The Ivy League Syndrome: Stop feeding the crocodile – Rajiv Malhotra

Ivy League Colleges

Rajiv Malhotra“We need first and foremost … a new corpus of content and discourse, one that would challenge the prevailing discourse on Indian civilization. Such provocative discourses simply cannot be produced from within the walls of the very same [Ivy League] fortress that has to be exposed and dismantled. It cannot be achieved as an ‘inside job’ because that would entail a greater degree of personal risk and brilliance than what is available among our academically certified scholars today.” – Rajiv Malhotra

Narendra Modi & Mark ZuckerbergA new humanities discourse around India has to be created from scratch. The existing one, is beyond repair.

Recently, Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley was attacked in a petition by US-based academicians led by scholars like Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock. Over 80 per cent of the signatures were by Indian ‘sepoys’ joining the bandwagon. As a rejoinder, there emerged two counter petitions supporting Modi, each signed by much larger numbers of US-based academicians, who were also mostly Indians. This clash between the two camps of Indians is important to analyse because they represent two entirely different constituencies.

The anti-Modi petitioners proudly characterised themselves as faculty members of South Asian Studies, the new term for what was known as Indology in the colonial era. Stated simply, this is the study of India’s faiths, culture, history, politics, journalism, social sciences and related areas. On the other hand, the pro-Modi academicians were mostly from science, technology, business, medicine, law and other technical fields. I will refer to the former group as ‘South Asianists’ and the latter as ‘technocrats’. It is not a mere coincidence that these opposing camps are shaped by the disciplines they work in. It is important to understand the reasons for this.

South Asianists learn about India using Western-developed frameworks, vocabularies and theories that have Western cultural biases built into them. This hegemonic discourse on India subverts Indian native categories and the Vedic worldview, characterizing Indian civilization as a human rights nightmare whose solutions must come from Western thought. In other words, the South Asian Studies lens uses the West’s past for interpreting India’s present. The solution offered is that India’s desirable future is to mimic the West’s present society. The field is driven by the consensus of Ivy League gatekeepers, who can act like a sort of mafia to make or break an individual’s academic career.

The technocrats are not burdened by such culturally-determined programming, at least not to the same extent. Their disciplines are based more on empirical data and logic. In other words, it is possible to argue one’s controversial thesis in Chemistry, for instance, by demonstrating laboratory evidence that is verifiable. But it is not as easy to prove a theory of human rights violations without dealing with cultural biases of various kinds. The humanities are inherently more subjective, and hence vulnerable to power plays.

Another difference is that the technocrats tend to be more logical. A typical batch of students entering college in the technocrat fields tends to have higher scores in mathematics (i.e. logical mind-set) than their counterparts entering humanities and social sciences. Add to this that India’s technocrats are now super confident, knowing that they are second to none in their fields. They have achieved global success based entirely on merit. Therefore, they see no reason to bow down to Westerners when it comes to interpreting their Hindu heritage. This latter quality is what differentiates me from the Indian scholars of Hinduism Studies:  I owned companies where I employed many Americans, and a large number of managers from many nations reported to me. I find that Indians lacking such a background of managing Western professionals with authority are afraid to take them on, because of their deep inferiority complexes.

In other words, our colonized mentality can be isolated largely to our professionals in the humanities and social sciences. We have a clash between Indians in the two camps of humanities and technical fields. The technocrats tend to be patriotic and the humanities/social sciences scholars tend to be Hinduphobic and apologetic. The Indian media, in turn, are largely educated in fields with deep influences from South Asian Studies.

I am not against Western Ivy Leagues in general. But I oppose their stranglehold over South Asia Studies in particular. This is equivalent to the power of colonial era Indology that was headquartered in places like Oxford.

Until recently, the South Asianists and their mainstream media supporters have had a virtual monopoly as the voice and face of India. But in recent years, a counter voice has emerged that cannot be dismissed. Only a couple of months ago, I was personally the target of a massive attack demanding that my books be withdrawn (ironically by the same South Asianists who oppose such bans when their own books get targeted). While it garnered 240 signatures, a counter petition initiated by Madhu Kishwar that supported me got well over 10,000 signatures. Every such victory is another nail in the coffin of the Hinduphobic forces.

The clash is also over who has the adhikara (authority) to speak for our heritage. South Asianists close ranks to mock at the voices that are not certified by their institutions. But our tradition has always valued experience over book knowledge. Our history is filled with exemplars who did not get certified by any institutions resembling the Western Ivy Leagues.

Infinity FoundationWith this background, I wish to discuss the right and wrong approaches to address this problem. In the 1990s, my Infinity Foundation pioneered the funding of Western academicians in order to improve the portrayal of Indian civilization. It took over a decade and several millions of my hard-earned dollars before I understood the academic game. Gradually, I developed my insights into how insidious the South Asian Studies machinery is. I witnessed first-hand the complex funding mechanisms, intellectual and political networks, and interlocking of agendas across government, private foundations, church and academics. That is when I concluded that planting chairs in such a giant machinery was like feeding a crocodile hoping to turn it into a friend.

I am now an ardent critic of Indian movements that seek to establish Hinduism-related chairs within Western academe. Such projects are premature and counter-productive, driven naively by glamour and prestige.

What we need first and foremost is a new corpus of content and discourse, one that would challenge the prevailing discourse on Indian civilization. Such provocative discourses simply cannot be produced from within the walls of the very same fortress that has to be exposed and dismantled. It cannot be achieved as an ‘inside job’ because that would entail a greater degree of personal risk and brilliance than what is available among our academically certified scholars today. It would also need a large critical mass of like-minded scholars in one place, with political clout and will. It is a sheer waste to develop a random scattering of chairs here and there, occupied by individuals craving personal (petty) career success.

Given the cost of setting up one academic chair in USA (approximately $4 million), it would be far better to use that money and set up a whole department of scholars in India with the concentrated goal to develop a new discourse on some specific topic. As an example, a centre to develop a Hindu perspective on women’s status and role could be tasked to produce game changing discourse on that theme. This would then be disseminated worldwide through multiple channels. Several such theme-specific centres ought to be established in India. This is how China has taken control of the way China is being studied worldwide. They did not outsource the knowledge production about their civilization the way Indians have.

Such an approach would nurture the ‘Make in India’ spirit in the field of South Asian Studies. It would keep the adhikara and world-class expertise within Indian institutions. The new genre of discourse would also be intimately connected with our traditional mathas and peethams, rather than with the likes of Ford Foundation, Western churches and think tanks and their paradigms. This would de-colonize our youth and media once they realize that we are the best experts on who we are as a people. – Swarajya, 19 September 2015

South Asian studies in the WestSouth Asian studies in the West

What is the Koran? – Toby Lester

Toby Lester“Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings. … More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations.” – Toby Lester

Minarets of the Great Mosque of Sana'aIn 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen, laborers working in a loft between the structure’s inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realize it at the time. Their ignorance was excusable: mosques do not normally house graves, and this site contained no tombstones, no human remains, no funereal jewelry. It contained nothing more, in fact, than an unappealing mash of old parchment and paper documents—damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text, fused together by centuries of rain and dampness, gnawed into over the years by rats and insects. Intent on completing the task at hand, the laborers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks, and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque’s minarets, where they were locked away—and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Isma’il al-Akwa’, then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realized the potential importance of the find.

Al-Akwa’ sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the German government to organize and fund a restoration project. Soon after the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave”—in this case the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture. In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.

Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam’s first two centuries—they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What’s more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God.

The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran—in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments—is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians. Nevertheless, there are scholars, Muslims among them, who feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts—a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back. Thus far confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and—as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate—can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world’s most ideologically influential text.

Sana'a ManuscriptLooking at the Fragments

The first person to spend a significant amount of time examining the Yemeni fragments, in 1981, was Gerd R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin, who had been sent by the German government to organize and oversee the restoration project, recognized the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments, and his preliminary inspection also revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Enticing, too, were the sheets of the scripture written in the rare and early Hijazi Arabic script: pieces of the earliest Korans known to exist, they were also palimpsests—versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off versions. What the Yemeni Korans seemed to suggest, Puin began to feel, was an evolving text rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D.

Since the early 1980s more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Korans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted, and assembled; they now sit (“preserved for another thousand years,” Puin says) in Yemen’s House of Manuscripts, awaiting detailed examination. That is something the Yemeni authorities have seemed reluctant to allow, however. “They want to keep this thing low-profile, as we do too, although for different reasons,” Puin explains. “They don’t want attention drawn to the fact that there are Germans and others working on the Korans. They don’t want it made public that there is work being done at all, since the Muslim position is that everything that needs to be said about the Koran’s history was said a thousand years ago.”

To date just two scholars have been granted extensive access to the Yemeni fragments: Puin and his colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic-art historian also based at Saarland University. Puin and Von Bothmer have published only a few tantalizingly brief articles in scholarly publications on what they have discovered in the Yemeni fragments. They have been reluctant to publish partly because until recently they were more concerned with sorting and classifying the fragments than with systematically examining them, and partly because they felt that the Yemeni authorities, if they realized the possible implications of the discovery, might refuse them further access. Von Bothmer, however, in 1997 finished taking more than 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, and has recently brought the pictures back to Germany. This means that soon Von Bothmer, Puin, and other scholars will finally have a chance to scrutinize the texts and to publish their findings freely—a prospect that thrills Puin. “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word,” he says. “They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana’a fragments will help us to do this.”

Puin is not alone in his enthusiasm. “The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt,” says Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of Koranic studies today. “Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the Koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.”

Koran by AliCopyediting God

By the standards of contemporary biblical scholarship, most of the questions being posed by scholars like Puin and Rippin are rather modest; outside an Islamic context, proposing that the Koran has a history and suggesting that it can be interpreted metaphorically are not radical steps. But the Islamic context—and Muslim sensibilities—cannot be ignored. “To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community,” says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally—though obviously not always in reality—Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.”

The orthodox Muslim view of the Koran as self-evidently the Word of God, perfect and inimitable in message, language, style, and form, is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today. The notion was given classic expression only a little more than a century ago by the biblical scholar John William Burgon.

The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it … every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!

Not all the Christians think this way about the Bible, however, and in fact, as the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1981) points out, “the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Kur’an in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text, and questioning its sanctity or authority is thus considered an outright attack on Islam—as Salman Rushdie knows all too well.

The prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the critical-historical study of the Koran, as the existence of the essays in The Origins of the Koran (1998) demonstrate. Even in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair the work continues: In 1996 the Koranic scholar Günter Lüling wrote in The Journal of Higher Criticism about “the wide extent to which both the text of the Koran and the learned Islamic account of Islamic origins have been distorted, a deformation unsuspectingly accepted by Western Islamicists until now.” In 1994 the journal Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, detailing seventh- and eighth-century religious inscriptions on stones in the Negev Desert which, Nevo suggested, pose “considerable problems for the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam.” That same year, and in the same journal, Patricia Crone, a historian of early Islam currently based at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, published an article in which she argued that elucidating problematic passages in the Koranic text is likely to be made possible only by “abandoning the conventional account of how the Qur’an was born.” And since 1991 James Bellamy, of the University of Michigan, has proposed in the Journal of the American Oriental Society a series of “emendations to the text of the Koran”—changes that from the orthodox Muslim perspective amount to copyediting God.

Crone is one of the most iconoclastic of these scholars. During the 1970s and 1980s she wrote and collaborated on several books—most notoriously, with Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977)—that made radical arguments about the origins of Islam and the writing of Islamic history. Among Hagarism’s controversial claims were suggestions that the text of the Koran came into being later than is now believed (“There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century”); that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary (“[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia … Mecca was secondary”); that the Arab conquests preceded the institutionalization of Islam (“the Jewish messianic fantasy was enacted in the form of an Arab conquest of the Holy Land”); that the idea of the hijra, or the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad died (“No seventh-century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra“); and that the term “Muslim” was not commonly used in early Islam (“There is no good reason to suppose that the bearers of this primitive identity called themselves ‘Muslims’ [but] sources do … reveal an earlier designation of the community [which] appears in Greek as ‘Magaritai’ in a papyrus of 642, and in Syriac as ‘Mahgre’ or ‘Mahgraye’ from as early as the 640s”).

Hagarism came under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources. (“This is a book,” the authors wrote, “based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources.”) Crone and Cook have since backed away from some of its most radical propositions—such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims he did, and that the historicity of his migration to Medina is questionable. But Crone has continued to challenge both Muslim and Western orthodox views of Islamic history. In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987) she made a detailed argument challenging the prevailing view among Western (and some Muslim) scholars that Islam arose in response to the Arabian spice trade.

Gerd R. Puin’s current thinking about the Koran’s history partakes of this contemporary revisionism. “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad,” he says. “Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants.”

Patricia Crone defends the goals of this sort of thinking. “The Koran is a scripture with a history like any other—except that we don’t know this history and tend to provoke howls of protest when we study it. Nobody would mind the howls if they came from Westerners, but Westerners feel deferential when the howls come from other people: who are you to tamper with their legacy? But we Islamicists are not trying to destroy anyone’s faith.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment—especially since Western Koranic scholarship has traditionally taken place in the context of an openly declared hostility between Christianity and Islam. (Indeed, the broad movement in the West over the past two centuries to “explain” the East, often referred to as Orientalism, has in recent years come under fire for exhibiting similar religious and cultural biases.) The Koran has seemed, for Christian and Jewish scholars particularly, to possess an aura of heresy; the nineteenth-century Orientalist William Muir, for example, contended that the Koran was one of “the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty, and the Truth which the world has yet known.” Early Soviet scholars, too, undertook an ideologically motivated study of Islam’s origins, with almost missionary zeal: in the 1920s and in 1930 a Soviet publication titled Ateist ran a series of articles explaining the rise of Islam in Marxist-Leninist terms. In Islam and Russia (1956), Ann K. S. Lambton summarized much of this work, and wrote that several Soviet scholars had theorized that “the motive force of the nascent religion was supplied by the mercantile bourgeoisie of Mecca and Medina”; that a certain S. P. Tolstov had held that “Islam was a social-religious movement originating in the slave-owning, not feudal, form of Arab society”; and that N. A. Morozov had argued that “until the Crusades Islam was indistinguishable from Judaism and … only then did it receive its independent character, while Muhammad and the first Caliphs are mythical figures. “Morozov appears to have been a particularly flamboyant theorist: Lambton wrote that he also argued, in his book Christ (1930), that “in the Middle Ages Islam was merely an off-shoot of Arianism evoked by a meteorological event in the Red Sea area near Mecca.”

Not surprisingly, then, given the biases of much non-Islamic critical study of the Koran, Muslims are inclined to dismiss it outright. A particularly eloquent protest came in 1987, in the Muslim World Book Review, in a paper titled “Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur’anic Studies,” by the Muslim critic S. Parvez Manzoor. Placing the origins of Western Koranic scholarship in “the polemical marshes of medieval Christianity” and describing its contemporary state as a “cul-de-sac of its own making,” Manzoor orchestrated a complex and layered assault on the entire Western approach to Islam. He opened his essay in a rage.

The Orientalist enterprise of Qur’anic studies, whatever its other merits and services, was a project born of spite, bred in frustration and nourished by vengeance: the spite of the powerful for the powerless, the frustration of the “rational” towards the “superstitious” and the vengeance of the “orthodox” against the “non-conformist.” At the greatest hour of his worldly-triumph, the Western man, coordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia, launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the aberrant streaks of his arrogant personality—its reckless rationalism, its world-domineering phantasy and its sectarian fanaticism—joined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim Scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability. The ultimate trophy that the Western man sought by his dare-devil venture was the Muslim mind itself. In order to rid the West forever of the “problem” of Islam, he reasoned, Muslim consciousness must be made to despair of the cognitive certainty of the Divine message revealed to the Prophet. Only a Muslim confounded of the historical authenticity or doctrinal autonomy of the Qur’anic revelation would abdicate his universal mission and hence pose no challenge to the global domination of the West. Such, at least, seems to have been the tacit, if not the explicit, rationale of the Orientalist assault on the Qur’an.

Despite such resistance, Western researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests press on, applying modern techniques of textual and historical criticism to the study of the Koran. That a substantial body of this scholarship now exists is indicated by the recent decision of the European firm Brill Publishers—a long-established publisher of such major works as The Encyclopaedia of Islam and The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition—to commission the first-ever Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, and the general editor of the encyclopedia, hopes that it will function as a “rough analogue” to biblical encyclopedias and will be “a turn-of-the-millennium summative work for the state of Koranic scholarship.” Articles for the first part of the encyclopedia are currently being edited and prepared for publication later this year.

The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an will be a truly collaborative enterprise, carried out by Muslims and non-Muslims, and its articles will present multiple approaches to the interpretation of the Koran, some of which are likely to challenge traditional Islamic views—thus disturbing many in the Islamic world, where the time is decidedly less ripe for a revisionist study of the Koran. The plight of Nasr Abu Zaid, an unassuming Egyptian professor of Arabic who sits on the encyclopedia’s advisory board, illustrates the difficulties facing Muslim scholars trying to reinterpret their tradition.

The Koran is a text, a literary text, and the only way to understand, explain, and analyze it is through a literary approach,” Abu Zaid says. “This is an essential theological issue.” For expressing views like this in print—in essence, for challenging the idea that the Koran must be read literally as the absolute and unchanging Word of God—Abu Zaid was in 1995 officially branded an apostate, a ruling that in 1996 was upheld by Egypt’s highest court. The court then proceeded, on the grounds of an Islamic law forbidding the marriage of an apostate to a Muslim, to order Abu Zaid to divorce his wife, Ibtihal Yunis (a ruling that the shocked and happily married Yunis described at the time as coming “like a blow to the head with a brick”).

Abu Zaid steadfastly maintains that he is a pious Muslim, but contends that the Koran’s manifest content—for example, the often archaic laws about the treatment of women for which Islam is infamous—is much less important than its complex, regenerative, and spiritually nourishing latent content. The orthodox Islamic view, Abu Zaid claims, is stultifying; it reduces a divine, eternal, and dynamic text to a fixed human interpretation with no more life and meaning than “a trinket … a talisman … or an ornament.”

For a while Abu Zaid remained in Egypt and sought to refute the charges of apostasy, but in the face of death threats and relentless public harassment he fled with his wife from Cairo to Holland, calling the whole affair “a macabre farce.” Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, the cleric whose preachings inspired much of the opposition to Abu Zaid, was exultant. “We are not terrorists; we have not used bullets or machine guns, but we have stopped an enemy of Islam from poking fun at our religion…. No one will even dare to think about harming Islam again.”

Abu Zaid seems to have been justified in fearing for his life and fleeing: in 1992 the Egyptian journalist Farag Foda was assassinated by Islamists for his critical writings about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1994 the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed for writing, among other works, the allegorical Children of Gebelawi (1959)—a novel, structured like the Koran, that presents “heretical” conceptions of God and the Prophet Muhammad.

Deviating from the orthodox interpretation of the Koran, says the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, a professor emeritus of Islamic thought at the University of Paris, is “a very sensitive business” with major implications. “Millions and millions of people refer to the Koran daily to explain their actions and to justify their aspirations,” Arkoun says. “This scale of reference is much larger than it has ever been before.”

MuhammadMuhammad in the Cave

Mecca sits in a barren hollow between two ranges of steep hills in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia. To its immediate west lies the flat and sweltering Red Sea coast; to the east stretches the great Rub’ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter—the largest continuous body of sand on the planet. The town’s setting is uninviting: the earth is dry and dusty, and smolders under a relentless sun; the whole region is scoured by hot, throbbing desert winds. Although sometimes rain does not fall for years, when it does come it can be heavy, creating torrents of water that rush out of the hills and flood the basin in which the city lies. As a backdrop for divine revelation, the area is every bit as fitting as the mountains of Sinai or the wilderness of Judea.

The only real source of historical information about pre-Islamic Mecca and the circumstances of the Koran’s revelation is the classical Islamic story about the religion’s founding, a distillation of which follows.

In the centuries leading up to the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a local pagan sanctuary of considerable antiquity. Religious rituals revolved around the Ka’ba—a shrine, still central in Islam today, that Muslims believe was originally built by Ibrahim (known to Christians and Jews as Abraham) and his son Isma’il (Ishmael). As Mecca became increasingly prosperous in the sixth century A.D., pagan idols of varying sizes and shapes proliferated. The traditional story has it that by the early seventh century a pantheon of some 360 statues and icons surrounded the Ka’ba (inside which were found renderings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, among other idols).

Such was the background against which the first installments of the Koran are said to have been revealed, in 610, to an affluent but disaffected merchant named Muhammad bin Abdullah. Muhammad had developed the habit of periodically withdrawing from Mecca’s pagan squalor to a nearby mountain cave, where he would reflect in solitude. During one of these retreats he was visited by the Angel Gabriel—the very same angel who had announced the coming of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth some 600 years earlier. Opening with the command “Recite!,” Gabriel made it known to Muhammad that he was to serve as the Messenger of God. Subsequently, until his death, the supposedly illiterate Muhammad received through Gabriel divine revelations in Arabic that were known as qur’an (“recitation”) and that announced, initially in a highly poetic and rhetorical style, a new and uncompromising brand of monotheism known as Islam, or “submission” (to God’s will). Muhammad reported these revelations verbatim to sympathetic family members and friends, who either memorized them or wrote them down.

Powerful Meccans soon began to persecute Muhammad and his small band of devoted followers, whose new faith rejected the pagan core of Meccan cultural and economic life, and as a result in 622 the group migrated some 200 miles north, to the town of Yathrib, which subsequently became known as Medina (short for Medinat al-Nabi, or City of the Prophet). (This migration, known in Islam as the hijra, is considered to mark the birth of an independent Islamic community, and 622 is thus the first year of the Islamic calendar.) In Medina, Muhammad continued to receive divine revelations, of an increasingly pragmatic and prosaic nature, and by 630 he had developed enough support in the Medinan community to attack and conquer Mecca. He spent the last two years of his life proselytizing, consolidating political power, and continuing to receive revelations.

The Islamic tradition has it that when Muhammad died, in 632, the Koranic revelations had not been gathered into a single book; they were recorded only “on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men.” (This is not surprising: the oral tradition was strong and well established, and the Arabic script, which was written without the vowel markings and consonantal dots used today, served mainly as an aid to memorization.) Nor was the establishment of such a text of primary concern: the Medinan Arabs—an unlikely coalition of ex-merchants, desert nomads, and agriculturalists united in a potent new faith and inspired by the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad—were at the time pursuing a fantastically successful series of international conquests in the name of Islam. By the 640s the Arabs possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt, and thirty years later they were busy taking over parts of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia.

In the early decades of the Arab conquests many members of Muhammad’s coterie were killed, and with them died valuable knowledge of the Koranic revelations. Muslims at the edges of the empire began arguing over what was Koranic scripture and what was not. An army general returning from Azerbaijan expressed his fears about sectarian controversy to the Caliph ‘Uthman (644-656)—the third Islamic ruler to succeed Muhammad—and is said to have entreated him to “overtake this people before they differ over the Koran the way the Jews and Christians differ over their Scripture.” ‘Uthman convened an editorial committee of sorts that carefully gathered the various pieces of scripture that had been memorized or written down by Muhammad’s companions. The result was a standard written version of the Koran. ‘Uthman ordered all incomplete and “imperfect” collections of the Koranic scripture destroyed, and the new version was quickly distributed to the major centers of the rapidly burgeoning empire.

During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad; sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; and tafsir, or Koranic commentary and explication. It is from these traditional sources—compiled in written form mostly from the mid eighth to the mid tenth century—that all accounts of the revelation of the Koran and the early years of Islam are ultimately derived.

Ishmael & Abraham build  Ka'aba“For People Who Understand”

Roughly equivalent in length to the New Testament, the Koran is divided into 114 sections, known as suras, that vary dramatically in length and form. The book’s organizing principle is neither chronological nor thematic—for the most part the suras are arranged from beginning to end in descending order of length. Despite the unusual structure, however, what generally surprises newcomers to the Koran is the degree to which it draws on the same beliefs and stories that appear in the Bible. God (Allah in Arabic) rules supreme: he is the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-merciful Being who has created the world and its creatures; he sends messages and laws through prophets to help guide human existence; and, at a time in the future known only to him, he will bring about the end of the world and the Day of Judgment. Adam, the first man, is expelled from Paradise for eating from the forbidden tree. Noah builds an ark to save a select few from a flood brought on by the wrath of God. Abraham prepares himself to sacrifice his son at God’s bidding. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and receives a revelation on Mount Sinai. Jesus—born of the Virgin Mary and referred to as the Messiah—works miracles, has disciples, and rises to heaven.

The Koran takes great care to stress this common monotheistic heritage, but it works equally hard to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. For example, it mentions prophets—Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb, Luqman, and others—whose origins seem exclusively Arabian, and it reminds readers that it is “A Koran in Arabic, / For people who understand.” Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers—even highly educated speakers of Arabic—to understand. It sometimes makes dramatic shifts in style, voice, and subject matter from verse to verse, and it assumes a familiarity with language, stories, and events that seem to have been lost even to the earliest of Muslim exegetes (typical of a text that initially evolved in an oral tradition). Its apparent inconsistencies are easy to find: God may be referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence; divergent versions of the same story are repeated at different points in the text; divine rulings occasionally contradict one another. In this last case the Koran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message (“God doth blot out / Or confirm what He pleaseth”).

Criticism did come. As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran—unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the “uncreated” and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu’tazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.

By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mu’tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of i’jaz, or the “inimitability” of the Koran. (As a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases.) The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.

The School of Oriental and African StudiesPsychopathic Vandalism?

Gerd R. Puin speaks with disdain about the traditional willingness, on the part of Muslim and Western scholars, to accept the conventional understanding of the Koran. “The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,'” he says. “But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible—if it can’t even be understood in Arabic—then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not—as even speakers of Arabic will tell you—there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.”

Trying to figure out that “something else” really began only in this century. “Until quite recently,” Patricia Crone, the historian of early Islam, says, “everyone took it for granted that everything the Muslims claim to remember about the origin and meaning of the Koran is correct. If you drop that assumption, you have to start afresh.” This is no mean feat, of course; the Koran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis. As Crone put it in Slaves on Horses,

The Biblical redactors offer us sections of the Israelite tradition at different stages of crystallization, and their testimonies can accordingly be profitably compared and weighed against each other. But the Muslim tradition was the outcome, not of a slow crystallization, but of an explosion; the first compilers were not redactors, but collectors of debris whose works are strikingly devoid of overall unity; and no particular illuminations ensue from their comparison.

Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion’s birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad’s world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam’s first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam’s stories about its own origins—particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries—to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth- or tenth-century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh-century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam.

If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries [Islamic calendar / Christian calendar] understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out “what really happened,” in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.

The person who more than anyone else has shaken up Koranic studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Puin is “re-reading him now” as he prepares to analyze the Yemeni fragments. Patricia Crone says that she and Michael Cook “did not say much about the Koran in Hagarism that was not based on Wansbrough.” Other scholars are less admiring, referring to Wansbrough’s work as “drastically wrongheaded,” “ferociously opaque,” and a “colossal self-deception.” But like it or not, anybody engaged in the critical study of the Koran today must contend with Wansbrough’s two main works— Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978).

Wansbrough applied an entire arsenal of what he called the “instruments and techniques” of biblical criticism—form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, and much more—to the Koranic text. He concluded that the Koran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries, during a long period of oral transmission when Jewish and Christian sects were arguing volubly with one another well to the north of Mecca and Medina, in what are now parts of Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq. The reason that no Islamic source material from the first century or so of Islam has survived, Wansbrough concluded, is that it never existed.

To Wansbrough, the Islamic tradition is an example of what is known to biblical scholars as a “salvation history”: a theologically and evangelically motivated story of a religion’s origins invented late in the day and projected back in time. In other words, as Wansbrough put it in Quranic Studies, the canonization of the Koran—and the Islamic traditions that arose to explain it—involved the

attribution of several, partially overlapping, collections of logia (exhibiting a distinctly Mosaic imprint) to the image of a Biblical prophet (modified by the material of the Muhammadan evangelium into an Arabian man of God) with a traditional message of salvation (modified by the influence of Rabbinic Judaism into the unmediated and finally immutable word of God).

Wansbrough’s arcane theories have been contagious in certain scholarly circles, but many Muslims understandably have found them deeply offensive. S. Parvez Manzoor, for example, has described the Koranic studies of Wansbrough and others as “a naked discourse of power” and “an outburst of psychopathic vandalism.” But not even Manzoor argues for a retreat from the critical enterprise of Koranic studies; instead he urges Muslims to defeat the Western revisionists on the “epistemological battlefield,” admitting that “sooner or later [we Muslims] will have to approach the Koran from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition.”

Dr Nasr Abu ZaydRevisionism Inside the Islamic World

Indeed, for more than a century there have been public figures in the Islamic world who have attempted the revisionist study of the Koran and Islamic history—the exiled Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid is not unique. Perhaps Abu Zaid’s most famous predecessor was the prominent Egyptian government minister, university professor, and writer Taha Hussein. A determined modernist, Hussein in the early 1920s devoted himself to the study of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry and ended up concluding that much of that body of work had been fabricated well after the establishment of Islam in order to lend outside support to Koranic mythology. A more recent example is the Iranian journalist and diplomat Ali Dashti, who in his Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed (1985) repeatedly took his fellow Muslims to task for not questioning the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life, much of which he called “myth-making and miracle-mongering.”

Abu Zaid also cites the enormously influential Muhammad ‘Abduh as a precursor. The nineteenth-century father of Egyptian modernism, ‘Abduh saw the potential for a new Islamic theology in the theories of the ninth-century Mu’tazilis. The ideas of the Mu’tazilis gained popularity in some Muslim circles early in this century (leading the important Egyptian writer and intellectual Ahmad Amin to remark in 1936 that “the demise of Mu’tazilism was the greatest misfortune to have afflicted Muslims; they have committed a crime against themselves”). The late Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman carried the Mu’tazilite torch well into the present era; he spent the later years of his life, from the 1960s until his death in 1988, living and teaching in the United States, where he trained many students of Islam—both Muslims and non-Muslims—in the Mu’tazilite tradition.

Such work has not come without cost, however: Taha Hussein, like Nasr Abu Zaid, was declared an apostate in Egypt; Ali Dashti died mysteriously just after the 1979 Iranian revolution; and Fazlur Rahman was forced to leave Pakistan in the 1960s. Muslims interested in challenging orthodox doctrine must tread carefully. “I would like to get the Koran out of this prison,” Abu Zaid has said of the prevailing Islamic hostility to reinterpreting the Koran for the modern age, “so that once more it becomes productive for the essence of our culture and the arts, which are being strangled in our society.” Despite his many enemies in Egypt, Abu Zaid may well be making progress toward this goal: there are indications that his work is being widely, if quietly, read with interest in the Arab world. Abu Zaid says, for example, that his The Concept of the Text (1990)—the book largely responsible for his exile from Egypt—has gone through at least eight underground printings in Cairo and Beirut.

Another scholar with a wide readership who is committed to re-examining the Koran is Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian professor at the University of Paris. Arkoun argued in Lectures du Coran (1982), for example, that “it is time [for Islam] to assume, along with all of the great cultural traditions, the modern risks of scientific knowledge,” and suggested that “the problem of the divine authenticity of the Koran can serve to reactivate Islamic thought and engage it in the major debates of our age.” Arkoun regrets the fact that most Muslims are unaware that a different conception of the Koran exists within their own historical tradition. What a re-examination of Islamic history offers Muslims, Arkoun and others argue, is an opportunity to challenge the Muslim orthodoxy from within, rather than having to rely on “hostile” outside sources. Arkoun, Abu Zaid, and others hope that this challenge might ultimately lead to nothing less than an Islamic renaissance.

The gulf between such academic theories and the daily practice of Islam around the world is huge, of course—the majority of Muslims today are unlikely to question the orthodox understanding of the Koran and Islamic history. Yet Islam became one of the world’s great religions in part because of its openness to social change and new ideas. (Centuries ago, when Europe was mired in its feudal Dark Ages, the sages of a flourishing Islamic civilization opened an era of great scientific and philosophical discovery. The ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans might never have been introduced to Europe were it not for the Islamic historians and philosophers who rediscovered and revived them.) Islam’s own history shows that the prevailing conception of the Koran is not the only one ever to have existed, and the recent history of biblical scholarship shows that not all critical-historical studies of a holy scripture are antagonistic. They can instead be carried out with the aim of spiritual and cultural regeneration. They can, as Mohammed Arkoun puts it, demystify the text while reaffirming “the relevance of its larger intuitions.”

Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings—Bosnia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States, and so on. More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations. Surely the best way to start is with the study of the Koran—which promises in the years ahead to be at least as contentious, fascinating, and important as the study of the Bible has been in this century. – The Atlantic, January 1999

» Toby Lester, the author of Da Vinci’s Ghost (2012) and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), is an American writer and an editor. In addition to writing books, he is a longtime contributor to The Atlantic, for whom he has written extensively. He can be contacted through his website.

Innocence of Muslims: The Hidden Origin of Islam with Gerd R. Puin

Koran Documentary with Antony Thomas

Wendy’s Revenge: Plagiarism charge against Rajiv Malhotra is a red herring – Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajeev Srinivasan“This fuss about Malhotra’s books may be direct revenge for what happened to Wendy’s books a few months ago: upon being accused of hurting the sentiments of Hindus, her publisher unilaterally withdrew her books on Hinduism, which were allegedly a travesty of true research, not to mention full of gratuitous titillation and insults. Malhotra was the person who first challenged Wendy and her brood 15 years ago, and now the objective is to bully his publisher into withdrawing his books: sweet revenge indeed.” – Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajiv MalhotraThere has been a lot of commotion over on social media lately about the books written by Indian American author Rajiv Malhotra, who has single-handedly stood up to forces in US academia who paint, according to him, a negative, motivated, and false picture of Hinduism. This is not a purely abstract issue, as it impinges on soft power, positioning, and the marketing of India to the world, something that previous governments paid scarcely any attention to, but the current one does.

To put it simply, the issue is as follows: one Richard Fox Young, apparently an employee of a Christian seminary in Princeton, NJ, where Malhotra also resides, has gone on the warpath against Malhotra, accusing him of plagiarism, based on some material that was allegedly quoted without explicit attribution in his books Indra’s Net and Breaking India. Young’s crusade against Malhotra is not new: I personally have had to block Young on Twitter because he bombarded me when I supported Malhotra.

Richard Fox YoungNow, a disclaimer is in order: I have known Rajiv Malhotra for some years, and we have corresponded on occasion, although we have never met. While I don’t agree with him on everything, I am broadly in sync with him; and I have had no financial dealings whatsoever with him or any entities with links to him. There are friends of mine who disagree with him on style or substance, but when it comes to an external attack, we all stand with Rajiv.

On taking a brief look at the whole imbroglio, I see an old game being rehashed: certain anti-India and anti-Hindu forces are at play, and have been, in academia and elsewhere, for some years. There is a certain #DeepState at play, which I alluded to a few months ago in when I suggested that India has been deemed a part of a new #AxisOfEvil. I see no reason to change that view, as the same dramatis personae are at work here too: pals of the USCIRF – Cold Warriors of religion, focused on conversions.

I wrote about this clash of civilisations in “Fear of Engineering” in 2002, including the fact of Rajiv Malhotra, Sankrant Sanu, et al standing up to entrenched antipathy towards Hindus in American academia, led by ‘den mother’ Wendy Doniger Flaherty and “Wendy’s Children”, as Malhotra dubbed her acolytes. What was a somewhat obscure tiff in American academia then has now become quite an issue in India now.

Prof Wendy DonigerThere is an even greater link. This fuss about Malhotra’s books may be direct revenge for what happened to Wendy’s books a few months ago: upon being accused of hurting the sentiments of Hindus, her publisher unilaterally withdrew her books on Hinduism, which were allegedly a travesty of true research, not to mention full of gratuitous titillation and insults. Malhotra was the person who first challenged Wendy and her brood 15 years ago, and now the objective is to bully his publisher into withdrawing his books: sweet revenge indeed.

This is a pretty good tactic, and is an old one. The RISA group of mostly American religious academics who act as gatekeepers for Western Indology has consistently excluded those other than their own through the spurious argument of ‘scholarship’. This is defined as having been a PhD candidate under one of them: a clear case of intellectual incest. Indeed, Wendy has spawned—in nice counterpoint to Romila Thapar in India—an entire generation of Hindu-hating ‘scholars’, both Indian and Western.

Prof Michel DaninoThey have sought to denigrate the ‘insider’ perspective of Hinduism, as experienced by practicing Hindus or sympathetic scholars, and lionised an ‘outsider’ perspective (the words ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ are used to refer to these points of view) of hostile anthropologists (or colonial administrators in British Raj days). For instance, they have kept out scholars like Michel Danino, quite possibly the foremost authority on the Sarasvati river and thereby the best debunker of the entire ‘Aryan Invasion Fairytale’. This is not surprising: let us remember Galileo Galilei, who was almost burnt at the stake for upsetting the carefully built-up sinecures of insiders who had made their careers out of heliocentrism.

But that RISA citadel is under attack, as Hindus, both scholars and lay people, have begun to question them, turning the microscope back on them, and asserting that the western world-view is not universal (which Malhotra has done explicitly, by treating the West as anthropological specimens to be viewed through the lens of Hindu philosophical systems).

No, the western view is true for all people and for all time. An example is in the concept of ‘intellectual property rights’. The traditional knowledge and intellectual property of Hindus, freely given by pundits, have been quietly expropriated by western scholars (‘embrace-extend-exterminate’, the famous Microsoft strategy), who then turn around and assert that it is their property (the U-turn Hypothesis), for which they hold IPR. Westerners zealously guard their IPRs with patents and copyrights and so on. We remember the neem and turmeric patents. The tactic is also subtler: the appropriation of yoga into ‘Christian yoga’; the demonisation of coconut oil by cleverly comparing hydrogenated coconut oil to extra-virgin olive and saffola oil; and so forth.

BrahmaguptaHindus have a different, yet internally consistent, view of knowledge. They have traditionally created knowledge and simply put it in the public domain for anyone to use, without even signing their work. Is that wrong? Does this mean that Hindus were not innovative? Far from it. We don’t know who invented the decimal system (it was possibly Brahmagupta), but did it benefit society? Yes, it did, although it may not have benefited Brahmagupta personally through royalties, and indeed he may not have cared about the money, anyway.

In the West, too, the rise of Unix/Linux and open-source software has made it clear that ‘copyleft’ or freely opening up intellectual property, is not the end of civilisation as we know it; on the contrary, it can lead to very fine products and benefit society. Indeed, as opposed to Microsoft’s IPR-heavy Windows, 98 percent of us now carry mobile devices based on the open-source philosophy of Unix/Linux, GNU and the Free Software Foundation. So it’s clear that an alternative point of view may well be as valid as the conventional wisdom. Creative Commons is another example.

Staying with IPR for a moment, let us consider the basis of the attack on Malhotra: that he has plagiarised. Insofar as I can tell, what he is accused of is acceptable under the definition of ‘fair use’ in the US Copyright Act 1976, 17 USC Section 107, and under ‘fair dealing’ in the Indian Copyright Act of 1957, Section 52. If you peruse these provisions, you will find that the quoting of copyright materials for ‘research’ is allowed without hindrance, as it is for teaching as well, so long as it is not used for monetary benefit to the user.

Thus, there is little basis in fact for the allegation, a priori, and I suspect that if Malhotra sues, he will win. However, it is an excellent tactic, known as “throwing some mud and seeing how much will stick”. The objective is not to penalise the alleged plagiarism, but to create the impression that Malhotra is intellectually dishonest, the equivalent of accusing him of a felony, which will remain as a stain even if he is exonerated. That is the objective of Wendy’s Revenge: hopefully, it will cause him to self-censor.

Sister AnitaThis technique has been used to devastating effect in the past. One example is the Nun Rape Syndrome. In 1998, there was a big hoo-ha over an alleged rape of four Catholic nuns in Jhabua, in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, and Hindu groups were immediately accused. To be honest, it’s not clear why the rape of a nun is more heinous than the rape of any lay woman: it’s, alas, pretty routine, just ask Sisters Anita and Jesmi. Anyway it turned out that the rapists were themselves Christians. The story then disappeared, but there were no apologies for libel against Hindus.

The same thing happened in West Bengal recently. An elderly nun was allegedly raped, and since the BJP is running the government of India, blame was immediately directed at Hindu organisations. Then it turned out that the rapists were Muslims, illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and the nun was also spirited away. Once again, the story was swept under the carpet, but no apologies.

Dr. Atanu DeyInterestingly, Indian ‘sepoys’, the brainwashed or the mendacious, are in the forefront of the attacks. I have read several of them, and also devastating counters by Malhotra and Danino as well as an excellent piece by Atanu Dey showing up their hypocrisy.

Sadly, I also found the usual champions of ‘Freedom of Speech’—including a bunch that went to a big conference in Singapore just weeks ago on this topic—strangely silent. But that is par for the course. They shouted from the rooftops about M.F. Husain’s FoS, but were quiet about Tasleema Nasrin’s FoS, even when she was manhandled by some people. They went on and on about Perumal Murugan’s FoS, but were deafeningly silent about Joe D’Cruz’s FoS. The sepoys obviously know what to think and where their selective outrage must be directed: their handlers must be telling them regularly.

Madhu KishwarThus the entire arsenal of the #DeepState has been brought out, including the sleeper cells. The fact that the allegations are baseless will not matter, and the nasties will succeed in their objective of shutting down Rajiv Malhotra unless all of us who support our civilisation are vocal in our resistance. To start with, you could sign the petition that is circulating online here. But that isn’t enough: do get active in fighting back. This is just the tip of the iceberg in the withering assault on Hindu civilisation. – Firstpost, 19 July 2015

See also

Mihir Sharma’s abusive article and Michel Danino’s civil response to it – BS

“While classical India refined and practised the art of debating, Mihir Sharma’s vituperative but crassly ignorant language is fairly typical of a trend to demonize what one does not agree with—a trend that has taken the place of academic debates in much of India’s intellectual life. It does spare one the trouble of having to study, carefully weigh arguments and evidence, and engage other viewpoints in a civilized manner.” — Prof Michel Danino 

Mihir S. SharmaThe Rajiv Malhotra issue is a cautionary tale for publishers – Mihir Sharma  

Rajiv Malhotra, who writes angrily from New Jersey about American attempts to monopolise the conversation about India and Hinduism, is in trouble. True to form—he is, after all, more loudly Indian than anybody else, especially anybody else not in New Jersey—the trouble he is in is that quintessentially desi problem, plagiarism.

The facts are these. Richard Fox Young, who teaches at a seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, released a series of passages on Twitter from Mr Malhotra’s books, Breaking India and Indra’s Net. In some cases, Mr Malhotra appeared to have lifted whole passages from various academic books without sufficient attribution—particularly from Unifying Hinduism by Andrew J Nicholson, published by Columbia University Press in 2010. This is no coincidence, but it is gently ironic: Indra’s Net makes the argument for Hinduism’s philosophical unity, precisely the kind of effort that Prof Nicholson examines in Unifying Hinduism. In addition, Prof Young points out how Mr Malhotra sometimes uses plagiarised passages in completely different contexts—an impressively complex feat of intellectual deception.

Rajiv Malhotra: Being different!Mr Malhotra‘s response, when it came, was instructive. As detailed by Shoaib Daniyal on the web site, Mr Malhotra—who tends not to deviate from his pet passions—denounced Western standards of referencing as unnecessary for Indian scholars. In other words, quotation marks are a despicable Macaualayite imposition on India’s ancient civilisation. I wish I was making this up, but I don’t have the imagination. This is Mr Malhotra’s direct quote: “Sanskrit language has no quotation marks, yet scholars cited others for thousands of years. Western standards not the only way to acknowledge.”

In effect, Mr Malhotra has accepted Prof Young’s charges of plagiarism, but denied their importance. Good for him. I look forward to a bright future—25 years on, as Amit Shah assures us—when we will never need to use quotation marks at all. Think of the time saved on tiny phone keyboards! If only the iPhone could make copying and pasting a bit easier for us desis, we could really conquer academia.

(I should make one thing clear parenthetically: I have closely followed Mr Malhotra’s writing for 15 years, and deeply admire much about him. His energy, for one. Thanks largely to that he has, like Subramanian Swamy, built up an online following that thinks he is a once-in-a-lifetime genius, doing god’s work in a difficult and inhospitable environment.)

But Professor Young’s accusations create a somewhat difficult predicament for Mr Malhotra’s publishers, Harper Collins. I assume Mr Malhotra sells well—his are the kind of books loved by engineers who possess an inchoate anger and disdain for the humanities. Somebody within Harper Collins will be saying: look, we’re a business. We are not an academic publisher. So we must not be held to the standards of peer review and referencing that such publisher must perforce follow. We really have one major constraint: profitability. Can we shut down Mr Malhotra, who makes money for us, because of academic nit-picking about plagiarism? (Not to mention the fact that, were Harper Collins to let Mr Malhotra go, he would unquestionably send his millions of devoted fans on jihad against his unfortunate ex-publishers.)

And we reach, thus, a deeper question. To what degree can we trust “serious” works of non-fiction from non-academic presses? To be frank, few publishing houses, here or abroad, can afford the kind of reviewing and editing that comes up to the standard of, say, the average academic journal. Academic presses come somewhere in between. I think they would at least ensure that referencing and footnoting was clear and accurate. Recently one of our finest public intellectuals told me that, in the end, he was unclear what advantages an academic publisher would have for non-fiction over a trade publisher. I think I now have an answer to that question. Mr Malhotra would have found it more difficult to get away with this apparent intellectual dishonesty in an academic publisher.

This is the correct context in which to view the constant, irritating whine from India’s social conservatives that they have been excluded from academia. (A whine that is used to justify all sorts of saffronisation and interference.) There is more to the story than just the unscrupulous Marxists and post-Marxist domination of academic institutions—after all, this domination has not stopped a strong liberal grouping from developing within Indian history, political science and economics. No, this incident underlines the true tragedy of Indian social conservative “scholarship”: that most of its critics are right. The authors who write the “path-breaking” studies that “Western-style academia doesn’t want you to read” are in fact, most likely, peddling outlandish work that would easily fail the standards that the existing body of work has had to meet. The Shrikant Talageris and the Michel Daninos of the world, like the Rajiv Malhotras, are online heroes rather than respected historians or linguists because their work just doesn’t match up. The endless ways in which the “new Hindu right” uncovers ways in which caste and external migrations were invented but the Saraswati was not are not being suppressed because of a giant Western conspiracy; they simply don’t meet the academic standards required to conclude that they’re not just a bunch of crackpot theories dreamed up by nativist bigots. – Business Standard, 14 July 2015

» Mihir S. Sharma trained as an economist and political scientist in Delhi and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is editor of the opinion pages at the Business Standard. 

Prof Michel DaninoMy response to Mihir Sharma’s false charges – Michel Danino

In his article “The Rajiv Malhotra issue is a cautionary tale for publishers”, Mihir S. Sharma finds it necessary to close with the following statement: “The Shrikant Talageris and the Michael Daninos of the world, like the Rajiv Malhotras, are online heroes rather than respected historians or linguists because their work just doesn’t match up. The endless ways in which the “new Hindu right” uncovers ways in which caste and external migrations were invented but the Saraswati was not are not being suppressed because of a giant Western conspiracy; they simply don’t meet the academic standards required to conclude that they’re not just a bunch of crackpot theories dreamed up by nativist bigots.”

While Mihir Sharma is welcome to his opinions, he has no right to misrepresent, abuse and demonize people whose work he is completely ignorant of. I will not speak for Rajiv Malhotra or Shrikant Talageri, but I protest against his statement concerning me. I am by no means an “online hero”, maintaining neither a website nor a blog nor a Facebook account. My work on ancient India has spread through my books and papers, which have been published by reputed publishers and journals of Indology and archaeology in India and abroad. I have also contributed chapters to over twenty scholarly volumes. I am sure Mihir Sharma has read none of my work; indeed, he cannot even spell my name correctly.

Thus he implies that the Sarasvati River is “invented”, which means he has not read my The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati published by Penguin India in 2010 and warmly reviewed by many national newspapers (including Business Standard: see here and here) as well as Current Science and reputed journals of archaeology such as Man and Environment and Puratattva. Had he read it, he would have known that the vanished Vedic river was identified with the now dry Ghaggar-Hakra of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Cholistan, not by a few “nativist bigots”, but in 1855 by the French geographer Louis Vivien de Saint-Martin. In the next few decades, nearly all European Indologists, from H.H. Wilson and F. Max Müller to M. Monier-Williams, A.A. Macdonell, A.B. Keith or F.E. Pargiter, and more recently L. Renou, A.L. Basham or Jan Gonda, accepted Vivien de Saint-Martin’s thesis. Geologists such as the British R.D. Oldham (1886) joined in, followed by geographers such as the Indian Shamsul Islam Siddiqi (1944) or the German Herbert Wilhelmy (1969). Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, was one among many who, in the 19th century, published maps clearly naming the Sarasvati as a tributary to the Ghaggar. The celebrated British archaeologist and explorer Marc Aurel Stein was the first to discover Harappan sites along the bed of the dry river and published his findings in a 1942 report entitled “A Survey of Ancient Sites along the ‘Lost’ Sarasvati River.” The late British archaeologist Raymond Allchin fully accepted the river’s identification, as did his U.S. colleagues the late Gregory L. Possehl or J.M. Kenoyer, among others. I could line up many more non-“nativist” names. If there was a “Western conspiracy”, to use Sharma’s name, it was to conclude that the Sarasvati had been a very real river—like all others listed in the Rig-Veda—and could be precisely placed on the map. While there are still important geological issues to be resolved, my book has brought together literary, cultural, archaeological and geological evidence in an objective and open-ended manner.

Lastly, while classical India refined and practised the art of debating, Mihir Sharma’s vituperative but crassly ignorant language is fairly typical of a trend to demonize what one does not agree with—a trend that has taken the place of academic debates in much of India’s intellectual life. It does spare one the trouble of having to study, carefully weigh arguments and evidence, and engage other viewpoints in a civilized manner. – Business Standard, 14 July 2015

» Prof Michel Danino is a guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar, and the convener of the International Forum for India’s Heritage. He is also a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research.

Circling the square – Amita Sharma

Nataraj & Sadhu

Who knows for certain?
Who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born, whence came creation?
The gods are later than this world’s formation;
Who then can know the origins of the world?
None knows whence creation arose;
And whether he has or has not made it;
He who surveys it from the lofty skies,
Only he knows — or perhaps he knows not.
– Rig Veda (X:129)

Amita SharmaThe Hymn of Creation is, perhaps, one of the profoundest critical gazes cast on the creator in the history of metaphysical thought, putting under erasure an a priori cognisant principle, manifesting a spirit free to doubt and question. This defines ancient Indian knowledge systems, cohabiting different realms of ‘realities’ generating at one level, the language of sophisticated argument, technical detail and codification, and at another, a language that is tentative, suggestive, pushing the borders of the known.

The genesis of ancient Indian knowledge systems is this coupling of intellectual enquiry with a sense of sublime wonder at the great mysteries of life. Ancient Indian knowledge forms were divided into two broad groups, namely para vidya and apara vidya. Para vidya or higher knowledge is knowledge by which the imperishable is known. Apara vidya encompassed worldly knowledge, like science, technology, arts, commerce and management. To the modern mind, thinking in exclusive categories, dichotomising knowledge forms, these two knowledge worlds are dualistically wedged. But the uniqueness of ancient Indian knowledge systems is the coexistence of the transcendental with the empirical, generating several distinctive features. The sacred and the secular flowed into each other.

There was no Inquisition to be feared, no imposed dogma. Savants built upon inherited knowledge forms while equally questioning them. We find Kautilya disagreeing with earlier thinkers of political science on issues of warfare, or Brahmagupta virulently rejecting Aryabhata’s theory of a rotating earth. A huge literature of commentaries, many of them sadly lost, is evidence of ceaseless and tireless scholarly discussion, debate and dissent

Technical knowledge often arose to serve religious practices. Over time, organised systems emerged dealing with language, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, the arts, governance and administration, ethics and yoga and a host of lesser known knowledge systems related to agriculture, animal husbandry, water management, town-planning that were documented in numerous texts rarely studied now.

Today the enmeshing of ideas, of poetry with physics, maths with mantra, science with mysticism, might appear as pre-scientific and, therefore, mere objects of curiosity. Yet when submitted to rigorous tests, they have almost always proved their worth. A few examples illustrate how the complexity of Indian knowledge systems argues for analytical rigour, not a reductionist reading and uncritical rejection. It is not for nothing that 20th century physicists such as Erwin Schrödinger or Werner Heisenberg drew inspiration from Vedantic concepts.

Ancient Indian mathematics arose from the Vedangas — a reflection on the Vedas. The Shulba Sutras, India’s first texts of geometry, composed around 800 – 600 BCE, exemplify traditional epistemological forms and their contribution to modern knowledge. These texts addressed the theological requirement of constructing fire altars with different shapes such as a falcon in flight with curved wings or a tortoise with extended head and legs, but with the same surface area. The altars had to be constructed with five layers of burnt bricks, each layer consisting of 200 bricks and no two adjacent layers having congruent arrangements of bricks. One of the geometric constructions involved squaring the circle (and vice-versa) viz., geometrically constructing a square having the same area as a given circle.

Circling the SquareThe Baudha­yana Shulba Sutra says, a rope stretched along the length of the diagonal produces an area which the vertical and horizontal sides make together. This is a precise geometric expression of the Pythagorean theorem, which states that the sum of the squares of the two sides of a right-angle triangle equals the square of its hypotenuse. Were we more aware of the contribution of Indian geometricians, the Pythagorean theorem might today be equally known as the Shulba theorem.

The Vedic mantras are chanted till today after a ritual prayer. Have we ever noticed the incantation involves large numbers? For example, the mantra at the end of the annahoma (food-oblation rite) performed during the ashvamedha invokes powers of 10 from a hundred to a trillion.

Maths and verse enmeshed not just in style, but in substance. Pingala (300 – 200 BCE), author of the earliest known Sanskrit treatise on prosody, Chandaḥsāstra (the science of metres), gave elaborate rules for listing out all possible combinations of ‘heavy’ (long) and ‘light’ (short) syllables in Vedic metres. In the process, Pingala constructed prastāras or tables which noted the combinations in what would be called today a binary system of notation (for instance, ‘long-long-short … long-short-short’). The science of metres led to the Indian equivalent of the famous Fibonacci numbers (in which each number is the sum of the preceding two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…).

A Vedic hymn could have more than one meaning, embedding philosophical speculation with mathematical concepts. A famous shloka from Ishavasya Upanishad reads, purnamadah purnamidam purnat purnamudachyate purnasya purnamadaya purnameva vashishyate: “That is whole; this is whole. From the whole comes the whole; take away the whole from the whole, what remains is the whole.” Mathematically, this can be interpreted in terms of zero as well as infinity, both of which are meanings of purna.

While the zero (variously called shunya, purna, bindu …) as an empty place-holder in the place-value numeral system appears much earlier, algebraic definitions of the zero and its relationship to mathematical functions appear in the mathematical treatises of Brahmagupta in the 7th century whose Brahmasphutasiddhant had basic operations (including cube roots, fractions, ratios and proportions) as well as applied mathematics (including series, plane figures, stacking of bricks, sawing of timber, and piling of grain). His concept “divided by zero = infinity” is etymologically interesting: khachheda means divided by kha, where kha (space) stands for zero.

Consider the way the decimal story unravels. The present system of decimal numbers needed two fundamental discoveries: the concept of zero and the principle of place value. Both were developed in India between the 1st and the 6th centuries CE. The first inscription with a decimal place-value notation is from Sankheda in Gujarat, dated 346 in the Chhedi Era, or 594 CE, where ‘3’ stands for hundreds, ‘4’ for 10s and ‘6’ for units. But five centuries earlier, the Buddhist philosopher Vasumitra, discussing the counting pits of merchants, had remarked, “When [the same] clay counting-piece is in the place of units, it is denoted as one, when in hundreds, one hundred.”

Decimal representation was also employed in a verse composition technique, later labelled bhuta-sankhya (literally, object numbers) used in technical books. Since those were composed in verse, numbers were often represented by objects. The number 4, for example, could be represented by the word Veda (there are four Vedas), the number 32 by the word teeth (a full set consists of 32), and the number 1 by moon, sun or atman, all of which are unique. So, “Veda-teeth-moon” would correspond to 4-32-1 or our decimal numeral 1324, as the convention for numbers then was to enumerate their digits from right to left.

This rich tradition of mathematics flowered in some of the greatest mathematicians of their times who contributed towards discovering and formalising mathematical principles. Aryabhata I (born 476 CE) described fundamental principles of mathematics and astronomy in 121 verses of Aryabhatiya which deal with quadratic equations, trigonometry or the value of π, correct to 4 decimal places. His calculation of the circumference of earth was within 12 per cent of the actual value, his table of planetary positions and his lengths of the sidereal and solar years remarkably precise. Brahmagupta (born 598 CE) studied many geometrical figures, introduced negative numbers and defined mathematical infinity as “that which is divided by zero”.

Bhaskara IIBhaskara II (born 1114), author of Lilavati and Bijaganita, proposed solutions to cubic and biquadratic equations, worked out an efficient algorithm for some types of second-degree indeterminate equations and laid down some of the foundations of calculus.

As in the case of mathematics, early astronomical insights were embedded in sacred texts often veiled in allegorical or poetical forms. The Rig Veda refers to a wheel consisting of 360 spokes, clearly the days of the year; some of its verses have been interpreted in terms of eclipses and meteor showers.

The Aitareya Brahmana (3.44) declares, “The sun never really sets or rises. … Having reached the end of the day, he inverts himself; thus he makes evening below, day above…. Having reached the end of the night he inverts himself; thus he makes day below, night above; He never sets; indeed he never sets.” This seems to reflect an awareness of the sphericity of the earth.

The famous scholar Sayana (c. 1315-1387) commented thus on a hymn to the sun from the Rig Veda (1.50.4): “Thus it is remembered, O Surya, you who traverse 2,202 yojanas in half a nimesha.” With a yojana of about 13.6 km and a nimesha of 16/75th of a second, this amounts to 280,755 km/sec — just 6 per cent from the speed of light (299,792 km/sec) — a coincidence worth noting.

The Puranas describe time units from the infinitesimal truti, lasting (according to Bhaskara II) one 2,916,000,000th of a day or about 30 microseconds, to a mahamantavara of 311 trillion years. Time is seen as cyclical, an endless procession of creation, preservation and dissolution. The end of each kalpa brought about by Shiva’s dance is also the beginning of the next. Rebirth follows destruction. Each Brahma day and each Brahma night lasted a kalpa or 4.32 billion years, adding up to 8.43 billion years which is not too far from the current 13.7 billion years for the age of the universe (another coincidence, which the US astronomer Carl Sagan noted).

In contrast, till the 19th century, much of Europe was convinced that the universe was no more than 6,000 years old. And while we are on coincidences, let us mention that Jain texts state that there are 8.4 million species on earth, which compares well with the figure of 8.7 million arrived at in a 2011 research paper.


Sacred geographies enfolded astronomical observations. According to the German archaeologist Holger Wanzke, the east-west alignment of the main streets of Mohenjodaro’s citadel (or acropolis) was probably based on the Pleiades star cluster (Krittika), which rose due east at the time; it no longer does because of the precession of the equinoxes. Ujjain, associated with the legendary king Vikramaditya, is located on the Tropic of Cancer; it was a centre of astronomical observations. Chitrakoot is associated with Rama, who is often represented symbolically as an arrow. Mapped with GPS, ashrams and other holy sites there form arrows that point to the sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice. Varanasi’s 14 Aditya shrines precisely track the sun’s path through the year, embedding time in the ancient city’s map.

Surya Shrines Varanasi

The purpose of alluding to diverse forms of cultural codification of knowledge is that even while ambiguity may en-wrap them, they have a steady stream of scientific insights that merit research. The significance of culturally embedded knowledge is supported by our material inheritance.

For the growth of a truly scientific spirit, it is necessary that we critically evaluate our intellectual inheritance. Bhaskara II said, “It is necessary to speak out the truth accurately before those who have implicit faith in tradition. It will be impossible to believe in whatever is said earlier unless every erroneous statement is criticised and condemned.”

In ignoring our own knowledge legacy, or rejecting it as myth, are we guilty of creating an uncritical modernism that stultifies its own growth?

Fields Medal winner, Manjul Bhargava has said that he was inspired not only from ancient Indian mathematicians, but also from his practice of tabla and his knowledge of Sanskrit. The statue of Nataraja, a symbol of the dance of subatomic particles, which adorns the CERN where the hunt for the ‘ultimate’ particles goes on, is a reminder that India’s wisdom offers much to the world in its tireless research into the mysteries of life in its infinite complexity. – Financial Chronicle, 13 April 2015

» Amita Sharma is former additional secretary in the Ministry of Human Resources Development. 

» With inputs from the French-born Indian author Michel Danino, currently guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar.  

» Maps courtesy Rana P.B. Singh & J. McKim Malville.

The SandHI Series | Indian Knowledge Series

The Aatish Taseer Interview – S. Prasannarajan

Aatish Taseer

S. PrasannarajanAn overwhelming sense of being Indian runs through the pages of The Way Things Were.

I had been looking for that sense of Indianness for many years; and I found it in a strange way, through Sanskrit. I can still remember that morning, five or six years ago, when, at the Oriental Institute at Oxford (irony of ironies!) I read aloud my first ever words of Sanskrit: Bṛhad-aśva uvāca. Bṛhadaśva spake. Such a little thing—so commonplace in epic—but it went through me like a chill. I had the feeling of being spoken to over the ages. And the words, though simple, were full of Indo-European resonance, full of a shared history of sound and meaning: aśva, cognate with the Latin equus, is related to such words as equerry and equestrian. And uvāca, the perfect form of the verb vac, to speak, is cognate with the Latin vox and vocare, from where we have words like voice and vocal. So, you see, even this little fragment, when unpacked, conveyed a sense of history. I didn’t know all this at the time, of course; I was simply responding with a child’s excitement to the sound of the language; but I must on some instinctive level have sensed its deeper resonance.

An existential knowledge…. Or is it like being in the world?

• Do you mean to ask if this ‘sense of being Indian’ is something abstract and conceptual as opposed to lived and real? I suppose it is more idea than reality. It’s interesting that you ask this question because it goes to the heart of what The Way Things Were is about. Very early on it is said of Toby: ‘there was never a man who knew more about India and, yet, knew India less, than Toby. He was like one of those men who fall in love with the idea of a woman, while all the time insulating themselves from her reality.’ This tension between India, as idea, and India, the reality, is central to the novel. It comes up again and again, as does the question—so shrill in our times—of what it really means to be Indian. Who has the monopoly on authenticity? Who is in possession of a true knowledge of the past?

And Sanskrit in your book, as it is being used by Skanda. builds a semantic bridge between the past and the present, between emotion and knowledge…. Right?

• Exactly. My agent, Andrew Wylie, described it rather beautifully, in my view, ‘as central metaphor and as a kind of chorus.’ I think that’s right. At one point in the novel Toby and Uma are arguing about why Skanda must learn Sanskrit. And Toby says: ‘It [Sanskrit] will give him the ability to see through language. Not just in India, but across the Indo-European belt. It will give him an instinctive idea of the past. And, in a country like India, where people have so few means to possess such an idea, it will give him a kind of confidence.’

So: on the one hand, there is the confidence of being able to connect past with present, but on the other—and hardly less important!—there is the ability to connect East with West. Speaking personally, I used to feel such a sense of embarrassment about being an English writer in India. But it was something that grew less as I was exposed to Sanskrit. I began to see the history of these languages—the Indo-European languages, at least—as a shared history; I began to see their deep interconnectedness. And since language was my medium after all, it made the past feel less fragmentary; I was less embarrassed by our colonial history, more able to make a whole of things.

This book, shall I say?, is also an argument with an India you are still coming to terms with.

• Argument is too strong a word. What the novel does is dramatize a cultural problem. It is a problem I consider to be inimical to intellectual growth in India. And that is her inability to reach into the past for cultural and intellectual nourishment, for confidence, for a sense of herself. We live a strange divided reality in India. On the one hand, there is the extraordinary continuation of the past into the present, the likes of which exists hardly anywhere else. Rites unchanged for twenty-five and thirty centuries; a vast corpus of ancient literature; hundreds and thousands of people still immersed in the life of Tradition. No need to romanticize this older India; it is in many ways decayed and cannot on its own meet the needs of the present. But its existence without question represents an extraordinary fact. It should energise modern India, excite in her a curiosity about herself, but it doesn’t. The modern country, which itself is shabby and dwarfish, stands apart. The two Indias do not speak to each other. Both are in need of each other, for growth and renewal, but nowhere is anyone able to open an intellectual stent so that the blood may flow from one India into the other. This, in my view, is a cultural problem. I believe it has prevented India, despite being a democracy, from finding her voice. She remains a country with little to say to the world, with no story about herself that she wishes to project into the future.

A political, cultural, and civilizational argument?

• We may have got there in the last question! But let me say that India’s inability to find her voice is not simply a cultural problem; it takes a political shape too. So, we have the Congress on one side—the party of the old establishment—cynical, deracinated, black-hearted. That they had to go is no surprise. But we must ask ourselves what has come in their place? The PM himself, though not a man of learning, has very good instincts. But what about his cabinet? The idea that a woman like Smriti Irani is in charge of education is enough to make you want to throw yourself from a mobile phone tower. Can she really be expected to understand the enormity of the challenge before her? Does she have any idea of what role the humanities play in free societies, the sense of wonder they are to inspire? Does she understand our historical situation? Does she know what a delicate business it is to steer a country like India away from its colonial past into a future free of cheap revivalism? Can we ask so much of Smriti Irani? Or do we have to accept that an amazing opportunity to profoundly change education in India has once again been lost?

Has you ancestral memory influenced your imagination—and shaped your argument?

• I can definitely say that this book came out of a feeling of euphoria at the rediscovery of classical India in my own life. There were moments when that excitement—either at a set of cognates or a verse in the Kumārasambhava or at the sheer genius of Mallinatha’s commentary—was like an animating force behind the narrative. It took me back to my book again and again; it filled me with a sense of urgency. The character in the book who embodies this excitement is Toby. Once he glimpses the genius of ancient India, he is never able to look at the modern country he sees around him in the same way again. The contact with the past transforms his relationship to what remains of old India in present-day India. He comes to see his duty as something akin to how a pundit in Benares once explained to me the need to keep teaching the Veda in our time: ‘Sometimes when the rains are very heavy, the farmer stores away a pouch of the seed in some high place. Then, once the flood recedes’—nice metaphor for the approach of an enlightened time!— ‘he sows the seed in the field and there is a crop again.’

Mrs Gandhi, Delhi riots, Ayodhya … you get into the perversions, pathologies and passions of modern India. Are you a writer haunted by your political inheritance?

• How can I not be! The drama of those years—bookended by the Emergency and the demolition of the Mosque—is real. At home: the Emergency; Mrs. Gandhi’s defeat and return to power; the creation of Bhindranwale; his death in Blue Star; Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination. Abroad: Mullahs in Tehran; Soviet tanks in Kabul; Bhutto’s head in a hangman’s noose. The return of religion, of conservatism. Of Reagan and Thatcher. All this, and we are not even half the way through! It was very near to me, you know: my father was in jail under Zia, my mother was covering these things for the Indian papers. She was coming home with stories about what was happening. This was my direct material.

Is India on your mind a great hurt, a let down, a hope…?

• The truth is that I’m waiting for something specific to happen. It could never have happened so long as the Madonna and Child were in power. They were, in fact, determined that it did not happen. I’m referring to a specific moment in the life of a country when its idea of itself takes shape and it is able—urbi et orbi—to tell a story about itself. It is a moment that certainly happened in Russia in the 19th century; it happened in Japan; I think it might be happening in China. It’s a very delicate moment; it can go easily wrong; the danger of it being lost to authoritarianism or chauvinism is very great. It is something that should have happened in India, but it hasn’t. India seems still just to be muddling through. It is as Maniraja says in the novel: ‘This should be our moment, a moment that comes but once, and we’ve let it pass us by. People think it’s an administrative issue, a question of policy and reform, but it’s not. It is cultural; these things are inseparable from history.’

Delhi of a certain vintage, its class mannerisms and attitudes, comes alive so naturally in your book. Memories of growing up?

• It is hard for me to conceal my contempt for the people I grew up amongst. There was an outward veneer of sophistication about them, but it was very thin: they were in fact shallow and stupid people. Many of them went into politics. Some became chief ministers, one a prime minister, others senior ministers. And what did they do with their power? Absolutely nothing. They had seen the world when few could; they had been to the best schools; but none of it had any impact on them. They never tried to understand why some societies worked and others didn’t. They were disgusted by the people who had brought them to power. And they either left them roughly as they had found them or they looted them, squirreling away money for diamonds and flats in Knightsbridge. Nothing makes me happier now than to see that the age of this class of person is over. The drawing rooms of Delhi have been emptied of influence. And it’s a wonderful thing!

No one gets it as real as you do. Reminds me of Rushdie’s Bombay. Is Delhi the city that adds to your imagination—or more? How much it matters as a place in your imagination?

• Yes! This must be what Coetzee means when he says: ‘there is no mere landscape.’ Delhi, at some point, became the landscape of my imagination. It can happen. You mention Rushdie and Bombay; I can think of others. Bellow and Chicago, Joyce and Dublin. It takes a certain kind of city at a certain point in its development, doesn’t it? Delhi is definitely at that point. The little world that I grew up in—of privilege and influence—has been completely exploded, encircled, turned inside out. The cities within the city have been stitched together with infrastructure. A new urban whole has come into being. There are subcultures in Delhi; there are immigrants; there is something of an intellectual life. It’s quite a significant moment.

Do the people in your life, or people you know or see, are always in the risk of getting into your pages?

• Apparently they live in mortal fear of that. Or, so I’m told. But I don’t think I do it anymore than anyone else. I just get caught more often. No one should take it personally. It’s never out of malice, but out of curiosity and interest. And there is very rarely a direct match; more often than not there are multiple models for a single character. Only rarely does an old aunty get dragged off her sofa in Lutyens Delhi and thrown—Sikh husband, Marxist parents, great corpulence and all!—headfirst into my novel without a paddle. But these are rare moments of playfulness.

At one level, The Way Things Were is a generational epic, a family story becomes the story of a nation…. Isn’t it a “classic” novel that way?

• Yes, but it also subverts the traditional novel. There is a second narrative in the present, which acts almost like a framing device. There is quite an interesting variation from the idea of omniscience. How are Skanda and Gauri aware of what is happening in the other narrative, the narrative in the past? Who is telling the story? Skanda is no Nick Carraway and yet he seems to be responding to the unfolding of the story. There is that pressure of the past against the present. This is what I was aiming for. I tried many times to write the story straight—an old fashioned novel set between 1975 and 1992—but I couldn’t. It was only when I found my frame—this thin, very still narrative in the present, under which the past seethes—that I was able to get my material to move.

I find refined classicism throughout the novel, sustained by Skanda’s Sanskritised sensibility. What will you say?

• Yes, but Skanda’s interest in Sanskrit, though full of emotion, is at the end of the day a scholarly interest. It is not revivalist; it is not of the Rajiv Malhotra kind. Men like him—Malhotra and his cohorts—have poisoned the pool of classical studies. They’re not scholars; few of them have even a passable knowledge of Sanskrit; but they’re determined to shut down serious scholarship, determined to coerce Western academia into telling them the few banalities they want to hear: things that warm their little NRI hearts: the Aryans did not come from elsewhere but sprang up out of the soil of India; Sanskrit is not one of many Indo-European languages, but the mother of all languages…. Now when you start to refashion the past to fit the needs of the present, you must ask yourself why? Why do I want the past to be one way and not another? Because if you set to work blindly remaking the past, you can do it a lot of harm. These monkeys, they want the white man to tell them that India—which Malhotra couldn’t bring himself to live in—was once the greatest country of all. Only then will they go away and let serious people get on with their work. It’s sad to see this kind of sloganeer get traction in India—I read the other day in the paper that Delhi University had embarked upon a project to prove the Aryans were not foreigners. Such foolishness! It makes me fearful for India. And these are naturally fears that my novel is very alive to.

India remains an argument unresolved, but you, as a writer trapped by her, have not abandoned hope?

• Probably a lot of writers feel trapped by their place, doomed to certain material. I’m thinking of those frantic letters of Dostoevsky to various family members from Europe. ‘I must absolutely return to Russia—he writes from Florence—‘here I will end by losing any possibility of writing for the lack of my indispensable and habitual material—Russian reality (which feeds my thoughts) and the Russians.’ I feel pretty much the same way about India. It’s a difficult relationship, full of anxiety and frustration, but it feeds me as a writer. The West doesn’t work on me in the same way; I can’t read the faces, I can’t fill in the blanks; nothing suggests itself to me. In India I feel alive as a writer. It’s not about hope, really; it’s my place, that’s all.

Of India, do you wish the way thing were, politically, different?

• I’ve always thought of politics as an expression of other things. And, as such, I can see in the politics of India many things that worry me about her more generally. It is, for instance, no surprise to me that the Gandhi family enjoyed the power they did. That, to me, was the political manifestation of a historical condition; I felt it was inseparable from India’s distrust of herself, from her easy servility before the white man. It is for this reason that the Modi election was so important. It was a rare instance of India trusting to herself, throwing up one of her own, one who did not have the blessings of the West at all. And I was pretty dazzled to hear him speak at the U.N. I liked his style and confidence. He seemed so much more urbane and serious than many who had been educated in the West. But I can’t say this is true of the people who surround the prime minister. Modi needs in fact to build an intellectual base of his party from scratch; his people don’t sound good; they sound limited. If he is to succeed, he must provide an intellectual alternative to the power of the English-speaking classes; and, as an extension, the Congress Party. Otherwise, there’ll be a lot of Bharat Mata ki Jai and little else. – Open Magazine, 28 November 2014

» Aatish Taseer is a British-born writer, the son of Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and the late Pakistani politician and businessman Salmaan Taseer. He is an accomplished author, translator, and journalist.

Why I am not a Hindu – Koenraad Elst

Dr Koenraad Elst“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”. 

Leaving Christianity

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. ♦


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,259 other followers