Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Cultural policy and folk art

Review of a book presenting KC Aryan’s art collection, with a contemplation on the survival of Indian culture

(Law Animated World, Hyderabad, 16 July 2016)

In Gurgaon, or should I say Gurugram, an ordinary mansion houses an extraordinary treasure: a collection of Indian tribal and folk art started in 1984 by the Panjabi painter KC Aryan (1919-2002) and expanded by his children. Now, a hefty parlour-table book shows a separate professional photograph of each artwork, with an informative caption: From the Personal Collection of KC Aryan. Unknown Masterpieces of Indian Folk & Tribal Art (KC Aryan’s Home of Folk Art, Gurgaon 2016, 301 pp., 635 illustrations). It has been edited by KC Aryan’s daughter Subhasini Aryan and son BN Aryan.

Folk art

The ordinary house was the habitat of the great painter himself, as he found no state or private patronage to give his collection the space and the care it deserves. Collecting he did out of personal passion for art and out of a sense of duty. He sensed how art that was an everyday feature of Indian folk life a century ago is now getting rare and in need of preservation for posterity. Art lovers and art owners were united in despising tribal and folk art, even throwing it away to replace it with more classical pieces.

Dr. Subhasini Aryan, chairman of the Museum, writes in her foreword: “Greater preference is accorded to sculptures and paintings created by artists attached to the royal courts over the centuries. Artefacts from rural and tribal India were outrightly dismissed as everyday objects, completely unfit for display in a museum. No one, with the sole exception of K.C. Aryan, realised that the illiterate and unknown craftsmen living and working in the countryside had nurtured our artistic and cultural heritage since hoary antiquity, and preserved it from getting lost for good.”

I cannot vouch for her estimation that her father was “the sole exception”. No doubt in such a vast country, more initiatives can be found. Moreover, she herself writes that her father did “for Panjabi popular paintings what WG Archer had done for those from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa”. (p.59)

BN Aryan explains in his afterword once more the necessity for his father’s collections: “This long neglect and wanton destruction of our folk and tribal heritage has been compounded by the unsavoury process of pseudo-intellectual distinction between ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’, or ‘fine arts’ and ‘decorative arts’. This led to a profound loss of repositories of rich ethnographic material bearing centuries-old expression and symbolism.” (p.293)

He quotes Stella Kramrisch assessment of his father’s work on Folk Bronzes: “KC Aryan is singularly equipped in writing on them, having lived, seen and collected many of the images on the spot and being a practising artist.” (p.295)

Importantly, he gives the ultimate reason why this collection of artworks is being presented: it is “a most deserving tribute to the unnumbered anonymous artists and artisans of our soil through the centuries. In it are manifest the creative genius and artistic expression of countless unknown potters, weavers, embroiderers, painters, sculptors and other craftspersons of this country ‘whose names and identities have been lost in the mists of time’ and whose artistry is comparable to, if not excelling, the best of its kind found anywhere in the history of human civilization.” (p.297)  

The book helpfully reminds us that “these paintings and lithographs can be seen only in the collectio of Home of Folk Art, and nowhere else. They are being reproduced for the first time.” (p.59) It is divided in one chapter each for the different types of art.


K.C. Aryan was a productive painter himself. Twice his paintings drew attention from the authorities. A few years before independence, during a communal riot in the North-West Frontier Province, Muslims paraded a group of Hindu women naked. He depicted the scene. The British authorities feared it would stoke resentment among the Hindus, so he had to abscond from their searchlight for a while. Come independence, his community of Lahore Hindus was partly massacred and partly had to flee for their lives. In Delhi, near Kashmiri gate, they had to live as refugees. Aryan’s painting of the refugee camp was titled: “Freedom comes for us.” Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was not amused.

Here he has collected a number of fine paintings, beautiful and inspired but usually less perfect than what you may find in temples or rich people’s parlours. The first is about tantrik and folk paintings, devotional or magic-oriented. Often they show deities carrying cosmological schemes of 9 or 32 or 64 squares or triangles inscribed with mantras or yantras (geometrical figures or symbols). Other deities are preferably ferocious, such as Virabhadra, the martial form of Shiva, or Kali, folk-etymologically “Mrs. Black” but actually “Mrs. Hour-of-Death”. Often the deities are unorthodox local goddesses, such as Ahoi or Syahu Mata, whose images are painted by housewives “for the well-being of their offspring”. (p.35) Torture scenes from life in hell, here from a Jain manuscript, “were intended to instill the idea of a good moral character”. (p.53)

Among the gems is a very unusual depiction of Hanuman with Arabic writing: “This instance of a Muslim devotee of a Hindu deity is by no means exceptional“ (p.21), especially at the folk level. Common folk knew little about theology, in particular about the Islamic strictures against worship of Pagan deities, so that many Hindu commoners who had paid lip-service to Islam in order to improve their chances in life, still turned to their ancestral deities.

Numerous paintings as well as bronzes and stone sculptures depict Hanuman, who doesn’t have his own chapter here but deserves to be the object of a separate collection housed in its own museum. I was personally present at the Gathering of the Elders, a global all-Pagan conference in Maisuru (Mysore) where BN Aryan was also attending. Seeing an empty hall on the premises of the Ashram’s Hanuman Mandir, he thought it would make for the perfect placet o house his Hanuman collection, also enhancing the status of the Ashram, but after some favourable sounds from board members, the organization’s president announced that it could not go through. Hindus always find a reason to shoot the Hindu cause in the foot.

A second and third type of artwork in KC Aryan’s collection also consist of kinds of paintings, namely book covers and playing cards. Even illiterates could express a complete cosmology through the pictures on playing cards. In Europe, it so happens that the culture of playing cards, for entertainment but also for fortune-telling, was spread by a population of low-caste Indians, the Gypsies.


The fourth section is a very large one: bronzes. Dozens of statues of Durga, some of other deities including village goddesses queue up for your attention. An elongated bronze shows Krishna with a row of cows behind him. A similar-shaped one shows the juxtaposed seven sisters with the caption:  “The Saptamatrikas (seven Mother Goddesses) holding hands and standing together on a flat metal plate, Maharashtra; 18th century.” (p.113)

Often these bronzes are not very polished, but they are breathtakingly genuine and stirring. Often their design is quite complex. Thus, the bronze “icon of eight-armed Goddess Durga seated in the dhyana-asana flanked by devotees; tiny sexually conjoinedfigures of Shiva and Kali are seen in front on the pedestal. The high pedestal-cum-simhasana (lion throne) supports all the figures and an elaborate prabhavali surrouds them. Wstern India; 16th century.” (p.115)

Many bronzes are from tribal communities and depict tribal religion: “A tribal goddess seated in cross-legged posture. Chattisgarh, 19th century.” (p.122) Or: “Deified clan ancestors (bronze), Kutia Kond tribe, Orissa-Andhra border area; early 20th century.” (p.123) Or: “Metal icon of the tribal goddess Khanda Kankalini Devi flanked by attendants, Bastar, Chattisgarh.” (p.135)

They may also depict secular scenes, e.g.: “A Kutia Kond tribal woman balancing a pitcher on her head, Orissa-Andhra border area; early 20th century.” (p.123) Or: “A deified tribal warrior or clan ancestor portrayed along with his spouse holding a baby, all seated on a high pedestal, a pair of animal heads projecting on both sides; Chattisgarh, 19th century.” (p.131) Or: “A tribal bride and bridegroom, their joined hands indicative oftheir marriage rites being solemnized, Bastar, Chattisgarh, 20th century.” (p.135) The designs are often surprising, not following the patterns known from classical art. 

The other chapters deal with terracottas, metal craft including masks, textiles, woodcraft including masks, and oleographs. The latter are the only category where the reader will at once recognize in both form and contents the usual scenes from classical art or its popularized form, calendar art: “Saraswati seated on a lotus throne playing on her veena, accompanied by a swan and a peacock.” (p.291) Or: “Coronation of Lord Rama.” (p.291) But sometimes, even most Hindus would have to brush up their knowledge of their own tradition, e.g.: “Vishvamitra refuses to accept his daughter Shakuntala being presented to him by Menaka.” (p.290) As we approach the present, we get activist designs like ”Bharat Mata” (p.292) and “A propagandistic print urging Hindus to protect the sacred cow.” (p.292)

Herewith we terminate our book review. We genuinely recommend that people read this book and admire the pieces of art presented therein. Unfortunately the contrast between the value of these collections and the shabby treatment they receive from the upper class and the authorities deserve a closer investigation and contemplation.

Cultural policy

This collection is large, tasteful, and greatly appreciated by art connoisseurs the world over. At the moment, it happens to be housed just next to the capital and the international airport. Any Minister of Culture in his right mind would first of all visit it and then promote this collection to show the world that particular facet of the many-faced Indian creativity. But this is not happening.   

The present Government is supposedly Hindu and wedded to native culture. One would have expected it to preserve and highlight native handicrafts and art forms. It ought to know that there is an audience for non-classical art. For ideological or purely for propaganda reasons, it has an interest in showing the low-caste and tribal face of India once in a while.

Yet, it turns out that these things were cared for much better under Leftist administrations. Collections of museum pieces or living handicraft traditions that were once preserved as national heritage, as a proud raised fist against colonialism and americanization, have been neglected by the BJP, or worse, thrown to the wolves of the market forces. If it doesn’t make money, it is not worth existing!

The non-interest from the official side for this collection of folk and tribal art follows a pattern. In days past, these art forms would not go under the name “Hindu”; instead they would be called “folkish”, “native”, “popular”, “subaltern” or “tribal”. Yet they were better looked after than now that they have become potential jewels in the Hindutva crown. 

Folk and tribal parts of Indian civilization

The self-taught but by now very prominent historian Shrikant Talageri, best known from his work on the Vedic evidence for the Indo-European homeland, has explained what exactly is at stake here. As a starting-point, he takes 2005:is observation by the late Sita Ram Goel. The venerable thinker said at the very outset of his Hindu Society Under Siege (Voice of India, Delhi 1981, p.1): “There are many Hindus who are legitimately proud of Hindu art, architecture, sculpture, music, painting, dance, drama, literature, linguistics, lexicography and so on. But they seldom take into account the fact that this great wealth of artistic, literary and scientific heritage will die if Hindu society which created it is no more there to preserve, protect and perpetuate it.” . (“Sita Ram Goel, memories and ideas”, in Koenraad Elst, ed.: India’s Only Communalist: In Commemoration of Sita Ram Goel, Voice of India, Delhi 2005, p.239-346, spec. p.251)

Talageri agrees with this assessment: “conversion to Islam and Christianity creates a process of cultural de-Indianization. De-Hinduization of Indian society, therefore, will inevitably lead to the demise of Indian culture: Hindu society must survive if Indian culture is to survive.” (2005:273) This much may sound like music to the ears of the Hindutva organizations. But he also asserts the reverse: “But the reverse is also true: Indian culture must survive if Hindu society is to survive. Hindu society would no more be Hindu society if it lost all vestiges of Indian culture or if it allowed Indian culture to die out. And Hindutva without Indian culture as its very basis is a meaningless exercise.” (2005:251-252)

This native culture is broader than usually assumed: “Vedic and Classical Sanskrit culture, is, of course, the pan-Indian representative face of India’s ancient civilization, and that fact is not negated by the equally valid fact that all other native Indian cultures must be given their due.” (Talageri 2005: 293)

 Hence the need for a more open-minded evaluation of folk and tribal cultures even by representatives of the Vedic Great Tradition. As Talageri (interview to the Free Press Journal, 5 May 2002) explains: “Indian culture being the greatest and richest is not a narrow or chauvinistic idea; it is a demonstrable fact. It would be chauvinistic if it acquired an imperialist tinge: that other cultures are inferior and Indian culture must dominate over or replace them. In fact, I am opposed to even internal cultural imperialism. The idea that Vedic or Sanskrit culture represents Indian culture and that other cultures within India are its subcultures and must be incorporated into it, is wrong. (…) All other cultures native to this land: the culture of the Andaman islanders, the Nagas, the Mundas, the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, etc. are all Indian in their own right. They don’t have to be ¾ and should not be ¾ Sanskritized to make them Indian.”

Really existing culture

So, a governing party that has garnered Hindu votes on the promise of defending Hindu interests, should care for Hindu culture, not only in its Sanskritic but also in its folk and tribal forms. Now that the BJP, historically known as a “Hindu Nationalist” party, is in power, we should expect Hindu culture in all its forms to receive extra attention. After all, nationalists the world over have highlighted their country’s own cultural masterpieces from the past and encouraged the deployment of cultural creativity in the present. And indeed, during election time, the BJP pays lots of lip-service to the Hindu “values”, “ethos” and “way of life”.    

Yet, what the BJP does wrong here is not so much its wobbly loyalty to its election promises, but its rather abstruse understanding of what “Hindu culture” is. Talageri explains: “Culture does not refer only to ‘values’, ‘ethos’ and ‘way of life’, which are really vague words and which can be made to mean anything. It refers to actual concrete culture.” (2005:252)

Indeed, it refers to “every single aspect of India’s matchlessly priceless heritage: climate and topography; flora and fauna; races and languages; music, dance and drama; arts and handicrafts; culinary arts; games and physical systems; architecture; costumes and apparels; literature and sciences…” And it takes its value not just from the “cultural practices springing from Vedic or Sanskritic sources, but from all other Indian sources independently of these: the practices of the Andaman islanders and the (pre-Christian) Nagas are as Hindu in the territorial sense, and Sanatana in the spiritual sense, as classical Sanskritic Hinduism.” (Shrikant Talageri: Time for Stock-Taking, Voice of India, Delhi 1997, p.227)

Leftist care for culture

But far from finding Hindu Nationalists, especially the political ones, as the champions of native culture, Talageri sees their adversaries in a more prominent role: “A survey of eminent people active in different fields of culture ¾ whether actual participants like dancers, musicians, etc.; or scholars engaged in studying, recording and filming different aspects of culture; or activists fighting to preserve our environment, wildlife, forests, cuisine, dances, musical styles and musical instruments, art forms, handicrafts, architectural styles and monuments, old manuscripts, etc.; or even lay people who appreciate or support all such activities ¾ will show a very fair representation, perhaps even a preponderance, of secularist people. It is, perhaps, just such people that Sita Ram Goel, quoted at the very beginning of this section, had in mind when he talked about Hindus who are legitimately proud of different aspects of Indian culture, but who fail to realize that all this culture ‘will die if Hindu society which created it is no more there to preserve, protect and perpetuate it’.” (2005:269)

Even stronger, those who fight for native culture often have a political loyalty opposed to Hindu Nationalism: “In some fields, indeed, it is not just vaguely secularist people, but even outright leftists, who are active in the task of preserving aspects of Indian culture, particularly when it comes to aspects of tribal, folk or regional culture. This may be simply because much of their support base comes from the more marginalized, or less westernized, strata of society. Or it may be because they see it as an ideological strategy to promote the ‘Lesser Traditions’ of Indian culture, perceived to be in opposition, or at least intended to be propped up as such, to the ‘Greater Tradition’ of Vedic or Classical Hindu civilization, which is perceived to be promoted by the elite classes, or upper castes, or by Hindutva organizations. Similarly, we find outright leftists engaged in fighting issues of environment, wildlife conservation and deforestation. This, again, may be merely because of the issues of socio-economic ideology involved. But, whatever the reasons, the fact is that they are doing their bit for Indian culture.” (2005:270)  

For example, “even in the notorious TV serial Tamas, which exemplifies these traits so well (in numerous ways, every scene in the serial exudes ugly anti-Hinduism and false leftist propaganda), we find soul-stirring music and songs steeped in authentic traditions of Indian music. This is to be contrasted, for example, with the pedestrian pop varieties of Indian music we find in serials like Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana, so dear to the hearts of Hindutva organizations.” (2005:270) Therefore: “If the greatest and richest culture in the world is in real and active danger of being set on the downward path towards extinction, it would be futile to be satisfied with merely laying the blame at the doors of secularism.” (2005:271)

If today we witness a steep decline in native culture, this cannot be blamed on foreign interventions, nor even on fellow Indians seen as agents of foreign influence: “British rule in India did introduce many negative factors (…) Yet it also consciously did a great deal in preserving arts and crafts, monuments, old manuscripts, etc., and encouraging scholars engaged in the detailed study and meticulous recording of different aspects of Indian culture. (…) The dawning of independence from British rule in 1947, and the accession to power of ‘secular’ rulers eager to demonstrate their distance from anything ‘communal’ (i.e. Hindu) did not change the picture very greatly. Many of these rulers did have some pride in Indian culture (….) Consequently, they did quite a bit for those aspects of Indian culture, e.g. they established institutions and academies for the study, recording, preservation and popularization of those aspects, they instituted awards to honour eminent people and scholars in different fields, they organized festivals to encourage and popularize those aspects, etc. (…) institutions such as Akashwani, Doordarshan and Films Division did a truly wonderful, Herculean job in recording and popularizing India’s immeasurable wealth of music, dance, etc.” (2005:279)

Destruction of culture by Capitalism

The BJP today supports and encourages the interiorization of American Capitalism and Consumerism. As Karl Marx observed, Capitalism has (in his evaluation) the merit of destroying “feudal”, pre-modern culture: religion as a guarantor and legitimizer of existing power relations, premodern forms of social inequality, clan loyalty, quaint and unproductive respect for certain objects and spaces, etc. He fought Capitalism because of its exploitative aspect, but otherwise saw it as fully part of history’s march to modern Communist society. But from the viewpoint of a distinctive Indian culture, Talageri sees it as a destroyer far surpassing anything that the various past imperialisms have wrought: “Capitalism, or the ideology of the unbridled pursuit of wealth, is destroying culture on an unbridled scale.” (2005:276)        

So, in practice, “countless cultural activities, seen to be non-lucrative or less lucrative, are being abandoned all over the country. Others are being severely compromised in order to keep or make them lucrative: compromise in materials or techniques used, shoddiness in workmanship or performance, short-cut methods, etc. These are resulting in loss of natural spontaneity, cultural authenticity, technological expertise and performance satisfaction, which, in turn, gradually leads to the degeneration and further abandonment of cultural activities. All this is affecting various fields of culture: musical forms and styles, musical instruments, dance forms, architectural styles, art forms, handicrafts, traditional crops, culinary items, etc.” (2005:280)

While the progressives avoided describing any valuable segment of Indian culture as Hindu, they nonetheless preserved or cultivated it. But then, globalizing Capitalism conquered India, largely helped by the BJP: “However, the concept of Money as God has now changed all this. For perhaps the first time in India’s long history, there is now no real official support for Indian culture. In the last decade or so, apparently coinciding with the advocacy and adoption of new policies of economic ‘reforms’, it is now pass√© for governments to do anything concrete to protect, preserve, record or perpetuate India’s traditional culture, or even to aid and encourage individuals or organizations doing so. Institutions established in the post-Independence era are being literally starved for funds, or funds are being used for any purpose but to achieve the original aims and objectives, or, simply, the very aims and objectives of these institutions are being changed. In any case no new activities, except occasional pedestrian ‘cultural’ projects of a political nature, are being undertaken: the institutions are being slowly transformed from cultural to commercial institutions, in line with the ‘changing times’.” (2005:280)

“Infinitely worse is what is happening to the detailed records of the research, documentation and collection undertaken by these institutions, in the not so distant past, to preserve, popularize and perpetuate different aspects of Indian culture. These archival records ¾ print, tape, film or actual physical objects ¾ are suddenly becoming an eyesore or an embarrassment, or simply a financial burden, to a cash-conscious leadership with a ‘reformist’ eye on the ‘globe’. A standard sequence now is as follows: state-funded museums, libraries and archives  ¾ or at least the records in them ¾ slowly become rare or inaccessible, in different ways, to the (lay or scholarly) public eye. Often ‘constraints of space’ force the authorities to remove these records from their protected environments and dump them in ill-maintained godowns, to rot and decay, unseen and forgotten. And, occasionally, mysterious fires break out in the places which house these archives, destroying invaluable and irreplaceable records (including those pertaining to the golden age of Indian movies), then to be forgotten forever. All these events, coincidentally, make available valuable land and funds for more lucrative commercial purposes. The persons in authority are too busy saving or making money ¾ for themselves, or, if they are to be believed, for the public coffers ¾ to care.” (2005:280)

After describing how Andamanese tribal culture is being destroyed in front of our eyes by a careless Government (as well as by wily missionaries – I have seen them canvassing for the conversion of the Andaman islanders right here in Antwerp), Talageri makes this development relevant to the whole of India: “The tragedy in the Andaman islands is a pointer to what is happening to India’s tribal and folk cultures, and even to the tributaries of the mainstream classical cultures of India. (…) millions of Indians [are] abandoning their glorious culture, and striving to become pathetic clones of the west”. (2005:291) It is up to Indians to become conscious of the situation and decide if this is what they want.


All this has happened largely on the BJP’s watch in state-controlled sectors. It sacrifices culture to “Development”. In society at large, where the RSS as a cadre-based mass organization wedded to Hindutva wields tangible clout, it forms a standing refutation to the RSS’s boast of being “the vanguard of Hindu society”. In the past, it was a Hindu king’s duty to patronize arts, crafts and sciences; but today, Hindus who really care about their civilization are on their own. The supposed Hindu organizations are not going to do in their stead. And that is why people like KC Aryan and his children have taken it upon themselves to do their bit for preserving India’s heritage.

Read more!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Defence against “Hinduphobia”

Review of Rajiv Malhotra: Academic Hinduphobia, Voice of India, Delhi 2016, 426 pp.; in Pragyata, 5 July 2016.


Rajiv Malhotra is the belated Hindu answer to decades of the systematic blackening of Hinduism in academe and the media. This is to be distinguished from the negative attitude to Hinduism among ignorant Westerners settling for the “caste, cows and curry” stereotype, and from the anti-Hindu bias among secularists in India. Against the latter phenomenon, Hindu polemicists have long been up in arms, eventhough they have also been put at a disadvantage by the monopoly of their enemies in the opinion-making sphere. But for challenging the American India-watching establishment, a combination of skills was necessary which Malhotra has only gradually developed and which few others can equal.

In the present book, Academic Hinduphobia (Voice of India, Delhi 2016, 426 pp.), he documents some of his past battles against Hinduphobia  in academe, i.e. the ideological enmity against Hinduism. We leave undecided for now whether that anti-Hindu attitude stems from fear towards an intrinsically better competitor (as many Hindus flatter themselves to think), from contempt for the substandard performance of those Hindus they have met in polemical forums, or from hatred against phenomena in their own past which they now think to recognize in Hinduism (“racism = untouchability”, “feudal inborn inequality = caste”).

In this war, American academe is linked with foreign policy interests and the Christian missionary apparatus, and they reinforce one another. Hindus have a formidable enemy in front of them, more wily and resourceful than they have ever experienced before. That is why a new knowledge of the specific laws of this particular battlefield is called for.



Rajiv Malhotra correctly lays his finger on the links between Christian traditions and present-day Leftist techniques to undermine India. Many Hindus think that Western equals Christian, but this is wrong in two ways: not all Christians are Western, and not all Westerners are Christian. Yet, secular and leftist Westerners are nonetheless heirs to Christian strategies and modes of thinking. Thus, many of the Christian Saints have a narrative of martyrdom, and usually it is that which made them Saints. The early Church deliberately spread or concocted martyrdom stories, for it empirically found these successful in swaying people towards accepting the Christian message.

Today, this tradition is being continued in secularized form: “Western human rights activists, and non-Westerners trained and funded by them, go around the world creating new categories of ‘victims’ that can be used in divide-and-conquer strategies against other cultures. In India’s case, the largest funding of this type goes to middlemen who can deliver narratives about ‘abused’ Dalits and native (especially Hindu) women.” (p.219)

Here, Malhotra prepares the ground for his Breaking India thesis, where different forces unite with a common goal: to deconstruct India’s majority culture and fragment the country. At the same time, he sketches the psychology of the Hindu-haters, explaining why they have such a good conscience in lambasting Hinduism and trying to destroy it. They like to see themselves as the oppressed underdogs, or in this case as champions of the oppressed, in spite of their privileged social position and their senior position vis-√†-vis the born Hindus who come to earn PhDs under their guidance.

Among those confronted here are Sarah Caldwell, David Gordon White, Deepak Sarma, Robert Zydenbos and Shankar Vedantam. Note the names of some Hindu-born sepoys. The term “sepoy” for Hindus trying to curry favour with their white superiors needs a be nuanced a little bit. In colonial days, it was black and white: Britons trying to perpetuate and legitimize their domination, and Indian underlings trying to prosper as much as possible in the British system. Today, American Indologists are also partly influenced (esp. in their furious hatred of Hindutva) by Indian secularist opinion, but then this has in turn been oriented in an anti-Hindu sense precisely by the earlier cultural anglicization of the elites during colonial times. Anyway, in the present context, it is indeed Americans leading the dance and Indians trying to keep up.

Principally, Malhotra focuses on different episodes in the one controversy that made him a household name in Indology circles: exposing Wendy Doniger’s brand of roundabout and candid-sounding anti-Hindu polemic. By his much-publicized example, he has galvanized many Hindus into actively mapping the battlefield and even coming out to do battle themselves against the mighty and intolerant Hindu-watching establishment. There is no longer an excuse for the all-too-common Hindu attitude of smug laziness hiding behind the spiritual-sounding explanation that, instead of our own effort, the law of karma will take care of everything.

The book is a pleasant read, because the described characters are variegated and the events on the ground are swiftly advancing all while the ideas are being developed. For understanding the entirety of its message, I can only advise you to read it, it is really worth your time. Here I will limit myself to a searchlight on a few passages.


Wendy’s psycho-analytic free-for-all

One of the faces of academic “Hinduphobia” is the flippant eroticizing discourse about Hindu civilization developed by Chicago University’s Prof. Wendy Doniger, continued by her erstwhile Ph.D. students and eagerly taken over by prominent media like the Washington Post. Here, Malhotra first of all amply documents the reality and seriousness of the problem. Imagine: a number of professors who are not at all qualified as psycho-analysts and would be punishable if they applied their diagnosis to a living human being, feel entitled to psycho-analyse a Guru like Ramakrishna or a God like Ganesha.

Thus, Jeffrey Kripal’s thesis about Ramakrishna (Kali’s Child) is, according to a quoted Bengali critic, marred by “faulty translations”, “wilful distortion and manipulation of sources”, “remarkable ignorance of Bengali culture”, “misrepresentations” and a simply defective knowledge of both Sanskrit and Bengali. (p.101) He has, like too many academics, the tendency to “first suspect, then assume, then present as a fact” his own desired scenario, i.c. “that Ramakrishna was sexually abused as a child”. (p.105) A closer look at his errors could make the reader embarrassed in Kripal’s place, e.g. mistranslating “lap” as “genitals”, “head” as “phallus”, “touching softly” as “sodomy” etc. Kripal’s whole scenario of Ramakrishna as a defiler of boys is not onlu unsubstantiated, it provides not only a peep into Kripal’s own morbid mind; it is also, in this age of cultural hypersensitivity, a brutal violation of Hindu and Bengali feelings. If it were an unpleasant truth, it had a right to get said in spite of what the concerned commnities would think, but even then, a more circumspect mode of expression and more interaction with the community directly affected, would have been called for. But when it comes to Hindus, riding roughshod over them is still the done thing.   

Similarly, Paul Courtright develops his thesis about Ganesha’s broken tusk being a limp phallus, and of Ganesha being the first god with an Oedipus complex, on the basis of what is clearly a defective knowledge about the elephant god. The lore surrounding Ganesha is vast, and does not always live up to Courtright’s stereotype of a sweets-addicted diabetic. He has some stories in Hindu literature to his credit where his phallus is not exactly limp. Indeed, I myself am the lucky owner of a Ganesha bronze where he is doing it with a Dakini.

Wendy Doniger herself is now best known for the numerous errors in his book The Hindus, an Alternative History, diagnosed in detail by Vishal Agarwal. Known among laymen as a Sanskritist, her shoddy translations of Sanskrit classics have been criticized by colleagues like Michael Witzel, not exactly a friend of the Hindus. In a normal academic setting, with word and counter-word, where the peer review would have included first-hand practitioners of the tradition concerned, Doniger’s or Kripal’s or Courtright’s gross errors would never have passed muster. It is only because the dice have been loaded against Hinduism that these hilarious distortions are possible. It is therefore a very necessary and very reasonable struggle that Malhotra has taken up.



The RISA list

When I wrote my book The Argumentative Hindu (2012), I seriously wondered whether to include my exchanges with the RISA (Religion In South Asia) list about the dishonourable way listmaster Deepak Sarma and the rest of the gang overruled list rules in order to banish me, and how many prominent Indologists actively or passively supported their tricks. I didn’t consider my own story that important, but finally I decided to do it, just for the sake of history. Future as well as present students of the conflicting worldviews in India and among India-watchers in the West are or will be interested in a detailed illustration of how mean and how pompous the anti-Hindu crowd can be in defending their power position.

Here we get a detailed report on a much more important RISA debate that took place in 2003, and as it turns out, it was indeed worth making this information available. A lot of anecdotal data become known here, useful one day for the occasional biographer, such as the intereseting tidbit dat Anant Rambachan, with whom Malhotra crossed swords in his book Indra’s Net, was an ally back then (p.210). More fundamentally, and affecting the whole Hindu-American community, we note Paul Coutright’s turn-around to a sudden willingness for dialogue with the Hindus about his erstwhile thesis (p.211). The reason that mattered most in the prevailing Zeitgeist, was that “American Hinduism is a minority religion in America (…) that deserves the same treatment that is already being given to other American minority religions – such as Native American, Buddhist or Islamic – by the Academy. The subaltern studies depiction of Hinduism as being the dominant religion of India must, therefore, be questioned in the American context.” (p.213)

On the other hand, in all sobriety I must also note how, in spite of that hopeful event, very little has changed. Recent incidents, some concerning Malhotra himself, confirm that the exclusion of people because of their opinion, the systematic haughtiness because of institutional rank (“Malhotra is not even an academic”, a sophomoric attitude unbecoming of anyone experienced with how progress in research is made, and by whom), the intellectually contemptible use of “guilt by association”, are all still in evidence in Western Indologist forums. He notes an improvement in the general mood as a result of the debate: “For the first time in RISA’s history, to the best of my knowledge, the diaspora voices are not being branded as saffronists, Hindutva fanatics, fascists, chauvinists, dowry extortionists, Muslim killers, nun rapists, Dalit abusers, etc. One has to wait and see whether this is temporary or permanent.” (p.215)

So far, the impression prevails that the mood has not changed much. We saw this in 2015, when Malhotra was accused of plagiarism. A detailed look at the case exonerated him and actually made the whole controversy rather ludicrous, yet otherwise moderate voices on the Indology and the Indo-Eurasian Research lists (I can’t speak for the RISA list, but it contains the same people) all ganged up against him. They acted very indignant over something that, even if it were true, would only be a trifle, immaterial to the debate at hand. It is this persistence of the same anti-Hindu attitudes that makes this book more than a historical document: it teaches Hindus what to expect today if they challenge the Indological establishment.

In 2003, one factor was perhaps that a BJP government ruled in Delhi and, in spite of its so-called “saffronization” of the history textbooks, refuted in practice all the apprehensions about “Hindu fascist” rule which the same Indologists had uttered in the 1990s. Remember, they had predicted a “Muslim Holocaust” if ever the BJP would come to power (and have never had to bear the consequences of their grossly wrong prediction in the field of their supposed expertise). Even ivory-tower academics had to be aware of that feedback from reality. Then again, this consideration ought to prevail even now, with Narendra Modi opening many doors internationally and not at all living up to the hate-image which many India-watchers had sworn by in the preceding years. Yet, “Hinduphobia” is still with us.




The major flaw in this book is its title. I object to political terms ending in -phobia, normally a medical term meaning “irrational fear”, as in arachnophobia, the “irrational fear of spiders”. As far as I know, the first term in this category of political terms borrowed from the medical register, was homophobia, the “irrational fear of homosexuals”. First of all, the word was wrongly constructed. Literally, it means “fear of the same”, i.e. “fear of the same sex”, whereas men criticizing homosexuality are not usually afraid of men. In fact the words targets people who disapprove of homosexuality, nomatter what their rational or emotional motive. The term or connotation “sexuality” is missing (you might try “homophilophobia”), and the tareted “disapproval” is not the same thing as the stated “fear”, nor as the intended “hate”. Still, the neologism won through thanks to the bourgeoisie’s sheepish acceptance ot it.

Next came Islamophobia, literally “irrational fear of Islam”, intended to mean “hatred of Islam”, and in effect targeting “disapproval of Islam”, “Islam criticism”. This term was first launched in the 1990s by the Runnymede Trust, a British Quango dedicated to fighting racism. It was taken over by many governments and media, and especially promoted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It is an intensely mendacious term trying to criminalize the normal exercise of the power of discrimination. The targeted critics of Islam need neither fear nor hate Islam, their attitude may rather be likened to that of a teacher using his red pencil to cross out a mistake in a pupil’s homework. But again, a mighty promotion by powerful actors made the word gain household status.

On this model, the term Hinduphobia was coined. At bottom, we have to reject this term as much as we rejected the use of psychiatry against dissident  viewpoints in the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, an irrational anti-Hinduism is a reality. It is precisely through comparison with Islam that this becomes glaring. Whenever a group of people gets killed in the name of Islam, immediately the politicians concerned and the media assure us that this terror “has nothing to do with Islam”. In the case of Hinduism, it is just the reverse. Of any merit of Hinduism, it is immediately assumed that “it has nothing to do with Hinduism”, whereas every problem in India is automatically blamed on Hinduism, from poverty (“the Hindu rate of growth”) to rape.

Thus, it is verifiable that books may be written about “Jain mathematics”, but when Hindus do mathematics, it will be called “Indian mathematics” or “the Kerala school of mathematics”. Congress politician Mani Shankar Aiyar once praised India’s inherent pluralism, enumerated its well-attested hospitality to refugee groups, and then attributed all this not to Hinduism, but to “something in the air here”.  In missionary propaganda and in the secularist media, it is always emphasized that “tribals are not Hindus”; except when they take revenge on Christians or Muslims, because then the media report on “Hindu rioters”.    

This obsessive negativity towards Hinduism needs to be named and shamed. Now that the bourgeoisie has interiorized terms like Homophobia and Islamophobia, it is clear that the neologism Hinduphobia belongs to a language register they will understand. Once heightened scruples prevail and linguistic hygiene is restored, all three terms may be be discarded together. But until then, the use of Hinduphobia in counter-attack mode is a wise compromise with the prevailing opinion climate.



Rajiv Malhotra: Academic Hinduphobia, Voice of India, Delhi 2016, 426 pp.


Read more!