Dalits and racism in anti-Hindu propaganda – Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst“Whereas Christian missionaries have invested heavily in studying Hindu society and its subsets as defined by language, caste or social class, most Hindus including anti-conversion activists are unfamiliar with the Christian mentality.  Hindu polemicists listen to their own and each other’s words and then think: how great, how clever.  But if you want to get a message across to an audience, you should listen to the effect you’re having on this audience.  So, as an ex-Christian and still daily in touch with Christian circles, I would like to point out certain beliefs and attitudes that immunize Christians against the charge of being no better than Hindus with their caste oppression.” – Dr. Koenraad Elst 

Sex slavery in Saudi Arabia continues till today.The abolition of the slave trade in the British empire (1807) is being used by Christian missionary circles as an occasion for Hindu-bashing through the theme of caste oppression as a still-existing form of slavery.  Hindu polemicists typically react by highlighting the human rights abuses committed by Christians or in the name of Christianity through the centuries: witch-burning, persecution of pagans and heretics, racism, apartheid and of course the slave trade itself.  The intended implication is that Christians are morally in no position to berate Hindus for their social injustices and had better not meddle in inter-Hindu matters.  This may be a correct and convincing position to take in front of a neutral or as yet uninformed audience, but with Christians who know their religion, it is hopelessly ineffective.

Whereas Christian missionaries have invested heavily in studying Hindu society and its subsets as defined by language, caste or social class, most Hindus including anti-conversion activists are unfamiliar with the Christian mentality.  Hindu polemicists listen to their own and each other’s words and then think: how great, how clever.  But if you want to get a message across to an audience, you should listen to the effect you’re having on this audience.  So, as an ex-Christian and still daily in touch with Christian circles, I would like to point out certain beliefs and attitudes that immunize Christians against the charge of being no better than Hindus with their caste oppression.

First of all, the historical facts and present eyesores which you want to shove into their faces and of which you expect that they will shock and awe Christians into silence about caste, are already widely known and acknowledged.  On the 900th anniversary of the Crusades, a perfectly justified Christian reaction against Muslim imperialism, numerous Christians indulged in a guilt trip and said sorry to the Muslims.  But most of all, they impressed it upon themselves (far more thoroughly than you could hope to do) what evil sinners they had been back then, and how this should spur them into being nice to today’s Muslims.  To Christians, past sins are a matter for repentance vis-à-vis God, but ultimately only the normal course of things, since we’re all sinners.  So they are not uptight about having sins on their record and won’t be blackmailed about this.

Secondly, repentance about sins past is proven precisely by a commitment to avoid and combat similar sins in the present.  It is not enough to say your confession of sins, you have to resolve to undo the sins’ consequences and go out of your way to remove them from this world.  So, precisely because Christians have been guilty of slave trading etc., they have a duty to combat similar inequality now.  And this must not be limited to their own backyard, for sins are both by commission as by omission, i.e. standing by passively when others get away with committing them. Because of their past sins, they feel obliged to meddle in your sins today.  Just as after abolishing the slave trade and then slavery itself in the British Empire, the British felt obliged to go out and impose its abolition on the Ottomans, the Arabs and others.  This is a moral imperative.  In missionary-speak: “We have been part of the problem so now we must become part of the solution.”

Hindus could have guilt-tripped modern Westerners into leaving the injustices of Hindu society alone if they had been Africans or Muslims.  More perceptive Westerners would not be inhibited versus these two either (Muslims traded black, white and Indian slaves; while Africans enslaved and sold off their own brethren to Arab and European slave-traders), but most of them, and especially politicians, don’t dare to speak against those two groups.  But Hindus are a different matter altogether.

Hindu polemicists talk about “white racism” as if they are totally oblivious to the torrent of anti-racist re-education that has swept Western society in the past half century.  The problem is not just that Hindus cultivate an anachronistic world-view, apparently drawing a good feeling about themselves from pretending to live in the colonial age and occupying the moral high ground of the anti-colonial struggle.  This is bad enough, for movements based on self-deception stand defeated from the very start; but in the present case, it also blinds them to the transformation of anti-racism from a force working in favour of the standing of non-European peoples to one that actually makes things worse for them.  Or at least for those among them who have a solid reputation of racism, viz. the Hindus.

Where did caste originate?It is precisely anti-racism that makes Westerners self-righteous vis-à-vis Hindus.  Whereas social injustice in Western or even in Muslim society is duly recognized, it doesn’t have the extreme stigma of the caste system because the latter is conceived as a form of racism.  In the past, I have argued left and right that the basis of caste is not racial, but who am I?  International organizations and influential observers keep on repeating that the caste system is a huge instance of racial apartheid.  And this much must be conceded, that it is at any rate hereditary inequality, so that castes can be considered as micro-races.  The mega-scale and mega-age of Hindu society add to the image of the caste system as the most monstrous racism in world history.

Indeed, if caste is arguably (though few would argue even this much) preferable to outright slavery, even anti-racists consider it a few notches worse than the apartheid as it existed in South Africa.  The whites oppressed the blacks, but they also provided some elementary services to them, such as modern medicine and “the liberating message of Christianity”, they gave black elites the sop of becoming government officials in the “homelands“, they did not totally neglect them.  For all its exploitative ruthlessness in practice, the apartheid philosophy (like post-slavery colonial policies elsewhere in Africa) was not to ignore the blacks but to treat them as children who would benefit from white supervision.  By contrast, the international image of caste society is one of extreme callousness, in which upper-caste people see lower-caste people dying on their doorstep and remain unmoved.  Apartheid was an institution within which human exceptions existed, with some whites sympathizing with the blacks — whereas in the international perception, caste is so ugly and cruel because it is totally heartfelt, with the upper-caste people persisting in caste-racist discrimination even after its formal abolition as an institution.  Doesn’t everybody outside India “know” that a Mother Teresa was needed to pick up the paupers from the gutter where the smug upper-caste Hindus left them to rot?

Mark TullyAs Mark Tully has testified: “Whenever I go and give a talk on Hinduism, and when I say something nice about it, invariably someone from the audience will object: ‘I think Hinduism is a disgusting religion because of the caste system.'”  And this from modern people sufficiently educated to know that all societies have their problems and iniquities, their own not excepted.  In their perception, the uniquely evil thing about Hindu caste-racism is how deep it has gripped and moulded the Hindu mind, by virtue of being a religiously-justified doctrine, not just a worldly circumstance but entirely intertwined with deep philosophical stuff about dharma and karma.  Christianity has in fact managed to shed slavery because slavery is not of the essence of Christianity, or so the perception goes; whereas caste is of the very essence of Hinduism.

Another common anachronism in the Hindu position is to identify the Christian missionary apparatus as “white”.  This does of course have a basis in historical reality but is becoming increasingly inaccurate.  Christian missionaries in Asia are now typically Koreans or Filipinos or Keralites, not whites.  And don’t say that they are only the infantry: in most Churches you see them rising through the ranks.  Remember how in the Anglican Church, conservative African bishops formed a formidable bloc opposing the Anglo-American progressives on issues of women priests and acceptance of homosexuality.  At any rate, these non-white converts have internalized the faith and the missionary zeal, just as the white North-Europeans (the demographic mainstay of the US Baptists and other missionary powerhouses) had at one time internalized Christianity after learning it from Mediterranean missionaries, who in turn had it from the Jewish-born “first Christians“.  It is no use denying that Christianity has morphed across racial frontiers several times already, and that it is repeating this process right now.  Even the remaining white Church leaders are clever enough to send coloured Church spokesmen to interreligious forums where race could be an issue, so Hindus won’t be able to use the anti-white line against them.

Dalit Christians demand equal rights in ChurchesAs for the anti-caste mobilization, millions of blacks too have accepted the idea that caste is a form of slavery and racism.  Just as millions of Scheduled Caste converts who had never thought of caste in terms of race have by now internalized the idea that caste is the ultimate in racism.  You won’t shock them into silence with references to white injustice.  On the contrary, to them the struggle against caste oppression is simply the continuation of the historical struggle against slavery and apartheid.

So, that in my opinion is what Hindus are up against.  The Christian missionaries are nothing if not clever.  They sail with the opinion winds and have ably made the switch from colonial racism to postcolonial anti-racism, and now they are using this new line with good effect against Hindu society.  Digging up the dirt on “white Christian” history will only evoke a yawn, as that dirt has been dished out already all over the official textbooks and media in Christian countries.  If Hindus want to stop the gains continually made by the Christians in the battle for the souls, there is no alternative to the laborious task of

(1) informing the world about the more complex and less extreme reality of the caste system in history and in the present;

(2) actually reforming society to the point where caste oppression is only a memory — and ensuring that the world knows about this; and

(3) refocusing the Hindu-Christian struggle to its proper doctrinal level, where the defining Christian teachings can be exposed as the unhistorical claims and irrational beliefs that they really are.  Plus, of course, reaching out to the converts who are willing or eager to return to the Hindu fold.

These are big and demanding jobs, but carry a better promise of success than locking yourself in a smug self-assurance of how evil Christians are. – Voice of Dharma, 2007

» Dr. Koenraad studied at the Catholic University of 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, for which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he has earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state.

Caste segregated Christian graveyard in Tamil Nadu

8 Responses

  1. As far as I could see, Elst has done only a ‘purva paksha’ (description of another’s point of view) in his article. What one gets from it is that:

    1. The missionaries and their fellow travelers, the Marxists, have succeeded in blackening the name of Hinduism using the institution of caste in a completely lopsided manner.

    2. Hindus are up against the above stereotype that is backed by habit, intellectual laziness, money and media (and often muscle) power, as well as long-standing ‘academic’ endorsement.

    This is unexceptionable, even if it is the unpalatable reality.

    The reactions from Hindus make it clear that it takes a lot to get through to them, though they never tire of hawking the virtues of ‘introspection.’ Perhaps Elst could have provided some elementary punctuation and a boldface disclaimer to deflect the predictable rage that he should have seen coming – something like “whatever I write after the asterisks and before the dotted line is not my opinion, just the prevailing opinion in western and even African circles.” And then, have ***** followed by relevant paragraphs followed by ————.

    As for Elst’s actual (fairly nuanced and well-informed) opinion on caste, one has only to read the following article he wrote for Hinduism Today:

    http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=3336

    Most prophetically, Elst starts the above article with the following assertion that now stands empirically verified, given the reactions the article has elicited:

    “In an inter-faith debate, most Hindus can easily be put on the defensive with a single word-caste.”

    Attention spans being what they are (or aren’t), the barrage of criticism from Hindus of all hues – from attacking white skin (Radha Rajan) to ‘informing’ Elst of the usefulness of caste networks in trade (Vijaya Rajiva) only proves another point Elst has been making endlessly: That Hindus excel at wilful preaching to the choir, even if that is a Christian metaphor.

    • Thank you for the comment and the link. Dr. Elst’s article on caste has now been re-posted.

      I don’t think Dr. Elst’s critics have actually read his article. They see a few phrases and fly into a rage after taking his statements out of context.

      I have a lot of respect for Radha Rajan’s and Sandhya Jain’s work, and I have also been a victim of their racial abuse. I have told them many times, their racist references to white people is unacceptable in today’s discourse. It is a self-indulgence that alienates readers and undermines their credibility. Their claim that racist terminology is a political category is rather far-fetched and a belated attempt to hide prejudices.

  2. A few random points —

    1. The Brahmin, who supposedly was at the pinnacle of the ‘caste’ hierarchy, is at the bottom rung in Tamil Nadu today, discriminated against in every way, and despised because of decades of negative propaganda. The West coudn’t care less, tho most of those running away from their roots in Tamil Nadu are contributing richly to its progress. The West raises the question of caste discriminatin only to get more converts to a religion that is based exclusively on untruths and forgeries.

    2. ‘Caste’, at most, is a social phenomenon, and in my opinion Hinduism can not only survive but thrive without it in a big way.

    3. Mark Tully loves India, but does he luv Hinduism that much. I have my doubts.

    4. Whatever Dr Elst says now, Hindus shud thank him in every way for the significant work he has done for Hinduism till now.

  3. My first reaction to Dr. Elst’s article is that he seems to be under pressure, since he is a non Hindu spokesperson for Hindus and is both embarrassed and impatient that he has to speak on behalf of Hindus when Hindus should be doing their bit of heavy lifting. I wonder if this is precisely because he is not a Hindu. Ditto for Mark Tully. By odd coincidence I was thinking this morning (just prior to reading the Elst article) that the famous hymn in the Veda is about the division of labour. There is nothing about the later development of Untouchability (which occurred long after around 300 B.C. according to scholars)and caste itself i.e. the guild like development of economic activity was the basis of India’s prosperity. I think we Hindus should proceed along these tried and tested arguments in defence of what we are doing. Getting distracted by Dr. Elst’s recasting of the debate in terms of the old white racism and Hindu incompetence in dealing with it is a wrong route to take , although that is not his intention I believe (i.e. distracting us). I would recommend that he continue on his own trajectory of defending the complex Hindu system of caste.

    I had a similar experience when in response to my article in Vijayvaani ‘ Village Agama : A contiguous tradition with Veda and Agama’ (18 Aug. 2012) a person calling himself/herself Vas, suggested that Hindu intellectuals should propagate yoga etc. among the aliens in the US. This had nothing to do with my own article, although the suggestion was well intended. My impression was that this person was a non Hindu. And ofcourse, the damage being done by over enthusiastic Hindus in distancing themselves from the Hindu roots of yoga actually led to some idiotic aliens (the word ‘aliens’ is the word used by Vas, not me) loudly proclaiming that there is nothing Hindu about Yoga. I did not reply to Vas because my attention was on a jihadi on the website. I managed to shake the jihadi off by responding argument by argument to his arguments. I also told him that we Hindus consider it a great fortune to be Hindu and we are not interested in other religions. As for the history of Islamic conquests I am already well informed and could we return to the subject of my article which is Veda, Agama and Village Agama ? That stopped him.

    Hence, we as Hindu intellectuals can and should continue setting up our own line of defences and attacks and I do not believe that we are being complacent about this task. En passant, Dr. Elst may want to use the economic argument against his white interlocutors, namely that the economic imperialism of the past is still very much there, even though the new buzz word is ‘globalisation’. This is only one of my suggestions, since his trajectory must necessarily be different from ours and it can even be considered a division of labour amongst us.

    I should also add that it is shocking that we Hindus had to wait till Salman Khan produced his film on the 3 lakh manual scavengers. It may also interest Dr. Elst that conservative Hindus, yes a Hindu from the royal family of Travancore, actually broke with a 300 hundred year old tradition of not allowing women’s participation in the navaratri celebrations at the palace by bringing in a woman musician to perform there.

    But I repeat : Dr. Elst’s burden is different from ours, although we can without getting too entangled with it, borrow from some of his arguments.

  4. Now this is once again white intellectual elite attempting to define the parameters and idiom of racism. Racism is as much about race as it is about politics as done by the white race.

    The white race, as a political category is despised by its victims for the political instruments it devised and used to subjugate non christians and non whites.

    To now say that this dislike and expression of dislike of the white race is also racism is to say a rape victim’s natural revulsion of the male species is sexism.

    The white race either wants to be ring master with the rest of the world playing circus animals or it wants us to look up at it helplessly while it assumes a paternalist role.

    Swamiji why this renewed attack against Hindu intelelctuals now? And permit me to be blunt, none of this will deter me from always looking out for Sonia Gandhi even in our religious domain.

    I dont want to be told how to fight my battles and what weapons to use.

    And actually I think this is a lot more sophisticated than the HAF but it is only that – an attack against our varna jaati and kula vyasvastha. This also cleverly re-christens varna and jaati as caste and then caste with racism. I sincerely hope hindus will not engage with Dr. Elst on this issue. I see this as deliberately provocative and needless and intended to waste our energies saying no no we are not like that at all.

    • Radhaji, pls do not consider the publication of Dr. Elst’s article an attack. It is an old piece from Voice of Dharma. I was very interested to see all the responses. Thank you for them. You can be sure he will respond to all of you soon enough.

  5. Excuse my ignorance, but can we see the Sex trade in the West, the human trafficking, the child sex abuse and live internet pornography as the Slave Trade Reinvented?

    And what about the male and female sex abuse scandals pouring out of every parish? Even in India, the Kerala Christians, the oldest community of the Christians in India, have begun to speak out. So is this Slavery or something else – is it caste?

  6. If white christian racism belongs to the past, ie, ended with formal colonialism, can you explain last year’s anti-Indian riots in Australia and the murderous attacks on Sikhs in America, which are by no means over?

    Christians are very good at exonerating themselves with the shameless rhetoric of ‘boys will be boys’. Grow up

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