“More liberal writers, academics, and activists—who all proudly identify as Hindu—are making their voices more prominent in the public sphere. … This emergence … [is] a more acute realisation of just how Hinduism has been framed within the academia and various other intellectual spaces, and a realisation that Hinduism and its one billion followers worldwide have been pigeonholed into a monolithic, rigid, and Orientalised classification. It’s also likely that more and more Hindu liberals are getting annoyed by the notion that Hinduism is somehow opposed to both the concepts of pluralism and secularism.” – Murali Balaji
Last year, in the wake of the rise of Dina Nath Batra and a more vocal right wing in India, journalist Sandip Roy noted that a credible, progressive and liberal Hindu voice was largely missing in a public discourse often sandwiched between (and suffocated by) two small but noisy extremes of the Left and Right.
As Roy noted, “To meet Batra on his own turf the liberals also could do with an erudite, devoutly Hindu scholar who can argue with Batra from faith and not just based on freedom of expression.” Instead, as Roy, Pavan Varma, Nilanjana Roy, and Shiv Visvanathan have all written, the liberal space in India is often occupied by those who identify more readily as far-left and Marxist, and embrace views that—under the guise of anti-majoritarianism and pro-secularism—come across as Hinduphobic. Moreover, many of the “enlightened” liberals are also highly anglicised, and whether they admit it or not, their writings and views come off as Macaulayesque disdain towards Indian traditions and spirituality.
Yet, Nilanjana Roy wrote following the 2014 general election, “Between the small but noisy groups of Hindu supremacists and the small but equally vociferous groups of committed left-liberals lies a vast middle ground.”
Perhaps that middle ground has felt some tremors over the past year, as more liberal writers, academics, and activists—who all proudly identify as Hindu—are making their voices more prominent in the public sphere. While many of these expressions come from the diaspora (including national, well-established groups in the US such as the Hindu American Foundation and local ones such as New York-based Sadhana), they are important not only to help change the conversation about Hinduism, but to also remove the stigma from within India on identifying as a Hindu.
This emergence—driven by the diaspora that is often a marginalised religious minority in countries like the US—has coincided with the Narendra Modi era, a more acute realisation of just how Hinduism has been framed within the academia and various other intellectual spaces, and a realisation that Hinduism and its one billion followers worldwide have been pigeonholed into a monolithic, rigid, and Orientalised classification. It’s also likely that more and more Hindu liberals are getting annoyed by the notion that Hinduism is somehow opposed to both the concepts of pluralism and secularism. Moreover, just as Batra represents a small, but extremely scary idea, the prospect of Indian intellectual space being dominated by Marxists and other far-left activists whose ideas aren’t necessarily progressive is equally scary.
This is why Indian (and Indian-American) liberals who are also Hindu have been more willing to engage in the marketplace of ideas, a marketplace which promotes pluralism, social progress, and secular ideals. Over the past year, Hindu public intellectuals such as Vamsee Juluri (who, despite living in the US, is still closely connected to the intellectual discourses in India) have grown more prominent in calling for an escape for Orientalist and deconstructionist ideas of Hinduism. In Rearming Hinduism, Juluri argues that Indians need to acknowledge that there is “a very powerful, sustained, and unrelenting cultural and intellectual attack on Hinduism in the media and in the academia.” Rather than conjuring up conspiracy theories about a cabal of missionaries, Marxists, and Islamists seeking to undermine the Hindu philosophy, Juluri—borrowing from postcolonial scholar Edward Said—notes that the Orientalist Hindu-as-Other narrative shaped over the past two centuries has become so pervasive that it has become nearly a Herculean task to uproot or challenge.
Similarly, Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee’s The Nay Science is a book that takes on the orthodoxy of Indology by tracing its roots and how it grew to become the voice of and for Indian philosophy and thought, despite being dominated by non-Indians who viewed Hinduism with suspicion. Adluri and Bagchee chronicle how the 19th century animosity of German Indologists towards Hinduism and other dharma traditions became institutionalised in modern scholarship. Even the noted Indologist Paul Hacker, who is celebrated by many in the field, was vehemently anti-Hindu, a point that Adluri and Bagchee emphasise.
The Nay Science also throws the gauntlet down in challenging many Western (and some Indian) Indologists to look from within and assess their deeply-held suspicions of indigenous perspectives on Hindu philosophy. They note that a way to articulate a more practical understanding of Hinduism and the importance of works such as the Bhagavad Gita is to examine how Mahatma Gandhi used it in his daily life. “Gandhi’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita can help us understand how it is possible to negotiate the various demands of reading a text meaningfully, of taking into consideration its reception, and of making it hermeneutically productive for one’s present,” they write.
Within academia, there are more scholars—primarily in the US and Canada—whose work pushing for an authentic and constructive narrative about Hinduism has become more prominent in recent months. Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at the University of Southern California, is working to engage young Hindus on the meaning of applied dharma within spheres of social justice, while Rita Sherma, the director of Hindu Studies at the Graduate Theological Union-Berkeley, is helping to train a new generation of Hindu theologians. Such a push is slowly being noticed within India, where the space for a liberal and progressive Hindu voice—long crushed under the combined weight of Hinduphobia and Hindu jingoism—is starting to grow. Additionally, the work of Hindu intellectuals and groups such as the HAF on issues of environmentalism, women’s rights, homosexuality, and economic justice, have also become more prominent, helping to make the lessons of Hindu philosophy more tangible. Devdutt Pattanaik’s essays, for example, have made an enormous contribution to connecting Hindu philosophy to the expanse of daily life, while HAF’s report on caste and caste discrimination sought to show the complex history of Indian social practice—and its divergence from actual Hindu belief.
What makes these works more compelling is that they offer a constructive—rather than reactive—way to approach our understanding of Hinduism, and defend Hindu philosophy without chest-thumping. More importantly, they provide a blueprint by which liberal Hindu intellectuals can challenge both anti-Hindu activists and the extreme right wing. While engaging in a discourse with the far-left and far-right might be challenging (and altogether impossible), it’s worth noting that the middle ground Nilanjana Roy refers to is wide and diverse enough to engage in debate and intellectual satsangs.
Perhaps this change in narrative might be slow for many, but it’s important to realise that the way Hinduism is framed in contemporary public discourse took nearly two centuries of propagation, repetition, and internalisation. To undo that damage, and forge a new narrative and different conversations, it’s important to acknowledge even the slightest progress. Perhaps for India’s liberals, such progress—however slow—might be the lifeline of oxygen to emerge from under the weight of ideological extremes. – DailyO, 10 September 2015
» Murali Balaji is the director of education and curriculum reform at the Hindu American Foundation.
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