kings 23:5) and the Quran (6:76) prohibited? And anyway, sun worship is an established option in scriptural Hinduism, existing since the Vedas, where some hymns are addressed to Sūrya, the sun god. The difference between Sūrya and Sing Bonga is only linguistic, not religious.

So, the VKA counterstrategy is to show that the line between tribals and non-tribals is very blurred: (1) some tribals speak the same language as the non-tribals; (2) even among those who don’t, among those most isolated from Hindu society, who e.g. don’t observe the Hindu taboo on beef-eating, the Hindu gods and festivals have penetrated long ago and become part of tribal life; (3) Hindu society itself has come about by the transformation of tribes across India into castes, the cells of an expanding Vedic society (as B.R. Ambedkar said: “the tribes have become castes” [1990:VII:303]), and most of its contents has likewise been derived from hoary tribal traditions; and (4) anyway, from a Christian viewpoint, no matter what the differences between tribals and non-tribals may be, they will all end up in hell for they are all foreign to Christ, all Pagans. Against Christian welfare efforts and education financed by Western donors, they place native welfare efforts and native education from native resources.

Hindu society has a tradition of opposing missionary efforts since colonial days. Mahatma Gandhi said that: “If  I had the power to legislate, I would ban all proselytizing”. [Harijan, 5 Nov. 1935; more similar quotes gathered in Knapp 2012]  However, the VKA is the first and still the only major organization that fought the missionaries with their own weapons. E.g., Swami Lakshmananda, who was murdered along with four assistants by Christians with the help of the Maoist guerrilla in 2008, led an orphanage and school for tribals. [Parker 2009] It is no surprise that American anti-Hindu forces, both Indian-born Marxists and Christian Churches, have sought to delegitimize the VKA’s support base that has recently come about among US-based Hindus, viz.  the Indian Development and Relief Fund. [IDRF 2012, Campaign 2008]

About the religion of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a participant in the Gathering of the Elders gave a very good philosophical account. [Riddi 2006:121-126] Unlike other tribals, the Arunachal tribals were till recently very isolated and are really very different from mainstream Hinduism as well as from the surrounding Lamaism. The Hindus here gave an example of what they, both through the VKA and through less organized efforts, have accumulated of experience in dealing with different traditions, an experience that is replicated on a global scale in their meetings with traditions worldwide.



How representative are these Gatherings? Anyone can volunteer a paper, or simply participate. So, the field of delegates is not selected for representativeness. So far, purely random facts of Hindu implantation and contacts with locals have decided which regions are under- or overrepresented. Thus, one apparently underrepresented region is South America, where the revival of native religion under nativist leaders like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales is the most conspicuous, but is not sufficiently reflected in their presence at the Gathering of the Elders.



Effect on participants

What does this emerging global network do for its participants? Does accession to this International already show up in the self-understanding, self-legitimation and negotiating positions of the communities represented? Do they feel strengthened by their membership?

A report on the latest Gathering claims:

“The 4-day event had transformed the delegates who arrived as strangers but returned as relatives. They felt empowered with the new connections and network. They could communicate with each other not with the help of a language but by their love, warmth, respect and affection for each other. The delegates returned with a renewed vigor and a greater clarity as to why the revitalization of their traditions is the need of the hour for the welfare of the world through a balanced and holistic approach.” [Samvada 2012]

The reporter, at least, believes that the Gatherings have their effect: “Like Inra Jaka, who represents the small community of native Cham Hindus of Vietnam, convincingly stated that his struggle to retain everything that he finds closer to nature including arts, clothing, and philosophy is strengthened through this conference. His conviction for preservation of his tradition has grown thousand fold now.” [Samvada 2012]

Some personal testimonies confirm this eloquently: “Dr. Gulnara Aitpaeva attended such Gathering in Bharat for the first time and before setting off for her group’s journey back home to Kyrgyzstan said, ‘we would be attending the next conference in larger number and would also try to get representation from our neighboring countries. This conference has bolstered our self confidence.’” [Samvada 2012]

Yashwant Pathak told us that, while quantification may be difficult, there is a palpable effect which always goes in the positive sense:

Measurable outcomes include:

1.      This is the first gathering of its kind where many traditions and cultures from all the continents meet every three years.

2.      The attendance of the Elders gathering is ever increasing.

3.      More than 30% of the attendees have attended all the four conferences except for a few who made their way to nirvana, but many are very keen on the opportunity they get at the Elders’ conference to interact with others from different traditions and cultures and also learn a lot from such interaction.

4.      Many elders and the delegates, when they heard about RSS and similar Hindu organizations in India reviving the pride, felt every culture of the world needs to have something similar to such organizations in their countries and increase the awareness and participation of youths.

5.      We are exploring having some youth camps on the RSS line but the philosophy and cultures discussed are the indigenous one but the  philosophy ‘giving one hour out of 24 hours selflessly  to one’s own culture, society and nation’ is very attractive to people

We had conferences in more than 26 countries based on our contacts developed in Elders’ conferences, and the name of ICCS has a significant credibility. I am getting requests about the 2015 Gathering of the Elders.” [Pathak 2012]






Given the religious conflicts of history (and sometimes of the present as well), and given the de facto negative definition of “Pagan” and “Indigenous” religions as “all religions except for the Prophetic-Monotheistic ones: Judaism, Christianity and Islam”, what is the attitude of these Elders to the latter religions? Now that hundreds have spoken their minds about everything that seemed pertinent to their own tradition’s situation, we ought to get an idea from their explicit statements.

As shown by the contents of the delegates’ papers, and as confirmed in private talks, the tendency to victimhood vis-à-vis Christianity and Islam, which would be all too understandable, is not much in evidence at the Gatherings. The host at the 2012 conference hinted at Christianity and Islam but without naming them:

“Dr. Pranav Pandya, Chancellor, DSVV, in his Presidential Address remarked that incomprehensible damage has been done to ancient cultures and traditions by a few groups who could not appreciate the diversity. ” [Samvada 2012]  

There are a few papers against the Christian missions [Sanu 2006:135-145] and an indictment of the Bangladeshi government for persecuting its religious minorities:

“There are 45 distinct indigenous peoples in Bangladesh. (…) The ideals and values of a multicultural democratic society are not respected in Bangladesh. (…) The indigenous peoples and religious minorities need constitutional recognition of their distict identity”. [Bhikkhu 2006:73, 80]

But these make up only a very small percentage of the papers presented. Moreover, these don’t stop at the two major “predatory religions”, Christianity and Islam. Thus, there was also a complaint by the Veddas or Wanniyal-aeto (“forest-dweller”, also the pseudonym of the speaker) in Sri Lanka against the ruling religion, Buddhism. [Wanniyal-aeto 2006:146-151]

As for Judaism, its situation vis-à-vis Paganism is totally different from that of its Christian and Islamic offshoots. This has always been recognized by the Hindu nationalist movement, which supported the Zionist project from the beginning and greatly admired the Jews for surviving in adverse circumstances and reviving their ancient language. It turns out that, unlike some European Neo-Pagan factions, the ICCS and its invitees do not see Judaism as an enemy or as part of an enemy bloc. One ICCS-US conference on family values was termed: “Ancient Family Traditions of Asian, African, Latin, Hebrew and Native American Cultures and their Relevance in Modern Times” (Atlanta GA, September 2005).

The reason is fairly obvious: Judaism as an ethnic religion doesn’t proselytize, and consequently doesn’t pose a threat to the survival of other religions. Indeed it explicitly recognizes nature worship or Paganism as the natural and God-willed religion of the non-Hebrew peoples. About Islam and especially Christianity, active in proselytism like never before, some speakers have expressed their misgivings, whereas about Judaism it is all hunky-dory.

This became even more true in 2008, when a Hindu delegation led by the aforementioned Swami Dayananda Saraswati, convenor of the Hindu  monastic organization Hindū Dharma Ācārya Sabhā (HDAS), extracted from the Israeli rabbinate the acknowledgment that Hinduism does not constitute idolatry as defined by the Halakha (Jewish law). This “Jerusalem declaration” constituted a rare diplomatic victory for Hinduism and for Paganism as a whole. [HDAS 2008] 



New Age


Is there, within those traditions that have been represented, any opposition to the whole idea of the Gatherings or to specific positions promoted by the ICCS? So far, at any rate, we haven’t heard of it. Evaluating this initiative ourselves, we wonder whether there isn’t a contrast between the traditional culture of the Pagans and the modernist human-rights, ecologist, feminist, globalist “common denominator” at the Gatherings of the Elders. To act as devil’s advocate, we can argue that the world Paganism in its historical form is at least more complicated than the close-up we get to see at the Gatherings.

The theme titles and poster captions of the ICCS tend to include elements that purist scholars of Pagan religions will dismiss as “New Age” or as UN human-rights platitudes about “universal peace”, “unity in diversity” (the motto of the European Union, Ex varietate concordia, and of many other contemporary institutions), “the spirit of tolerance” etc. The goal of these Gatherings is defined as “reaching out to all the ancient traditions of the world, exploring the commonalities in them and bringing them together to foster the sense of oneness in humanity” [Samvada 2012] It raises the question to what extent these surviving or reconstructed Pagans are simply trying to live up to modern fantasies of the Noble Savage, naturally liberal and feminist and ecological, and to what extent they really represent the heritage of the Elders.

 Some New Age elements that have percolated to the spokesmen of their traditions include the following:

“[Dr. Pranav Pandya] recalled the Mayan belief that a New Era is due in 2012 and proclaimed that the DSVV would be the epicenter of the same and hoped that differences would melt and [the] future is sure to be of humanity seeking welfare and well-being of everyone.” [Samvada 2012]

Two distinct New Age elements figure in this lone sentence: (1) the belief in the Mayan calendar and its claimed expectation of a big change on 21 December 2012; and  (2) the expectation of an era of harmony, a variation on the Age of Aquarius.

Consider also what the supposedly hard-headed  Hindu nationalist leader said:

“Dr. Mohan ji Bhagwat, [most honourable] Sarsanghchalak of the RSS, delivered the Keynote Address where he stressed the need to nourish the balance of nature. He praised the efforts and resolve of the Elders in preserving their traditions and cultures. He recalled the priceless treasures of Indian thought like ‘Live and Let Live’, ‘Unity in Diversity’, ‘World is one family’ and ‘Let us ennoble the world’, and remarked that these have extreme relevance today. Universal outlook is the hallmark of Indian thought and the happiness and well-being of everyone is always sought, he reminded. Dr. Bhagwat (…) also felt that it is our responsibility to show to the world that the age-old traditions have solutions to modern problems. We (…) need to organize ourselves for the benefit of everything in this creation, he concluded.” [Samvada 2012]

Hindus in general show this tendency, e.g. by pretending that the New Age-sounding slogan Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (“the world is one family”) sums up the essence of their philosophy. Thus:

“The Hindu Council of New Zealand believes in the spirit of community well-being on the principle of ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’.” [Hindu Council NZ 2012]

This phrase is not from one of their authoritative texts, like the Vedas or the Bhagavad-Gita, but from a fable collection, the Hitopadeśa, and is uttered there by a wily character out to fool a warner against his criminal plans into complacency. The fable warns against this trusting attitude of universal brotherhood. [Tiwari 2008] To be sure, the fact that the jackal in the fable uses this maxim in a bid to convince his opponent, shows that it carried some weight; but to pretend that it was universally accepted in Hindu culture and even sums up its essence, is definitely not true. Its present popularity is very typical for the tendency among most lip-service traditionalists to pick from their tradition those lines that conform with the now-dominant values.

To give another and rather crude example: no one at the Gatherings spoke in defence of human sacrifice among the Aztecs or among the Pagan ancestors of the Germanic and Celtic peoples, nonetheless a reality of Pagan life (though abolished by other Pagans in the case of the Celts, viz. the Roman conquerors who abhorred the practice). The role division between the sexes among Pagans was very traditional and fixed, not quite the feminist equality that the UNO is promoting. As for “gay liberation”, not all  but many Pagan societies (notably among Amerindians) accepted homosexuals in their midst, but they allotted them a specific role: unlike in the modern world, sexual lifestyles had consequences. There was no principle of equal rights in premodern societies. The much-touted sense of environmentalism among Pagans should also be taken with a pinch of salt: while living in nature made them much more aware of the ecological processes, it didn’t stop the Australian Aboriginals from causing the extinction of some large mammal species in their continent. Briefly, the picture of world Paganism is less idyllic than the Gatherings of the Elders make it out to be.  


Unlike the ECER, whose members have almost to a man been raised in Christian or secular households and who have had to reinvent their Paganism, inevitably making it more modern than it originally was, most speakers at the Gatherings belong to ancestral Pagan traditions. Many of these are still firmly rooted, but many have interiorized modern soft-Christian and post-Christian assumptions to varying degrees. A global platform only tends to strengthen this homogenizing tendency.

            Yashwant Pathak points out that some New Age slogans are taken precisely from Hinduism, and that values like the transcendence of differences in a common brotherhood is an ancient Hindu insight:

”I did not feel any contrast, on the contrary there are lot of similarities, we believe firmly in Sarve bhadrāni paśyantu (‘ let all see the noble things around them’, let us propagate the positivity, from a very common prayer dating back to the Upanishads).  This attitude really helps all of us and will help the world also.” [Pathak 2012]

As for the other religions, in his study of and acquaintance with Pagan traditions worldwide, he has genuinely found a lot in common: 

“The common denominator in these traditions are many. To name a few:

1.      Concept of God;

2.      Realization of God in some form or other;

3.      Gods and Goddesses;

4.      Human relationship with God;

5.      Thought for total humanity;

6.      Thought for Human being in totality;

7.      In many cases rebirth in some form or other;

8.      Soul and role of soul;

9.      Elders concept;

10.  Oral traditions;

11.  Respect to somewhat extended family structure;

12.  No conversions, neither missionaries;

13.  All-inclusiveness to not only humans but to all creation.

14.  Existence of divinity in the creation of God in some form or other. “

So, Yashwant Pathak thinks that the Gatherings accurately reflect Paganism as Pagans nowadays see it and live it. The descendants of the Aztecs, even when they want to revive their ancestors’ religion, no longer practice human sacrifice. If we don’t place ourselves in the position of an anti-Pagan polemicist, that question simply does not arise. Modern Pagans, however, have a lot of basic religiosity and worldviews in common, and that common denominator now has a global platform to express itself. If some elements sound “New Age”, that is because the New Age Westerners chose to adopt elements from  past  or present Paganism. What is dismissively called “New Age” did not fall from the sky but has a pedigree among existing religions.





The world has changed. For centuries, Paganism was an annoyance that colonizers had to deal with, but fortunately it was on the way out: missionaries and modernization would inevitably cause its extinction. There were foci of Pagan worship, but they were different from place to place and not coordinated, not an organized force capable of mobilizing resistance against the forces that would inexorably lead to its disappearance. But now the Pagans have formed a global forum to assert their presence. They have the spirit of the times going for them, with the reassertion of communal identities. We will hear more from them.

This development is also good for the host. The Hindu nationalist family ought to learn from its cousins, the world’s Pagans. But principally, this mutual recognition of common interests and common beliefs and attitudes is good for the Pagan and Indigenous traditions.






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(Paper read at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion,2012; appeared in the scholarly journal Pomegranate, published by Equinox (Sheffield UK), vol.14.1,= 2012, p.140-158.)

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