Some answers for a student of religious studies – Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst

This is an interview given to a student of religious studies collecting material for her dissertation. – Dr Koenraad Elst

Q : You have written that a Hindu simply is an Indian Pagan. This raises the question: What is a Pagan, exactly? Or what is Paganism?

A : 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” 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 organisations 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 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 WWI, 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 Hindutva people now try to out-secularise 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”.

Q : You have criticised 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 fetishise the idol as a source of magical powers, or as a divine being in itself. What is your response to this?

A : The core beliefs of Christianity and Islam are superstitious. Or without bringing in any psychologising 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 sinfulness or of human mortality had not appreciably changed in 33 AD. Yes, it is claimed by believers as a historical fact 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 Rig 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 and Islam have. You can safely discard them and still be a Hindu.

Q : You have questioned the conventional view that Siddhartha 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”?

A : 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, the Upanishads, is explicit in declaring the Karmakanda part, the Brahmanas, as outdated. Shankara lambastes 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 a 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 lambaste 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 senior-most nun would be subservient to the junior-most monk. So, the secularist-cum-Ambedkarite attempt to appropriate the Buddha for modern socialist causes is totally false. It is bad history par excellence.

Q : Regarding Islam, it seems that one of your foremost critiques of this religion is the Quran itself, which you view as (if I understand your position correctly) irredeemably fanatical and intolerant. Yet as you are surely aware, the Quran is a complex work which takes on different qualities depending on how the verses are interpreted, which verses are emphasised, 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 Quran which are a problem?

A : 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 will 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 Quran, 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 sympathisers 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 Quran does not meaningfully “reinterpret” the Quran, 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 Quran 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 on 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 front-line 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 baptised, had a Catholic saint’s name, etc. In the 1960s, this edifice started crumbling, with Vatican II 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.

Q : 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 Madhhab. Do you consider his understanding of what Muhammad stood for as somehow Islamically illegitimate? 

A : 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 idealisation 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 conjurer’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 if it was a marriage made in heaven, with all 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 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 summarise 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 demobilised after that, the Muslim army came back and this time they securely imposed Islam. But the Arabs were the first victims of Islam. Mohammed 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 sceptical 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.

Q : 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?

A : To start at the end: I have studied my 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 familiarise 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 I 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 for example 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 government 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. In the last half-century, a gap in Hindu scholarship has grown that will require energetic initiatives to fill. – Koenraad Elst Blog, 15 August 2016

› Dr Koenraad Elst is an historian. linguist and self-declared orientalist from Belgium who regularly visits India to study and lecture.

India's religious pluralism.

Ram Swarup and Hinduphobia – Koenraad Elst

hindu-hate

Koenraad ElstAs Socrates taught: evil is, upon closer analysis, a case of ignorance. Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence. – Dr Koenraad Elst   

Let us consider what Ram Swarup said about Hindu-bashing, or what is nowadays called “Hinduphobia”. The word, though in existence since more than a century, was not yet in vogue as Hinduism’s ad hoc counterweight against the omnipresent propaganda term “Islamophobia”. But the phenomenon was already dominant in India and increasingly present abroad.

In fact, it was quite old. Several tribes of Muslims with a doctrinally motivated hatred for the Hindus, followed by the Portuguese Christians with a similar aversion, had actively persecuted Hinduism for centuries. They represent a permanent source of anti-Hindu violence that now takes the form of occupation of parts of the Hindu homeland by the Islamic states of Pakistan and Bangladesh; of Pakistani incursions; of terrorism and of rioting. But while they bludgeoned Hindu society and inflicted huge human and material losses on it, they did not penetrate it or take control of its institutions.

Tribes of haters

The British, by contrast, could rule India with more limited violence largely outsourced to native sepoys, but their influence penetrated far more deeply. Firstly, they managed to pit several Hindu sub-groups against the mainstream: most obviously the Sikhs, for whom the status of separate religion was made of whole cloth, promoted as a social reality and underpinned at the scholarly level. In several booklets, Ram Swarup went against this colonial-engineered separatism by documenting how, as per their own scriptures and history, Sikhism was a self-identified sect of Vedic Hinduism.

The creation of bad blood between Buddhism and mainstream Hinduism only took the institutional form of keeping Sri Lanka and later Burma outside of British India, but was far more influential at the scholarly level. There, the underlying paradigm of all Buddhist studies and of Indian histories as instilled through the schools became: “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good.”  Even before 1947, “Christian missionaries (…) were presenting Buddhism (as they have been doing with Sikhism) as (…) a revolt against ‘Brahmanism’ and the “Hindu” caste system.” (Hinduism and Monotheistic Religions, p.519, originally 1991) They had no use for the Buddha, except for making him into a stick to beat Hindu society with. The Macaulayites and Marxists followed this example: “they tried to use their learning and position to undermine Hinduism (…) and show that there was little difference between Marxism and Buddhism. Now Communist historians are telling us that Hindus demolished Hindu temples.” (p.519) 

Likewise with the Dalits and tribals, who came to benefit from an incipient reservation system, and with the non-Brahmin Tamils. The then-popular Aryan Invasion Theory was used to pit them against the upper castes and the North Indians. The thrust of the exercise was invariably to put Hindus into the dock and make them feel guilty for their very existence. Needless to say, this caste-based discrimination with a good social conscience has only become more encompassing over the years, and the [Aryan Invasion] paradigm still is the official one.

But the second effect was even more detrimental to Hindu assertiveness: “The British took over our education and taught us to look at ourselves through their eyes. They created a class Indian in blood and colour, but anti-Hindu in its intellectual and emotional orientation. This is the biggest problem rising India faces—the problem of self-alienated Hindus, of anti-Hindu Hindu intellectuals.” (p.45) 

Then again, in numerical terms, this impact on Hindu society was still quite small even by 1947. Many millions in the countryside had never seen a Briton, less than 1% of the population spoke good English. If the Indian leadership had wanted, it could have undone this influence in a matter of decades.

Ram-SwarupA crucial factor here was the choice of language. Ram Swarup himself was quite at home with British culture and thought, being most influenced by British liberalism: Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell. In his case, this didn’t stop him from fighting for freedom from British rule, with active participation in the Quit India Movement. But for less independent minds, gulping down English influence would only end up estranging them from their Hindu roots, as it had done in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru. The vote in the Constituent Assembly’s Language Committee should have been crucial: 50% voted for Sanskrit, 50% for Hindi (which was given victory by the deciding vote of the chairman), and 0% for English. For the generation that had achieved independence, it was completely obvious that decolonisation implied abolishing the coloniser’s language. Yet by 1965, when this abolition was due to become effective, the English-speaking elite had gathered enough power to overrule this solemn commitment. Ever since, the influence of English and of the thought systems conveyed by it has only gone on increasing, and at some levels, India is becoming a part of the Anglosphere—hardly what the freedom fighter envisioned. Today, most Anglophone secularists are nearly as knowledgeable about Hindu culture as first-time foreign tourists who have crammed up the Lonely Planet’s few pages summarising India’s religious landscape.

Marx and Mao

Compare with China, not formally colonised but having been repeatedly humiliated by colonial incursion, yet now again proud and assertive. Of course it has retained its language, and adopting a foreign language as medium for education or the judiciary is simply unthinkable. Ram Swarup, who wrote several books criticising the record of Maoism, wouldn’t emphasise this, but it is one thing the Communists undoubtedly achieved: a clean break with the colonial age. Under the nationalist regime (1912-49), China was increasingly under Anglo-American influence, and the Christian missions could operate on a large scale. Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi (who later was to give an award to Ram Swarup’s and Sita Ram Goel’s anti-Communist think tank Society for the Defence of Freedom in Asia) was a Christian along with much of his family. By contrast, when Mao Zedong came to power, all missionaries were imprisoned, killed, or at best banished.    

On the other hand, by importing Marxism, China was opening itself up to another Western doctrine, and actively imposing it on its population. The same counted for those circles in India that came to espouse Marxism. Under Nehru, it started influencing the power-wielding circles, and from Indira Gandhi onwards, it achieved control over education policy and much of cultural policy. This ideology was “more Eurocentric than regular imperialism. It used radical slogans but its aims were reactionary. … Marx fully shared the contempt of the British imperialists for India. He fully subscribed to the theses of colonial scholarship that India was not a nation, had no history and was meant for subjugation. Marxism was Macaulayism at its most hostile. It blackened Indian history systematically. It gave to [the] Indian social and political system its own format, the one it had learnt from its European teachers. It saw in Hinduism not … a great spiritual civilisation but only communalism.” (p.45-46) 

Newer forms of Marxist or soft-Marxist thought (critics speak of “cultural Marxism”) remain entrenched in the Indian institutions, and are more powerful than ever in the relevant departments of Western universities. Their construction of Indian reality remains dominant and is more than ever spread to the new Hindu generations, leading to more culpabilisation c.q. sense of shame for Hinduism. 

Race to the exit

The trends unambiguously traced to colonial policies have not been reversed by the Nehruvian regime, but have instead been continued and magnified. Thus, the British policy of separating Hindu subsets from general Hinduism has continued with an affirmation at different times of minority status for Buddhism, Sikhism, the Arya Samaj, Jainism, Virashaivism and Sarna “animism”. In every case, the administrative separation was fortified with a change in discourse: the need for a non-Hindu identity was in each case buttressed by an increased blackening of Hinduism. This anti-Hindu attitude has even crept into Hindu organisations without the institutional ambition of minority status, e.g. the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) calls itself non-Hindu, except when it is canvassing for donations from Hindu communities.

When Ram Swarup wrote against separatism among the Sikhs, it was an interesting intellectual entertainment for his readers, but had no impact at all on policy-making. The Narasimha Rao government managed to neutralise armed Sikh separatism, but did nothing to change Sikh separatist thought, so that there remains a constant threat of its political revival. In a healthy society, we might expect power-wielders to listen to sages like Ram Swarup, but this was not the case; just as it is still not the case today.

As described in Ram Swarup’s booklet The Ramakrishna Mission in Search of a New Identity, the Ramakrishna Mission, besieged by the Communist-supported Teachers’ Union in its school network, felt compelled as a matter of survival to relieve this pressure. In India, by virtue of Article 30 of the Constitution, minority schools (and similarly, places of worship) are autonomous and immune from government take-over, whereas classification as Hindu makes them vulnerable to nationalisation. But the RK Mission did not try to have the discrimination against Hindu schools abolished, did not appeal to Hindu society, but did the dishonourable thing of trying to escape by seeking minority status, like a rat leaving a sinking ship. The Bengal High Court gave it the coveted minority status, then finally (or so it seemed) the Supreme Court denied it, entirely in accordance with RK Mission founder Swami Vivekananda’s assertion of Hindu pride. 

Superficial Hindus might jubilate that this was a victory for Hindu unity, but Ram Swarup warned that the Mission would now have to live down the anti-Hindu attitudes which it had come to espouse. Here again, some of its swamis make all the right noises for the respective audiences they address, sometimes calling themselves Hindu, but the “we are not Hindus” animus has not disappeared: when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress won the state elections ending decades of Communist rule, the Mission asked her for minority status. And promptly it received her assurance that it would henceforth be treated as a minority, thus de facto overruling the “final” Supreme Court verdict. Ram Swarup always emphasised that institutional arrangements are unimportant in themselves, merely the materialisation of convictions and mentalities. If you want to stop the race to the exit, it is imperative to change people’s unfavourable impression of Hinduism. 

Down with conspiracy thinking

A final point for the attention of the rather hot-headed Hindu activists and polemicists. They always see conspiracies against Hinduism, e.g. the Aryan Invasion Theory was a “British concoction”, the Partition of India was “imposed by machinations by the British” who had “brainwashed” the Muslim League leadership. In this case, “Hinduphobia” is deemed to be an expression of an intractable “hatred” that for some reason (in the case of Westerners, “racism”) animates Hinduism’s numerous enemies. This fuming hot air in Hindu discourse puts off many neutral observers and produces Hinduphobes. But in all of Ram Swarup’s works, there is not a single example of this approach. 

For a single example, he describes a novel about the Buddha’s wife Yashodhara, Lady of the Lotus, by a well-meaning American, William E. Barrett. It has totally fictitious episodes about the couple’s visits to the quarters of the Untouchables: “They were revolted by the sight. They saw that ‘the traffic in the streets was, in the main, animal.’” And about the sight of hungry people: “Next day when they were in bed, light dawned on Siddharta that ‘No one has to be hungry … and no one should live as these people live.’” (p.527) In reality, the Buddha was not particularly interested in the difference between rich and poor, high and low; he taught that suffering was basic to the human condition in general. He did not propagate liberation from poverty, but liberation from the human condition. The socialist reinterpretation of the Buddha as a social rebel conflicts with the Buddha’s teachings. It is typical for the post-religious worldview to reduce religion to socio-economic considerations, i.e. to cultivate ignorance about the existential passions that have generated religions.   

The most interesting part of Ram Swarup’s account is: “The author was not hostile to India but he was doing his best to depict Hindus and their history as he knew it.” (p.528) This is crucial to understanding “Hinduphobia”: while some classes of people, say mullahs and missionaries, have an interest in blackening Hinduism, most people don’t. They just go by the information they have been fed. This American novelist has been fed the fable that the Buddha was a rebel against Hindu societal reality, so that is what he puts into his story: Buddhism social, Hinduism oppressive. As Socrates (translated into Hindi as Satyakām Sokratez by Ram Swarup’s friend Sita Ram Goel) taught: evil is, upon closer analysis, a case of ignorance. Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.   

Dr Koenraad Elst is an historian. linguist and orientalist from Belgium who visits India to study and lecture.

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The intellectual war being waged against India – Gautam Sen

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Gautam SenContrary to popular perception, ingrained in the Indian national psyche of complacency, contemporary foreign attempts to seize control of India’s future trajectory is occurring mostly through indirect potential control. It is exercised by nurturing myriad collaborators within it though specific territorial assaults against its integrity. – Dr Gautam Sen

Intellectual hegemony has since time immemorial been a paramount vehicle for the exercise of political and socioeconomic power within society and between them internationally. A long line of intellectuals has observed the nature of the exercise of power, both political and personal, through the dominance of ideas. A recent history of the early Church by historian David Lloyd Dusenbery provides an authoritative account of the advance of Christianity through acrimonious debates over ideas propagated during the late third and early fourth centuries by major protagonists, like the anti-Pagan Firmianus Lactantius, a key imperial adviser to the first Christian emperor Constantine and the original progenitor Christian antisemitism. Another important Christian ideologue was the theologian and historian Eusebius of Caesarea to be followed later by the formidable late fourth and early fifth centuries trio St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo and another powerful ideologue of Christianity, St. Jerome.

In the modern world, the exercise of intellectual hegemony by the ruling order has been the subject of astute excavation by the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci and a host of formidable thinkers of the so-called Frankfurt School and others, some of the most revelatory among them, Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno as well as another pioneering French thinker, the highly influential Michel Foucault. A powerful post-modernist interpretation was subsequently unleashed by Jacques Derrida, who questioned and deconstructed the outward integrity of meaning in texts, his own oeuvre underpinned by the earlier work of the philosopher Edmund Husserl and the linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Yet, only modest attention has been paid to the practical consequences of the exercise of ideological power in the contemporary world over India’s place in it. The very exercise of this ideological power has dictated the boundaries of the debate, impaling the discourse on India in terms of narrow concepts like secularism that constrain serious understanding of its extant societal dynamics.

Interpreting the impact of dominant ideas on the imputation of India’s place in the world requires a prior understanding of the nature and exercise of political power between societies in the international arena. The key terms that encapsulate international relations are the compulsion towards dominance, duplicitous “bad faith” and their inevitable corollary of treachery. The practical implications of such a depiction of world politics are its abhorrence of a political vacuum in international relations that unerringly predisposes the subjugation of the weak by the strong and deployment of force, in all its dimensions, to achieve dominance and primacy. Indeed, it is significant that the ancient Greek synonym for man was soldier and the Roman empire that succeeded it was principally defined by the exercise of military power, which always remained its preeminent characteristic. The entire history of the Western world since has been inspired by and informed by this Greco-Roman legacy, whether it is imperial Britain or the Nazis or the subsequent US imperium. Islamic empires also adopted the antecedent practices of the eastern Roman empire they replaced as well as the example of conquered Persia, the militarised imperial alter ego of ancient Greece.

Without sentiment and prevarication, it might be noted that for over a thousand and more years the Indian subcontinent has exhibited attributes of a political vacuum, of divided and warring statelets, unable to resist challenges from better militarily endowed and determined marauders from the north. As a result, India has long been a potent pole of attraction for conquerors, enticed by its vast human and natural resources. The contemporary Indian situation is not fundamentally different from its long historical past despite the establishment of an outwardly modern statehood, with its various accoutrements of power and autonomy, from political and socioeconomic institutions to military capability. Thus, contrary to popular perception, ingrained in the Indian national psyche of complacency, contemporary foreign attempts to seize control of India’s future trajectory is occurring mostly through indirect potential control. It is exercised by nurturing myriad collaborators within it though specific territorial assaults against its integrity are also unmistakably visible.

The profound underlying latent divisions of the Indian polity have been laid bare in recent years, with major political regions declining to acquiesce to full participation in all essential dimensions of a singular nationhood. Why this has happened is a fascinating but separate question, but its reality can hardly be denied, with regional political parties blatantly refusing to comply with their constitutional obligations of belonging to a single nation. Some of them are almost also asserting quasi de facto independence, with their political instincts also plainly articulating foreign ideological and accompanying extra national political attachments. The welcome accorded to vast numbers of illegal migrants and granting them citizenship rights in some states is a startling expression of this challenge to India’s sovereignty. The recent attempts of the dominant political dispensation at the Centre to enhance a sense of greater common national purpose and loyalty have in fact provoked further serious popular dissent and accentuated separatist sentiment. The fractious history of the Indian subcontinent has reared its alarming head with unexpected vengeance and de facto regional separatism threatens to become the espousal of a de jure posture for it.

In this context, it is vital to understand the wider global ideological edifice, in all its extraordinary sophistication and complexity, that underpins and fuels India’s national divisions. The key feature of the ideological thrust of foreign adversaries to subvert India in order to exercise control over its conduct is the determined and systematic repudiation of its moral legitimacy and historical identity. Indirect control is the aspiration since physical inroads are, for the present, only feasible at the margins on India’s borders though a major setback along them could precipitate a cascade in the shape of the assertion of independence by some already restless regions. In the meantime, the ideological assault against India continues relentlessly and the original roots of its constant and widespread hostile deconstruction can be traced back to India’s tutelage under British imperial rule and the critique of Hindu civilisation by, in the main, the Protestant Church. A basic overriding contention, repeated by its adversaries like China, even today, has always been that India is comprised by many nations and a racially-inspired Brahminical ideology has sought to impose the primacy of an earlier band of conquerors, the Aryans, who have no greater legitimacy to claim India than subsequent conquerors, the Muslims and the Europeans.

The intellectual warfare against India occurs from innumerable venues in academia and the media. Indian domestic intellectual life itself is largely an expression of an unreconstructed colonial heritage and domestic discourses a mere echo of well-established historical critiques of Indian civilisation. They are constantly being renewed, acquiring real substance and momentum from intellectual assaults from abroad. The critical modus operandi of ideological assault is still inspired by the original essentially Protestant critique and denunciation of the legitimacy of the moral integrity of the heritage of ancient India to which its people might look for their contemporary identity. The international media’s depiction of India, almost in entirety, and its offensive on it today adopts a simple strategy, which is to slander and libel without respite and ignore the truth and any alternative narrative that might contradict its own blatant fabrications. This global media obtains additional legitimacy for its serial disinformation campaigns by paying individuals who enjoy personal prominence in society and are willing to do the bidding of India’s adversaries for payment and other forms of social recognition.

The Western academic discourse on India is the bedrock for institutionalising a negative perception of it among dominant global elites who refract and diffuse the public’s ideological outlook. Such an ideological orientation has two important operational features that function with potent sublimity. They are wholesale psychological intimidation and occupation of the intellectual space and its denial to those who do not conform to the extant narrative of assault against India. The practical consequence of such a situation is the denial of opportunity to enter the academic world through openly discriminatory recruitment policies, curbing of professional advancement of dissenters, hampering their ability to sponsor seminars and curtailing the ability to publish, especially in prestigious journals. The intimidatory psychology arises from the sheer weight of the established canon and the existence of deified names who underpin the Western intellectual environment in its totality. Their effectively divine stature always pervades any intellectual journey, which sets the parameters of even plausible dissent. This intellectual climate may not necessarily be the direct source of specific challenges to India’s integrity and political identity, but it empowers hostile protagonists to question India and all its evil works by providing the counterpart of generalised covering fire. An expert on philosopher John Rawls or Jacques Derrida can call out India’s human rights record on caste, though it may be without intrinsic merit, because the shadow of Rawls and Derrida loom large in the background to legitimise them socially.

The examples of intellectual intimidation range from asserting one’s identity as a leading scholar on Jacques Derrida and using the legitimacy arising from it to engage in slander by illegitimately and deliberately misleading audiences. One Columbia scholar engaged in virtue signalling by hyperventilating on the predicament of Myanmar Rohingyas, implying the imperative of admitting them to India, supposedly en masse, while the academic simultaneously expressed angst over the alleged murder of a Muslim in India in a dispute over the consumption of beef. One cannot recall if the same scholar ever found occasion to express concern for the plight of ethnically-cleansed Kashmiri Pandits, subjected to rape and murder or indeed comment on the horrors of the Rwandan genocide. Another LSE scholar has asserted the flight of Pandits from J&K was due to actions taken by the then governor Jagmohan. The duplicity and dishonesty persist with little prospect of rebuttal because the established intellectual space denies access to challenges through institutional control over who can speak at seminars and conferences. Thus, egregious libel is spread under the cloak of the high scholarship of experts on intellectual life. The fulcrum of the discrediting of Indian society is the allegation of innate hierarchical caste racism, stemming from a “false religion” and the multitudinous resultant spin-offs of everything, from patriarchy to inequality, which are supposedly validated by a fundamentally unethical conception of social relations in the Hindu world-view.

There has grown a shrill and urgent recent cry of loathing at the path India has ostensibly embarked upon under the leadership of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. However, the entire discourse on the horrors allegedly unfolding in contemporary India are rarely identified empirically and examined in comparative historical perspective. Yet, academics in hallowed Western portals and public intellectuals have risen in virtual unison to denounce contemporary India’s supposed lurch in an appalling right-wing direction though, once again, the crimes alleged lack empirical pinpointing. Significantly, the academic chorus of faux intellectual hand-wringing seems to parallel a deeper historic unease among major foreign governments about the potential rise of India as an economic and therefore military power. It is easily forgotten that the current intense hue and cry about India long predates its ongoing political and economic dynamics. But the present multifaceted policy endeavours threaten the possible realisation of the goal of autonomy and military strength long sought by every post-independent Indian leadership that is apparently irking many abroad.

Intellectual life has always been an essential instrumental conduit in the pursuit of national goals of dominant powers, notwithstanding all pretensions to the contrary. The great strength of its contemporary manifestation is the sheer scale of the production of intellectual output that also institutionally integrates within it any critique of itself that presumes to question existing political order and societal arrangements. The latter phenomenon neutralises protest by also extending material and institutional succour to dissension. Thus, dissenters end up benefiting from complicit participation in institutions supervising intellectual labour that serve the larger goals of the state, including its traditional imperial ventures. The hapless individual from the third world only participates in this oversized intellectual enterprise by finding a feigned nonconformist niche that allows self-delusion about their ultimately comprador role. But they are in no position to challenge the grand narrative of the institutionalised intellectual colossus of the host nation. Once someone from the third world has stood in awe inside the Cambridge’s King’s College chapel or one of the grand libraries of Harvard or Oxford a thoroughgoing inner depersonalising is set in motion and nothing matters more to that individual than playing some bit part in this resplendent and indefinable eternal universe.

This Western intellectual colossus and its institutions are a full partner in imperial glory and propensity for genocide, undertaking research into deadly weaponry and engaging in espionage even as it permits a chorus of dissent at the margin. However, the radical denunciation of all things Indian by its own former citizens who espouse human rights, feminism, equality, religious freedom and pluralism to challenge the legitimacy of their erstwhile former nation are all functional to the real purposes of India’s foreign adversaries. It serves their goal of attempting to weaken the possible rise of India by discrediting purposeful governance in it. In the end, intellectual life remains an unavoidable adjunct of national goals for the dominant powers of the Western world. – Sunday Guardian Live, 5 June 2021

Dr Gautam Sen taught international political economy for over two decades at the London School of Economics.

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