Friday, November 21, 2014

True Hindu Greatness


Hindus make bold to be the inheritors of a great and exceptional civilization. And they are.

Indeed, a wider recognition of this ancestral greatness would solve a number of contemporary problems Hinduism faces. Separatism, the phenomenon that Hindu sects declare that they are non-Hindu and back-project that they never have been Hindus, is largely due to the bad reputation of Hinduism. Nobody wants to stay on a sinking ship (especially not the rats, the true nature of most defectors). Hinduism is slandered as “caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste”, and when at all it is admitted to be something else on top, it must be widow self-immolation, child marriage, dowry murders, nowadays the rapes that make headlines, and other human rights violations. Moreover, it is seen as superstitious, incoherent, flaky, and worst of all, weak. Hinduism has an intensely bad image, and that is why the Jains, Buddhists, Lingayats, Sikhs, Arya Samajis, Ramakrishna Mission and others insist that they are not Hindus, while another category of malcontents defect by converting to Christianity or Islam.

Yet, Hindu civilization has everything to make its scions proud. If this greatness were highlighted rather than its real and imagined shortcomings, the defecting sects would eagerly come back. Those Sikhs who militated for Khalistan only yesterday, will turn around and shout: “Sikhs are Hindus”, or rather: “We Sikhs are more Hindu than you!”

Consider for instance the Vedic seers. Mind you, historically, “Hindu” is every Indian Pagan, i.e. every non-Christian and non-Muslim Indian. This implies that it includes many more people and more traditions than the strictly Vedic lineage, to which a certain hostile discourse tries to narrow “Hinduism” down. But even this much-maligned Vedic lineage has given the world enough to make all Hindus proud.

First of all, we have their praiseworthy choice of what things not to do.  The Vedic seers did not invent fairy-tales about their tradition being eternal and God-given. Whereas the Quran and the Biblical Ten Commandments are in the form of God addressing man, the Vedic hymns are more truthfully in the form of men addressing the gods. I am aware that some Hindus try to understand the Vedas as a kind of Quran, eternal and revealed. They like to crawl under the heavy weight of scriptures ascribed to a divine author, showing the lack of self-understanding common in this age of degeneracy of Hinduism. Fortunately, the Vedic seers knew better: they walked upright and composed those scriptures themselves. The Vedas were not created by a superhuman source and then memorized by dumb and uncreative human beings; they were created by skilful and understanding human beings, the ancestors of contemporary Hindu civilization.

And then there are the things they did do. First of all, they created great poetry using elaborate metaphors, crafty verse forms and a unique system of memorization. Hindu society set apart a class whose job it was to memorize and pass on the tradition, genealogies and literature. Vedic recitations today are deemed, even by hostile Indologists, as undeniably a kind of tape-recording of the original recitation thousands of years ago. It is this class of reciters that nowadays comes in for the harshest criticism. All the separatist sects invariably flaunt an anti-Brahmin hate discourse. They thereby prove they don’t value the transmission of knowledge. In their rants that “the Brahmins monopolized knowledge”, they seem not to care about the “knowledge” part, nor do they busy themselves with acquiring or transmitting this knowledge.  To be sure, inertia and the psychological effect of being honoured by society caused some pride and smugness among the less meritorious members of the Brahmin class, a human phenomenon known in societies the world over. But the merits of this class, and especially of the society that set it apart, are unique.

Next, consider the insights captured in the literature they transmitted. Many great ideas that were to come in full bloom in later philosophies of India, East Asia, and more recently the West, already existed in germ in the Vedic hymns thousands of years ago. Thus, the correspondence between microcosmos and macrocosmos, between man and universe; the identity of man with the intelligence of the sun (so’ham); or the vibratory nature of reality (aum), still central also in Buddhism (om namo amituo fu, om mani padme hum) and in Sikhism (omkar), are already themes in Vedic poetry. Such elementary concepts as the division of the year in 12 and 360, and such profundities as the monistic unity underlying the plurality of gods, or the distinction between the ordinary self acting and the real Self merely observing, are all present in a single Vedic hymn – ideas to which entire schools of philosophy are mere commentaries. Later, the doctrine of the Self was explicitated by seers like Yajnavalkya, who is up there with Plato as an ideas man next to whom a whole philosophical tradition is but a series of footnotes. Even the Buddhist no-Self doctrine, which spread around Asia, can only be comprehended by presupposing the concept of the Self.

The seers’ pluralistic outlook is not equally exceptional, at least not when compared with Chinese or ancient Greek worldviews,-- but nowadays the majority of mankind is in thrall to two religions (the Religion of Love and the Religion of Peace) that believe in suppressing pluralism and claiming the sole truth for themselves. Against their narrow-minded exclusivism, the Hindu tradition offers the solution. Inside and outside the Vedas, almost everywhere in India, we find a religiosity that makes no truth claims about God. The devotional rituals practised in all temples, before sacred trees or in sacred groves, simply express awe for the sacred, the most fundamental and universal layer of all religions.

Secularists advocate superficiality and philosophical illiteracy, which is now having its effects on India’s population. A rediscovery of the real treasures of Hindu tradition will gladden the hearts of all those who can call themselves its inheritors. Say with pride: we are Hindus!

(published in Prabodhan, the book edited by Prof. Saradindu Mukherji and made public at the World Hindu Congress, Delhi, 21-23 November 2014)

(its introduction also contains this paragraph summarizing my views:)

The borders of "Hinduism"

 The Hindu territory has constantly been shrinking for more than a thousand years: Kabul, most of Southeast Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, de facto also Kashmir and parts of the Northeast, these have all been lost. But the conceptual domainof "Hindu" has also been shrinking. Originally, Muslim invaders introduced the term as meaning: all Indian Pagans (non-Abrahamics), whether Buddhists, Jains,tribals, low-castes, high-castes, and by implication also younger sects like Virashaivism, Sikhism, the Arya Samaj or the Ramakrishna Mission. The insistence by many castes that they are "not Hindus" stems from two circumstances: the very negative reputation of Hinduism, contrasting with its fair name in de 19th century; and the fogginess around the definition of "Hinduism", only aggravated in recent decades by a deliberate manipulation of the word's meaning. After sketching some details of this phenomenon, we proceed to show that a correct assessment of the basic texts and the history of Hinduism would largely remedy both the bad name of Hinduism and the shifting sands of the term's meaning. It may sometimes be diplomatically wise to speak of "Buddhists and Hindus" or "Hindus and Sikhs", but the scholarly fact to be clearly realized and kept in mind is that the sect founders Shakyamuni Buddha and Guru Nanak never meant to break away from Hinduism, anymore than Shankara did when he founded his Dashanami monastic order, Hindu par excellence.


Read more!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Romila Thapar mistakes Hindu impotent rage for a pro-Hindu power equation


According to retired history professor Romila Thapar, “academics must question more” (The Hindu, October 27, 2014). She was delivering the third Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture, eloquently titled: “To Question or not to Question: That is the Question”. The problem addressed by her was that “academics and experts shied away from questioning the powers of the day”. So, she “urge[d] intellectuals to resist assault on liberal thought”. In particular, she “asked a full house of Delhi’s intelligentsia on Sunday why changes in syllabi and objections to books were not being challenged”.

She was, hopefully, misinformed. (I shudder to think of the alternative explanation for this obvious untruth.) The recent changes in syllabi and objections to books by pro-Hindu activists, both phenomena being summed up in the single name of Dina Nath Batra, have met with plenty of vocal objections and petitions in protest, signed by leading scholars in India and abroad. I myself have signed two such petitions. At the European Indology conference in Zürich, July 2014, we were all given a petition to sign in support of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: an Alternative History, which Batra’s judicial challenge had forced the publishers to withdraw. The general opinion among educated people, widely expressed, was to condemn all attempts at book-banning.


Selective indignation

To be sure, the intellectuals’ indignation was selective. There have indeed been cases where they have failed to come out in defence of besieged authors. No such storms of protest are raised when Muslims or Christians have books banned, or even when they assault the writers. Thus, several such assaults happened on the author and publisher of the Danish Mohammed cartoons, yet at its annual conference, the prestigious and agenda-setting American Academy of Religion hosted a panel where every single participant, including the speakers from the audience, supported the Muslim objections to the cartoons.

This trahison des clercs (“betrayal by the intellectuals”) is aptly explained by Thapar herself: “There are more academics in existence than ever before but most prefer not to confront authority even if it debars the path of free thinking. Is this because they wish to pursue knowledge undisturbed or because they are ready to discard knowledge, should authority require them to do so?”

The point is that the intellectual’s selective indignation shows very well where real authority lies. Threats of violence are, of course, highly respected. The day Hindus start assaulting writers they don’t like, you will see eminent historians like herself turning silent about Hindu censorship, or even taking up its defence -- for that is what actually happens in the case of Islamic threats. Even more pervasive is the effect of threats to their careers. You will be in trouble if you utter any “Islamophobic” criticism of Islamic censorship, but you will earn praise if you challenge even proper judicial action against any anti-Hindu publications. This, then, safely predicts the differential behaviour of most intellectuals vis-à-vis free speech.


Box-type religions

A wholly different point is that she shows her partisan affiliation by adopting a secularized Christian framework when talking about Indian schools of thought. According to the newspaper report, “tracing the lineage of the modern public intellectual to Shramanic philosophers of ancient India, Prof. Thapar said the non-Brahminical thinkers of ancient India were branded as Nastikas or non-believers”. The division in Astika and Nastika already had different meanings at the time (not even exhausted by the two main ones: Vedic vs. non-Vedic, theistic vs. non-theistic), and did not coincide with the division in Brahmana vs. Shramana. Ancient Indian thought was never divided in box-type orthodoxies on the pattern of Christians vs. Muslims or Catholics vs. Protestants. It is only a Western projection, borrowed as somehow more prestigious by the Indian “secularists”, that imposes this categorization on the Indian landscape of ideas. Buddhist thinkers were never treated as dissenters, and even less so when Buddhism was politically in the ascendant.

She added an interesting image: “I am reminded of the present day where if you don’t accept what Hindutva teaches, you’re all branded together as Marxists.” The heavy-handed Marxist predominance in Indian academe is a historical fact of which she herself is a product as well as an icon, but now the notion is a bit dated. Today, many opportunists have shifted their loyalty to more fashionable new trends dictated by American universities, such as postmodernism, postcolonialism, multiculturalism, feminism and the more native contribution of subalternism. It is true that many Hindutva votaries are not up-to-date with the latest academic fashions, frozen as these outsiders are in old slogans. At any rate, the vibrant interaction of ancient India’s intellectual landscape, where free debate flourished, was nothing like the modern situation where her own school has locked out the Hindu voice and the latter has reactively demonized her.


Power equation

In her view, “public intellectuals, playing a discernible role, are needed for such explorations as also to articulate the traditions of rational thought in our intellectual heritage. This is currently being systematically eroded.” True, many intellectuals are not guided by what is true or “rational”, but only by what company they land up in if they get associated with a particular viewpoint. Numerous persons in academe and the media have loudly sung the anti-Hindu or “secular” tune when that was fashionable. Depending on how close their institutional position is to the new Narendra Modi government, you interestingly see many of them reposition themselves as somehow always having been pro-Hindu.

As she aptly said: “It is not that we are bereft of people who can think autonomously and ask relevant questions. But frequently where there should be voices, there is silence. Are we all being co-opted too easily by the comforts of conforming?”

But the power equation is such that the comforts of conforming still lead most to the anti-Hindu side. The opportunists changing sides are still a minority, the anti-Hindu discourse remains the dominant one. The best proof is that the ruling BJP, supposedly a Hindu party, is still acting out the worldview of the “secularists”. They are not actively challenging it or changing the intellectual power equation. It is perhaps fortunate for the Hindu side that the “secularists” have denounced it for so long as a Hindu party, for that is what makes the opportunists turn superficially pro-Hindu now.

So far, the ruling party is not repeating Murli Manohar Joshi’s attempt (ca. 2002) to rewrite the officially recommended history textbooks. That adventure ended in a demonstration of Hindu incompetence, a complete reversal once the “secularists” were back in power, and a strong reaffirmation of their intellectual predominance. Even though the BJP is back in power now, it still hesitates to challenge their conceptual framework.   


Moral authority

According to the newspaper: “Prof. Thapar stressed that intellectuals were especially needed to speak out against the denial of civil rights and the events of genocide.” Yes, the genocide accompanying the birth of Pakistan and later of Bangladesh are two events that should not be forgotten, eventhough her own school has tried to whitewash, minimize or obscure them. The largest religious massacre of independent India’s history, that of the Sikhs by the Congress “secularists” in 1984, also comes in for closer scrutiny and for a demythologizing analysis about the true nature of Congress dynasticism. On a smaller scale, Hindus have also misbehaved, either out of smugness or out of desperation, and that too deserves study; except that it has already been made the object of publications so many times while the former subjects remain orphans.

The eminent historian is quoted as observing: “The combination of drawing upon wide professional respect, together with concern for society can sometimes establish the moral authority of a person and ensure public support.” Indeed, the impartisan nature of proper academic research would confer the moral authority to intervene, sparingly, in ongoing public debates. It is therefore a pity that so many scholars of her own school have squandered this moral authority by being so brazenly partisan.


No reaction?

Finally, she reiterated her main point, namely “the ease with which books are banned and pulped or demands made that they be burned and syllabi changed under religious and political pressure or the intervention of the state. Why do such actions provoke so little reaction from academics, professionals and others among us who are interested in the outcome of these actions? The obvious answer is the fear of the instigators — who are persons with the backing of political authority.”

Again, Prof. Thapar was misinformed. When Batra and other Hindus put publishers under pressure to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book or AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas, the publishers buckled under the fear of the Hindu public’s purchasing power. Apart from ideological factors, entrepreneurs also have to take into account the purely commercial aspect of a controversy. In this case, they took into account the only power that Hindus have: their numbers. But the Hindu instigators did not inspire “fear”, and definitely did not have “the backing of political authority”.

It is strange how fast people can forget. Modi has only very recently come to power. At the time of the Ramanujan and Doniger controversies, Congress was safely in power. If the publishers were in awe of any powers-that-be, it was of the Congress “secularists”.

More fundamentally, changes in government do not necessarily entail changes in the dominant intellectual framework. The accession to power (or rather, to office) of a nominally Hindu party does not mean that the ideological power equation has changed. In spite of the lip-service paid to Hindu self-respect by a few fashion-conscious opportunists, anti-Hindu “secularism” still rules the roost. Even now it furnishes the set of assumptions that most intellectuals, and even most ruling BJP politicians, go by.  


Read more!