A Marxist critique of the Modi government’s ICHR nomination – Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst“Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for having a low opinion of diplomas and having more respect for achievement. That is why he nominated Smriti Irani, underqualified but a proven hard worker, to the Human Resources Development ministry, who in her turn thought of Prof. Rao as the right choice for the ICHR. Let us hope that she knows of qualities of his that we have yet to appreciate.” – Dr Koenraad Elst

Prof Romila ThaparRetired historian Romila Thapar has written an opinion piece (“History repeats itself”, 11 July 2014, India Today) giving the standard secular reaction to the appointment of equally retired historian Y. Sudershan Rao as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. It gives the predictable (indeed, predicted, see K. Elst: “A Hindutva historian in office”, 11 July 2014) show of indignation hiding an inside reaction of satisfaction at the BJP’s renewed display of incompetence in reforming the field of history.

Yellapragada Sudershan RaoStatus

“The appointment of a historian whose work is unfamiliar to most historians shows scant regard for the impressive scholarship that now characterises the study of Indian History and this disregard may stultify future academic research. Given that the writing of history in India over the last half-century has produced some of the finest historians, recognised both nationally and internationally, one is surprised at the appointment of Professor Y. Sudershan Rao as chairperson of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). Professor Rao’s work is unfamiliar to most historians, with little visibility of research that he might have carried out. He has published popular articles on the historicity of the Indian epics but not in any peer-reviewed journal, and the latter is now a primary requisite for articles to be taken seriously at the academic level.”

Here we have, at some length, the usual status-mongering. It says, in short, that Prof Rao is not “eminent”. It is a rather sophomoric argument: outsiders (such as politicians) and beginners imagine that academic status has a whole lot of meaning, and that you can’t be a serious scientist unless you have this kind of status. Insiders, however, have a far lower opinion of this academic status. Sometimes, indeed, it is only given to people of exceptional merit. From these highly visible cases, outsiders extrapolate to all others. But in many more cases, it is the mediocre minds and the faithful followers who get promoted, while the really talented people are blocked or are encouraged to seek more lucrative employment outside academe.

The mechanics of the presence or absence of status is as follows: the Indian Left jealously guards its power position in academe and decides who gets status within the Humanities, or who is blacklisted and kept out. Then the politicians select their sources of authority or their interlocutors by the status they “have” (i.e. which the Left has conferred on them), which is turn enhances their status. And then the India-watching circles abroad go by the status which individuals turn out to have acquired in India, and further increase their “eminence”. Thus, Romila Thapar’s own nomination to American chairs after her retirement in India crowned her career of being an ever more eminent historian in India.

The focus on status is a long-standing practice of the Indian Left, and for a good reason. As Sita Ram Goel already remarked in his anti-Communist days, the Indian Communists made sure to create status for those loyal to them. If you were a writer, they would arrange for you to be invited to a writers’ conference in Moscow and get an award there, and then you would be introduced in India as an “internationally acclaimed writer”. This was all the more important because people in general base their judgment on status, but no one more so than the Hindus. Indeed, the fabled Hindu money-bag will rather sponsor an enemy with status than a friend without it. The BJP will rather nominate a “secularist” with status than a proven Hindu loyalist without it. So, in the case of our Communist writer, they will honour him for his status, not realizing that this status has purposely been created for him by their declared enemies. And they will shun a pro-Hindu writer because he has no status, ignoring or disregarding the fact that he has been denied any avenue that might have led to status. The last thing they think of is to make an effort and create status for people who are perceived as belonging to the Hindu camp.

Smriti IraniThe BJP role in education

To be sure, there are provincial universities where the Leftist lobby’s power in limited. Education is largely a matter for the States, so BJP State Governments control a fair number of second-rank but nonetheless real nominations. Indeed, if they had meant business, they could have created a centre of excellence developing a more objective counter-narrative to the dominant Leftist version of history. Still, they do get to fill vacancies for history professors once in a while. These do not confer the kind of status that Jawaharlal Nehru University can offer, but they should at least be sufficient to groom a set of historians outside the Left’s sphere of influence. And indeed, even as an outsider, I can off-hand enumerate a handful of credible and competent non-Left historians, among whom a new ICHR chairman might have been picked. India is a big country, and non-Left historians may be seriously underrepresented, but in absolute figures they are still a force to be reckoned with. Prof. Rao himself is a veteran of one such little-known university in Warangal, Telangana.

As for the process of peer review, upheld by Romila Thapar as a key to academic status, it has come under criticism for being highly susceptible to corruption. Thus, Indians might think of Northwestern Europe as much cleaner than awfully corrupt India, but right on my doorstep, Tilburg University in the Netherlands has been through a sensational fraud scandal in 2011-12. Social psychologist Prof. Diederik Stapel had built a whole career on much-applauded papers, nicely peer-reviewed, and in their conclusions very welcome among the “progressive” crowd. But then it transpired that he had a long-standing practice of making his research data up, so as to suit his preconceived “conclusions”. The investigative commission appointed for the case not only discovered large-scale fraud affecting the work of other researchers as well, but specifically reprimanded the reviewers who had okayed Stapel’s work so often. This was but an extreme case of a general phenomenon: papers get easy acceptance from peers if they support the dominant view, but are held to far more demanding standards if they are at odds with it. In India, just imagine what it would take for a history paper with “communal” conclusions to be accepted by a Leftist-controlled review panel. So, of course Prof. Rao cannot boast of many peer-reviewed publications, but that says little about the quality of his work.

A serious look into his output, however, reveals that he is indeed not the man from whom we can expect an overhaul of the Indian history sector with respect for the normative methods of history scholarship. Here we have to concur with Romila Thapar: “Rumour has it that since he is working simultaneously on various projects, a recognised monograph has still to emerge. The projects are linked to spiritualism, yoga, the spiritual contacts between India and Southeast Asia, and such like. Whatever connections there may be between these themes and basic historical research, they are at best tenuous, and it would require a mind of extraordinary insight and rigour to interweave such ideas.”

For a professor teaching lessons about historical method, it is rather poor to base herself on “rumours”. I have remarked before that the dominant scholars are often “fishwives”, who believe and then propagate mere gossip. Nevertheless, an internet search and our limited findings there give a first confirmation of her impression.

MahabharataHistoricity of the Epics

According to the eminent historian: “The two issues that he has highlighted in his statement to the press as the agenda for his chairmanship are also prominent in the Hindutva view of Indian history. One is that of proving the historicity of texts such the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and establishing the dates of the texts and their central event.” At least in the case of the Mahabharata battle, we are on fairly solid ground in assuming that it was a historical event. The same is true of the Trojan war, although Iliad enthusiasts also have had to struggle against skepticism before this was generally accepted. On the other hand, many embellishments as well as unrelated stories and discourses are of other dates.

She observes: “This is a subject on which there has been endless research for the last two centuries. Indologists and historians have covered the range of possible investigation discussing philology, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology and even astronomy to try and ascertain a definitive chronology for these texts. But to no avail, as a precise date eludes them. To go over the ground again in the absence of new hard evidence would merely be repeating familiar scholarship—but it may not be familiar to Professor Rao.”

The available investigations have brought us much closer to a serious chronological assessment than she seems to assume. Only, it does not favour the historicity of “the” Epics. They confirm that traditions were collected and expanded over centuries, and additions made even after a redaction meant as “final”. Only believers treat the Epics as a divinely revealed text that has to be dated as a single whole. From the wording in the newspaper’s rendering of the interview, it seems that Prof Rao belongs to the believers rather than to the historians, but then again, most Indian papers are not above manipulations.

After her defeat in the Ayodhya controversy, she still uses the present ICHR discussion to fool the world once more with her negationist thesis: “Professor Rao’s other statement to the press of there being archaeological evidence to support the theory that there was once a temple where the Babri Masjid later stood, is largely a political statement as the report of the excavation at the site in Ayodhya is not publicly available. Those few who have had the chance to read the report may not agree with the statement.” Are we to suppose that her own interventions in this debate were not political? The negationist stand against the pre-existence of the Ayodhya temple was an extreme example of how the Humanities often serve to provide a scholarly veneer to theses that arise purely from political motives.

Marxist Historian Prof. R.S. SharmaThe ICHR’s chairmanship

An interesting point is this: “Again, according to what was published in the newspapers, Professor Rao’s second comment was regarding his objection to the introduction of Marxist tools of research by the ICHR during the chairmanship of Professors R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib. Professor Rao should be more familiar with the ICHR since he was appointed to the Council by the first BJP government of 1999-2004. He should know that for the most part of its existence, the ICHR has been under the chairmanship of non-Marxists such as Lokesh Chandra, S. Setter, M.G.S. Narayanan and so on. So if they had wanted to remove the so-called ‘Marxist tools of research’, there was nothing to stop them from doing so.”

The ICHR chairmanship is largely a ceremonial and administrative post. If the holder of the title is not particularly dynamic, not much power inheres in it. That is why the Left didn’t mind giving it to non-Leftists once in a while. They themselves are interested in real power, i.e. the power to change things according to one’s own designs, whereas most Hindus are only interested in office. (I thank Arun Shourie for correcting me when I once parroted the usual complaint that most politicians “only want power”. The right expression was: “they only want office”.) Office means you get all these photo opportunities and TV appearances, a fat salary and glittering perks to show off. A child’s hand is easy to fill.

I doubt that the enumerated ICHR chairmen ever had the instruments to remove the Marxist influence from their institution. But at any rate, there is little signs that they ever tried. The Marxists, by contrast, only desire office to the extent that it is an avenue to real power. Indeed, the history of their acquisition of cultural and educational power is one of a division of labour: Congress politicians, originally around Indira Gandhi, would get the glamorous offices, whereas their Communist allies would do their long-term moles’ work in the less conspicuous cultural-educational sector.

The good element in this sobering assessment of the ICHR chairmanship is that Prof. Rao may perhaps not be the best historian, but he can still do a fine job is what the post in meant for: put the right people in the right places and inspire them to do the research needed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for having a low opinion of diplomas and having more respect for achievement. That is why he nominated Smriti Irani, underqualified but a proven hard worker, to the Human Resources Development ministry, who in her turn thought of Prof. Rao as the right choice for the ICHR. Let us hope that she knows of qualities of his that we have yet to appreciate.

Marx & EngelsReal Marxism

The eminent historian, who is not known to have protested when Tom Bottomore’s Dictionary of Marxist Thought describes herself as a Marxist, takes issue with the loose use by Prof. Rao and many others of the term Marxism: “It is perhaps worth pointing out that the kind of history that is often dismissed by Hindutva ideologues as Marxist is not actually Marxist but bears the stamp of the social sciences. The distinction between the two, despite its importance to the interpretation of history, is generally glossed over by the proponents of Hindutva. This is largely because they have scant understanding of what is meant by a Marxist interpretation of history and therefore fail to recognise it. For them, a Marxist is simply someone who opposes the Hindutva ideology. Consequently, a range of historians unexpectedly find themselves dubbed as Marxists.”

It is not just Hindutva ideologues who point to the preponderant influence of Marxism on India (which is simply a fact), and neither is it only them who use the term Marxism a bit inaccurately. And here, she does have a point. What she calls “the social sciences” is her name for the scholarly veneer that the Leftists in academe give to their own ideology, but that ideology is indeed not always Marxist, and these days less and less so. Marxism was one specific school of thought in the Leftist spectrum, and after it has been abandoned in the Soviet Union and more gradually in China, it has had to give way in India too. Nothing ever dies in India (as Girilal Jain observed), and Indian Marxism will take a long time to wither away, but it is a fact that postmodernism, postcolonialism and other forms of egalitarianism are taking over where Marxism once flourished. To the average Hindutva observer, whose understanding of these ideological distinctions is blurred at best, these remain all the same.

Let me give a single example of the difference between Marxism and the more current forms of Leftism, one that Prof. Thapar will certainly recognize. The Marxist historian Shereen Ratnagar asserts: “if, as in the case of the early Vedic society, land was neither privately owned nor inherited by successive generations, then land rights would have been irrelevant to the formation of kin groups, and there would be nothing preventing younger generations from leaving the parental fold. In such societies the constituent patrilineages or tribal sections were not strongly corporate. So together with geographic expansion there would be social flexibility.” (in Romila Tapar, ed.: India: Historical Beginnings and the Concepts of the Aryan, National Book Trust, Delhi 2006, p.166)

Nowadays it has become fashionable to moralize about the caste system, with evil Brahmins inventing caste out of thin air and then imposing it on others; Neo-Ambedkarites give a lead in spreading this view. But hard-headed Marxists don’t fall for this conspiracy theory and see the need for socio-economic conditions to explain the reigning system of hierarchy or equality. In particular, it is pointless to lament the inequality of “feudal”, pre-modern societies, as the socio-economic conditions for equality didn’t prevail yet. Socialism (or, to name a fashionable instance of egalitarianism: feminism) simply couldn’t exist or emerge in a feudal society. However, the pastoral early-Vedic society did have the conditions for a far more equal relation between individuals. In the later Vedic period, the caste system emerged, first with mixing of castes (caste was passed on in the male line, but the father was free to marry a woman of another caste, see the Chandogya Upanishad or still the Buddha), then with endogamy. So, the Marxist, materialist and “scientific” analysis is quite distinct from the “petty bourgeois” idealistic view.

M. M. Joshi is the former BJP Minister of Science and TechnologyReal history

Prof. Thapar feigns bad memories of the A.B. Vajpayee government, when the established historians laughed without end at the sight of the Hindutva crowd’s incompetence: “During the BJP/NDA government of 1999-2004, there was a frontal attack on historians by the then HRD minister M.M. Joshi. (…) The present HRD minister, who unfortunately is unfamiliar with academia beyond school level, gives the impression that in this case she may be doing what she perhaps was appointed for: Carrying out the programme of the old history-baiters of the BJP who now have a fresh innings.”

It should not surprise us that the august professor, in spite of her Marxism, so openly disdains the proletarian HRD minister. It is the old glorification of status all over again. While her Marxist school has waged a very long attack on real history, so that a lot is to be cleaned up now, she is right to have a low opinion of M.M. Joshi’s tenure and initiatives. Marxists were at least sophisticated in their distortions, and hence could win over most of the India-watchers abroad, but the Hindutva history-rewriters were clumsy and disdainful of quality control. It is as yet too early to know whether Mrs. Irani or Prof. Rao are willing and able to do better.

Her final point sums up her judgment of the new situation, and I need not comment on it: “Again, rumour has it that the ICHR did send a shortlist of its recommendations for chairmanship to the HRD ministry. The list had the names of historians who had helped construct the ICHR into a viable research body. But that list seems to have conveniently got lost in the ministry. Therefore, a different name was pulled out of another hat and the person appointed. If this is so, then the prognosis is both predictable and drear.”

» Koenraad Elst distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. He studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. He blogs at http://koenraadelst.blogspot.in/

See also

Modi’s critics inadvertently admit they have rewritten India’s history – R. Jagannathan

R. Jagannathan“The progressive secularisation of texts under the Nehru-Marxist consensus has ensured that most Indians have been badly severed from their own roots and ancient knowledge. Attempting to correct this balance is hardly the same as majoritarianism or ‘saffronisation’ in the negative sense.” – R. Jagannathan

Smriti IraniCritics of the Modi government have always believed that the BJP — as an affiliate of the Sangh Parivar — has a “saffron” agenda. The initial statements made by the new HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, and the new Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, seem to have confirmed the suspicions of card-carrying “secularists” in this regard.

I find most of the criticisms meaningless for the simple reason that “saffronisation” seems to be, by definition, wrong, even without defining the term clearly. Since nobody has volunteered a definition, I will do so.

Yellapragada Sudershan RaoSaffronisation can have three possible meanings or implications. One is the narrowest one — which is the imposition of a majoritarian ideology to write a new history that supports this majoritarianism. We are yet to see anything like this in the pronouncements or acts of either Irani or Rao.

Two, “saffronisation” could be a corrective or counter-point to the current view of history. And, three, it could be an effort to acquaint the majority community itself with its past — something that has been systematically denigrated in this country in the name of a synthetic secularism.

There could be other definitions, but for now I have defined it my way. Of these three definitions, saffronisation is a problem only in the first case — and that too, only in a limited way.

Before we start to examine whether the Modi government is at all going to “rewrite history” and “saffronise” it, let us debunk one bit of nonsense straightaway. The very allegation of “saffronisation” contains within it the guilt of the accusers. It tells us what they have been doing for years is rewrite history “their way”.

You can rewrite history in the saffron way only if you believe what is currently called history is “the right way”, with unchallengeable “facts”. Our current rendering of history is, in fact, a version written in the post-independence period, when the Nehruvian-Marxist consensus was that history should be “secular”. So when the Left attacks the Sangh for trying to evolve a “nationalist” version of history, they are effectively admitting that Prof. R. S. Sharmathey had a “secularist” project where history had to be seen through their lens – and their lens alone. They were the ones who rewrote history.

In the “secularist” rendering of history, the contributions of ancient Indic civilisations – from the Vedic age to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira and the age of Vedanta – must be dismissed as minor or criticised as Brahminical and savagely inegalitarian; the extreme iconoclasm that came with Islamic invasions must be categorised as mere aberrations; and heroes must be found outside the Hindu tradition to make history truly “secular”. Hence the extreme eulogisation of Akbar as a secular hero when most of pre-Islamic history has been largely secular.

This is not to say we need to wallow in a past history of perceived wrongs, nor am I trying to invalidate the Marxist way of looking at history. But, by that same token, there can be a Sangh way of looking at history too. It is not an illegitimate enterprise.

A thief will always divert attention to others so that his own thievery goes undetected. This is what those accusing the government of attempting to rewrite history are trying to do: evade responsibility for their own rewriting of history by showing up someone else’s attempt.

Prof Vivek DehejiaAs Vivek Dehejia, economics professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, wrote in Mint newspaper some months ago: “We have inherited a Victorian conception of history, foisted upon us by our colonisers, that the telling of history consists of uncovering certain ‘truths’, that these truths in turn are based upon uncontested facts, and that these may thus be woven into the tapestry of a tale whose veracity cannot be questioned without appearing to be either retrograde or revolutionary. Modern scholarship turns this view on its head. History is, rather, the telling of a story, the creation of a narrative, which involves the careful selection of facts one deems pertinent and an argument (explicit or implicit) about the causal relationships that bind those facts together into a compelling tale.”

Once again: If there can be a secular version of history, there can be a Sangh version too. A saffron version of history can balance the Marxist version which, anyway, is not going to go away.

Then, there is the question of Smriti Irani’s alleged exertions to rewrite school textbooks with more material from sacred Hindu texts like the Vedas and Upanishads. I can’t see how this can be wrong, especially if it is not meant to rubbish any other text or community.

The progressive secularisation of texts under the Nehru-Marxist consensus has ensured that most Indians have been badly severed from their own roots and ancient knowledge. Attempting to correct this balance is hardly the same as majoritarianism or “saffronisation” in the negative sense.

Sidin VadukutSidin Vadukut, writing in Mint newspaper on July 4th, has no problem with this aspect of Irani’s efforts. He writes: “Teaching ancient texts in schools, for what it is worth, is a good idea. Both religious and secular texts are important storehouses of a civilisation’s history, culture and intellectual development. Yet I cannot recall a single ancient text of any variety that I was properly exposed to during my schooling. Yes, I was well-drilled on the existence of the Vedas and the works of assorted ancient scientists and Sangam literature and all that. But could I quote a single line from any of them, let alone with contextual awareness? Nope.”

This leaves us with the final charge: that Sangh loyalists are being planted on the Indian Council of Historical Research, a fact reported with subtle derision by The Telegraph recently. The headline to the story is: “Mahabharat historian gets research reins.” The impression one gets is that somebody steeped in mythology is now going to redirect history — which is for real historians.

The initial paras of the story start in the same vein: “A retired history professor who has written articles arguing that stories from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat are truthful accounts of events that took place has been named chief of the ICHR, the government agency to promote historical research. Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, whose interests include Vedic literature, Sanatana Dharma and Bharatiya Sanskriti, set the tone for his three-year tenure after taking charge on Saturday.”

Lakshman, Rama & SitaSo, a retired professor can’t head the ICHR? And does an expert on India’s two best-known epics automatically make himself ineligible for a post involving historical research?

And did he really say that the Ramayan and Mahabharat are truthful accounts of events? His exact words were this: “The stories of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat cannot be termed a-historical just because there is not enough archaeological hard evidence. Excavations cannot be done in many places since people are living there and you cannot evict them. A lot of historical material has come through cultural, anthropological, archaeological and ethnographic studies in the last 60 years about the continuous Indian civilisation. The findings can be compiled by researchers. I think the ICHR should support historians interested in doing work on these aspects.”

This is hardly the same as claiming that everything in the two epics is historical fact.

Krishna I am not trying to say Rao and Irani will end up writing or researching the “right” history, but surely they are entitled to do so. If Middle Eastern sites can be excavated to find proof of Jesus’s existence based on Biblical claims, is looking for fact in the Ramayan and Mahabharat necessarily a dubious exercise?

Whether what Smriti Irani and Rao will end up doing will be right or wrong we will know only when they actually show us what they do. Right now, all talk of “rewriting history” and “saffronisation” is a load of bull. The government’s critics are crying wolf too early. – Samachar.com, 5 July 2014

» R. Jagannathan is currently Editor at Web 18, which is part of Network 18. In a journalistic career spanning 35 years, he has edited several national general and business publications, including DNA, Business Today, Business World, Business Standard, Indian Management, and Financial Express. He blogs at Newthink.

Sanskrit: First words recorded on a gramophone disk were from the Rig Veda – WHN

Thomas Edison HMV had once published a pamphlet giving the history of gramophone record. Gramophone was invented by Thomas Alva Edison in the 19th century. Edison, who had invented many other gadgets like electric light and the motion picture camera, had become a legend even in his own time.

When he invented the gramophone record, which could record human voice for posterity, he wanted to record the voice of an eminent scholar on his first piece. For that he chose Prof. Max Muller of  England, another great personality of the 19th century. He wrote to Max Muller saying, “I want to meet you and record your voice. When should I come?” Max Muller who had great respect for Edison asked him to come on a suitable time when most of the scholars of the Europe would be gathering in England .

Friedrich Max Muller by Lock & WhitfieldAccordingly Edison took a ship and went to  England. He was introduced to the audience. All cheered  Edison’s presence. Later at the request of Edison, Max Muller came on the stage and spoke in front of the instrument. Then Edison went back to his laboratory and by afternoon came back with a disc. He played the gramophone disc from his instrument. The audience was thrilled to hear the voice of Max Muller from the instrument. They were glad that voices of great persons like Max Muller could be stored for the benefit of posterity.

After several rounds of applause and congratulations to Thomas Edison, Max Muller came to the stage and addressed the scholars and asked them, “You heard my original voice in the morning. Then you heard the same voice coming out from this instrument in the afternoon. Do you understand what I said in the morning or what you heard in the afternoon?”.

The audience fell silent because they could not understand the language in which Max Muller had spoken. It was ‘Greek and Latin’ to them as they say. But had it been Greek or Latin, they would have definitely understood because they were from various parts of  Europe. It was in a language which the European scholars had never heard.

Max Muller then explained what he had spoken. He said that the language he spoke was Sanskrit and it was the first sloka of Rig Veda, which says “Agni Meele Purohitam”. This was the first recorded public version on the gramophone plate.

अग्निमीळे पुरोहितं यज्ञस्य देवं रत्वीजम |
होतारं रत्नधातमम || Rig Veda 1.001.01

aghnimīḷe purohitaṃ yajñasya devaṃ ṛtvījam |
hotāraṃ ratnadhātamam || Rig Veda 1.001.01

Why did Max Muller choose this? Addressing the audience he said, “Vedas are the oldest text of the human race. And “Agni Meele Purohitam” is the first verse of Rig Veda. In the most primordial time, when the people did not know how even to cover their bodies and lived by hunting and housed in caves, Indians had attained high civilization and they gave the world universal philosophies in the form of the Vedas”

When “Agni Meele Purohitam” was replayed the entire audience stood up in silence as a mark of respect for the ancient Hindu sages.

The verse means

“Oh Agni, You who gleam in the darkness, to You we come day by day, with devotion and bearing homage. So be of easy access to us, Agni, as a father to his son, abide with us for our well being. ”World Hindu News, 29 April 2014

Victor V Disc Phonograph (Gramophone) ca. 1907

May Day: Let’s celebrate the eclipse of the Left! – Virendra Parekh

Virendra Parekh“Marxism is not about equality, justice or poverty removal. It is about power—power over producers of wealth. A socialist state keeps workers on a tight leash. In a mixed economy, socialist politicians love to appropriate for themselves and their vote banks the surplus produced by the private sector. They talk about welfare and social justice but sell the promise of giving something for nothing. They invoke the poor and the workers to justify their plunder. They are the ultimate parasites. ” – Virendra Parekh

CPI (M)  FlagsThe ongoing elections will most likely push the Leftist parties into total irrelevance. Following a dialectics neglected by Marx and Engels, it is the Leftist bloc that is showing signs of withering away. Celebrate it. For, as Cho Ramaswamy put it aptly, if the Left has any future in the country the country has no future left. 

No other ideology has exercised a more perverse and pervasive influence on Indian polity than the local hotchpotch variety of Marxism. That influence is visible in India’s repudiation of its ancient civilisational ethos as the basis of Indian-ness and national integration; its choice of an inward-looking control-ridden economic model, and a ‘non-aligned’ foreign policy that was visibly tilted towards the Soviet bloc. These choices were collectively presented as the national consensus on secularism, socialism and non-alignment. The personality of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had a lot to do with these choices, but that does not detract from the ideology underlying them. 

For each of the choices, the cost has been heavy. Secularism has clouded our vision, confused our intellect and paralysed our will in the name of national integration and communal harmony. It has led to self-doubt and self-forgetfulness, and sapped the national will to deal with fissiparous tendencies and separatist forces. Socialism kept us poor, backward and underdeveloped in the name of planned economic development and growth with social justice. The country was brought to the brink of defaulting on the foreign debt before it agreed to turn its back on Socialism—in a half-hearted and piecemeal manner. By the time non-alignment became irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union, India had been reduced to a third-rate Third World country good mainly at preaching platitudes in international gatherings. 

Blinded by a borrowed ideology, the people of the Book became willing accomplices of foreigners in the subversion of India, secure in the belief that History (with a capital H) was on their side.

 New-York Tribune (1864)Marxists routinely rail against the West, but they rarely realize how thoroughly European Marx was in his thinking about India. For Marx, India was “a country not only divided between Mahommedan and Hindoo, but between tribe and tribe, between caste and caste; a society whose framework was based on a sort of equilibrium resulting from a general repulsion and constitutional exclusiveness between all its members…. The question, therefore, is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton,” he wrote in an article “The Future Results of British Rule in India” published in the New-York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853. His own preference was clear. He went on to write, “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating: the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia”.

Indian Marxists swallowed hook, line and sinker Marx’s view of Indian society as a loose conglomeration of disparate groups and his justification of the British rule in India. It is strange but true that the British domination of India never particularly exercised them. Right from its inception in 1925, the CPI faithfully followed the Soviet line. Its denunciation of Gandhiji and the freedom struggle led by him, sabotage of the Quit India movement, support to demand for Pakistan, and dismissal of independence as a conspiracy between British officialdom and Congress leaders are all recorded facts. At the time of Chinese invasion, some of them sympathized with China and the party split. Their stand on Bangladeshi infiltration has been downright anti-national. On Ram Janmabhoomi they are on the same page as Babri Masjid Action Committee.

Karl Marx despised HindoosIndeed, they took upon themselves England’s “historic” double mission in India, especially the destructive part—the annihilation of old Asiatic society i.e. destruction of India’s ancient civilisation and everything that flows from it. They became the cutting edge of the western civilisation. Their contempt for India, particularly India of religion, culture and philosophy is absolute, uncompromising and unmitigated. And why? Because Marx said religion was opium of masses!

Before and after independence, communists have masterminded subversion of the national psyche with anti-Hindu poison. As academicians, they have systematically and thoroughly distorted and falsified every period of Indian history to rob it of its Hindu ethos and ensure that it contains nothing that a Hindu could be proud of. Inspirational models, practices, metaphors and expressions – both concrete and abstract – have been belittled as marginal or parochial. Everything that is associated with India’s civilizational genius is blackened by deliberately putting it mean-mindedly in the narrowest possible context. In this, they are ably supported by products of the church-run schools and colleges. 

If Marxism poses a lethal threat to Indian civilisation, it poses an equally serious threat to its economic resurgence. Its influence on economic policy wasted four decades of India after independence. When Marxists were elected to rule West Bengal, it was one of the leading industrial states in the country. Thirty-five years later when they were ousted from power, it was among the poorest states, industry had fled, young talent had been forced to move out in search of jobs and investors regarded it as a nightmare. They opposed tooth and nail economic reforms launched since 1991. India’s economic downfall in the last five years is attributed by all independent observers to the populist measures dictated by some Left-leaning elements in the Sonia Gandhi-led NAC. 

Prakash KaratFor all their talk of historical determinism, Indian communists have ignored the changes in technology and the evolving character of the working class. When the young generation is exercised about jobs in the time of economic slowdown, the CPI(M) frets about workers being “the main target of exploitation by the neo-liberal regime.” On terrorism, the communists seem to think the biggest problem facing India isn’t Lashkar-e-Toiba or the Indian Mujahideen but “the bias and targeting of innocent Muslim youth.” 

CPM’s manifesto in 2014 promises a new food security law that would provide for a universal public distribution system excluding only income-tax payees, the enactment of a legislation for employment guarantee in all urban areas, and a sub plan for Muslim minorities. Each of these measures is a recipe for disaster. But then economics was never a strong point of Marx; it has never been one of Marxists. 

With a record like this, the surprise is not that Marxists have a limited political influence, but that they have any. But there is no mystery. 

In an interesting paradox, Marxism appeals to emotions of the intelligent and to intelligence of the illiterate. In thousands of pages of Das Kapital, there is not a single theory which can stand the test of analytical rigour. But Marxism gets over it by promising equality, justice, end of poverty and the “ascent from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom”. 

Lenin Lives! Lenin Lived! Lenin Will Live! (Except in Hindoostan where he is bored and ignored!)As to the workers who know nothing about economics or history, the Theory tells them that their final victory is guaranteed by the march of History; that their biggest ally is Time; they have only to wait for the capitalistic system to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Of course, time has passed and still the Marxists wait. Meanwhile, it was the Soviet Union, that paradise of the Proletariat which imploded from within. 

In practice, Marxism is not about equality, justice or poverty removal. It is about power—power over producers of wealth. A socialist state keeps workers on a tight leash. In a mixed economy, socialist politicians love to appropriate for themselves and their vote banks the surplus produced by the private sector. They talk about welfare and social justice but sell the promise of giving something for nothing. They invoke the poor and the workers to justify their plunder. They are the ultimate parasites. 

The alien origin of Marxism, its religious hatred of Hinduism, its suspicion of freedom, its authoritarian politics and parasitic economics pose a living threat to the Indian nation. 

The last Englishman left will be an Indian, wrote Malcolm Muggeridge. The last communist, in the same vein, may be found in the streets of Calcutta. 

It is a dubious distinction that the country can live without—in both the cases.

Virendra Parekh  is the Executive Editor of  Corporate India and lives in Mumbai. 

Karl Marx's Grave Highgate London

How climate change ended world’s first great civilizations – David Keys

David Keys“Research, carried out by the University of Cambridge and India’s Banaras Hindu University, reveals that a series of droughts lasting some 200 years hit the Indus Valley zone—and was probably responsible for the rapid decline of the great Bronze Age urban civilization of that region.” – David Keys

Indus River ValleyThe world’s first great civilisations appear to have collapsed because of an ancient episode of climate change—according to new research carried out by scientists and archaeologists.

Their investigation demonstrates that the Bronze Age ‘megacities’ of the Indus Valley region of Pakistan and north-west India declined during the 21st and 20th centuries BC and never recovered—because of a dramatic increase in drought conditions.

The research, carried out by the University of Cambridge and India’s Banaras Hindu University, reveals that a series of droughts lasting some 200 years hit the Indus Valley zone—and was probably responsible for the rapid decline of the great Bronze Age urban civilization of that region.

The findings correlate chronologically with drought evidence found over recent years by other scientists who have examined deposits from the bottom of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman as well as stalactites from caves in North east India and southern Arabia.

It’s now thought likely that the droughts at around that time were partly responsible for the collapse not only of the Indus Valley civilization, but also of the ancient Akkadian Empire, Old Kingdom Egypt and possibly Early Bronze Age civilizations in Greece.

“Our evidence suggests that it was the most intense period of drought—probably due to frequent monsoon failure—in the 5000 year-long period we have examined,” said University of Cambridge Palaeoclimate scientist Professor David Hodell.

Drought in IndiaThe scientists studying the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization obtained their new evidence from a dried-up lake bed near New Delhi which is just 40 miles east of the eastern edge of the Indus Valley civilization.

They detected the climatic conditions by examining isotopic evidence from the shells of snails that had lived between 6500 years ago and 1500 years ago.

The isotopic values of the calcium carbonate in the snails’ shells reflected the isotopic value in the water in the lakes at the time they lived.

Because water with oxygen 16 isotopes evaporates more quickly than water with ‘heavier’ oxygen 18 isotopes, the scientists were able to measure changes in evaporation rates over time. This allowed them to identify the start and end of a previously unknown 200 year-long severe drought in the north-west India region which lasted from around 2100 BC to approximately 1900 BC.

In that period, the Indus Valley ‘megacities’—some with populations of up to 100,000—rapidly declined. Populations shrank and the old urban civilization, which had lasted 500 years, collapsed.

“Archaeologists are really in a unique position when investigating climate change in the past, because we hopefully get to see what people were doing in the ‘before, during and after’ phases. We therefore get an opportunity to investigate how ancient populations responded to climatic and environmental Male figurines from Harappachange. How did they cope with periods of water stress? Were their existing ways of life resilient? Were they forced to adapt in order to survive, and if so, precisely what did they do,” said University of Cambridge archaeologist, Dr. Cameron Petrie.

“For the Indus populations, it looks as though living in large groups became untenable, and it was much more sustainable to live in smaller groups. This is of course a huge simplification of a complex process, but this transformation is the underlying dynamic.

“By investigating responses to environmental pressures and threats in the past, we can hopefully learn from the past to engage with the public, and the relevant governmental and administrative bodies to be more pro-active in issues such as the management and administration of water supply, the balance of urban and rural development, and even the importance of preserving cultural heritage in the future,” said Dr Petrie.

The new research is reported in the journal Geology. – Times of India, 3 March 2014

L’affaire Doniger: Untangling the Knot – Jakob De Roover

Dr Jakob De Roover

The controversy about Penguin India’s decision to withdraw and pulp Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History brings to the surface issues likely to trouble scholars of India for years to come. First, the obvious: the banning of any book violates academic or intellectual freedom. Rightly so, this leads to moral indignation among the intelligentsia of India and the West. Our ancestors fought for this freedom, sometimes sacrificing their lives. Not to protect it amounts to betraying their legacy. 

Yet, in this case, the rhetoric is predictable and somewhat stale: 

Another bunch of Hindutva fanatics have succeeded in having a book by a respected academic banned because they feel offended by its contents. They have not understood the book, give ridiculous reasons, and threaten publisher and author with dire consequences if the book is not withdrawn. The Indian judiciary is caving in to religious fanaticism and practically abolishing freedom of speech in India.

This ready-made reaction may sound cogent but it covers up major questions: What brings Hindu organizations to filing petitions that make them the butt of ridicule and contempt? Whence the frustration among so many Indians about the way their culture is depicted? Why is this battle not fought out in the free intellectual debate so typical of India in the past?

So many strands are entangled in this knotty affair that it is no longer clear what is at stake. To move ahead we first need to untangle the knot, but this requires that we take unexpected perspectives and question entrenched convictions. Drawing on the work of S.N. Balagangadhara, this piece hopes to give one such perspective. – Dr Jakob De Roover

Imagine you are born in the 1950s as a Hindu boy with intellectual inclinations. As you grow up, your mother takes you to the temple and shows you how to do puja. Your grandparents tell you stories about Bhima’s strength, Krishna’s appetite, Durvasa’s temper…. Perhaps you rejoice when Rama rescues Sita, feel afraid when Kali fights demons, or cry when Drona demands Ekalavya’s thumb as gurudakshina. Your father is indifferent to most of this stuff, but then he is very moody so you prefer to stay away from him in any case.

In school, you are taught about the history of India. You learn that Hinduism grew out of the Brahmanism imported during the Aryan invasion. The caste system is a fourfold hierarchy imposed by the Brahmin priesthood, so you are told, and untouchability is the bane of Hindu society. Caste discrimination needs to be eradicated, as Gandhi said, while the scientific temper should displace superstitious tradition, as Nehru taught.

Your teachers present this account as the truth, along with Newton’s physics and Darwin’s evolutionary theory. You feel bad about your “backward religion” and ashamed about “the massive injustice of caste.” For some time, as a student, you also mouth this story in the name of progress and social justice. Yet you feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with it. You sense that it misrepresents you and your traditions—it distorts your practices, your people, and your experience, but you don’t know what to do about it.

What is the problem? Well, the current discourse on Indian culture and society is deeply flawed, even though it dominates the educational system and the media. This story about “Hindu religion” and “the caste system” started out as an attempt by European minds to make sense of their experience of India. Missionaries, travellers, and colonial officials collected their observations; Orientalists and other scholars ordered these into a coherent image of India. In the process, they drew on a set of commonplaces widespread in European societies, which all too often reflected a Christian critique of false religion.

The resulting story transforms India into a deficient culture: 

India has its dominant religion, Hinduism, created by cunning Brahmin priests; this religion sanctions social injustice in the form of a fixed caste hierarchy; instead of freedom and equality, it represents inequality and social constraint; it is basically immoral.

With some internal variation, this story is presented as a truthful description of Indian culture. Contemporary authors use different conceptual vocabularies to explain or interpret “Hinduism” and “caste,” from Marx and Freud to Foucault and Žižek. But the so-called “facts” they seek to explain are already claims of the Orientalist discourse, structured around theological ideas in secular guise. In fact, they are nothing more than reflections of how Europeans experienced India. No wonder then that the story does not make sense to those who do not share this experience.

Back to the 1970s now: you are studying hard, for your parents want you to become an engineer. Yet you are more interested in history and the social sciences. You want to make sense of your unease with the dominant story about Indian culture. So you turn to the works of eminent professors at elite universities from the Ivy League to JNU. What do you find? They repeat the same story, in a jargon that makes it even more opaque. You become more frustrated. Everywhere you turn, people just reproduce the same story about Hinduism and caste as the worst thing that ever happened to humanity: politicians, activists, teachers, professors, newspapers, television shows…. They may add some qualifications but to no avail. After spending a few years in America, you return to India, get married, and have two kids. They come home from school with questions about “the wrongs of Hinduism and the caste system.” You don’t know what to tell them. Your frustration and anger rise to boiling point. You feel betrayed by the intellectual classes.

What are the options of Indians going through similar experiences? They cannot challenge the story about Hinduism and caste intellectually for they do not possess the tools to do so. They are neither scholars nor social scientists so they cannot be expected to grasp the conceptual foundations of the dominant story, let alone develop an alternative. Maximally, they can condemn it as “racist” or “imperialist.” Even there, they are ambiguous. They feel that the West is ahead of India in so many ways. In their society, corruption is the rule and the caste system refuses to go away, but then most people around them nevertheless appear to be good men and women. How to make sense of this? There are no thinkers able to help them solve these problems.

When you turn 45, your children leave home. One fine day a colleague tells you he is with the RSS and hands you some literature. Here is an outlet for venting your anger and frustration, the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism: 

“Be a patriotic Indian; the Hindu nation is great; caste is only a blot on its glory; Indian intellectuals are communists engaged in an anti-Indian conspiracy; and foreign scholars must be out to divide the country.” 

This rhetoric does not give you any enlightenment or insights into your traditions; actually, it feels quite shallow. But it at least gives some relief and puts an end to the blame and insult heaped onto your traditions. With some fellow warriors you decide that the mis-education of India should stop. What is the next step?

At this point, there are ready-made traps. First, it is difficult not to notice how those in power in India decide what gets written in the textbooks. Under British rule, it was the classical Orientalist account. Mrs Gandhi allowed the Marxists to take control of the relevant government bodies (they could acquire only “soft power” there, after all) and reject Indian culture as a particularly backward instance of false consciousness. For decades now, secularists have set the agenda and funded research projects and centres for “humiliation and exclusion studies.” Once the BJP comes to power, why not rewrite the textbooks and run educational bodies according to Hindutva tastes?

Second, there are examples of successful attempts at having books banned in the name of religion. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is the cause célèbre. The relevant section of the Indian Penal Code crystallized in the context of early 20th-century controversies about texts that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad. At the time, some jurists argued that non-Muslims could not be expected to endorse the special status given by Muslims to Muhammad as the messenger of God. That would indirectly force all citizens to accept Islam as true religion. Yet it was precisely there that Muslim litigants succeeded. If one group could use the law to indirectly compel all citizens to accept its claims concerning its holy book, religious doctrines and divine prophet, why not follow the same route?

Third, American scholars of religion came in handy for once. They had identified some questions they considered central to religious studies: What is the relation between insider and outsider perspectives? Who has the right to speak for a religion, the believer or the scholar? Originally, these were questions essential to a religion like Christianity, where accepting God’s revelation is the precondition of grasping its message. Yet the potential answers turned out to be useful to others: “Only Hindus should speak for Hinduism and scholarship can be allowed only in so far as it respects the believer’s perspective.”

What gives Hindu nationalists the capacity to conform so easily to these models? This is because they generally reproduce the Orientalist story about Hinduism, just adding another value judgement. They may believe they are fighting the secularists; in fact, they are also prisoners of what Balagangadhara has called “colonial consciousness.” That is, the Western discourse about India functions as the descriptive framework through which Hindu nationalists understand themselves and their culture. They also accept that this culture is constituted by a religion with its own sacred scriptures, gods, revelations, and doctrines. Within this framework, they can then easily mimic Islamic and Christian concerns about blasphemy and offence. Add the 19th-century Victorian prudishness adopted by the Indian middle class and you get prominent strands of the Doniger affair.

Consider the petition by Dinanath Batra and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. Doniger’s suggestion that the Ramayana is a work of fiction written by human authors—a claim that would hardly create a stir in most Indians—is now transformed into a violation of the sacred scriptures of Hinduism. The petition claims that the cover of the book is offensive because “Lord Krishna is shown sitting on buttocks of a naked woman surrounded by other naked women” and that Doniger’s approach is that “of a woman hungry of sex.” It expresses shock at her claim that some Sanskrit texts reflect the “glorious sexual openness and insight” of the era in which they were written. To anyone familiar with the harm caused by Christian attitudes towards sex-as-sin, this would count as a reason to be proud of Indian culture. Yet the grips of Victorian morality have made these Hindus ashamed of a beautiful dimension of their traditions. 

In the meantime, our middle-aged gentleman’s daughter has gone into the humanities and her excellent results give her entry to a PhD programme in religious studies at an Ivy League university. After some months, she begins to feel disappointed by the shallowness of the teaching and research. When compared to, say, the study of Buddhism, where a variety of perspectives flourish, Hinduism studies appears to be in a state of theoretical poverty. Refusing to take on the role of the native informant, she begins to voice her disagreement with her teachers. This is not appreciated and she soon learns that she has been branded “Hindutva.”

Around the same time, she detects a series of factual howlers and flawed translations in the works of eminent American scholars of Hinduism. When she points these out, several of her professors turn cold towards her. She is no longer invited to reading groups and is avoided at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion. In response, this budding researcher begins to engage in self-censorship and looks for comfort among NRI families living nearby. Her dissertation, considered groundbreaking by some international colleagues, gets hardly any response from her supervisors. Looking for a job, the difficulties grow: she needs references from her professors but whom can she ask? She applies to some excellent universities but is never shortlisted. Confidentially, a senior colleague tells her that her reputation as a Hindutva sympathiser precedes her. Eventually, she gets a tenure-track position at some university in small-town Virginia, where she feels so isolated and miserable that she decides to return to India.

Intellectual freedom can be curbed in many ways. The current academic discourse on Indian culture is as dogmatic as its advocates are intolerant of alternative paradigms. They trivialize genuine critique by reducing this to some variety of “Hindu nationalism” or “romantic revivalism.” All too often ad hominem considerations (about the presumed ideological sympathies of an author) override cognitive assessment. Thus, alternative voices in the academic study of Indian culture are actively marginalized. This modus operandi constitutes one of the causes behind the growing hostility towards the doyens of Hinduism studies.

Again this strand surfaces in the Doniger affair. When critics pointed out factual blunders from the pages of The Hindus, this appears to have been happily ignored by Doniger and her publisher. She is known for her dismissal of all opposition to her work as tantrums of the Hindutva brigade. The debates on online forums like Kafila.org (a blog run by “progressive” South Asian intellectuals) smack of contempt for the “Hindu fanatics,” “fundamentalists” or “fascists” (read Arundathi Roy’s open letter to Penguin). More importantly, they show a refusal to examine the possibility that books by Doniger and other “eminent” scholars might be problematic because of purely cognitive reasons.

For instance, the petition charges Doniger with an agenda of Christian proselytizing hidden behind the “tales of sex and violence” she tells about Hinduism. This generates ridicule: Doniger is Jewish and she is a philologist not a missionary. Indeed, this point appears ludicrous and lacks credibility when put so crudely. As said, it also reflects the Victorian prudishness to which some social layers have succumbed. Yet, it pays off to try and understand this issue from a cognitive point of view.

A major problem of early Christianity in the Roman Empire was how to distinguish true Christians from pagan idolaters. Originally, martyrdom had been a helpful criterion but, once Christianity became dominant, the persecution ended and there were no more martyrs to be found. The distinction between true and false religion could not limit itself to specific religious acts. Those who followed the true God should also be demarcated from the followers of false gods by their everyday behaviour. Sex became a central criterion here. Christians were characterized in terms of chastity as opposed to pagan debauchery. (If you wish to see how this image of Greco-Roman paganism lives on in America, watch an episode of the television series Spartacus.)

From then on, Christians believed they could recognize false religion and its followers in terms of lewd sexual practices. Early travel reports sent from India to Europe, like those of the Italian traveller Ludovico di Varthema, confirmed this image of pagan idolatry: “Brahmin priests” and “superstitious believers” engaged in a variety of  “obscene” practices from deflowering virgins in various ways to swapping wives for a night or two. Conversion to Christianity would entail conversion to chastity.

Reinforced by Victorian obsessions, this style of representing Indian religion reached its climax in the late 19th century. Hinduism was said to be the prime instance of “sex worship” and “phallicism,” notions popular at the time for explaining the origin of religion. Take a work by Hargrave Jennings—cleric, freemason, amateur of comparative religion—imaginatively titled Phallic Miscellanies; Facts and Phases of Ancient and Modern Sex Worship, As Illustrated Chiefly in the Religions of India (1891). The opening sentence goes thus: “India, beyond all countries on the face of the earth, is pre-eminently the home of the worship of the Phallus—the Linga puja; it has been so for ages and remains so still. This adoration is said to be one of the chief, if not the leading dogma of the Hindu religion….” It goes on to explain that “according to the Hindus, the Linga is God and God is the Linga; the fecundator, the generator, the creator in fact.” In other words, the Hindus view the phallus as their divine Creator and its worship is their dogma. This is one of a series of works from this period, expressing both fascination and disgust.

This focus on sex remained central to the popular image of Indian religion in the Western world. In her infamous Mother India (1927), the American Katherine Mayo writes that the Hindu infant that survives the birth-strain, “a feeble creature at best, bankrupt in bone-stuff and vitality, often venereally poisoned, always predisposed to any malady that may be afloat,” is raised by a mother guided by primitive superstitions. “Because of her place in the social system, child-bearing and matters of procreation are the woman’s one interest in life, her one subject of conversation, be her caste high or low. Therefore, the child growing up in the home learns, from earliest grasp of word and act, to dwell upon sex relations”. From there, Mayo turns to a reflection on the obsession for “the male generative organ” in Hindu religion. Among the consequences are child marriage and other immoral practices: “Little in the popular Hindu code suggests self-restraint in any direction, least of all in sex relations”.

In short, the connection established between Hinduism and sexuality was based in a Christian frame that served to distinguish pagan idolaters from true believers. Wendy Doniger’s work builds on this tradition. Like some of her predecessors, she appreciates the sexual freedom involved, but then she also tends to stress two aspects: sex and caste. This is not a coincidence, for these always counted as two major properties allowing Western audiences to appreciate the supposed inferiority of Hinduism. In other words, the sense that the current depiction of Indian traditions in terms of caste and sex is connected to earlier Christian critiques of false religion cannot be dismissed so easily.

Does this mean that researchers should give in to the campaigns of holier-than-thou bigots? Does it justify the banning or withdrawal of books? Not at all! First, who will decide what counts as true knowledge and what as salacious or gratuitous insult? In the US, evangelicals would like to remove Darwin’s Origin of Species from schools because they consider it unscientific and offensive. If it continues to follow its current route, the Indian judiciary may well end up banning a variety of such books. Second, book bans fail to have any fundamental effect on the kind of work produced about India. The epitome of the “sex and caste” genre, Arthur Miles’ The Land of the Lingam (1937), was banned many decades ago. Even though political correctness altered the language use and removed explicit mockery, many works continue to represent Hinduism along similar lines. Third, the Kama Sutra and the Koka Shastra, the temples of Khajuraho and Konarak, Tantric traditions and the Indian science of erotics are all fascinating phenomena, which need to be studied and understood. But we have an equal responsibility to make sense of the concerns of Indians horrified by the currently dominant depiction of their traditions. All this research should happen in complete freedom or it shall not happen at all.

The dispute about Doniger’s book is a product of all these forces, including the peculiarities of the Indian Penal Code (better left to legal experts). What is the way out? How can we untangle the knot?

To cope with complex cases like these, the first step should take the form of scientific research. The disagreement with the work of Doniger and other scholars can be expressed in a reasonable manner. The theoretical poverty and shoddy way of dealing with facts and translations exhibited by such works can be challenged on cognitive grounds. This is the only way to alleviate the frustration of our Hindu gentleman (a grandfather by now) and to illuminate the intellectual concerns of his daughter. In any case, we need to appreciate how the current story about Hinduism and caste continues to reproduce ideas derived from Christianity and its conceptual frameworks. As long as we keep selling the experience that one form of life (Western culture) has had of another (Indian culture) as God-given truth, the current conflict will not abate and our understanding of India will not progress.

But the same goes for using the Indian Penal Code to have books banned. Inevitably, this has chilling effects on the search for knowledge, at a time when India needs free research more than ever to save it from catastrophe. As is always the case, scientific research will bring about unexpected and unorthodox results. At any point, some or another group may feel offended by these, but this should never prevent us from continuing to pursue truth.

Unfortunately, the Indian government and judiciary have taken the route of succumbing to “offence” and “atrocity” claims by all kinds of communities. Given the political situation, this is unlikely to change any time soon. We can express moral outrage today. But tomorrow the challenge is to develop hypotheses that make sense of the current developments in India, including the violent rejection of the dominant representations of Indian culture. These need to show the way to new solutions so that an end may be brought to the banning and destruction of books in a culture that was always known for its intellectual freedom. – Outlook, 18 February 2014

» Dr Jakob De Roover is a researcher at the India Platform, Ghent University, Belgium. His research concerns the cultural differences between Europe and India, particularly in the domain of politics and questions of secularism and tolerance.

Doniger’s Hindus: Whose faith is it anyway? – Aseem Shukla

Dr. Aseem Shukla“Whether … a licentious foray into Hinduism studies is protected by free speech is not the question. Doniger can write and believe what she wishes. But Hindus are asking if publishers should bear responsiblity for copious factual and interpretive errors. This demand … to combat Doniger’s view of their religion cannot be reduced to an unhinged ban-the-book crusade. Asking a publisher to hold publishing of a book until errors are corrected carries strong … precedent.” – Dr. Aseem Shukla 

The Hindus: An Alternative HistoryHistory empowers and history emasculates. History, like art, is beautiful or odious to the beholder. There are winners and losers when history is assessed, and there are protagonists and antagonists. Historians recognize the onerous burden of their profession in these times when a spare use of the word “genocide” in the House of Representatives to describe events in Armenia decades ago led Turkey to recall its ambassador. And politics infuses the narratives of history. Anti-Semitism, Marxism, white supremacy, all are known to prejudice renditions of peoples, cultures and religions.

Historian Wendy Doniger, professor of the History of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, finds herself in the midst of a history book kerfufflle of her own [this essay was written in March 2010]. Doniger, long enjoying exalted status as the doyen of Hindu studies in the American academy, faces scrutiny now in an unfolding drama involving her latest book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. An online petition asking Penguin Press, the publishers of the book, to hold publication and demand revisions is approaching 10,000 signatures. And when the book was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, Hindu activists staged a rare protest outside the award ceremony [in March 2010]. The book did not win.

Hindus know that Doniger was derailed before. In 2003, Microsoft retracted a chapter on Hinduism written by Doniger for its online encyclopedia after a heavily publicized internet campaign protested factual and interpretive errors in her essay. In the end, a Hindu writer, providing the emic, or insider’s perspective, wrote an entry that depicted Hinduism in the light that practitioners would actually recognize.

This latest “alternative” history book was released [in 2009], but opposition has escalated after a newer edition was released in India [in 2010] and the book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award (she didn’t win).

Prof. Wendy DonigerThat there would be trouble was apparent right from the preface of her book. There, Doniger asserts that hers is not a history of how Hinduism is lived today, but rather offers a “narrative alternative” to the one found in Hinduism’s holiest scriptures. This 780-page tome is set as Doniger’s rendering of Hinduism’s history based–we are to assume–on her own interpretations of scripture, her own biases and inclinations. Infamous for her penchant to sexualize, eroticize and exoticise passages from some of the holiest Hindu epics and scriptures–often invoking a Freudian psychoanalytic lens–Doniger has been accused of knowingly polarizing and inflaming. She does not disappoint.

I revisit her work now not just because Doniger provokes so many of us in the Hindu American community. Doniger represents what many believe to be a fundamental flaw in the academic study of Hinduism: that Hindu studies is too often the last refuge of idiosyncratic and irreligious academics presenting themselves as “experts” on a faith that they study without the insight, recognition or reverence of, in this case, a practicing Hindu or even non-Hindu–striving to study Hinduism from the insider’s perspective–would offer.

As a surgeon working in the medical school of a large university, I hold my academic freedom as sacrosanct. My own writings, even here on OnFaith, are a reflection of the liberty I presume and cannot compromise. But this freedom comes with a sober responsibility. When I publish manuscripts and books, I am personally responsible for the veracity of the contents, statistical calculations, and scientific conclusions. These are not always empirical, and much editorializing is demanded. But my freedom is predicated on the accuracy of my work and the fairness of my conclusions. And errors, or playing fast and loose with editorial privilege in fact, if purposeful, can lead to harsh legal and ethical repercussions.

An “alternative” rendering is, of course, Doniger’s right. But when venturing into the alternate, if the factual is deprecated and editorializing privileged, if the treatment of a religion adhered to by over a billion is rendered unrecognizable in its iteration, a door is opened to bias, spin and errors. Over the last year, these are what many believe to have uncovered, and the ramifications are real.

Vishal Agarwal“Tell me where I have interpreted something wrong,” Doniger challenged her critics and the gauntlet was picked up. Factual inaccuracies in her latest book were detailed in a prominent Indian media outlet, and a lay historian, Vishal Agarwal, posted a detailed, chapter by chapter riposte to Doniger’s history that has been widely circulated. Not phrased in the niceties of academic parlance, perhaps, but Agarwal’s methodical work opens the door to questions about Doniger’s research, attention to detail, methodology, and more disturbingly, intentions behind her latest venture. Another detailed rebuttal to a single chapter spanning over twenty-two pages was posted by another writer this week [in March 2010].

Parallelisms in her book conjure up obsolete anecdotes comparing the sacred stone linga representing Lord Shiva to a leather strap-on sex toy, and Lord Rama, one of the most widely worshiped deities, is psychoanalyzed to have acted out of fear that he was becoming a sex-addict like his father. As Agarwal shows, Doniger’s prose is replete with cutesy, perhaps, but offensive and jejune turns of phrases such as, “If the motto of Watergate was ‘Follow the money’, the motto of the history of Hinduism could well be ‘Follow the monkey’ or, more often ‘Follow the horse’.” And in another section, her interpretations of the Rig Veda, the most ancient of the Vedas that Hindus consider sacred, Doniger sees incest and adultery with a pregnant woman in a verse praying to God for protection and safe delivery.

A Danish cartoonist would be hard pressed to match the disturbing parodies of a believer’s faith that Doniger offers throughout the book. The great Hindu yogi, Patanjali, cautioned in the 2nd century BCE against falling into the trap of false “meaning making” when reading scriptures that contain subtle, esoteric meanings as well as moral edicts. Doniger’s book, then, could be read as an idiosyncratic exposition that is “meaning making” out of profound revelations perhaps not meant for the spiritually untrained, untempered, and non-seeking mind.

It is not just that there are documented errors in fact predicated on errors in interpretation and context, but Hindus argue that Doniger seems to delight in celebrating the most obscure and arcane of anecdotes or stories from the hoary expanse of Hindu epics and scriptures. Privileging the absurd–dissembling it as an alternative–comes across as a specious exercise of a motivated author seeking spice to sell books.

It would seem a given that a book on religious history–intertwined with all of the inherent faith, emotion, and sensibilities that religion evokes in believers–would be approached with a modicum of restraint and sensitivity, if not deference. But instead, Doniger delights in inverting the filial into the incestuous, devotion into eroticism, and pride into chauvinism.

Whether such a licentious foray into Hinduism studies is protected by free speech is not the question. Doniger can write and believe what she wishes. But Hindus are asking if publishers should bear responsiblity for copious factual and interpretive errors.

This demand from Hindus to combat Doniger’s view of their religion cannot be reduced to an unhinged ban-the-book crusade. Asking a publisher to hold publishing of a book until errors are corrected carries strong recent precedent. Recall that publication of The Jewel of Medina was abruptly dropped by Random House last year when fear grew that a story about one of the wives of the prophet Muhammad would spark violence from the Muslim community, and just last week, publisher Holt and Company halted publication of The Last Train from Hiroshima when factual errors were uncovered in critical parts of the book.

Doniger’s alternate version of Hindu history, now playing in over 700 libraries in North America and Europe, raises a real fear that her “alternative” will become the mainstream. This issue is important to a minority striving to take control of its own narrative–a struggle repeated by generations of Americans as their voice grows and progeny prospers.

It remains to be seen if Hindus will prove their latest case against Doniger in the court of public opinion, but analagous allegations of academic bias are well known. The Southern Poverty Law Center continues to wage a public campaign against an anti-Semitic professor at Cal State Long Beach, and open protests continue against a faculty member holding white supremacy views at the University of Vermont. Each professor has academic freedom, but an agitating laity is wondering if institutions must support the mendacity of bigoted players devaluing that freedom.

Prof. Vamsee JuluriDoniger has tended to dismiss criticisms from Hindus as politically motivated, chauvinistic, sexist, casteist–the list is long. It is as Vamsee Julluri, Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco, wrote:

“The academy has gone almost directly from the Orientalist myth of Hindu superstition to the postmodern concern about Hindu fundamentalism, without even a notice of the great Hindu religion in between, and what it means to its followers and admirers. The academy must engage with Hinduism more positively.”

Academic freedom is sacrosanct. But academic legitimacy in the eyes of the public sets a much higher bar. – Onfaith, 17 March 2010

» Dr. Aseem Shukla is the Director of Minimally Invasive Surgery in the Department of Urology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA and is an Associate Professor of Surgery (Urology) at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Shukla is the co-founder and board member of the Hindu American Foundation.


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