Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A diversity of “White saviours”

(Pragyata, 16 Feb 2017)

Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik wonders: “Why do many Indians need White saviours?” (Scroll.in 26.12.2016) The article is a bit chaotic and overstresses the element “mythology”, but that may be an occupational hazard in a writer on the Mahabharata and Purana stories. At any rate, it seems to have been written without malice, and it deserves an answer. I will give some observations on the stance of “Whites” in general and then explain my own position.

English medium

The first White person to figure in his list of “saviours” is Thomas Babington Macaulay. In the 1830s he pioneered English education in India, at least for the elites, whom he then expected to translate the modern values for the common people. In keeping with the spirit of the times, his reform was explicitly elitist. But with that limitation, it was nonetheless not malicious, contrary to the enemy-image he has acquired. He actually perceived Anglicization as a necessary phase of modernization, in preparation of India’s independence. Nearly a century before the British loyalist Mahatma Gandhi converted to the “total independence” ideal, Macaulay already thought in terms of Indians being independent equals with Britons.

Nonetheless, his policies would lead to the biggest hurdle for India’s decolonization. The maintenance and expansion of his English education (and administration) by Jawaharlal Nehru is ultimately responsible for the major colonial remnant in contemporary India: the dominant position of English. Whatever Macaulay’s good intentions, which counted for the colonial period, they have had a deeply antidemocratic effect in the Indian Republic. As Madhu Kishwar has written: the major determinant of your career chances in India is not your caste or religion, but whether you are fluent in English.

However, only by way of historical reference can this situation be called “colonial”. According to the Constitution, English should have been phased out by 1965; no outside power was involved when the Indian elite (using the Dravidianist misgivings as pretext) sabotaged this switch. This elite profited too much from the disenfranchisement of the Indian commoners by the dominance of English. Without saying it out loud, they thanked Macaulay for their linguistic privileges. (Ambedkarites in the Christian sphere of influence also laud Macaulay for bringing, through English, Western humanitarian and egalitarian values into India.) “Decolonization” implies the belated phasing out of English, but this will involve the defeat not of some foreign colonizer but of the indigenous elite.

Something analogous applies to the entire cultural sphere. Certain colonial injections have been embraced by the indigenous elite, which then imposes them on a war footing on the general population. Case in point is “secularism”, originally a phase of late-Christian society, internalized though heavily distorted by India’s elite, and then imposed on the entire Indian polity. Another example is the teaching of Western thought models in each of the Humanities, to the detriment of indigenous models. This counts in particular for Pattanaik’s own field of mythography, where the ancient indigenous tradition is being subjected to deconstruction by recent Western models.


In some respects, talk of “colonial” and of “decolonization” is embarrassingly obsolete, because the battle lines have fundamentally changed since 1947. Thus, some Hindu Nationalists fulminate against “White” interference and accuse “Sepoys” (Indians collaborating with the colonizers) of “kissing the White a..”; as if there were some “White” conspiracy against today’s India. When “Whites” (to borrow Pattanaik’s racial terminology) care about the rest of the world, it is mostly about the Islamic world as a source of trouble, and about China as a rival. About India, I can testify that very few outsiders care one way or the other. Indians only flatter themselves by imagining India to be the target of a hostile conspiracy. And they are badly living in the past if they imagine that some Westerners are saying to each other: “For Whiteness’ sake, we have to thwart those damn Indians.”

 To the extent that race has any importance at all, the world has really changed, and “anti-racism” has now effectively become the state religion of most Western countries. People of other races take the same positions vis-à-vis India as Whites used to do, for these turn out to follow from certain geopolitical constraints, not racial concerns. In fact, both under a Black Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice) and a Black President (Barack Obama), America’s South Asia policy has been as tilted towards Pakistan and against India as under, say, Richard Nixon. But admittedly, things become easy when you can divide mankind simply by skin colour, so this racial approach is attractive to lazy minds.

The situation that Pattanaik puts up for discussion has little to do with race. That Indian polemicists nonetheless like to speak in terms of race, as if it were 1940, is not so much morally reprehensible for being “racist”. Rest assured, for “Whites”, being considered the culprit of every wrong in the world only evokes a yawn, we’ve heard it so many times. The problem with it is that it shows mental laziness among Indians, both in the form of anachronism, as if on a battlefield you can afford the luxury of anything less than cool realism; and of vicarious self-flattery, as if you are carrying the mantle of genuine fighters against racial discrimination like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela.

Apparently, it feels great to re-enact the moral equation of colonial times, with the colonizer rightly in the dock and you on the moral high ground. It also sounds safely secular, which is why you can always get the whole audience to applaud when you claim aloud that “the British imposed the Partition on India”. This is a blatant lie, but one promoted by the secularist establishment, because it exculpates the Muslim League and its accomplices Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The British firmly opposed the Partition plan, until in March 1947 the newly-appointed last Viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, gave in to the increasingly violent pressure from the Muslim League natives.

That is why I don’t like the use of the term “decolonization” (as opposed to the act of decolonization, wherever needed), eventhough I myself have prominently used it in the past. It is a term of adolescent rebellion against the colonizer as father figure, who in reality has long left the scene. In the land of proud civilization-builders, not just philosophers like Kapila or Yajñavalkya but also scientists like Lagadha and Panini and resourceful strategists like Chanakya and Bajirao, this adolescent behaviour is unbecoming. It is high time for Indians to shed their acquired inferiority complex as colonial underlings and reconnect with their glorious, or at any rate independent, past.

“Decolonization” is also a term of cowardice because it misdirects your combative energies towards a long-dead enemy, thus hiding your fearful appeasement of more immediate enemies. Whoever speaks of “decolonization” thereby shows his own use of colonial categories, with your own destiny still having to be wrested from some foreign authority. In reality, your destiny is yours, and foreign powers only have as much power in India as the Indian authorities themselves give them. Indians are responsible, not colonizers or other foreigners.


Nonetheless, it does almost look like the situation of a colonized nation when you consider the enormous cultural power wielded in India by Western, now mostly American-based, NGOs, think-tanks and institutions of higher learning. They have rarely been set up in order to serve some imperial goal, yet they still embody a very colonial psychology. They still think that India has to be lifted out of its own barbarism. They give themselves a civilizing mission, constantly nurtured with atrocity literature to justify the treatment of Indians as backwards in need of tutelage. But today, this “native barbarism” has been redefined in terms of human rights. American India-watchers and India-meddlers analyse Hinduism as a litany of human rights violations, and present themselves as the saviours whom India’s many oppressed categories have been waiting for.

Pattanaik makes a good observation when he writes that high-profile India-watching academics “need to indulge America’s saviour complex if they need a share of the shrinking funding. The objective of the research needs to alleviate the misery of some victim and challenge a villain. And so, Doniger will provide evidence of how Puranic tales reinforce Brahmin hegemony, while Pollock will begin his essays on Ramayana with reference to Babri Masjid demolition, reminding readers that his paper has a political, not merely a theoretical, purpose.” Exactly.
He also is onto something when he guesses that “European and American academicians have been on the defensive to ensure they do not ‘other’ the East. So now, there is a need to universalise the ‘othering’ process – and show that it happens even in the East, and is not just a Western disease. And so their writings are at pains to constantly point how privileged Hindus have been ‘othering’ the Dalits, Muslims and women, using Sanskrit, Ramayana, Mimamsa, Dharmashastras, and Manusmriti.”
That doesn’t explain everything, but it must be welcomed as a true observation on the “social justice warrior” nature of current Orientalist scholarship. It is scholarly in the sense of coming with lots of footnotes, but not in the sense of being impartisan and objective. Here you should realize its continuity with the colonialist endeavour at its starkest. When Hernán Cortéz conquered Mexico, he used social and ethnic grievances to mobilize the local “lower castes” as cat’s paw against the ruling Aztecs. In both cases, the goal is to dispossess the dominant group among the “savages” and thus bludgeon it into opening up to “civilizing” influences, and the means to achieve this is often an alliance with the groups with grievances against it. 
This is where Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock come into the picture. They are representative of the enormous ideological clout Westerners still wield in India. The  colonial-age Orientalists only conditioned the minds of a small intellectual upper class; today, the Western view of India and Hinduism, through mass education and the media, influences everyone and co-determines policy-making. Because Indians have invited the Donigers and Pollocks in.
From her writings, it appears that Wendy Doniger does not consciously position herself as anti-Hindu. To be sure, she is partisan, e.g. Pattanaik notices that in the dedication to her “banned” book, “Doniger refers to a ‘good fight’ against Hindutva”. But she thinks those who have been identified with the struggle for the Hindu cause have misunderstood their own religion, while she is in fact restoring the “real” Hinduism. She genuinely believes that her Freudian interpretive model of Indian mythology somehow reveals true underlying meanings, the hidden logic of Hinduism.
In fact, it is to a large extent the same approach that Pattanaik has also used to build a career of explaining Hindu stories in a manner acceptable to secularists and poorly rooted anglicized Hindus. In that sense, it is to be welcomed that he is now shifting towards a stance critical of Doniger, apparently under the influence of Rajiv Malhotra’s criticism of his own Donigeresque approach to Indian stories.
Wendy Doniger’s conception of Hinduism deserves a more thorough treatment, much of which has already been pioneered by Rajiv Malhotra. But one general observation, which counts for the whole current of psycho-analytical “deconstruction” of Hinduism, is that the clumsy Freudian concepts she uses are simply not sufficient to understand Hindu explorations of consciousness and human nature. I once heard an Indian psychologist who had guzzled down big doses of this psycho-analytical framework, pontificate that a Guru is followed because he is a “father figure”. You could see him savour this expression, as if he considered what he had said as very profound. Well, there are many types of father figure, but only few have the specific qualities needed to be a Guru; and psycho-analysis has never been able to turn anyone into a Guru in the Hindu sense. The smaller cannot contain the greater.

There is something comical about the psychologist’s attempt to fit the hoary Hindu ideas about the psyche into the modern attempts by his own new-fangled discipline, still groping in the dark. But because Doniger’s flippant approach serves the purpose of belittling and ridiculing Hinduism well, it is welcomed and highlighted by the Indian elite with its many-pronged attack on Hinduism. And she is not even a psychologist: elsewhere, her “alternative” (actually quite conformistic, only a bit more titillating) deconstruction of a religion would have been criticized as not based on any competence.

Politicized philology

Sheldon Pollock, a very good Sanskritist at least in a purely linguistic sense, is more explicitly involved with the anti-Hindu discourse promoted in India by the missionaries and the Ambedkarites, and their first line of attack, the “secularists”. He has pioneered some valid insights into the Sanskrit “cosmopolis”, which did not oppress vernacular languages from Gandhari to Javanese but fruitfully coexisted with them to their mutual benefit. But at the same time, he has helped greatly in belittling and politicizing the Ramayana and in promoting the “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good” thesis.

This is not very original, in fact it is only a sophisticated formulation of widely-held views. Thus, Pattanaik attributes the same viewpoint to another big name we just met: “Doniger’s essays on the Puranas make you see Hinduism as a violent authoritarian force challenged by non-violent egalitarian Buddhism.” But in this discourse of hate, which instrumentalizes Buddhism as a bludgeon to beat Hinduism with, Pollock has gone farther than all others. In 1993 he published a paper arguing that Hinduism (particularly the Mimansa school, Brahminical par excellence) sits at the centre of Nazi doctrine. Yes, it is long ago, and partly explainable from the war psychology emanating from the Ayodhya controversy, in which he explicitly sided with the negationist school denying Islam’s well-documented destructive role in Hindu history. But he has never retracted this position and has remained a leading voice in anti-Hindu and anti-Brahmin discourse.

In this case, as in some other matters (such as the exact place of Christianity in European civilization, often exaggerated in India, e.g. Doniger and Pollock are not motivated by Christian concerns, a secularist position which Pattanaik here acknowledges to be “the hallmark of objectivity in educational circles”), my own role has been to help Indians in better understanding European history wherever it is relevant to Indian debates. The case Pollock has built, is untenable for anyone familiar with the concerned part of European history. What few Indomanic racists have existed in Germany during the century before 1945, were not exactly poles apart from Pollock and the secularists: on the contrary, they shared the latter’s own anti-Brahminism and pro-Buddhism. They considered Brahmins as agents of the “dark indigenous” people mired in superstition and puerile ritualism, who contaminated the pure “Aryan invader” culture, while they held the Buddha to have been a real Aryan trying to restore the genuine and superior Aryan traditions. Hitler was not only an anti-Semite but in passing also a votary of India’s equivalent, anti-Brahminism. That is why Pollock fails to quote from the “National-Socialist Indologists” a single line in praise of Jaimini or Kumarila Bhatta or any other Mimansaka, but has to quote the Buddha’s name several times.  

This little excursus into the nadir of Sheldon Pollock’s scholarship should, however, not obscure the fact that with his erroneous anti-Brahmin spin on the history of German Indology, he is serving an Indian rather than a Western cause. Today, anti-Brahminism comes in as a helpful tool for US-based missionaries to pit Hindus against one another along lines of caste and ethnicity (“Dravidians” and “Adivasis” against “Aryan invaders”), and in the 19th century, it has indeed been launched by missionaries; but it has now mainly become an Indian ideology animating much of Indian culture (Bollywood) and politics. More than some CIA conspiracy, it is this Indian current that Western scholars seek to align with.

Skin colour
“But who does Hindutva turn to for establishing the greatness of Hinduism, and Sanskrit, and Vedas? A European, Koenraad Elst. And an American, David Frawley. So much for ‘decolonising’ the Hindu/Indian mind. So much for swadeshi. Does this reveal our deference to White scholarship? Does this reveal Indians are beyond racism? One wonders if African American Indologists or Chinese American Indologists would ever evoke similar passions.”
The colour obsession, while not entirely absent among the Indian public, does not go very far in explaining our role in Indian politico-cultural discourse. It so happens that “Oriental Philology and History” (one of my diplomas), the proper name of “Orientalism”, was developed in Europe, and some of those roots are still in force, all while it now largely conditions the dominant Indian discourse about India itself. The “White” presence in this line of scholarship was almost a 100% till recently, as the upcoming non-White presence in Western universities (as Indians know all too well) was mostly in Engineering and Medicine, shortcuts to status and wealth, not in the Humanities and certainly not in its more esoteric departments. It is only recently that the children of Asian immigrants have started entering the “Orientalist” sections. But I am sure that the day a Chinese-American, not to mention an Indian-American, starts putting out theses as provocative as Doniger’s or Pollock’s, and from equally prestigious positions, he will evoke similar passions among the affected Hindu public.
The use of Westerners, the reason why they can serve as argument of authority in India, is firstly that in controversies, they count as outsiders, hence more objective; and secondly, that modern culture does indeed count as intrinsically more scientific. The first argument is very weak: those who get close enough to Indian culture to have anything to say about it, have usually befriended one of the warring camps inside India, and hence have become just as partisan as their Indian sources. Thus, practically all the Western press correspondents in Delhi are safely in the pocket of the secularists and cherish a vicarious hatred of assertive Hinduism. This yields what I have called a “circular argument of authority”: Indian secularists feed their Western contacts their own view of the Indian religio-political landscape, and when their Western dupes then go public with these same views, the secularists hold them up as independent confirmation of their views by the scientific West.

Pattanaik is oh so even-handed: “If we attribute strategy to the works of Doniger and Pollock, the same needs to be done to the works of Elst and Frawley.” I don’t know about David’s, but in the case of my own work, I am surprised to learn of its “strategic” dimension. I don’t know of any policy that was inspired by my work.
It seems that we “are catering to a vast latent need of privileged Hindus to feel good about themselves”. I leave it to David to explain his motive (which I think is simply a love of Hindu Dharma, but I admit Pattanaik may consider this naïve), but mine is as follows.
Part of it is again given by Pattanaik himself: “After having been at the receiving end of Orientalist and Marxist criticism since the 19th century, privileged Hindus have not developed requisite skills in the field of humanities to launch a worthwhile defence.”
That much is certainly true: both in India and in the diaspora, talented Indian youngsters have rushed to the Medical and Engineering departments, leaving the Humanities for their not-so-bright brothers and sisters. Hindu activist organizations have never invested in scholarship, and their very few recent attempts to gain a toehold in this little-understood world have been clumsy and unsuccessful. Add to this that in these departments, the Left has built a power position and enforces its vetoes against anyone showing any sign of loyalty to the Hindu cause. So, to say that “Hindus have not developed requisite skills in the field of humanities” is not far off the mark. With my limited means, I used to assume I had something to contribute there, viz. a more accurate picture of Indian history compared to the facile or plainly mischievous assumptions that the Left has tried to instil in the next generations.
Then there is the reason Sir Edmund Hillary gave for climbing the Everest: “Because it was there.” When I noticed the big power-wielders in the Indian landscape with their rope tricks fooling people on the Ayodhya temple or the Aryan debate, the adventurous White man in me was awakened to go “hunting tigers out in Indiah”. That is, at least, if you try to think up a subsconscious personal reason. My conscious reason was that so much bluff as was spread by the Indian intellectual establishment simply had to be answered and defeated.

“Outsourcing the job to White Men is an easy alternative. Particularly those who manage to establish credibility. Frawley does that brilliantly by declaring himself a Hindu, with an evocative title of Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, which makes him a “Brahmin” in Hindu eyes, justified on grounds of his vast knowledge of the Vedic scriptures, and his long practice of Ayurveda and Jyotisha. His wife is Indian, and has the title of Yogini. Elst, by contrast, insists that he is not a Hindu, for he is well aware that no one can be ‘converted’ to Hinduism, that it is linked to birth, and that Hinduism is deeply linked to geography.”
Secularists are fond of saying (and of quoting Westerners to the effect) that “there is no conversion to Hinduism”: to them it means that Hindus are condemned to keeping mum when the missionaries convert to Christianity. By contrast, I do think conversion to Hinduism is possible. Firstly, communities as a whole have done it throughout history; it is between communities that conversion is rare. (If you are a Jat or a Rajput and you convert to Islam, you will still get identified with your caste for generations. Indian Muslims have been tutored to hide this, to uphold the anti-Hindu fiction of an “egalitarian Islam”, but Pakistanis candidly tell you: “I am a Rajput Muslim.”) Secondly, in borderline situations such as a mixed marriage, someone can join a particular Hindu community, on condition that its legitimate members accept you as one of theirs.
And then there are the present circumstances, where Hindus are forced to compete with predators and hence modestly organize Ghar Wâpasi (“return home”), the reconversion of people once estranged from Hinduism. I fully support that policy. It mostly works among villagers, with whom bookish me has little rapport; but if my writing about Islamic scripture can help a Muslim to free himself from his religious conditioning so that he wants to “return home”, I will be most happy.
In spite of all that, I myself have never converted to Hinduism, though I have received initiations from several acknowledged Gurus. I do not sport a Sanskrit name. But that is not at all meant as a tacit criticism of the course David Frawley has chosen.
“Frawley overcomes this bottleneck easily by insisting Vedic civilisation is universal and open to all humanity, and by defining what it means to be a true Brahmin. It is significant, however, that no white convert to Hinduism ever identifies themselves as Vaishyas or Shudras. It is either Brahmin or Kshatriya, that is intellectual and combative – and always superior. So much for ‘division of labour’ thesis of varna.”
The Brahmin name “Shastri” was given to David, it is not he who claimed Brahminhood. As for myself, by traditional definitions of varna, I would of course be a Shudra, and there is nothing wrong with that. A Swiss friend of mine (and of “Vedic socialist” Swami Agnivesh), who lived in an ashram in Rishikesh for years, calls himself Shudrânanda: Shudra and happy to be one! Among great Hindu figures I particularly like, is Sant Ravidas, who was a cobbler on the outskirts of Varanasi. Well, the outskirts of Hinduism, that is where you might situate me.

I feel flattered by Pattanaik’s accurate assessment of the history debates I have participated in: “Elst has done a lot of research on Ayodhya and endeavours to provide evidence to prove the Babri Masjid was indeed built on a site that once housed a Hindu temple. He has strongly challenged views of scholars like Richard Eaton who seek to secularise the iconoclasm of Muslim rulers. The standard trope in modern historical studies seems to be that Hindu temples were destroyed not only by Muslim rulers but also by Hindu rulers as part of establishing their authority. It disregards all Hindu memory and Islamic writing that shows motivation of Muslim rulers at its core was religious, designed to replace the Hindu faith with Islam. This is aligned with Western academic anxiety at being seen as Islamophobic – no points lost if one is Hinduphobic. Elst provides the fodder to challenge this view.”
But here I break ranks with many history-rewriters: “Both Elst and Frawley provide strong arguments to support the ‘Out of India’ theory that seeks to establish India as the true homeland of the Aryan race or Sanskrit language, claiming it gave civilisation to the world.”
 “Despite their deep knowledge of Hinduism, neither Elst nor Frawley, neither Doniger nor Pollock, believe in letting go and moving on, which is the hallmark of Hindu thought, often deemed as a feminine trait. Instead, Elst and Frawley keep drawing attention to injustice done by colonisers, goading Indians to rise up and fight, a violent tendency that is the hallmark of Western thought, often deemed as a masculine trait. Likewise, Doniger and Pollock keep reminding their readers that Hinduism’s seductive ‘spirituality’ must at no point distract one from its communal and casteist truths.”
Wow, psycho-analyzing people from a distance, that must be tough. Look, I don’t understand all this jargon dividing civilizations into “feminine” and stuff. I merely see a debate (about the invasion theory) that has not been satisfactorily concluded yet, so I keep working. That is not an idiosyncratic refusal to let go. After the Ayodhya debate was concluded and the pre-existence of a temple at the site proven and officially accepted, I have left that debate behind me. I let go of it.
By contrast, the injustice done by the Muslim colonisers remains a fact with consequences in the present day, and continuous with some presently existing injustices (violent oppression of Hindus in Muslim-majority states, anti-Hindu discriminations in the Constitution). Letting go of those concerns would be too early. That is just a matter-of-fact view. Myth cannot really throw new light upon it.
Likewise, I assume that Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock take the causes they fight for seriously. In that case, they must realize that those causes are large and not exactly ephemeral: they will still be with us on our dying day. So, people are free to change course in life, but abandoning a project you have worked for before seeing it through is not particularly virtuous. I don’t think sons of the Indian soil like a BR Ambedkar nor a SR Goel abandoned the causes they worked for halfway. It is not always time to “let go”.

Parting shots
So far, so good. But in cauda venenum, the venom is in the tail. I strongly object to Pattanaik’s parting shots.
“So both parties keep the Hindu wound festering. Both also offer the balm of ‘justice’, a Western approach that is politically volatile for India, and commercially lucrative for them.”
The people who created doubts about the temple in Ayodhya, and inflicted the whole controversy on India (and on Hindu communities in Bangladesh and the UK), did unnecessarily revive an old wound and then kept it festering. Those who sought for the exact historical scenario and its doctrinal background did just the opposite. And as for the bystanders who ignore the factual results that the latter have achieved, the too seem to want the controversy to “fester”.
As for “lucrative”, for those familiar with the vetoes and exclusions inflicted upon dissenters by the Humanities establishment in the West and the secularist establishment in India, such a thought is beneath contempt. If “lucre” had been my motive, I would of course have joined the opposite camp.
And here he is really mistaken: “Neither privileges the Indian idea of diversity, that rejects homogeneity, and allows for multiple paradoxical even hierarchical structures to co-exist.” At least when speaking for myself, I can confidently state that on the contrary, my criticism has always been directed precisely against the religions and ideologies that are out to suppress diversity.
The mythographer speaks: “Doniger and Pollock follow the Greek mythic pattern that establishes them as heroes who are in the ‘good fight’ against ‘fascist’ monsters. Elst and Frawley follow the Abrahamic mythic pattern that establishes them as ‘prophets’ leading the enslaved – colonised – Indians back to the ‘Vedic Promised Land’.”
I don’t know how Greek a “good fight” is, but that is indeed how they see their work; and so do we. As for prophets, I don’t really believe in divine spokesmen, so let that sobriquet pass. Perhaps David, who is more of a visionary, could be described in those terms, though he himself, as far as I know, never did. Me, I only see specific errors being made, and I am simply the much-needed schoolteacher wielding his red pencil. If that can lead anyone to his Promised Land, fine, but I don’t even look that far, I just want those errors out of the way. Perhaps Bhangi (sweeper) would be a good caste for me.
But then: “Being placed on a high pedestal is central to both strategies. Criticism also evokes a similar reaction in both sides – they quickly declare themselves as misunderstood heroes and martyrs, and stir up their legion of followers. Doniger and Pollock have inspired an army of activist-academicians who sign petitions to keep ‘dangerous’ Indian leaders and intellectuals out of American universities and even American soil”: Subramanian Swamy, Narendra Modi, and in similar controversies Rajiv Malhotra, the Dharma Civilization Foundation and others. Indeed, the Indological community’s touching (occasional) concern for freedom of speech is not erga omnes. And at that point, any similarity with Frawley and myself ends.
“No dissent is tolerated. If you agree with either side, you become rational scientists for them. If you disagree with them, you become fascists – or racists.” Both Frawley and myself have written thousands of pages. I offer one symbolic rupee for whoever can find any statement to that brandishing effect. On the other hand, I can point to a number of pages in my own work where I go out of my way to defend the freedom of speech of those conspicuously not in agreement with me, esp. Wendy Doniger. No special merit, for if you yourself have been the target of enough exclusions, it comes easily.
It seems we are dealing with an attitude that seeks to come out on top during a argument by picking up the quarrel in the middle and pretending that both sides are equal. A very profitable posture, for it also allows for laziness since you don’t even have to study the contents of what the two sides are saying or doing.
Now that our mythographer has gone off track, he extemporizes all at once about “White Knights” with a “Hindutva obsession”, opposing “multiple truths” and waging a “Crusade against Muslims”, out to “dehumanise” the opposition. Here I confess, I simply can’t keep up with his cannonade. I think he is referring to himself when he speaks of “rejecting the model of conversation”.

Yet, I have hardly any quarrel with Pattanaik’s conclusion: “If we have to truly be decolonised, and truly swadeshi, be it the MK Gandhi or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh variety, we have to overcome our inferiority complexes, and without succumbing to chauvinism, realise that we Indians, with all our shortcomings, do not really need Europeans and Americans to tell us what Hinduism, Sanskrit or Vedas were, are, or should be.”
Well, if you put the issue in those terms, I am all for overcoming inferiority feelings and dependence on others. That is why Indians don’t need Doniger’s eroticized or Pollock’s politicized reading of the Ramayana, and why the interiorization of their approach in the late AK Ramanujan’s or in Pattanaik’s own work was a bad idea. Only, I don’t think that that is because these august scholars are “White”, or “Western”, or even “Indologists”, but merely because they are wrong.

It is no big deal to be wrong once in a while. Fortunately there are others, conversation partners with a verbal red pencil, who are kind enough to correct you. Vishal Agarwal has published a whole book of corrections to the many errors in Wendy Doniger’s not-so-banned “banned book”. I have participated in a whole conference to set Sheldon Pollock’s loaded views of Sanskrit straight. It will not save the world, or even that small part of it that is India, nor that small minority that is still Hindu. But still it is a good clean feeling not to have to live amid untruths, whether lies (oh, how I loathe that term) or, more often, mistakes. Myths are another matter.

Read more!

Macaulay's biography

(published in Oriëntalistische Literaturzeichnung, December 2016, p.528)

Masani, Zareer: Macaulay. Pioneer of India’s Modernization. Noida: Random House India 2012. XV, 269 S. 8°. Hartbd. INR 450,00. ISBN 978-81-8400-303-1.

            There are a lot of things wrong with many Indians’ unquestioning trust in and use of the thesis put forward by Edward Said in his unjustly famous book Orientalism (1978). This work is full of factual errors, leaves unconsidered the German-language mainstay of orientalism (to which its main proposition linking Orientalism with colonialism happens not to apply), and essentially is a conspiracy theory, turning all scholars concerned into colonial agents. But with regard to Indians specifically, it uses “Orientalism” in a sense different from the original application relating to India, which in turn is distinct from its academic use as the name for a philological discipline. “Orientalist” originally refers to those British administrators of India who, around 1800, opined that the native languages were more suited as mediums of education and modernisation than English. Whereas “Orientalism” has become a dirty word among Hindu nationalists as much as among ‘postcolonial’ Marxists, the historical Orientalists actually pursued nativist education policies still advocated by the same Hindu nationalists.

            Now a book has appeared which presents the man who put the Orientalists out of business by pushing through an Anglicist education policy: Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859). Finally, we have an up to date biography of this person extremely influential in Indian history. As Zareer Masani says on the cover of his book Macaulay. Pioneer of India’s Modernization: “If you’re an Indian reading this book in English, it’s probably because of Thomas Macaulay”. His last biography was one by his nephew George Otto Trevelyan, still in the nineteenth century.

            The present book is a pleasant enough read, giving all the relevant data. It is marred by only one factor, which may even garner the author sympathy among some of his readers, namely his all too conspicuous sympathy for his subject, not to say his unconcealed admiration.

            By birth and upbringing, Macaulay was part of a British circle of elite people who were both liberal and Christian. The best known example of this movement was William Wilberforce (17591833), who successfully campaigned both for the abolition of slavery and for allowing missionary activity in India. We see Macaulay going to India not to fulfil a historical mission, but as the only way seemingly open to him to boost his finances. He worked as an assistant to Governor-General William Bentinck, most famous for prohibiting the self-immolation of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres (satī). It was formally in a written advice to him that he formulated his famous Minute on Education in 1835. Apart from determining education policy for centuries to come (we still have an education system sensibly called Macaulayan) , he also made his mark in other areas: e.g. he drafted the Indian penal code. Then he returned to stay in England for twenty more years as a scholar and a famous poet, to die at age 59.

            It will not endear the man to Indian nationalists that he used his spare time in Calcutta to pursue his interest in the Graeco-Roman classics while spurning the native ones. His contempt for Sanskrit writings is well-known and comes through in his Minute, where he equates the whole of Sankrit literature in terms of knowledge content with a single shelf of a popular library in Britain. Or, according to the approving author: “Macaulay was notoriously dismissive, if not downright hostile and contemptuous, about native Indian, and particularly Hindu, customs and religious superstitions” (p. xiii).

            Hindu nationalists tend to use his name when they mean the Anglicised elite. However, he did not spin a conspiracy that made the influence of the British long outlast their presence in India, as nationalist narrative implies. Instead, Indians themselves have opted for his and against nativist policies regarding language and education. Maybe they have chosen to pursue a wrong course (or maybe not, as this book affirms), but it is at any rate their own doing, not that of a Western conspiracy.

            Was Macaulay’s education policy good for the former untouchables, here called “Dalits” (the choice of words in this case being very sensitive)? As Dharampal has shown in his book The Beautiful Tree. Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century (New Delhi: Biblia Impex 1983), basing himself on contemporaneous British surveys carried out in preparation of the implementation of Macaulay’s policies, Indian schools were by no means backward, and the school system was definitely more democratic than the contemporaneous one in England. It did not serve many untouchables, but they were represented, contradicting the usual assumption that low-castes were forbidden from learning to read and write. Moreover, positing a causal relation between the introduction of the English medium and the emancipation of the low-castes is factually incorrect. China pursued a radical policy of equalisation and achieved near-general literacy without using one word of English. Many Chinese engineers of whatever social background work at high-tech jobs without knowing English.

            Macaulay also did not have the egalitarian reforms in mind which his present-day Dalit fans ascribe to him. Britain at that time had steep class differences, which helps explain why, as administrators in India, the British could so easily accommodate the caste system. As we learn in this book, Macaulay was not in favour of universal franchise, preferring to keep it restricted to people owning property or diplomas. The Indian leftists and subalterns the very circles that celebrate his memory opposed the latest Gulf War in which a superpower bludgeoned a backward country in the name of human rights (and probably in the service of private capital). Exactly the same conditions prevailed in the First Opium War, which Macaulay passionately and prominently supported.  In this case, the author is more even-handed, observing that today, “Macaulay’s ideas about an imperial mission to inform and educate still underpin the way the West exports its values to the rest of the world, especially through ‘soft’ power and the subtle transfer of cultural and economic norms” (p. xv).

            Did Macaulay provide the glue that still holds independent India together, as his fans, including the author, believe? The Constituent Assembly envisaged two alternatives to English as the official language: Hindi, taken to be more or less spoken as a mother tongue by some 40% of the population, which was chosen and badly failed (partly but not wholly by sabotage from the English-speaking elite); and Sanskrit, which had a history as an official language and was highly respected both in India and abroad. Sanskrit was little spoken (as was English), but learning it as a common second language would have proved easier than making Hebrew the first language for Jews migrating to Israel, also because of the many vocabulary links between Sanskrit and the vernaculars. If Sanskrit was a difficult language, it was difficult for everyone, and it did not seriously favour one region over another, the way Hindi did.  Even Bhimrao Ambedkar, Law Minister and venerated ideological light of most low-caste Macaulay fans, strongly supported Sanskrit. India might have been united under its own classical language. However, after a 5050 vote, Assembly President Rajendra Prasad cast the fateful deciding vote in favour of Hindi, thus aborting the possibly successful Sanskrit experiment and indirectly making English the only viable alternative. Macaulay might have been history by now, but he is back with a vengeance. And if Masani has his way, Macaulay is here to stay.

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