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.