Monday, August 15, 2016

Interview to a student of religion

(Interview given to a student of Religious Studies collecting material for her dissertation)

1. You have written that a Hindu simply is an Indian pagan. This raises the question: what is a pagan, exactly? Or what is paganism?


Strictly a “rustic”, “peasant” or “village bumpkin”, as opposed to the Christians in the Roman Empire, who were at first mostly city-dwellers. The textbook definition since the 4th century is “a non-Christian”. After Islam became more familiar in Europe, it often came to mean a non-Abrahamist, or better, anyone who does not subscribe to prophetic monotheism. The category “Pagan” strictly includes both atheists and polytheists, but mostly it is only used for a type of religious people, excluding non-religious atheists and agnostics.

When the Muslim invaders brought the Persian geographical term “Hindu” (“Indian”) into India, it came to mean “Indian by birth and by religion”, excluding those who were non-Indian or who were Indian but followed a non-Indian religion. In those days, people remained conscious of their original nationality for very long. When in the wake of the British, some Indian Zoroastrians settled in South Africa, they called themselves “Persians” though their families had lived in India for a thousand years. By the same token, the Syrian Christians counted as Syrians; but even if they counted as Indians, they would still not be Hindus, for they followed a non-Indian religion.

By contrast, all Indians without foreign links are Hindus: Brahmins, upper castes, middle castes, downtrodden, tribals, Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins” according to the 8th-century Muslim chronicle Chach-Nama), Jains. By implication even sects that did not exist yet, were Hindu upon birth: Lingayats, Sikhs, Arya Samaj, RK Mission, ISKCon. Today, “Hindu” is a dirty word, so they all try to weasel out of it and declare themselves non-Hindu, also to enjoy the legal benefits of being a minority. (Indeed, under the prevailing anti-secular Constitution, non-Hindus are privileged above Hindus.) They see Hinduism as a sinking ship, and being rats, they leave it. But I am not impressed by this. People should simply grow up and face facts: they satisfy the definition of “Hindu”, so they are Hindus, Indian Pagans. I don’t care what elephants think of being called elephants; since they satisfy the definition of “elephant”, they are elephants, period.

Since roughly 1980, the RSS family of Hindu Nationalist organizations have tried to water this clear historical definition down by saying that “Hindu” simply means “Indian”. That would have been the pre-invasion usage, when Persian and Arabic were not tainted by Islam yet. But when the word was brought into India, it immediately differed from “Indian” by its religious dimension. Muslims and Christians are by definition not Hindu. But because the contemporary Hindutva leaders are not clear-headed (or not brave) enough to face difference, they try to spirit the difference between Hinduism and Islam away by calling the Indian Muslims “Mohammedi Hindus”. And likewise, “Christi Hindus”. I think that is the summum of cowardice.

Look, I don’t claim to be brave. I just sit behind my computer screen. Writing articles that displease some people doesn’t require more courage than posting cheerful holiday messages on Facebook; it’s just words. It is nothing compared to a soldier on the battlefield running into enemy fire.  Here in Flanders’ fields, we are presently commemorating every event that punctuated WW1, a hundred years ago. When you read about those events, you come across unspeakable acts of bravery. So, compared to that, scholarship is nothing, even when a bit controversial. But conversely, when even words can intimidate you, when even a purely logical application of the definition of “Hindu” is too much, when even a word of disapproval by the secularists is too much, that is really intolerable cowardice. To be sure, even the secularists approve of a difference between “Hindu” and “Indian”, but the so-called Hintutva people now try to out-secularize the secularists by even denying that there is a separate religious category “Hindu”, different from the secular-geographical term “Indian”. They have come a long way: from flattering themselves as being the “vanguard of Hindu society” to denying that there is even such a thing as a “Hindu Indian” different from a “non-Hindu Indian”.  

2. You have criticized both Christianity and Islam for being basically a set of superstitious beliefs. Yet many would claim to the contrary that there is a lot more superstition in Hinduism. For instance, while Christianity and Islam at least have a historical basis to many of their most important stories, this is less the case for the Hindu stories about various gods and goddesses, which are more akin to the stories about Greek or Egyptian gods. Furthermore, the practice of image- or idol-worship could itself be considered superstitious, since it leads the worshipper to fetishize the idol as a source of magical powers, or as a divine being in itself. What is your response to this?

The core beliefs of Christianity and Islam are superstitious. Or without bringing in any psychologizing jargon like “superstitious”, they are, more simply, untrue. It is not true that Mohammed had a direct telephone line with God, and that the Quran is simply a collection of divine messages. It is simply not true that Jesus rose from the dead; just like all deceased people, he is not part of this world anymore. Much less is it true that he thereby freed mankind from sin (and thereby also of mortality, the punishment that befell Adam and Eve after their Fall into sinfulness); levels of sinfuless or of human mortality have not appreciably changed in 33 AD. Yes, it is claimed by believers as a historical that Jesus resurrected or that Mohammed received revelations, but apart from the fact that the date given is realistic, the event is definitely not. And I don’t even go into the theories that Jesus or Mohammed never existed. Believing something that is flatly untrue, and moreover as the basis of your worldview, that is simply not the case with Hinduism.

As it happens, Hinduism is not one definite worldview. It is not based on one untrue statement, like Christianity or Islam. It is not necessarily based on a true statement either. Within the Hindu big tent, there are many traditions with their own doctrines. They have an awe for the sacred in common, but what counts as sacred is conceived in many ways. As the Rg-Veda says: the wise ones call the one reality by many names. Among these traditions, the Upanishadic ones converge on an insight that is not historical but true, just as the Law of Gravity is not historical (its date and place of discovery happen to be known but are immaterial, as it is valid everywhere and forever). It is the Atmavad or doctrine of the Self, summed up in Great Sayings like Aham Brahmasmi, I am Brahma. That is the monist or Vedanta view, in parallel you have the dualist or Sankhya view, still within the Hindu big tent, the basis of Patañjali’s yoga. It is both rational and spiritual; Christianity and Islam cannot boast of anything parallel. But I agree that this is only the spiritual backbone of Hinduism, and that many of the beliefs and practices around it are not so rational. However, these don’t have the status that the core beliefs of Christianity c.q. Islam have. You can safely discard them and still be a Hindu.   

3. You have questioned the conventional view that Siddharta Gautama broke away from Hinduism and founded a new religion. Yet did he not deny the authority of the Vedas? And did he not reject the caste system, saying (variously quoted): “By birth one is not an outcaste, by birth one is not a Brahmin; by deeds alone one is an outcaste, by deeds alone one is a Brahmin”?

He did not go out of his way to deny the Vedas, and if he did, it only followed the latter part of the Veda itself. The Jnanakanda part (knowledge), the Upanishads, is explicit in declaring the Karmakanda part (ritualism), the Brahmanas, as outdated. Shankara lambasts the Sankhya-Yoga school for never quoting the Veda. It was part (not the whole, but part) of Hinduism to ignore the Veda.

He did not bother about the caste system, which Buddhists in Lanka and Tibet also practised. Buddhism never changed the social system in China, Japan or Thailand, because it had a spiritual agenda incompatible with a social reform agenda. If pursuing your own desires is already incompatible with pursuing Enlightenment, this counts even more for the immense job of structurally changing society. Either you do that, or you become a monk practising the spiritual path, but you cannot do both.

 It simply accepted the social structures it found. Check the Buddha’s own life. Once his friend Prasenajit discovered that his queen was not a true Kshatriya, only on her father’s side, so he repudiated her and their common son. The Buddha persuaded him to take them back, pleading for the older conception of the caste system, which was purely in the paternal line (same caste as father, mother’s caste can be any). Now, if he had been a caste revolutionary, as all Indian schoolkids are taught nowadays, this incident would have been the occasion par excellence to lambast and ridicule the caste system. But he does no such thing, he upholds one version (the older one, for far from being a revolutionary, he was a conservative) of the caste system.

Or consider the distribution of his ashes after his cremation. They are divided in eight and given to eight cities for keeping them as a relic in a Stupa. The ruling elites of those cities had staked their claim exclusively and purely in casteist terms, though this was a Buddhist context par excellence. After 45 yeas of Buddhism, they say: “He was a Kshatriya, we are Kshatriyas, so we are entitled to his ashes.” If Buddhism had been anti-casteist, then as bad pupils they still might have thought in casteist terms, but they would have used a non-casteist wording. Instead, they have no compunction at all in using casteist terms.

I have more examples, but to sum up: the Buddha was an elite figure par excellence, he mainly recruited his novices among the elite, and all the later Buddhist thinkers were Brahmins, as would be the Maitreya, the next Buddha. He was not an egalitarian at all, witness his initial refusal to ordain women, and when he relented on this, he ordered that even the seniormost nun would be subservient to the juniormost monk. So, the secularist-cum-Ambedkarite attempt to appropriate the Buddha for modern socialist causes is totally false. It is bad history par excellence.     

4. Regarding Islam, it seems that one of your foremost critiques of this religion is the Qur’an itself, which you view as (if I understand your position correctly) irredeemably fanatical and intolerant. Yet as you are surely aware, the Qur’an is a complex work which takes on different qualities depending on how the verses are interpreted, which verses are emphasized, whether a verse is considered as universal or contextual, and so on. Thus there are many Islamic scholars who claim, for instance, that armed jihad is only permitted in self-defense, seeing that militant verses are often accompanied by verses preaching restraint and forgiveness. So does the Qur’an really have to be problematic in itself? Is it not rather certain traditions (mostly Salafi) of interpreting the Qur’an which are a problem?

Let me clarify first that my fairly elaborate answers to your questions on Islam do not mean that I am especially interested in Islam. The Salman Rushie and the Ayodhya affairs forced me to study it more closely, but since the 1990s, I have only returned to it when current affairs dragged me back to it. As a subject, it has lost my interest because it is quite straightforward and all the important answers have already been given. The only meaningful debate that remains, is on which policy vis-à-vis Islam wil deliver both Muslims and non-Muslims from it, as painlessly as possible.

Now, your very common position that “source text good, tradition bad”, or “founder good, followers bad”, or “prophet full of good intentions, followers misunderstood him”. (It is equally used in the case of Christianity: “freeing Christ from Churchianity”, and all that.) Only by not reading the Qur’an, and especially the life events of the Prophet, can you say that. The magic wand of “interpretation” does not impress me. What interpretation do you know of that turns QaTaLa, “slaughter”, into “restraint and forgiveness”? Moreover, Muslims and their sympathizers have had decades to “reinterpret” their scriptures, and what is the result? The prophet’s biography (Sirat Rasul Allah), of which the authoritative translation by Alfred Guillaume is very literal and has been published in Karachi under Islamic supervision, is used by Muslims worldwide (their Quranic Arabic is usually not that fluent either), unaltered. Thomas Cleary’s islamophile “translation” of the Qur’an does not meaningfuly “reinterpret” the Qur’an, but simply leaves out the embarrassing parts; similarly a Dutch selective translation of the Sira that was recently published. The most-used English translations of the Qur’an are by Muslims, yet they faithfully translate that “war will reign between us until ye believe in Allah alone”. There, we are fortunate that their great respect for the prophet’s every word prevents them from imposing their own false interpretations instead of it.

Jihad only permitted in self-defence? Pray, why did Mohammed order a (failed) invasion of the Byzantine empire? Why did he attack the Meccan caravans, who went about their business peacefully? When the Muslim army was defeated in central France by Charles the Hammer in 731, what was it doing there, thousands of miles from Arabia? Defending itself? These are just silly sop-stories. As an intellectual spectacle, it is amusing to see the acrobatics of “enlightened” Islamophiles in exculpation of Islam.

The solution is simply to grow up. It is not so hard to outgrow childhood beliefs, though it does take an intellectual and social transition, especially in the intermediate period when you have to co-exist with relatives who still shy away from taking this step. But then, I am asking no one to make changes in his life and outlook that I haven’t been through myself. I had the exceptional good fortune of being in the middle of a nation-wide (largely Europe-wide, in fact) religious conversion. I was born in Catholic Flanders, a frontline of the Roman Church against Anglican England, Calvinist Holland, Lutheran Germany and secular-Masonic France. In the 1950s, society was still deeply penetrated by the Church’s all-seeing eyes. Everyone in my primary school went to church on Sundays, was baptized, had a Catholic Saint’s name, etc. In the 1960s, this edifice started crumbling, with Vatican 2 as both cause and consequence. By the 1980s, this became the dominant narrative, and the conformists who had earlier gone to church because everyone did, now stayed away because everyone did. Today, practising Catholics are a small minority. The ex-Catholics are now the dominant group, until the next generation takes over, because they are not even “ex”, they simply have no memory of Catholicism. And all this without bloodshed, without destruction of the admittedly wonderful artistic heritage of the Church. (I still sing Gregorian plainchant under  the shower.)

So, that is what I wish for my Muslim friends too. Make Islam un-cool. Outgrow it. And take it from me: there is life after apostasy.

5. I would also like to ask the same question regarding Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the prophet of Islam. There are many hadiths attributed to Muhammad which certainly seem to us to set a bad example, but there are also many hadiths to the contrary. Is it not again simply a matter of emphasis and interpretation? For instance, consider this opinion by the scholar Hamza Yusuf, who was traditionally educated in the Maliki madhab. Do you consider his understanding of what Muhammad stood for as somehow Islamically illegitimate? (pardon the flawed subtitles)

I have toughed it out to listen through the Shaykh’s special pleading, but I really knew enough after the first sentence, where he names Karen Armstrong as his main inspiration. Hers is a rare extreme of special pleading, distorting everything of Islamic history to fit modern values. The rest of his narrative is the usual idealization of the person Mohammed, as in his very special courtship with the widow Khadija (but with the false allegation that women before Islam had no inheritance rights, just when Khadija’s case proves the opposite). It is the basic conjuror's trick: directing the audience’s focus to a few nice episodes in Mohammed’s life and keeping the rest out of view. That is why Muslims are more properly called “Mohammedans”: they are far more punctual followers of Mohammed than Christians are of Christ.

To be sure, Mohammed may well have had some positive traits. He was known as very reliable, and I have no quarrel with that. Whether Khadija chose him because of those traits, as amply argued here, is another matter: he was a good young toyboy for this mature lady, and like his poverty (he worked as a shepherd in the service of the Meccan townspeople), his age made him her inferior and thus less likely to claim lordship over the wealth she had inherited or augmented by her entrepreneurial skills. But even i fit was a marriage made in heaven, wit hall manner of perfections accruing to the bridegroom,that doesn’t make him God’s spokesman. Shaykh may pontificate as much as he wants about Mohammed’s claimed virtues, that still does not make him more than the next man. He was neither the Son of God (as Muslims rightly hold against the Christians) nor a prophet with a private telephone line with God (as Muslims believe; it is the heart of their religion). 

Let’s cut short all the circumlocutions, let us cut out all the modern propaganda, and look at what the primary sources say.  We can summarize Mohammed’s life story in a single sentence: he destroyed an existing pluralistic society (Polytheists, Sabians, Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews and Hanifs) and replaced it with a monolithic Islamic dictatorship. That is what the Islamic source texts themselves say. It is the height of ridiculousness that the multiculturalists in Europe, like their “secularist” counterparts in India, hobnob with Mohammed’s followers.

A lot also becomes clear when we know that most Arabs shook off Islam after Mohammed’s death and defeated the Muslim army. Unfortunately, they demobilized after that, the Muslim army came back and this time they securely imposed Islam. But the Arabs were the first victims of Islam. Mohamed practised robbery, extortion, abduction for ransom, rape, enslavement, slave-trade, and the murder of his critics and of a resistant Jewish tribe. All those data are in the primary sources of Islam. There is no way that an Islamic court can declare them un-Islamic,-- short of saying that “Mohammed was a bad Muslim”.

It follows that I am skeptical of Muslims who call themselves “moderate”. First of all, the distinction between moderate and extremist Muslims is an invention by non-Muslim soft-brains, unknown in Islam, and firmly rejected both by ex-Muslims and by leading Muslims such as Turkish president Erdoğan. He calls it insulting to Islam to make such a distinction. At any rate, I will accept Shaykh’s interpretation as moderate the day I hear him say: “Mohammed was wrong. Don’t follow Mohammed.” If, by contrast, he still recommends following Mohammed, as every Muslim is expected to do, he is in fact telling us: do practise abduction, robbery, rape, slave-taking, beheading, stoning, for those are all things he actually did, not just displaying his charms to win Khadija in marriage, as you might think after hearing Shaykh's narrative. Until he takes this distance from Mohammed’s precedent behaviour, he is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


6. Finally, I haven been impressed by many of your writings, which always allow the reader to follow transparently your train of thought – more than can be said about much academic literature in my opinion – and which offer some thought-provoking conclusions on diverse subjects. I am not always in agreement with your viewpoints (and sometimes I simply don’t know), but all the same your method strikes me as a very refreshing example of how the history of religions can actually be studied. This is all the more interesting since you are, if I understand correctly, unaffiliated with any university and basically carrying out your research on your own. So my final question is: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue the same path? What type of literature would you recommend; how does one work with the primary sources; how many languages does one need to master? (How many languages do you know yourself?)

To start at the end: I have studied mother tongue Dutch, other Belgian national languages French and German, and English; these I read and speak fluently. Afrikaans is really simplified Dutch, so I can also follow it effortlessly. Because of my studies, I can get around in Mandarin and Hindi, but claim no fluency. Persian I have largely forgotten. I also know a smattering of Spanish, and in my young days, I also browsed through the Teach Yourself books of the Celtic, Scandinavian, the main Uralic languages (Finnish, Hungarian), Serbo-Croatian and Turkish. I totally forgot about those, though I can still decipher written Scandinavian because of the closeness to my mother tongue, Dutch. But knowing something of the structure of the languages has proved useful in comparative linguistics and studies of the Indo-European language family.  Among classical languages, my Latin was always good, my study of Wenyan (classical Chinese) and Sanskrit was thorough but I claim no fluency, alas no time to go deeply into them lately. I also studied Greek for two years, some Biblical Hebrew, and a smattering of Quranic Arabic, Sumerian and Sangam Tamil. The net result is that I know plenty of political and philosophical terminology and can place the concepts in their proper contexts, but I rarely use those languages as language. Thus, when I need to look something up in the Vedas or the Mahabharata, I scroll through the English text, and only when I come to the passage I was looking for, I switch to reading the original. Life is short, and languages only interest me as entry to a world of thought. I am a historian and more and more a philosopher; philology has been a good basis but only as an instrument. 

For born Indians, it ought to be a feasible minimum to familiarize yourself with Sanskrit. For doing Indian history or philosophy, it is simply necessary. For medieval history, you need to know Persian, and Arabic is a plus. In the US, they did a test: of two equally-gifted groups of pupils, one took 8 hours of English, and one 4 hours of English and 4 hours of Latin. After a few years, the second group not only knew Latin, unlike the other group, but also had a better knowledge of English. Similarly, your knowledge of your Indian mother tongue will increase if you take out time to study the supposedly useless Sanskrit. It also promotes national unity, the convergence between the vernaculars, and also the phasing out of English, which you and me may find practical, but which to Indians is an anti-democratic imposition by the Nehruvian elite.

Whenever possible, you should go back to the primary sources. Thus, I am presently working on the history of early Buddhism, and I was initially surprised by the world of difference between the usual narrative peddled nowadays in schoolbooks and popular introductions, and the narrative revealed by the primary sources. Apart from the many errors that have crept into the modern narrative (mostly showing a strong anti-Hindu bias; see e.g. what I told you above about caste), the over-all conceptual mistake is the cardinal sin in history: the projection of modern concerns onto ancient developments. History is all about difference, the fact that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.  

My being outside academe was not a matter of choice, but of being boycotted. Thus, my very first Indological conference was the International Ramayana Conference 1990 at my own university, Leuven, and I defended the existence of a Hindu temple forcibly replaced by Babar’s mosque. One-third of the professors there were privately in support but publicly silent; one-third were furious at my daring to violate their safe space of rationality with such a silly and politically tainted claim; and the last one-third just didn’t have an opinion but were embarrassed at the commotion. The following years, I was boycotted and bad-mouthed throughout academe. But the fact is: I was right all along, as recent excavations and a court verdict have confirmed, and all those big-time professors were wrong.

The good thing about being on my own is that I don’t feel pressured to conform to the received wisdom. Thus, on Buddhism, practically all academics concerned swear by the paradigm “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good”. If I had been part of their circuit, I would probably have conformed to some extent to their view, at least to accept the narrative of “Hinduism and Buddhism”, as if these were two distinct entities on the same footing. Today I can just ignore their fairy-tale and state: the Buddha was 100% a Hindu.  

I don’t advise anyone to take the path I stumbled upon. But if somehow it happens, at least you should enjoy its good side. Meanwhile, I keep hoping against hope that the present supposedly Hindu gevernment will come to its senses and invest in scholarship, rather than parroting the narratives that several generations of secularist control over culture and education have established. In that endeavour, they will not only have to deconstruct all the harm done by the Nehruvians, but also the hare-brained alternatives presented by traditionalist Hindu “history-rewriters”, who think history means quoting from the Puranas. The last half-century, a gap in Hindu scholarship has grown that will require energetic initiatives to fill.


Gururaj B N said...

As usual, refreshingly original. Your writings produced during the last couple of decades on the issues discussed herein have the virtue of maintaining consistence. Because, you don't adhere to political correctness of the time. As is proverbial, intellectual honesty, just like truth, as only one version. One need not remember what he wrote or spoke of in the past.

Unknown said...

As always spot on. Sir you are doing a great work. Your work should be translated into Hindi. Many of my friend want to read your books but due to their weakness in English they were not able read it. Your work must seen in main stream academics. When I tell people(Mostly english educated confused Indian) about you and your work they say who is Koenraad Elst? we have never heard his name, he never seen in any T.V debate or never heard about his work. Most of the people search you on wikipedia and without reading any of your book lable you as fanatic and extreme right.

Sir translation of your work in Indian language especially in Hindi is very important.

Arun said...

Ex-Muslims of North America:
There is life after apostasy!!!

Raj Dharm said...

In any sense, to describe Hindu as an Indian pagan is misnomer. In original meaning rustic or village bum was true in pre Christian or post Christian Rome. Besides, Hindus were sophisticated city dwellers even before Rome was converted by Jews. Then applying another European meaning anyone other than Christians is also not applicable as then Muslims also categorized as pagans, but they are not. It can not wash away by simply using anyone other than Abrahmic religionists. In fact there is no connection between pre converted European religions known as paganism and Sanatan Dharm of India. Then Indians have right to describe their religion as containing different elements of different beliefs already found in some corner under umbrella Hinduism for peaceful coexistence under Sanatan dharm.

Koenraad Elst said...

About my Gandhi/Godse book, I negotiated with two Hindi publishers two years ago, but it petered out, I haven't heard back from them. My work is generally in the public domain. I don't expect to make any money from Hindi translations in my lifetime, so that takes away the only possible reason for caring. If you consider having any writings translated, please go ahead, you have my blessings. I would appreciate it if you send me two copies when the job is finished.

Raj Dharm said...

I can not leave this blog without my heartfelt greatfulness for your wonderful analysis of substance of Indic religious system as against other systems. This exposes secularists and multiculturalists devious spin and con job of pulling the wool over the non suspecting eyes of trusting commoners.The articulation and sincerity is extra ordinary. How long it will take for awakened India to harness such talent and pure heart for the benefit of whole world?

NK said...

"...the Buddha was 100% a Hindu."

Well, no, not really. I've read your views here and they're based on outdated scholarship and a misunderstanding of how the Buddha spoke in the suttas. He often adopted the language of his interlocuters as an entry point into conversation and ended up giving the terms entirely different meanings by the end of the dialogue. At any rate, the story you cite about King Pasenadi comes from the Dhammapada Atthakatha, a commentarial post-canonical text. The Theravada commentaries have a tenuous relationship with the Canon and are notorious for contradicting it (i.e. Buddhaghosa's The Path of Purification). You have to go to the Canon to get the Buddha's reported view of caste; here he rejects the idea that caste or blood purity is passed down from the father:

Raj Dharm said...

Buddha was 100% Hindu. Krishna himself just as Buddha later stated that Karma is the result of svabhav, inclination, deed and not by birth. There are hundreds of examples where father was priest and son on deed indeed became warrior In later period, when it became rigid that caste was partially followed from fatherside, that was still prevalent during Buddha's time. Anything, Hinduism is dynamic and Buddha adopting to Hindu dynamic system was 10o% Hindu.

Raj Dharm said...

Please read 100% in last sentence above.

NK said...

Revisionists love to make that claim, but it is rather dubious:

Raj Dharm said...

I would not like to indulge in useless debate about outdated backward communist class struggle or rabid anti Hindu jaati whining anymore. Suffice it to say like a carpenter is known in India as of suthar caste, which is based on his profession, so is chamar or Brahmin caste on their profession. Like inferior Tamils were led to believe that they were pushed by Punjabis as in present context by cooked up Aryan invasion scam, so are inferior Indians are led to believe Hindus division of labor and appreciation of spiritual and mental work were result of accidental caste by birth, which any intelligent and just Dynamic Hindu including Krishna ever said even 5000 years ago.

NK said...

I agree. I think the debate should be focused on scholarly sources rather than sociological issues. However, there are far too many revisionist claims put forth about the Gita. There was a nice exposition about the differences between Buddhism and the Gita by Kashi Nath Upadhaya:

Unknown said...

I certainly wish most Muslims were as forthright as Erdogan, but we have to remember that Muhammad condoned deceit when in a weak position. I am also of Catholic background and indeed appreciate the artistic treasures of the church without practicing myself.

Unknown said...

I am not very good in English and I think I do not have that intellect which is required to translate your hight quality of works. I am currently preparing for civil services so I do not have much time. But In very near future( may be in six months or in a year) I will definitely try to translate some of your works in Hindi which I consider easy to translate. I will keep you informed. my email id is

Koenraad Elst said...

@NK: I just checked the Assalayana Sutta that you refer to. It is heavily directed against endogamy, precisely the position he takes against Prasenajit. But yes, it is over-all against caste heredity, as anyone can develop the desired qualities (or vices). For an analysis of what the role of heredity really is, it was much too early, and that was not the focus of his work anyway.

The one line about the difference between paternal and maternal descent happens to be missing a crucial distinction: he refers to a horse-stallion mule and a donkey-stallion mule without distinguishing. But it so happens, on the authority of veterinarians, that a mule makes the sound of its father, never of its mother: with a horse-father, a mule whinnies, with a donkey-father, a mule brays. That exemplifies precisely the doctrine that would have underpinned the fatherly-descent theory of caste, viz. that qualities are passed on in the fatherly line.

Anyway, these different theories about heredity are not really important, and certainly don't define Hindu or even Brahmin. After a stage where caste is never mentioned at all (RgVeda family books), a caste where four functions are descriibed without any caste implications (purusha sukta), and where caste was only passed on in the fatherly line (Satyakama Jabala, acknowledged to be a Brahmin, assumed to have a Brahmin father and certainly having a working-cklass mother; and Vyasa, accepted as Brahmin par excellence but the caste system grew and gradually hardened. Just as today, it is mellowing and caste endogamy is on the way out. The historicity of caste vis-à-visHinduism seems a difficult point for all these scholars who furiously oppose "essentialism" but nevertheless hold that "in essence, Hinduism is caste, whlly caste and nothing but caste".

As for the phrase "outdated scholarship", that may impress a layman but not me. The old Orientalists based themselves more on first-hand sources, up-to-date scholars like Gombrich or Bronkhorst see everything through the anti-Hindu lens, which they often explicitate. They even try to wriggle the chronology around to deny the the Buddha had a lot of his ideas from Yajñavalkya and not the other way around, as they had wished. No, then I prefer impartisan though, among "progressives", so-called "outdated" scholarship.

Koenraad Elst said...

correction: Vyasa, acepted as Brahmin par excellence, but son of a fisher-mother along with Brahmin-father Parashara.

NK said...


Your overanalysis of the Assalayana Sutta is a bit hilarious. I think it's obvious that the overall thrust is against ideas of blood purity and metaphysical distinction between social classes.

"As for the phrase "outdated scholarship", that may impress a layman but not me."

It's irrelevant whether it impresses you or not. The fact is that you make a lot of errors and don't have a good grasp of the Suttas. Here is one of your obvious errors from outdated scholarship:

"Against the cardinal principle of Dukkha, (all is) suffering, the first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, Dayananda asserts: Had there been nothing in this world but pain and sorrow, no living soul would have had an inclination for anything in this world; but it is our daily experience that the souls do desire for the objects of this world, hence it cannot be true that in the whole universe there is nothing but pain and sorrow."

Well, lo and behold, the Buddha makes exactly the same point in this Sutta:

"They even try to wriggle the chronology around to deny the the Buddha had a lot of his ideas from Yajñavalkya..."

Well, it's obvious that the Buddha was born into a milieu where ideas of rebirth, karma, etc. were floating around. No serious scholar disputes that. However, you don't seem to know the stories of Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. He acknowledged that other contemplatives were attaining samadhi absorptions, but that they weren't going far enough (read Alexander Wynne's book, The Origin of Buddhist Meditation, for more on this point). The most that can be said is that he incorporated some of the ideas, but redefined them because, in his view, they were limited. I really would recommend that you read Upadhaya's book (referenced in my earlier post) before writing anything else about this topic.

Koenraad Elst said...

That the Buddha agrees with Dayananda is normal, given that both were Hindus though the followers of both deny this. There are more utterances by Shakyamuni that go agaist the streamlined version of Buddhism now popular. Of course, he had a long life as preacher and spoke in very different contexts, so I won't make much of seeming inconsistendies.

But for the rest, it is never bad advice to read up on the matter a little more, so I'll first read the books you recommend.

NK said...

The way I put it is that there are a family of "Dharmic" religions that share similarities and differences (same as categorizing the family of "monotheistic, Semitic" religions. I'm something of a semantic stickler, so I think it is much preferred over the term "Hindu."

Giacomo Benedetti said...

Hindu is not a philological term, it was adopted from Persian and at the time of the Buddha none identified himself with that term and so had any idea of what is Hindu. In scholarship, we prefer Brahmanism, but in 'emic' terms it seems we have no specific definition of the common 'religion' regulating Indian society and rules in Buddhist text. Sometimes Dhamma/Dharma is used in the Brahmanic sense, but it did not define a specific religion, so that the term could be used for the Buddhist doctrine itself.

The Assalayana Sutta is a good example of trascending castes (varnas) with the concept of cātuvaṇṇi suddhi that is attributed to the Buddha also in this sutta:

In this context, also the Ambattha Sutta is interesting, where the view based on birth is opposed to that based on knowledge and conduct:

Also the Vasala Sutta, of course, where it is clearly stated that not by birth one is brahmana or outcaste, but by deed:

Of course to see the Buddha as a social reformer is anti-historical, but it is clear that he strongly opposed the prejudices based on birth.

Aniketana said...

I have raised this doubt before. IF Buddhism was anti caste, it's followers most probably should not have had casteist surnames. Northwest of India which was predominantly Buddhist for several hundred years, later became Islamic. How its people are carrying casteist surnames, when both religions (Buddhism as well as Islam) opposed caste? Or people's connection to their root (caste) is stronger than their faith?

Unknown said...

I would appreciate your comments on pages 208--217 of A Heathen in His Blindness. These pages talk about Buddha's comments on caste.

You can get a pdf here:,d.cGc

Giacomo Benedetti said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Giacomo Benedetti said...

Here are two other Suttas from the Buddhist Pali canon concerning castes and the basic unity of mankind:

The last pdf has also a synthesis of the main Suttas on the topic.

Aniketana said...

@Benedetti (Pardon me for delayed reply).
Surnames like Bhat (Brahminical), Khatri (Vaishya), Chaudhri (peasant/Shudra) are common among Pakistani Muslims which shows its Hindu roots. But Buddhist elements (be it in their names or cultural practices) seems to be absent, which is bit puzzling.
What I read from history was, Buddhism had expanded quite widely in India after Ashoka. Later it declined in the northwest part of India (current Pakistan) when Islam took over (after Turk-Mangol raids). If so, Buddhist traces should have been present in their culture (just like Hindu). If not, why not?

Two explanations I can think of :
1) People had kept their previous caste traces even after converting to Buddhism. They retained it, even after another conversion. If so, these so called weak religions (/castes) are not weak after all. They have been able to withstand two organised religions which were/are aided by royals(/government).
2) Reconversion (at the level of castes) had happened in Hinduism after Buddhist rulers faded. Conversion to Islam took place from Hinduism to Islam, not from Buddhism to Islam. But this explanation is also against current assumption. It has been argued so far that reconversion was not allowed in Hinduism. Brahmins were against it.
Third alternative which can sit with current narrative, I don't know.

Giacomo Benedetti said...

@Aniketana, thank you for your reply, I had deleted the question about the casteist surnames in the meanwhile, but the answer is clear all the same.
I think that Brahmins or Kshatriyas or others who adopted Buddhism normally did not change their name or abolished their lineage, also in the Pali Suttas we find Brahmins who took refuge in the Three Jewels keeping their Brahmanical names.
Even monks at the beginning did not change their names, for instance Maudgalyayana/Moggallana or Maha-kashyapa/Mahakassapa were known with these Gotra names. The Buddha himself was known as Gotama and Shakya/Sakya.
I do not know when the custom was introduced to adopt a new names for monks, like Buddhaghosa and Dharmakirti, until today, when monks normally adopt a name in the language of their tradition, although previous names are often informally used. Also laymen when they take refuge or Bodhisattva vows receive a Dharma name in Tibetan, Japanese or Pali, but this is not used for official documents, or in common life.

So, it is clear that early Buddhism was not interested in abolishing the caste system in the outward forms and traditions, but it abolished (at least in theory) the main principle of caste discrimination, the notion of impurity and spiritual superiority based on birth in a caste. It is true that there was the idea that Buddhas must be Kshatriya or Brahmins in their last birth, but because their merit accumulated in former lives allows to be born only at the top of society, not because Kshatriya or Brahmins have a special nature.
On the other hand, in Jatakas the Bodhisattva could be born as a Chandala, as in the Matanga Jataka (, a Jataka that depicts very vividly outcaste discrimination. There is also the Bhuridatta Jataka which is partly a sort of pamphlet against Brahmanical ideology:

Koenraad Elst said...

Giacomo, reading "Hinduism" as "Brahminism" is precisely the root of all the confusion, often purposely so. Hinduism is a much larger term, which the invading Muslims applied to many more people than Brahmins and their followers. It include Buddhists, tribals and every other Indian who was not Abrahamic.

NK said...

I think the terms that are used depend on how granular one wants to be in analyzing these systems of thought. In the context of this discussion, you seem to define "Hindu" as someone who upholds traditional views of caste. Based on that criterion, the Buddha wouldn't be a "Hindu."

Koenraad Elst said...

That is a lie. Many statements of mine, including some on this page, show that I hold precisely the opposite view. "Hindu" contains many communities (self-)advertised nowadays as "free of caste" or even "revolts against caste"; and I just afirmed that even the Vedic tradition went through a caste-free stage. By contrast, you yourself seem to identify "Hindu" with caste,- which is the standard American-cum-Ambedkarite view. Careerwise, you certaily have an interest in precisely all the positions you have taken here, including now the slander against my person. Indeed, you would harm your career prospects by incurring the suicion of sympathizing with me.

NK said...

Nah...I'm a software engineer for IBM. They're too worried about Amazon Web Services & what they can do with Watson to give a sh#t about what I write here. At any rate, I was referring to how you shift the goal posts. Your criterion for the issue of Buddhism vis a vis Hinduism in question 3 seems to differ from how you derive the definition of "Hindu" given in your last post (I.e. simply Indians who don't follow an Abrahamic religion). If the latter definition is your view, then there are no disagreements.

Giacomo Benedetti said...

Yes, I also find some change in Elst's definition of Hindu. But all this shows how Hindu is an ambiguous term. Normally it is used excluding Buddhists, for instance it is said that in Nepal there are 81% Hindus and 9% Buddhists, although often Buddhism and Hinduism are not clearly separated there, nonetheless they are two different traditions. Hinduism can include local popular cults that have little to do with Brahmins, and Tantrism apparently has many non-Brahmanical elements, but also Tantrism was taken up by Brahmins, and the so-called Hinduism is based on the Vedas and Puranas and the Shastras of the six Darshanas, all texts written by Brahmins, and the rituals are mainly done by Brahmins.
We can remark that also in Buddhism many authors were Brahmins, however they wrote not on the basis of the Vedic or Puranic tradition, but of the tradition based on the words of the Buddha.

So, I think that if we want to use Hindu to include Buddhists and Jains and tribals, it is probably more philologically correct for the historical Muslim use of the term, but it creates confusion because it is generally used for the Brahmanical tradition based on Vedas and Puranas (Shruti and Smriti), by the 'Hindus' themselves. Moreover, why should we use a foreign term like Hindu instead of a term based on the Indian tradition itself?

Aniketana said...

"... So, it is clear that early Buddhism was not interested in abolishing the caste system in the outward forms and traditions, but it abolished (at least in theory) the main principle of caste discrimination, the notion of impurity and spiritual superiority based on birth in a caste... "

Most of the Hindu (or Brahminical) scriptures also do not support discrimination based on birth. (@Elst) Agree, Vyasa's father (Parashara) was a Brahmin. But Valmiki's father was not. He must have been a hunter. Also, Satyakama did not know who his father was. It is his truthfulness which made him a Brahmin. His story in Chandogyopanishad indirectly says what is said in Suttas later (one will not become inferior or superior because of their birth). Hence one cannot say, whether this idea was first floated by Buddhism. (At the same time, I cannot recall any verses which openly condemn this practice either).
Also I notice the difference in the tone used in Suttas and Ashoka's edicts. Suttas do not sound authoritative. They do not condemn cultural practices of other tribes like edicts of Ashoka do. Buddhism was probably launched as a reform movement, but turned into aggressive conversion mode by overzealous rulers, which might have been flopped later (after their era was over).

The reason Hinduism looks biased towards Brahmins is, most of the scriptures we read are Brahminical (other castes did not bother to document). For a moment, let us consider each caste (including Brahmins) as religion. What will any religious book say? They glorify their faith over others. Brahmins also must have indulged in self praise (that, they are the best).
But these claims will not become facts, unless other communities (which are majority) have approved their claims. How do we know? We cannot know by written documents. We can only get evidences from cultural practice. When we observe the social practice, every community (except Dalits) have lead their life individually and independently (without interference from other caste). Individual from every caste has become King and floated their dynasty (Brahmins very rarely).

While teaching pravara (a verse which describes the lineage of individual) to my son in his upanayana (a Brahminical ceremony), I noticed it begins by wishing good life for (only) Brahmins and cows. I changed the line for him. I did feel, my ancestors were mean. On a second thought I felt, don't Christians pray to God to protect Christians (so do Muslims). Why Brahmins should be hanged if they had said so? Those who wrote those verses (which said they were great) thousands of years ago did not know, their community and other communities would be clubbed together in a hypothetical religion called Hinduism. Their impotent self boasting (which is done by every other faith) will be termed as discrimination. About what defines Hindus by scholars, I feel it depends on the context. While narrating internal conflicts, specially one community with the rest, "the rest" becomes Hindus in their terminology. If that community happens to be Buddhists, then it is Buddhism v/s Hinduism. If they are describing a clash (?) between Aryans and Dravidas, it is Aryans v/s Hinduism. If it is with Islam, then Islam v/s Hinduism (Here, Aryans and Buddhists become part of Hinduism).

NK said...


"Also I notice the difference in the tone used in Suttas and Ashoka's edicts. Suttas do not sound authoritative. They do not condemn cultural practices of other tribes like edicts of Ashoka do. Buddhism was probably launched as a reform movement, but turned into aggressive conversion mode by overzealous rulers, which might have been flopped later (after their era was over)."

The Buddhist post-canonical era had many plusses and minuses. On the one hand, it provided more of an organizational infrastructure so the teachings could be passed down effectively. On the other, it generated extraneous movements and issues that deviated in many respects from the Canon (I.e. the Abhidharmists, many dubious commentaries, etc.). An obvious example is the infamous "Anatta" ontological doctrine (along with many others) which derive from this era:

Giacomo Benedetti said...

@Aniketana, can you explain what are the practices condemned by Ashoka? Generally, he asked for religious tolerance.

About Hinduism, it is a sort of container where you can put all South Asian traditions not included in specific religions like Buddhism and Jainism. I have never found it used for Buddhists as you say, or for Dravidas against Aryas, can you give some examples?

Brahmins managed to monopolyze the scriptures and so the ideology. Also the Kshatriya epic tradition was taken by Brahmins in the Mahabharata, where you can find a lot of extolling Brahmins... it can be interesting to compare how is presented the story of Matanga there, where the Chandala vainly tries to become a Brahmin by tapas:

Koenraad Elst said...

Giacomo, I have no illusions about the existing conventions in academe. The Chach Nama, more than a thousand years ago, was perfectly honest in describing the Buddhists as "clean-shaven Brahmins" and as Hindus. Since the British period, however, "Hindu" is subject to endless manipulation, to the extent that you can now ask if there is anybody at all who uses "Hindu" in the original, historically accurate meaning. Anyone who would use the term correctly would ipso facto be labelled a "Hindu fundamentalist", and excluded. This eventhough, in their complete ignorance of political Hinduism, the said academics haven't even noticed that the RSS-BJP is just as estranged from the original usage as the academics and secularists themselves are. But I really don't care about the "consensus": Copernicus with his freaky idea of heliocentrism was in a minority of one, but he was right and all the big experts were wrong. On Ayodhya, in the 1990s, I was attacked left and right and nobody from the Establishment came out in my support; but I was proven right and all the big-time professors were proven wrong. They are powerful enough to keep the lid on the news of their own biting the dust, but they know damn well that they were proven wrong, hence their sudden silence on the subject.

As for your confounding "Hinduism" with "the Brahmin caste", this is effectively shared by most academics writing on the subject, but few if any will say it explicitly, for they know that this equation flies in the face of the existing practice of labelling other castes "Hindu" too, let alone the politically useful description of Hindus as the "majority", which the Brahmin caste obviously is not. Just an example of these endless manipulations.

Giacomo Benedetti said...

Dr. Elst, I do not say that only Brahmins are Hindus, only that the so called Hinduism at the level of scriptures and related ideology and rituals is shaped by Brahmins. Probably we should just accept as Hindu who defines himself as such, but I find the definition very imprecise, imposed by the history of the Muslim and subsequently British domination. I think it would be better to speak of the effective traditions existing in India: Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta, Yoga, Vedanta, and so on. Hinduism can be a comfortable label to put all together, but it is extraneous to the origins and most of the history of those traditions. For me, it is like calling Chinese religion (Taoism, Confucianism) 'Chinism'.

Nirjhar007 said...

Dr. Elst and Dr. Benedetti,

Do you find the term ''Arya religion'' or ''Aryaism'' applicable for the Indian Pagan religions or do you think its not applicable in comprehensive sense ( e.g. its not logical for Adivasis) ?.

Giacomo Benedetti said...

It has some justification, but of course it is not logical for Adivasis, and Arya does not seem to be common to denote the Dharma in Brahmanical texts, while it is often used in Buddhist texts. It could include also Zoroastrianism by the way. I think we should speak of Brahmanism for the religion based on the scriptures written by Brahmins based on Shruti and Smriti, and then we should distinguish the various traditions with their precise names (Gaudiya Vaishnava, Shaivasiddhanta, and so on). I don't think we need a name to put all together, but Hinduism is so affirmed that probably we cannot avoid it. Also in Italy we have an official 'Hindu Union' (Unione Induista Italiana), parallel to the Italian Buddhist union. The Sanskrit name is Sanātana Dharma Saṃgha.
Is Sanatana Dharma 'eternal norm' a popular expression in India? Of course it is a very ideological definition, and empty of geographical and historical reference. On the website of the Italian Hindu union they cite also as traditional definitions Vaidika Dharma and Mātṛka Dharma. 

Nirjhar007 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nirjhar007 said...

Sanatana and Dharmic seems too religious . But Arya is something that binds all the traditions as of Identity, since the term is used as a term to denote follower of righteous path or for a person of ''dharmic'' qualities or qualifications , of course the term is seen differently in different traditions adapted on the basis of the tradition itself . But the term is universal in case of its uses in Brahmanic texts to the Jain texts to the Buddhist texts to the Shakta texts to the Shaiva texts etc etc . I don't know a tradition where the term has no religious application in India or is used in a negative manner .

In case of Identity I find Arya religion or Aryaism ideal for the S Asian traditions. Even in Dravidian and Munda tradition, I don't see the term in negative sense. Since the term is not used in ethnic sense . And there should be no problems if Zoroastrians get included , they are also related to the S Asian culture .

Aniketana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aniketana said...

@Benedetti, On practices condemned by Ashoka:
Till recently, many tribes offered (or still may be offering) animals to their tribal or village goddess on festive days. (Earlier, Brahmins also used to offer goat in their Yajna).

Ashoka's first verdict ( ), puts a ban on this festivities and animal offering. From his point of view, he was trying to spread non violence. But he did step his foot in other tribal beliefs by imposing his belief. Verdict 8 goes a little overboard by saying women's performance in these ceremonies is worthless and vulgar, before endorsing the ceremony of Dhamma. (It is similar to how Christianity mocks at other tribal believes ( ) ).
On seven pillar edict, look at the 5th one. How should a meat eater survive under this act (when majority of Hindus are meat eaters)?

Aryans versus Dravidas:
Rise of Periyar (who started Dravidian movement 60 years ago), Ambedkar and other Dalit thinkers drove a new wave of Anti Brahminism in India. Dalit literature (not necessarily written by a Dalit) and their theories can have political undertones. They consider Dalits as well as Muslims (converted Hindus) as natives and Aryans as foreign invaders. ( For example; Page 95, Hindi Dalit literature and the politics of representation, Sarah Beth Hunt, available in Google).

Brahminical scriptures/rituals sold as Hinduism:
It is not that, other communities do not have their own rituals. (Like farmer community worshipping Mother Earth and festivals related to farming activity). But they are not in written form. It is more difficult for the western academician to study folk tradition compared to ones that are written (by Brahmins). So the customs practiced by minority (like fire worship by Brahmin) are presented as the tradition of the whole bunch. As for the combined name for these tribes, Sanatana Dharma is being used, but not a popular term. If the term is not religious (only cultural), then Desi is quiet frequently used word.

@NK Thanks for the link. Inspite of being one of the first Indian religion to have organised structure (institution and literature), Buddhism could not escape misinterpretation. What can one say about the other one, which had predominantly had oral tradition and no institution?

Abhishek Thakur said...

@Benedetti- 2 connotations for the word 'Hindu'.
1. One denoting the native civilization of the land, including culture, history, philosohies, sciences, art, rituals and practices et al. This means people belonging to different religious denomination such as Jains, Buddhists and Sikhsare also Hindus, in a civilizational sense.
2. The other, more common meaning is someone who can be said to follow Sanatan Dharma, ie, follows a tradition emanating, completely or partially, from the Vedas.
The conroversy is as follows- some people, often derided as Hindu fundamentalist or even supremacists, believe that the word Hindu is better described by the 1st term than the 2nd one. The reason this is controversial is because this view gives an unprecedented unity to 85% of the population which is not desirable to many vested political interests and to outsiders.

Regarding another question you ask- Ashoka did order the killing on 18000 Ajivikas merely on the grounds that one of them showed Buddha bowing to their patron saint in a painting. This is recorded in the accounts of Ashokavadana-

Giacomo Benedetti said...

@Abhishek Thakur, your semantic analysis is very clear, and also the political controversy, I have not much to add to what I have already said about 'Hindu'. About Ashoka, I would not use the Ashokavadana as a historical account, it is a much later collection of legends, and the cited legend makes confusion between Jains and Ajivikas and mentions the dinara which was a Kushan coin.
It is interesting, however, that the story ends with the abandoning of death penalty by Ashoka. In the following story of Yaśas, we have another criticism of caste discrimination, very good for our debate!

To know the official position of Ashoka towards different religions, we should read the 12th rock edict (

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, honors both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honors them with gifts and honors of various kinds.[22] But Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values this -- that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions.[23] Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one's own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one's own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one's own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought "Let me glorify my own religion," only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good.[24] One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.

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