“I am a friend. And that loyalty is not dependent on the attitudes of some Hindus towards my person. I am convinced that, in spite of some human failings, the best Hindu doctrines are true, and Hinduism is a far more desirable world view and way of life than its challengers.” – Dr Koenraad Elst
How I did not become a Hindu
Both Sita Ram Goel and Vamadeva Shastri (David Frawley) have written a book called How I Became a Hindu. I could never write such a book because I have deliberately made a choice not to identify myself as Hindu. In this article I will explain “why I am not a Hindu”.
Before starting out, let me put aside any possible confusion with another publication in existence: the book Why I Am Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah, a convert to Christianity. I have seen post-Christian Westerners grimly use it as a formidable argument against Hinduism, not realizing that it is an ordinary missionary pamphlet against caste, to which Hinduism is falsely reduced. Unlike Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim, hefty tomes written by apostates who knew their childhood religion very well, Why I Am Not a Hindu is a caricature for simpletons. It starts out with a few interesting sketches of caste life in his childhood village, but then descends into unwarranted theoretical speculations for which he is simply not equipped. Essentially he assumes, like most haters of Hinduism, that “Hinduism is caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste”, and that the only way to break free from caste is to destroy Hinduism root and branch. The author is hopeful that Hinduism is indeed losing out, and a recent book by him muses about a “post-Hindu India”. That is of course the missionary vision.
It is not my vision. I think Hindus are better off staying Hindu, and that South Asian Christians and Muslims had better shed their divisive faiths and return to the Hindu civilization which their ancestors left. I know first-hand that there is life after apostasy from Christianity or Islam, being an apostate from Christianity. I belong to the generation that collectively walked out of the Church. In my society, the Flemish part of Belgium, the vast majority in my childhood used to be practising Catholics, now these are only a small minority. There is no danger that many will return to the faith, even on their deathbeds: the knowledge pin-pricking the basic Catholic truth claims is just too strong.
Recognizing one’s friends
However, when tempted to think that that is obvious, internet Hindus are there to accuse me of being a clog in a world conspiracy, mostly as a missionary agent. These people really live in a fantasy world, for a real-world organization that means business, such as the Church (actually any Church), would at least pay its agents. Well, I am not being paid by the Church nor by any other lobby group. Worse about their lack of worldly wisdom is that they haven’t heard about the very real decline of the Church. Anachronistically, they are still fulminating against T.B. Macaulay and Max Müller and feel very brave when kicking against corpses; more recent developments have passed them by. Yet, I keep on meeting Hindus who assume I am a believer, even after having read me, or who suspect I merely claim to be past all that in order to gain the confidence of the Hindus, but am secretly an agent for the Church.
Not being able to recognize your own friends is a very serious drawback in life. It is my experience that Hindus are very defective in this regard. One of the five books of the Pañcatantra is meant to teach “the art of making friends,” originally to three not-so-gifted princes. Presumably the fables succeed in making even these dummies understand how to make friends. Among Hindu activists, by contrast, I notice a greater proficiency in the art of making enemies. This takes two forms: treating friends as enemies, and turning friends into enemies.
In the diaspora Hindu movement in the US and the UK, I have been privy, just in the last three years, to good initiatives getting marred by infighting, defections and hostilities against ex-friends. In this case, it seems to me that giving names and details will only make matters worse, so I won’t. But one example I can easily divulge is the attacks on myself. Ever since I took upon me the unpleasant job of giving Hindus feedback about their glaring and costly mistakes in history rectification initiatives, I have received quite an amount of hate mail. And mind you, I am not using the term “hate mail” (or “death threats”, a term used by Romila Thapar, who was safe and sound but couldn’t stand being criticized) lightly. It does not mean a mail from someone who disagrees. If only internet Hindus were to argue dissenting points of view, that would be fine; but more often than arguments they just give you abuse.
One serious example of making outsiders into enemies concerns those Hindus who borrow conspiracies about the Jews. Some Western forums and websites specialize in stories about “the Israeli secret service Mossad having engineered the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001” or about “the Jewish bankers behind the world financial crisis of 2008” (and of 1929 etc.). Individual internet Hindus sometimes internalize this line of rhetoric, and they are too blind or too self-important to see that they are beautifully playing into the hands of their enemies. After centuries of Hindus giving a uniquely good treatment to their Jewish minority, after V.D. Savarkar and the BJP supporting Zionism, after cases of collaboration between American Hindus and the “Jewish lobby”, and after the mounting military cooperation between Israel and India, the powerful Indo-American secularist lobby, well-entrenched in the universities, would love to break this Hindu-Jewish alliance. Enter the Hindu lobby, that gives them all they want to hear, and especially to quote. Those lobbyists (once more confirming S.R. Goel’s impression that they are “the biggest collection of duffers that ever came together in world history”) are easily capable of driving a wedge between the Hindu activists and any friends they threaten to make. But the internet Hindus concerned are too smug and too wrapped up in their fantasies to see the strategic implications of their fanciful arrogance for the broader Hindu cause.
In India, the Hindu activists are closer to power, with a handful of BJP governments in some states or other, and now (December 2014) even a BJP government at the centre. Power tends to quell infighting, firstly because there are constructive things to do, with tangible tasks and results; secondly, because any individual disgruntledness or unease can always be bought off with a post or perk. But that is the peace of the lowest common denominator. It is OK that Hindus don’t roll on the floor fighting each other, but it is another question whether they are focused enough to achieve anything in their times in power – other than keeping the enemy out of power.
At any rate, I am a friend. And that loyalty is not dependent on the attitudes of some Hindus towards my person. I am convinced that, in spite of some human failings, the best Hindu doctrines are true, and Hinduism is a far more desirable world view and way of life than its challengers.
I do know that numerous Hindus object to foreign converts and spew their venom at “white Hindus”. They may even be the same people who otherwise like to quote the praises of Hinduism by Arthur Schopenhauer, Mark Twain, Romain Rolland and other Westerners. At one time I was not aware of this phenomenon. And yet it is but the in-your-face dimension of a deeper-seated mistrust and unease among Hindus of any transgressing of the boundaries between inside and outside Hinduism.
Indeed, at one time I was so enthusiastic about Hinduism that I had made up my mind to formally convert. I mentioned my desire to become a Hindu to Prof. Kedar Nath Mishra, the philosopher of Banaras Hindu University who had accepted me as a Ph.D. candidate. However, I immediately noticed his lack of enthusiasm, much in contrast to how a Muslim would react. Out loud, he only commented that this matter should certainly not be hurried. This is in fact only common sense: even responsible Christian missionaries eager to make conversions still insist on verifying whether a candidate is serious. If he loses his initial fervour for his new religion and quits it, this would mean that much ado had been about nothing, and constitute a greater loss of face for his conversion sponsor than his accession was a gain. So, the temporization is universal and reasonable. But I sensed there was more to it than that.
One is member of a caste by birth. There is no conversion possible from one’s own birth-group to another. All the castes combined have been called Hindu society, so one is a Hindu by birth. One is born within a community, and while people can change jobs, swap wives or borrow new ideas, they cannot change the facts pertaining to their birth. So, Prof. Mishra was born as a Hindu and has remained a Hindu until his death; while I was born as a non-Hindu and will die as a non-Hindu.
Even Hindu organizations explicitly preaching and practising conversions, such as the Arya Samaj and the Vishva Hindu Parishad, only target former Hindus or people on the margins of Hindu society. Their “recoversions” only concerns Indian Muslims or Christians whose ancestors were Hindus, or tribals who only recently were seduced by the missionaries. We see the same thing among other national religions. In the Iranian community of Los Angeles, as well as in Ossetia and Tajikistan, many Muslims reconvert to their ancestral Zoroastrianism (even though the Ossetes’ Scythian ancestors may have largely escaped the specifically Zoroastrian reform of the Iranian religion), but the Zoroastrians do not welcome non-Iranians. In Yakutia, an ethnically Turkic republic within the Russian Federation, the traditional Turkic religion (which is not Islam) has become legally recognized in 2014. The Russian Orthodox Church (more nation-oriented than the Catholic and Protestant Churches) did not object, on the understanding that only native Yakuts would feel attracted to this religion, while Russians would remain Orthodox. So, outside Christianity and Islam, and even within some strands of Christianity, there exists an identification of religious traditions with national communities, into which one has irrevocably been born (or not).
Many Hindus welcome converts, and take pride in the existence of Westerners who have embraced Hinduism. However, I do not want to enter a house where other inhabitants object to my presence. I don’t mind if they object to my ideas or my conduct, but if they object to my very presence, I have to take their attitude into account. And so, I am only too aware of those other Hindus who find it rather bizarre that outsiders would want to become Hindu. Moreover, their negative attitude does not amount to disrespect: most of them can respect me as a Westerner, it is only the strange inclination to perforce self-identify as a Hindu which they object to.
Traditionally, Hinduism only knows collective conversion, or at least integration which Christians might describe as conversion, i.e. a whole existing community that retains its own ways and autonomy but accepts the over-all framework of Vedic society; and very exceptionally, individual conversion through marriage. If an existing Hindu community accepts you as a son-in-law, then everybody accepts you as a member of that particular community. One never knows whom one may yet meet in life, but so far, this hasn’t happened to me.
Link with India
This fact of a rejection by others, by a sizable part of the legitimate Hindu population, is already enough for me not to call myself a Hindu. It is a conception of converting religions to consider the most true or somehow most desirable religion as the one of which we should be a member. If you wax enthusiastic about a Hindu practice like yoga, most Hindus will say: go ahead and practise it, become a European yogi, or as the case may be, a Japanese yogi, a Rastafarian yogi, a Hottentot yogi. At the end of your life, you may write an autobiography: Story of a European Yogi, but please don’t affect being a Hindu.
A second reason is that “Hindu”, as the Persian form of Sindhu (the Indus river), refers to India. Originally it meant “one who lives at or beyond the Indus”, a purely geographical term meaning “Indian”, later the Muslim invaders turned it into a geographical-cum-religious term: “any Indian Pagan”. According to V.D. Savarkar, a Hindu is one who considers India both his Fatherland and Holy Land. The West now has a sizable Hindu population, but they are for the most part People of Indian Origin. When Hindus praise the work benefiting Hinduism that I have done, they typically speculate that I “must have been born in India in my past life”. So, there is always that connection to India. Well, at present I may be a regular traveller to India, but my roots lie in Europe.
To put it crudely, I don’t care for India. It is true that Hinduism grew up on Indian soil, and I strongly disagree with those colleagues who insist that “yoga isn’t from India”. Of course India is historically the place where Hinduism grew up, and even now India is worth defending against those who besiege it. But the ideas and practices that make up the beauty of Hinduism could have come about elsewhere too, and partly they have. Religions related to or typologically similar to Hinduism have existed though they have largely been wiped off the map by Christianity and Islam, and even these have preserved certain traditions that Hindus would feel familiar with. So, India as the cradle of Hinduism is a fact of life, but it is also relative and a shaky foundation for a religion that sees itself as the eternal Dharma. “One day, India too will go,” to quote my yoga teacher Dr. Pukh Raj Sharma from Jodhpur.
Compare with Christianity. Numerous Hindus have the tendency to identify Christianity with the West. In reality, Christian missionaries see it as the universal truth, equally valid for Indians as for Westerners. The geographical claim is at any rate historically untrue: in the Roman Empire, the Christians were called the “Galileans” to mark their religion as an import into the West from the Middle East. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the site of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection has a certain place in Christian history, if only because it provided the casus belli of the Crusades, but it testifies to the Europeans’ awareness that Christianity originated outside Europe. European ex-Christians with nationalist convictions hold it against Christianity that it is foreign. The Christian answer to that would not be to deny its foreign origin, but to insist that it is the true religion and that therefore everyone should accede to it. As for European culture and its national divisions, these can get a place in Christianity: inculturation has a long history, and to a large extent, national folklore has indeed merged with Christianity. So, in India’s case, a feeling of Indianness is welcome to flourish in Indian churches, using Indian materials during rituals or singing Indian music, as long as everyone believes in the imported teachings of the Church.
Secondly, this identification with a nation just doesn’t apply. The motor car has been invented in the West, but the cars on the Indian roads apply the exact same mechanical principles which the German inventors once implemented to build the first motor car. There is no such thing as “Indian car mechanics,” this science is universal. The Law of Gravity was discovered by an Englishman, Isaac Newton, but would have been just the same if it had been discovered by anyone else, anywhere else. Likewise, anything true is universally true, so if the Christian core teachings are true, they should also be accepted as true by Indians; if not, they are not true for Westerners either. That is why it only shows incomprehension to argue about whether Christianity is or is not Indian; the only sensible question is whether it is true. Yajñavalkya never argued about the Indianness (a concept that didn’t even exist yet) of the doctrine of the Self. Nor did Shankara engage in debates about whether Dualism was more Indian than Non-Dualism; he only cared about which view was more true. So, let us follow in the footsteps of these great Indian thinkers and forget about Indianness.
However, Hinduism pertains to more than just the truth of a doctrine. It effectively also has a geographical component. For that reason, I may agree with the Hindu thinker Yajñavalkya, be doctrinally on the same wavelength, yet not be a Hindu.
Hinduism as Paganism
Without creedal religions like Christianity, the world simply consists of a landscape of different sects or traditions. These are not foreign to one another, as witnessed by the practice of interpretatione romana, i.e. Julius Caesar’s approach of the Celtic deities he encountered in Gaul and whom he “translated” into the corresponding deities in the Roman pantheon. The practice already existed in the ancient Middle East, and can easily be seen in the names of the week days, where the names of the planets were translated from Sumerian to Akkadian and Aramaic, these to Greek, thence to Sanskrit and Latin, thence to Hindi, English etc. The planet Jupiter was Marduk to the Babylonians, Jupiter to the Romans, Thor to the Brits, Guru to the Indians, etc.
The ancient Arab traders went on pilgrimage to the Somnath Temple, because in the moon-bearing Shiva they recognized their own moon-god Hubal. And conversely, Indian traders doing business in Arabia went to the Kaaba in Mecca because its presiding deity Hubal was clearly their own Shiva. Yes, in the human netherworld there were local differences, but these were not consequential. The places from which you see the starry sky are different, but the stars in heaven are the same.
So, I have decided to focus on the absolute unity of heaven, more than on the relative difference of the vantage points on earth. Therefore, I don’t care any more about being from here or from there, the truth would in each case turn out to be the same. It doesn’t change anything to my world view or my way of life whether I artificially try to change myself into a Hindu or naturally define myself as being European and all other levels of identity that happen to apply to me.
A Hindu name
In Western yoga circles, I know numerous people who have received a Sanskrit name, and many of them also use it. A few have even gone to the town hall or the court to change their civil names and officially register the Sanskrit names. Though I have received quite a few initiations (diksha) from Hindu gurus, somehow I have never been given a Sanskrit name. Fortunately so, for that saves me the trouble of having to decide whether to actually use this name or not. Probably not.
Not that it matters to me if others do it. Most Westerners who have a Sanskrit name live among Westerners and so there is no occasion for confusion. By vocation, I am more in touch with Hindu society, and that makes it confusing if I would adopt a Hindu-sounding name. (For the same reason, I disapprove of converts to Christianity retaining their Hindu names, a new Church policy consciously seeking to confuse and conceal.) Also, it is but normal that those who become Hindu monks get a monastic name, just as a Catholic monk changes his civil name to a given monastic name.
My own given name is Germanic and profound enough. Koen means “brave”, raad means “counsel” “deciding what is to be done”. Its Greek equivalent was Thrasuboulos, which happens to be the name of a victorious general, national liberator and pioneer of democracy in Athens, killed in battle while fighting for his polity. So, I will just keep it.
That also happens to be the Hindu thing to do. Thus, some equality-minded Hindus hide their caste-specific last name, e.g. calling themselves (to name one example I have known) Maheshvari Prasad instead of the recognizably Brahmin name Maheshvariprasad Sharma. Yet, they will never intrude into another caste by giving themselves a last name suggestive of another caste identity, say Maheshvariprasad Yadav or Maheshvariprasad Varma. So likewise, I will not intrude into the Hindu commonwealth by claiming a Hindu identity and calling myself by a Hindu name.
Hindus don’t have this notion of a creedal identity. A creed or world view can be chosen (and indeed I have the experience of trading in a religion imposed on me for another persuasion); while an identity is simply there. So, I just accept that I carry the non-Hindu name Koenraad without having chosen it, and I will not choose another one. ♦