Swami Vivekananda and hero-worship – Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst“This moronic Hindu love of Christanity and Islam does partly go back to Vivekananda’s sayings like the famous ‘Islamic body, Vedanta brain’ quote. Vivekananda could not foresee that the next generations of Hindus would degenerate to such a level of loss of the power of discrimination that they—including monks from his own Ramakrishna Mission—would start to pontificate about an illusory ‘equal truth of all religions.’ So he never focused on that problem, and later thinkers like Ram Swarup and now Rajiv Malhotra had to take it up.” – Dr Koenraad Elst

Saurav Basu, an independent researcher with interests in history and politics, defends Swami Vivekananda against two perceived criticisms (“Swami Vivekananda And Two Criticisms In Contemporary Intellectual Discourse”, Swarajya, 27 January 2016). He starts with me, then deals with Rajiv Malhotra. Formally, that is a bit curious, since Malhotra is older than me as well as better informed concerning Vivekananda. His book Indra’s Net mostly deals with Vivekananda whereas I have made only a few passing remarks on him. Then again, Bose only uses his rebuttal of my views as a warm-up for dealing with Malhotra’s thesis, so I guess that makes it OK.

Rajiv MalhotraI cannot speak for Mr. Malhotra, but knowing his work, I find it strange that Basu posits an opposition between Vivekananda and him. If anything, Malhotra is a great defender of Vivekananda. Some Western scholars and their Indian imitators claim that Vivekananda represents a movement called “neo-Hinduism”, discontinuous from historical Hinduism except in outward form, and more indebted to Christianity. Against this novel construction of the “neo-Hindu” entity, Malhotra has shown, in his book Indra’s Net, that Vivekananda was every inch a Hindu.

This at once solves the major problem Basu posits: did Rajiv Malhotra plagiarise Swami Vivekananda when he deduced the need for charity from Vedanta (because the Other is deemed to be of the same essence as the Self), and when he posited “historicity” as a defining trait of the Abrahamic religions as against Hinduism? It is lawful for a scholar to trace the germs of an author’s path-breaking doctrine in earlier authors, but here Basu insinuates an antagonism between the later and the earlier author, even an attempt by the later one to obscure and conceal the influence of the earlier one. The subject deserves a more thorough treatment, but the short answer is: both authors were applying the vision of Dharma, already thousands of years old, to the challenges of their own time.

Swami VivekanandaScepticism regarding Vivekananda

Then, speaking for myself, I learn that the present writer “alleges that ‘Swami Vivekananda is over-glorified and made the patron of too many institutions…. Thus, scholars of Hindu philosophy consider his knowledge … very third-rate, and his influential interpretation of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra even harmful….’”

The opinions I cite about Vivekananda are not an “allegation” of mine, just an account of facts I observe. Many scholars, whom I don’t define as “Western” but as “not beholden to the Hindu cause”, candidly allege that Vivekananda had not been trained in the nitty-gritty of Hindu philosophy and therefore necessarily displayed some defects when trying his hand at it. The evaluation “so third-rate” is from Robert Zydenbos, an academic with whom I have crossed swords several times (he counts me among “the scum of the earth”), but nonetheless a scrupulous scholar. From his detailed knowledge of the fine points of Hindu thought, he judges Vivekananda’s rendering of it (typically in speeches before commoner audiences) as very sketchy and unmindful of his precise sources.

On the other hand, not being a detail-oriented scholastic sometimes facilitates the larger perspective one gains when surveying a subject from the outside. And here, I can follow Basu’s quote from Sister Nivedita that Vivekananda “added to Hinduism”. An important subject, but no further treatment of it in this brief article.

The opinion that Vivekananda’s book Raja Yoga, a presentation of the Yoga Sutra, is confused and confusing, and thus dangerous, is from Swami Agehananda Bharati. He was a German Indologist who became an ordained Hindu monk, though he frequently expressed his skepticism about some traits of Hindu tradition as presently practised. Maybe Basu doesn’t like Agehananda’s ideological position, or his skin colour, but it is in keeping with scholarly practice to take his criticism of this much-read book seriously. He was fairly competent on yogic matters. And even if he is found to have been wrong, I still have a right to report that this opinion exists. Yes, there are people who consider Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga “harmful”.

Netaji Subhas Chandra BoseProblematizing hero-worship

As for myself, in the quoted lines I have not expressed any opinion of Vivekananda’s treatment of earlier thinkers and their thoughts. The thrust of my intervention was simply to problematize the Hindu tendency of hero-worship. Just because Vivekananda played a decisive role in giving Hindus pride again in their oppressed and much-maligned civilization, many Hindus treat him as infallible. Indeed, Basu’s own article is an example of this mindset. To start defending Vivekananda against his defender Malhotra, one must make him untouchably perfect indeed.

Let us compare this with another case of hero-worship, of another Bengali recently in the news: Subhas Chandra Bose. Yes, he certainly was a hero, freely choosing the difficult life of combat, always leading from the front and sharing the lives of his soldiers. And he was a great patriot: one may disagree with his strategic choices, but he did it for the love of the Motherland. But then, so did others: the choice by V.D. Savarkar to throw in India’s lot with the British was equally born from a desire to serve freedom for the Motherland in the best way possible. One great thing about India is the way it dealt with the different choices leaders had made in World War II: whereas European countries were racked by national disunity and revenge for years after, in India the war was really over in 1945. Whatever conflicting courses had been taken, they were correctly deemed to have been different attempts, according to everyone’s own lights, to serve the Motherland. That is why Jawaharlal Nehru offered to defend Bose’s lieutenants when they were tried by the British. So, we can agree that Bose was a heroic national leader.

Yet, he was very fallible too. His political ideas, e.g. about India’s need for dictatorship and of synthesizing Fascism and Communism, are best forgotten. But Bose-worshippers think they have to defend all of him. There is far too much hero-worship in Hindu nationalism, leading to a stagnation of thought because of a hyper-focus on the hero’s historical struggles and neglect of other struggles, esp. the present ones.

For a more consequential case of hero-worship: activists of the RSS, the self-praising “vanguard of Hindu society”, still go gaga over the memory of their movement’s founding fathers, K. B. Hedgewar and his successor M. S. Golwalkar. Though they have passed from the scene long ago, their works have never been critically analyzed even though their photographs are on display at every RSS function. RSS thought is still frozen in the pre-war years. Even the 1960s’ addition of Deendayal Upadhyaya’s Integral Humanism wasn’t much of an addition. Though the term is unimpeachable, it probably originated in 1930s’ Europe, in Jacques Maritain’s book Humanisme intégral, the major source of Christian Democracy (its central idea, very relevant both in India and Europe during the heyday of anti-religious Communism, was that “a humanism that denies man’s religious dimension, is not an integral humanism”). Upadhyaya’s core concept of a “national soul” goes back even farther, viz. to Johann Herder’s nationalism. So, the RSS’s “Hindu nationalism” is neither original nor very deep, and even its latest addition is already half a century old. Hedgewar’s ideas may have been useful and defensible in the interwar years, but the world has changed. Because of hero-worship, his approach was not seen as an attempt to serve Hindu society under the circumstances then obtaining, but were made the absolute focus of loyalty for succeeding generations. The result has been a willful unfitness for operating under changing conditions, and hence a decades-long impotence before the persistent de-Hinduization of India, all on the RSS’s watch.  

Ram SwarupVivekananda’s influence

In Hindu Dharma, new ideas may develop, but they should not become an absolute yardstick. In broad outline, Dharma has been discovered and mapped well enough by generations past, and it is from them as a collective entity that we should take inspiration (what we in Europe call the mos maiorum, the “ancestral ethos”), not only from some recent hero. As G. W. F. Hegel said: “The true is the whole.”

Admittedly, such a counterproductive influence cannot possibly be attributed to Swami Vivekananda. The defence of his fair name, as undertaken here by Saurav Basu (as on the stereotyping of India as “spiritual”, another subject too large to go into here), is also more intricate and sophisticated. It is true, and Basu provides the supporting quote, that Vivekananda saw Hinduism as a vast expanse stretching between the crudest and the most subtle, and that every single one of them was a genuine grasping for the divine. Yet, that vision of his has wrongly been expanded to Christianity and Islam, which are not just paths to the divine minding their own business, but also a demonization of all other paths. And this moronic Hindu love of Christanity and Islam does partly go back to Vivekananda’s sayings like the famous “Islamic body, Vedanta brain” quote. Vivekananda could not foresee that the next generations of Hindus would degenerate to such a level of loss of the power of discrimination that they (including monks from his own Ramakrishna Mission) would start to pontificate about an illusory “equal truth of all religions”. So he never focused on that problem, and later thinkers like Ram Swarup and now Rajiv Malhotra had to take it up.

So here too, we should see successive generations of Hindu thinkers together as all emanating from Dharma, and not have this hyper-focus on a hero from the colonial period. And most certainly, we should not borrow his vantage point to belittle a trail-blazer from the present time. This is another drawback of hero-worship: it makes you hyper-conscious of the challenges faced by Vivekananda, and blind to the rather different challenges Hinduism faces in other situations, including today—and to which Rajiv Malhotra is exploring the answers. The best way to honour the past’s Vivekananda is to support today’s Vivekananda.


While we are at it, this phenomenon of hero-worship is closely akin to another trait of Hinduism: the conferral of absolute authority on the Vedas and even on more broadly defined scriptures. The Vedic seers knew very well where the Vedic hymns came from: not from divine revelation but from their own creativity and poetic skill. That is why the Vedic hymns have the form of human worshippers addressing the gods, unlike the Quran, wherein God is made to address man. That is why the seer Vasishtha could claim the merit for his own hymns’ power to seduce Lord Indra into supporting his patron king Sudas during the Vedic Battle of the Ten Kings. But as the Vedic corpus was completed and receded into the past, its stature grew, its human origins were forgotten, and eventually it was elevated to divine status.

Therefore, many Hindus evince a tendency which Basu wrongly attributes to me: “Elst is also perhaps disturbed by Vivekananda’s emphasis on anubhava (experience) over agama (scriptural revelation) as the essence of Hindu thought, and the idea of Hinduism as a ‘scientific religion’ which emphasized empirical validation of spiritual precepts as the culmination of all sadhana.” No, where there are yogic insights in Vedic literature, they follow from prior direct experience. To me it is obvious: of course anubhava takes precedence over agama. Some Veda loyalists claim that the goal of meditation is the realization of the “revealed” Vedic mahavakyas (“great sentences”, like “that art thou” or “I am Brahma”), but I think the mahavakyas are only the later formulaic version of prior experience.

Patañjali thought likewise, for he explains what to do to achieve Self-realization, not which Vedic verses to read. Indeed, Shankara held it against him that he doesn’t quote the Vedas anywhere. I therefore disagree with Edwin Bryant, quoted with approval by Basu, that Patañjali “accepted the truth of divine revelation, agama”. At this point, I realize that I am breaking ranks with a widespread Hindu belief. But if the choice is between the spiritual autonomy of the Vedic seers or Patañjali and the dependence on Scripture of later Hindus, I would choose the former. And so did, as Basu implicitly asserts, Swami Vivekananda.

On this count, Vivekananda was an innovator in Hindu tradition as it had become. But at the same time, he only restored the worldview of the ancients. To many Veda loyalists of his day, this vision of a Hinduism (at its best) as a “scientific religion” based upon “empirical validation” and “experience” would have sounded unorthodox. But to Patañjali, it must have seemed obvious. – 31 January 2016

» This article was sent to Swarajya Magazine as a rebuttal to Saurav Basu’s article attacking Koenraad Elst and Rajiv Malhotra. The Swarajya editor has finally got around to publishing it here.
» Dr Koenraad Elst is an Indologist and Historian in Mortsel, Belgium. He has published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

Swami Vivekananda Quote

Rohith Vemula’s Suicide: Imposing the burden of guilt to bury the truth – Radha Rajan

Rohith Vemula

Radha Rajan is the editor of Vigil Online“The truth about who is really responsible for endemic campus violence must be spoken loudly and sternly if young people must be prevented from being drawn into self-destructive campus activism which makes them lose sight of the end objective of all education—social, economic and personal empowerment. Rohith Vemula’s tragedy is the extreme manifestation of what is happening to young people in centres of learning—it happened in IIT Madras, it is happening in FTII Pune and it happened in Hyderabad University.” – Radha Rajan

SuicideThere is no other way to put it—in the end, only Rohith Vemula is to blame for Rohith Vemula’s death by suicide; Vemula died for the bad choices he knowingly made—the causes he espoused, the company he kept and the methods he employed when he practiced his extremist ideology. Blame for this young man’s suicide must be rightly laid at the doors of hatred-driven anti-national political ideologies which are allowed a free run inside college and university campuses in the guise of freedom of choice and association. Blame must also be laid at the doors of members of the teaching faculty who encourage political activism even when activism takes them away from academics and worse, uses unlawful methods. A frenzied media baying for Narendra Modi’s blood (if they can’t have Modi they will settle for the blood of the Vice Chancellor) wants the nation to bear the burden of guilt for Rohith Vemula’s suicide, simply because Vemula was Dalit; actually half-Dalit because his father’s caste Vaddera, is categorised under OBC but the media had to be economical even with the fact about Rohith Vemula’s Dalit identity. “Does it really matter”, was the question. Yes it does. The media tried hard to generate mass hysteria over Rohith Vemula’s suicide only because they alleged he was a Dalit and his suicide was yet another chapter in Narendra Modi’s intolerant India. The media did not create and wallow in frenzied outrage when other students died in Hyderabad University, IIT Madras and other colleges and universities in the country for varied reasons which, if the media truly cared about all young people, also deserve attention.

Bias in the Indian mainstream media.Media’s reprehensible reportage

Rohith Vemula was to the media in January 2016 what Akhlaq was to the media in October 2015—a violent and cathartic purge to cleanse their systems of the accumulated ill-effects of a pampered life which they grab with both hands as matter of entitlement. Without going into fine details about their reportage, while Akhlaq’s murder on 10th October 2015 in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh attracted the attention of Pakistan’s Dawn, Britain’s BBC, The Guardian and Al Jazeera, because he was an innocent Muslim killed by intolerant Hindus, Prashant Poojary’s murder five days earlier on October 5, in Moodbidri, Karnataka was forgotten and consigned to oblivion because Prashant Poojary was an intolerant Hindu killed by innocent Muslims. While NDTV’s reportage of Akhlaq’s murder gives a list of the names of all the accused with details of their Hindu ancestry, The Hindu’s reportage of Poojary’s murder is laced with contempt for the fact that he is a Bajrang Dal activist (implying that his violent end was only to be expected). And typical of media chicanery in how they deal with facts, there is no mention anywhere that Poojary was killed by Muslims illegally transporting cows for slaughter. Media selectivity in dealing with Hindus and Muslims was best exemplified when Lalu Prasad Yadav as railway Minister reacted to the burning alive of Hindu men, women and children by jihadis inside the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, with the observation that those killed were not “innocent Hindus” but only karsevaks. (Reference) (Reference)

In secular Idea of India there is no innocence even in Hindu children.

I therefore refuse to bear this media-imposed burden of guilt because Rohith Vemula was more fortunate than thousands of young people of his community who do not get to see the inside of a primary school. Rohith Vemula was very fortunate to have reached so far and so creditably but he chose to squander away the rare privilege. He chose Kejriwal and Owaisi over Babasaheb Ambedkar’s inspirational life and tragically for himself and for the family whose hopes were pinned on him, Rohith Vemula committed suicide when he could have chosen to step back and turn away from the precipice upon which he found himself. Hyderabad University and all colleges and universities must accept blame for failing to put in place structures and support mechanisms to help troubled students who desperately need a compassionate and understanding ear.

Fake dalit Kancha Ilaiah is one of India leading cultural traitors. He enjoyed the beef biryani at the recent Osmania Beef Festival but has not had the courage to demand a pork festival for his Christian students from the universtity administration.The brainwashing and transformation of Rohith Vemula

The truth about who is really responsible for endemic campus violence must be spoken loudly and sternly if young people must be prevented from being drawn into self-destructive campus activism which makes them lose sight of the end objective of all education—social, economic and personal empowerment. Rohith Vemula’s tragedy is the extreme manifestation of what is happening to young people in centres of learning—it happened in IIT Madras, it is happening in FTII Pune and it happened in Hyderabad University. This episode of Dalit student activism which took recourse to violence and ended Rohith Vemula’s life began on 31st July, 2015 the day after Yakub Memon was hanged.

Narendra Modi should have waited another 24 hours before commiserating Vemula’s death; 24 hours which would have exposed the media for chicanery and professional misconduct. Twenty-four hours after Prime Minister Modi called the terrorist sympathiser and campus hooligan “ma ka lal” the truth about who really was Rohith Vemula and why he and his four friends of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) deserved to be suspended and evicted from the university hostel, library and mess by the Proctoral Board of Hyderabad University and why his monthly stipend was withheld, began to appear on the internet. Rohith Vemula’s Facebook wall said it all—from a young man inspired by Swami Vivekananda, Vemula became a hatred-driven caricature of himself who began to toy with ideas of political anarchism espoused by Kejriwal’s AAP, and political violence of Owaisi’s MIM. Rohith Vemula’s transformation from a sensitive young man who was attracted to the idea of Bhagwan Sri Krishna in the arms of a Muslim woman in a burqa, who was fascinated by the potential of solar power, who admired the courage and selflessness of the Indian army, into a Hindu-hating individual who had no qualms about admitting that he would strip the sari off his mother if she wore saffron, who began to call Swami Vivekananda a casteist Hindu, signalled extreme radicalisation inside the Hyderabad University campus by ASA, influenced by politically-motivated individuals like Kancha Ilaiah and Asaduddin Owaisi resulting in intense and sustained mental conditioning also known as brainwashing. A student from the Hyderabad University also told me that Rohith Vemula’s brother, when he was a student of M.Sc Geology in the Pondicherry University, went to Kerala and converted to Islam. (Reference)

Asaduddin OwaisiStudents’ groups driven by political ideologies destroy the quest for education

That no mainstream newspaper or news channel saw fit to draw parallels between Hyderabad University’s Ambedkar Students Association and Study Circle (APSC) in IIT Madras only goes to show that understanding the causes behind Rohith Vemula’s suicide was not the end or sole objective of media breast-beating over Vemula’s death; but fuelling the caste fire and dragging the country’s government, Prime Minister, the BJP and by extension all Hindus through media generated excrement of falsehood and lies, was. It is becoming clearer by the day that institutions of higher learning across the country are now the hunting ground for predatory Islam, Christianity and their conjoined sibling Marxism which use Babasaheb Ambedkar’s name as a front for violence and hatred-driven political activism. Ambedkar was a nationalist; Ministry of HRD must at least now ensure that student unions and student bodies with proclivity for lawlessness and hooliganism are not permitted to use Ambedkar’s name as a front for anti-national activities inside educational institutions.

Students from vulnerable sections of society in institutions of higher education are not just soft and ready targets but are actually the prey for politically driven Islam, Christianity and communism which take over student bodies and student groups, specifically Dalit student groups. Owaisi’s MIM is making inroads into Hyderabad University and Muslim students in the university have their own student body, Islamic Students Organization (ISO) which functions under the patronage of the ASA and is even suspected to be funding their activities. If Marxism and Christianity have entered into a successful strategic partnership towards a common geopolitical objective, India’s universities is seeing another strategic partnership between Dalits and Minorities (read Muslims) and Owaisi is showing them how this partnership will work in electoral politics. (Reference)

My earlier article on campus turbulence, Something Rotten in IIT Madras exposed how the teaching faculty in the Humanities is largely Leftist and imported from JNU and the significant role they play as advisers and guides to student bodies which are openly anti-national and anti-Hindu in orientation. Organizing beef fests, kiss-of-love protests, open and public support for all kinds of terrorism—Tamil, Naxal and jihadi, allowing known anti-Hindu and irreligious rationalists into educational institutions for seminars and workshops organized by student bodies and student unions—this is the emerging pattern in colleges and universities in several cities across the country. Mommy issues with authority, compounded by a deliberate intent on the part of Left-leaning teaching staff and persons like Owaisi and Ilaiah who accentuate existing sense of genuine victimhood and deprivation in Dalit students is destroying Dalit minds which after such hate-filled indoctrination is so consumed by anger and hatred that they lose their sense of purpose and take their eyes away from the life of opportunities that awaits them after higher education. Dalit students who are tempted by a false sense of empowerment through campus activism become collateral damage for anti-national political ideologies which place them on the wrong side of the law. (Reference)

Ambedkar Students' AssociationASA, ABVP and must-know faculty members

The ASA came into being in the University of Hyderabad in 1992 as a body to assist Dalit students with orientation, integration and other difficulties which they may face when they first enter the university. Currently there are three Dalit student organizations—Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), Dalit Students Union (DSU) and Bahujan Student Front (BSF). However it is only the ASA which has set political activism through violent methods as its raison d’etre. Faculty members supporting and even using ASA for their own ideological ends:

  1. Prof. Haribabu and Prof. Haragopal from the Department of Political Science;

  2. Prof. Lakshminarayana, Economics Department;

  3. Asst. Prof. Vamsee Krishna, Economic Department and son of Prof. Haragopal;

  4. Prof. K. Y. Rathnam, Political Sceince Department, student of Prof. Haragopal;

  5. Prof. B. Nagaraju, History Department, student of Prof. Haribabu and also Chief Warden;

  6. Dean of Student Welfare, Prof. Prakash Babu, Department of Life Sciences, Bio Technology;

  7. Sowmya Dechamma, Senior Assistant Professor, Humanities department who organized Kiss of Love protests inside university campus and also participated in and spoke at the namaaz e janazza or memorial prayer conducted by students of ASA including Rohith Vemula and a group of radical Muslims for Yakub Memon on 31st July 2015 after he was hanged.

Truth behind why Rohith Vemula and his four friends from ASA were suspended

  1. Taking exception to the memorial prayer inside the university campus for Yakub Memon, the terrorist mastermind behind the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, Susheel Kumar then President of the ABVP expressed his outrage on Facebook and referred to those who organized the namaaz e janaaza as ASA ‘goons’.

  2. The ABVP with a strong presence inside the Hyderabad University also informed the Proctoral Board about the memorial prayer for Yakub Memon and demanded stern action against the organizers and participants for their anti-national action. Lest there be any waffling over what constitutes anti-national action, expressing any form of support for a terrorist found guilty of mass murder and who was convicted and punished by the nation’s highest court, constitutes anti-national activity. Rohith Vemula and his four friends from ASA were anti-national by this definition.

  3. When the Proctoral Board refused to take any action against Vemula and the ASA, the ABVP decided to organize a protest against the memorial prayer on 4th August, 2015.

  4. Around 1.30 AM, in the early hours on 4th August, a gang of around 60 students of the ASA led by Rohith Vemula and his four friends attacked Susheel Kumar in the Annexure Hostel, leaving him severely wounded. Susheel Kumar was admitted to a hospital.

  5. Despite representations to the Proctoral Board by the ABVP to take action against the ASA for its brutal, physical attack against Susheel Kumar, the Board continued to dither; undoubtedly intimidated by the fact that if any action were taken by the university against Dalit students of the ASA, then both the ASA and its partner ISO would almost certainly unleash more violence in the university campus.

  6. Dejected and angered by the fact that no action was taken by the university against her son’s attackers, Susheel Kumar’s mother Vinaya came to the university to meet the Vice Chancellor. A mob of ASA goons gheraoed Susheel’s mother when she entered the university and pushed her out, refusing to let her meet the Vice Chancellor. Wonder why the media failed to report this too.

  7. Frustrated that the university continued to evade action against the student gang which attacked her son, Vinaya approached the Hyderabad High Court for justice.

  8. In the meanwhile UoH sent the university’s Medical Officer to the hospital for a report on Susheel Kumar’s injuries. The Medical Officer submitted a report to the effect that while Susheel Kumar was indeed beaten, the injuries were minimal.

  9. In a shocking turn of events, which proved how terribly wrong and motivated was the university Medical Officer’s report, Susheel Kumar’s condition took a turn for the worse and he had to undergo an emergency operation on 7th August, three days after he was beaten, to remove a ruptured appendix.

  10. A second medical report from the doctor who performed the surgery on Susheel Kumar attested to the fact that the ABVP student was beaten so brutally that his appendix suffered grievous injuries causing immense pain and repeated vomiting.

  11. Susheel’s mother filed the doctor’s report before Justice Sanjay Kumar of the Hyderabad High Court who was hearing the case. The judge issued notices to the Vice Chancellor and Chief Proctor asking them to submit an action taken report before the court. Left with no option, and under pressure from the Hyderabad High Court to take action against the culprits, the Vice Chancellor and the Chief Proctor who was also the head of the Proctoral Board, trod a measured step. Instead of rusticating Rohith Vemula and his four criminal friends from the ASA, the Vice Chancellor and the Chief Proctor decided on the milder punishment of suspending them for one semester, evicting them from the hostel and banning them from entering the library and mess.

  12. When the university re-opened after vacations, the ASA sat on a dharna demanding that the Vice Chancellor and the Proctoral Board reverse the punishment. But when the university refused to do so because the case was sub-judice, Rohith Vemmula and the other four accused filed a petition before the Hyderabad High Court challenging their suspension.

  13. Justice Ramachandra Rao who heard their petition, was not impressed and refusing to reverse the suspension, the judge clubbed their petition with the petition filed by Susheel’s mother Vinaya. One of the four students of ASA and co-accused in the Susheel Kumar assault case ended his dharna not willing to risk his future. He had just a few days ago submitted his doctoral thesis to the university.

Susheel KumarThe law had finally caught up with Rohith Vemula and the ASA. Susheel Kumar of the ABVP was not the first victim of ASA violence. The ASA had earlier also physically assaulted students of Dalit Students Union and disrupted a national conference organized inside the campus by the Telugu Department accusing the conference of being casteist, whatever that may mean. Rohith Vemula was a sensitive and thinking student as the letter he left behind him after his suicide shows. In this letter the anguish, the realisation of where his activism had led him, the futility of protests which had taken him away from the quest of self fulfilment, reveal that Rohith Vemula was a tormented young man and he was tormented not because the law caught up with him but because he had allowed himself to be used by forces which had diminished him to one identity—his Dalit identity. Rohith Vemula understood that his Dalit identity had only utilitarian value for the ASA, that he himself with all normal complexities of self-identity and aspirations for life did not matter. In the end, it was the diminishing of his persona, and trivialising the value of his life by those whom he considered friends and fellow-travellers which pushed Rohith Vemula to suicide. And here, I empathise with Narendra Modi’s poignant observation—in the end it is always only the mother who grieves when her child dies before her and only the mother carries the burden of pain. For ASA, Owaisi, Kancha Illaiah and all others who entrapped Rohith Vemula in hatred, it is life and business back as usual.

Warning: In 2003 or 2004, a student of Hyderabad University was shot by the police on suspicion of being a Maoist. He was a student of Prof. Haragopal. In 2012, Prudhvi, a Dalit student of UoH from Nalagonda was arrested by the police in the forests of Bhadrachalam with Maoist literature and a diary. Commissioner of Police, Hyderabad found a satellite phone in the possession of a Muslim student of the UoH student body Islamic Student Organization. – Vigil OnLine, 26 January 2016

» Radha Rajan is a political analyst and animal rights activist in Chennai.

University of Hyderabad

Indian Politicians

See also

Bravo! Netas strip Rohith Vemula down to his Dalit identity – Sreemoy Talukdar

Rohith Vemula

Sreemoy Talukdar“Like vultures excited by the smell of carrion, party leaders from all over India are now circling over Hyderabad, determined to peck every bit of flesh clean off the bone in an effort to secure their votebanks. … The early bird prize went to Rahul Gandhi who came along with senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh. Amid folk songs and impromptu lyrics, the Gandhi scion spoke before an excited crowd on the campus. Some tried to capture selfies, while others called their parents at home, requesting them to switch on the TV because it was being covered live.” – Sreemoy Talukdar

SuicideThe suicide of a Dalit student in Hyderabad has provided a god-given opportunity to our “secular” netas.

The value of a man was reduced to his identity … to a vote, to a number, to a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind, as a glorious thing made of star dust in every field. In studies, on streets, in politics and in dying and living, wrote Rohith Vemula in a heart-wrenching suicide letter.

His eloquent words seem eerily prophetic now.

In less than the time it took for family members, friends and colleagues to process the news of his shocking death, the erudite science scholar has been stripped down, buck naked, to his Dalit identity. And as the vivacious student activist foresaw, through a well-oiled paradigm of reductive politics, his voice has been reduced to just a vote. One vote that could lead to many votes in the eyes of our congenitally opportunistic political handlers.

Like vultures excited by the smell of carrion, party leaders from all over India are now circling over Hyderabad, determined to peck every bit of flesh clean off the bone in an effort to secure their votebanks.

Vemula wanted to be a writer of science “like Carl Sagan”. He was well-read, meritorious, brilliant. He was spunky, a man of action and an inspiration to co-activists. He tore down posters of ABVP, organised movements in favour of the causes he espoused, inevitably resulting in clashes with students of different ideologies. We learn from a Times of India report that PhD scholar Vemula got his admission to the University of Hyderabad on general merit quota. And although he declared himself as a member of a Scheduled Caste in his admission form, he never felt the need to furnish it.

And from his experience, he was also aware of the structured alienation that Dalits face from society. In his final letter, a veritable treatise on each of his experiences as an individual or part of a collective, Vemula issued a clarion call against disrespect for merit “in studies, on streets, in politics and in dying and living”.

But look at what we have done.

Hardly a day has passed since his suicide that long, sharp knives are being twisted into his memory. All that he stood for stands nullified. Eager to pose with his family members and co-activists in a bid to exploit the sentiment—still raw and powerful—vote-hungry netas are busy trampling Vemula’s dying wish under their foot.

Can’t blame them, really. A tragedy not exploited is an opportunity lost.

Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya, acting on a request from the BJP’s student wing, sent a letter to HRD ministry. He accused the student association at Hyderabad University bearing Ambedkar’s name of “anti-nationalism”. The Smriti Irani-headed ministry shot off four letters to the vice-chancellor. Vemula and four others were expelled and he eventually committed suicide. If the BJP had a death wish, it couldn’t have executed the plan better. For the Opposition, it is an issued served on a platter to paint the ruling party as a reflexively anti-Dalit.

Hence, we find Arvind Kejriwal, who practices throwing secular arrows on the ‘Narendra Modi Dartboard’ when not playing the victim card, jump into the cauldron with alarming alacrity.

Rahul Gandhi & Arvind KejriwalCalling it “not suicide, but murder” and demanding an apology from Modi, the ‘mufflered mango man’ who remained steadfastly silent during the violence in Malda—a district in Bengal, has since been burning in the fire of righteous indignation. The Trinamool Congress sent its emissary Derek O’Brien, the articulate spokesperson. He couldn’t travel the distance from Kolkata to Malda—around 326 kilometres—when it was burning, but wasted no time in taking the first flight to Hyderabad.

Some causes are greater than others.

The early bird prize, though, went to Rahul Gandhi who came along with senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh. Amid folk songs and impromptu lyrics, the Gandhi scion spoke before an excited crowd on the campus. Some tried to capture selfies, while others called their parents at home, requesting them to switch on the TV because it was being covered live.

Seeing all this unfold, Mayawati, whose life and career is centred around Dalit identity politics, sent two emissaries on a fact-finding mission. Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls are not too far away.

As tragedy tourism went on in full swing and the recipe for another ‘Mahagathbandhan’ was being readied, we are reminded yet again of Vemula’s immortal words: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity.

The reductive principle at work behind the stripping down of Vemula to his Dalit identity is effectively the new caste system that the political parties are engaging in. And in this new paradigm, politics is no longer the sphere in which convictions crash or varied interests are shared. It is now just a battlefield for pitting one identity against the other. Dalit against Brahmins. Muslims against Hindus.

Vemula, the PhD scholar, is no longer a thinking individual who was convinced of his ideology and acted on basis of his conviction. That individual, tragically, is now dead. The multi-faceted scholar has been quickly ossified by politicians into a mere keeper of an identity, the very thing he warned us against in his final missive.

Henceforth, Vemula is just ‘that Dalit student who committed suicide’. – Firstpost, 20 January 2016

» Sreemoy Talukdar is a senior editor at Firstpost.

University of Hyderabad

See also

The Battle for Sanskrit – Rajiv Malhotra

The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra

Rajiv MalhotraSynopsis

There is a new awakening that is challenging the ongoing westernization of the discourse about India. The Battle for Sanskrit seeks to alert traditional scholars of Sanskrit and sanskriti—Indian civilization—concerning an important school of thought that has its base in the US and that has started to dominate the discourse on the cultural, social and political aspects of India. This academic field is called Indology or Sanskrit studies. From their analysis of Sanskrit texts, the scholars of this field are intervening in modern Indian society with the explicitly stated purpose of removing ‘poisons’ allegedly built into these texts. They hold that many Sanskrit texts are socially oppressive and serve as a political weapon of the ruling elite; that the sacred aspects need to be refuted or side lined; and that Sanskrit has long been dead. The traditional Indian experts would outright reject or at least question these positions.

The start of Rajiv Malhotra’s feisty exploration of where the new thrust in Western Indology goes wrong, and his defence of what he considers the traditional, Indian approach, began with a project related to the Sringeri Sharada Peetham, one of the most sacred institutions for Hindus. There was, as he saw it, a serious risk of distortion of the teachings of the peetham, and of Sanatana Dharma more broadly.

Whichever side of the fence one may be, The Battle for Sanskrit, offers a spirited debate marshalling new insights and research. It is a valuable addition to an important subject, and in a larger context, on two ways of looking. Is each view exclusive of the other, or can there be a bridge between them? The reader can judge for himself. – TBFS, 2016

Reviewers’ Comments

This is a bold book, daring to take up some of the basic but unexamined assumptions of modern Western Indology. — ARVIND SHARMA, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion, McGill University, Montreal.

For the past sixty years my primary activity has been to interpret Sanskrit and sanskriti. Indeed, Malhotra and I are sailing in the same boat. This book provokes a debate between the ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ of our heritage. It exposes that many outsiders pretend to be insiders, but their hidden agenda is to convince ignorant Hindus that the Vedas are myths and that the traditional claims are nonsensical. They pretend to know our traditions even better than our highest exponents. Unfortunately, most insiders are either blissfully unaware of these subversive projects or are living in isolation and afraid of debating them. Malhotra’s work is designed after the traditional method of purva-paksha and uttarapaksha which makes it very interesting and thought provoking. I strongly recommend this work to all Indologists, traditional pandits, historians, philosophers and ordinary seekers. — DAYANANDA BHARGAVA, Recipient of President’s Award, former Head of Department of Sanskrit and Dean of Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Jodhpur; presently Chairman, J.R. Rajasthan Sanskrit University, Jaipur.

This book calls upon traditional scholars to get out of their silos, and calls upon opponents to join the conversation as interlocutors. It is a remarkable work of systematic argumentation that provides a forceful defence against the onslaught of Western scholarship. Serious scholars will benefit from its remarkable insights, boldness and uprightness. I highly recommend it as a preparation for strategic debates. — S. R. BHATT, Chairman, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, HRD Ministry, Government of India; Former Head of Department of Philosophy, Delhi University, Delhi.

Rajiv Malhotra belongs to that rare breed of Indian scholars who have been working in the area of Indic civilization for a long time. In this incisive and exhaustive work he brings forth the critical role of Sanskrit, and ignites a meaningful discussion on a long neglected area. I wish the book all success. — R. VAIDYANATHAN, Professor, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

This book makes excellent reading and uses an analytical method to compare the rival positions of Western and traditional Indian camps. The author has done a yeoman’s service by exposing the scholars who are hijacking the pristine glory and contemporary utility of Sanskrit language, literature and culture. — PANKAJ CHANDE, Member of Central Advisory Board of Education, Government of India; former President, Association of Indian Universities; former Vice-Chancellor, Kavi Kulaguru Kalidas Sanskrit University, Ramtek, Maharashtra.

This book rips through the fortress of American Indology and its insinuations that Sanskrit traditions are socially abusive and are driven by the political motives of the elite. The author is devastatingly impressive in the way he exposes the prevailing hegemonic discourse of the West and the role of the large army of Indian sepoys who have been recruited as mercenaries. Rajiv Malhotra has been one of the most effective kshatriyas in the intellectual kurukshetra of today. Every traditional scholar and practitioner of Vedic traditions must read it and join his home team. — KAPIL KAPOOR, former Rector and Professor of English and Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Chief Editor, Encyclopedia of Hinduism; Chief Editor, Encyclopedia of Indian Poetics, New Delhi.

Westerners consider themselves very progressive when meddling in Indian affairs. The values they now defend, such as egalitarianism and feminism, are different from what prevailed in the West during the colonial age, but the underlying spirit of “civilizing the savages” is the same. They now try to wrest control of Sanskrit studies from the “oppressive, reactionary” traditionalists, and increasingly succeed with the help of native informers eager for the status and money that Western academics can confer. Once upon a time, the colonizers brought prized artworks to museums in the West, claiming that these were safer there than in the care of the irresponsible natives. Now, their successors try to carry away the adhikara (prerogative) to interpret Sanskrit texts, so as to make Hindus look at their own tradition through anti-Hindu lenses. For the first time, Rajiv Malhotra analyses the stakes involved for Hindu civilization, which risks losing control over the backbone of its historical identity, and the power equation in the production of knowledge concerning Sanskrit and the dharmic tradition. He proposes a research programme that Hindus will need to carry out if they are to face this sophisticated onslaught. This path-breaking book maps a battlefield hitherto unknown to most besieged insiders. — KOENRAAD ELST, Indologist,  Mortsel, Belgium.

This book provides extensive ground work for traditional scholars, sadhaks, writers and awakened minds to understand the serious threats against Indian civilization. The author’s fearless exposition is driven by his indomitable will, persistence and vigour, long swadhyaya, and cool and patient mind. Works of this calibre appear rarely in a generation. Future scholars will be grateful to Rajiv Malhotra for this wakeup call to retain the sacredness of Sanskrit and its association with Indian life. — DEEPIKA KOTHARI & RAMJI OM, Filmmakers of History of Yoga, Mumbai.

Rajiv’s work is a timely response to the discourse by western academics, and exposes the need for Indian scholars with a deep understanding of our languages and culture, working with original texts, to counter the flawed narrative and create an Indian narrative. — T. V. MOHANDAS PAI, Chairman, Aarin Capital Partners, Bangalore.

Having gone through the pages of this book, I highly recommend that every traditional scholar and Western Indologist should study it and engage the issues it raises. The author provides a solid response to the prejudices against Indian civilization, and his remarkably systematic approach is commendable. — RAMESH KUMAR PANDEY, Vice-Chancellor, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, New Delhi.

While an army of Western scholars has been hurling criticisms and throwing challenges against Indian heritage for two centuries, there has hardly been a commensurate response from the heirs of our heritage. This is largely due to gaps in knowledge at our end: the Sanskrit pandits are often ignorant of nuanced English and the Western frameworks and paradigms; and the modern westernised Indians are culturally illiterate and lack the competence to respond. This book bridges the gaps and enables traditional pandits as well as the Indian literati to comprehend Western Indology from an Indian perspective. It also exposes how westerners have manoeuvred by capturing Indian resources to perpetuate their biased verdicts. The book makes it possible to have dialogues as equals. The responsibility now lies squarely on traditional Indian scholars to take on the issues between insiders and outsiders which this book has framed. Rajiv Malhotra’s contribution consists of this valuable role as a prime initiator of this dialogue. — K. S. KANNAN, Former Director, Karnataka Samskrit University, Bangalore.

The Battle for Sanskrit has immense potential to equip and arm Vedic insiders with the required knowledge not just to battle the outsiders but, more importantly, to preserve their own sanskriti based on its indigenous principles. I humbly request all Sanskrit lovers, scholars and practitioners of Vedic traditions to read this book and join the suggested ‘home team’ for serious intellectual exchanges on the issues concerned. — SAMPADANANDA MISHRA, Director, Sri Aurobindo Foundation for Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry.

The Battle for Sanskrit wrests open a main gate to the predominantly western constructed citadel known as Indology. Who can remain silent or, worse, collaborate, in the face of groundless allegations that Indian elites are promulgating Sanskrit and its traditions for political gain, thus perpetuating a so-called Sanskrit-born social abuse? As the linguistic key to the highest wisdom of humanity, Sanskrit studies must escape captivity enforced by academic guardians who over-zealously wield the club of Western theoretical methods. The author, besides exposing the colonial baggage still colouring the western approach to India’s Sanskrit heritage, also shines his torch, in fairness, upon the large platoon of Indian sepoys colluding as mercenaries to help keep the Sanskrit potentiality in check. A salient point this book offers us is that the Western approach to Sanskrit is often weighed down by “political philology”—cultural biases, hegemonic filters. Superbly presenting the positive correction to this imbalance, the author advocates our seeing through the lens of “sacred philology.” — DEVAMITRA SWAMI, Spiritual Leader and Author of Searching for Vedic India, New York.

This is an important book to ignite the much needed conversation on Sanskrit, its past and its future. Rajiv Malhotra opens a new ground by evaluating what Western Indologists have been writing about our traditions. It is time for the scholars to wake up and give responses impartially. I commend the author for arguing against the view that Sanskrit is oppressive or dead. Every serious scholar of Indology should read this book and join the intellectual discourse on our heritage. — UPENDRA RAO, Chair, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Rajiv Malhotra deserves kudos for his insightful book, The Battle for Sanskrit, which is a much-needed intervention that gives insiders a seat at the table as equals. Rather than Western Indologists and their Indian supporters becoming defensive, they should welcome this book as an opportunity for honest exchanges. The issues raised here are too important to be ignored any longer. The direction that this battle takes can have far-reaching consequences on approaches to science, technology, social studies and economics. The pompous edifice of Western Indology that has been built over a long time will not crumble overnight. It is now up to the traditional scholars and practitioners to heed the author’s call and develop solid intellectual responses (uttara-paksha) to the challenges. — HRISHIKESH A. MAFATLAL, Chairman, Arvind Mafatlal Group of Companies; Chairman, BAIF Development Research Foundation, Pune.

This book’s meticulously gathered information, and its coherent arguments presented in a lucid and engaging style, will easily make our traditional and modern scholars realise that they can no longer rely on Western scholarly endeavours, however profound and painstaking they may be, for achieving a resurgence of Indian civilization. A book that absolutely must be read, by anyone who cares for the resurgence of Bharatiya-samskriti, which is deeply embedded in Sanskrit! — K. RAMASUBRAMANIAN, Professor, IIT Bombay, Mumbai.

Sanskrit can no longer be the concern of only the traditional pandits. Modern methods of analysis, interpretation and communication have to be brought in and we have to rebuild our own universities—inspired as much by Nalanda as by Cambridge—with science, philosophy, humanities, in fact all knowledge, created, pursued and taught on the same campus. As an unabashed lover of Sanskrit, I welcome this debate that Rajiv Malhotra has brought out into the open about the status of Sanskrit studies in the world, including in particular its homeland, India. This book should trigger a discussion on the scientific qualities of Sanskrit, in particular the tradition’s emphasis on empiricism, and on the similarities and differences between Indian and Western approaches to knowledge. — RODDAM NARASIMHA, eminent aerospace scientist and recipient of Padma Vibhushan, Bangalore.

The knowledge system which has developed in relation to ancient India since the middle of the eighteenth century was (and still is) dominated by Western scholarship. The so-called consensus in this field was essentially a matter of agreement among Western scholars, with Indians playing only a subsidiary role. The situation should have begun to change in the light of the new power equations since the mid-twentieth century. The fact that it has not yet significantly done so is due to several factors operating in the background, the most important of which is the deplorable unwillingness among Western scholars to take note of the viewpoints of an increasing number of Indian professionals. It is basically a confrontational situation, if not that of war. The Western academic institutions dealing with India are full of ‘experts’ who are basically anti-India. Rajiv Malhotra, a well-known independent scholar, has long been known for his deep perception of this problem and his clear, well-argued analysis and criticism of it. I have always been an avid reader of his columns and books. In this volume he throws new light on the power network behind Sanskrit studies in the West. This is a book which will long be cherished by the rational elements among the Indian and Western Indologists. — DILIP K. CHAKRABARTI, Emeritus Professor of South Asian Archaeology, Cambridge University, Cambridge.

The book will be launched at Art of Living headquarters in Bangalore on January 24th. It will be available for sale on Amazon or Flipkart. The book’s website is HERE.

More videos HERE

Hindu Studies: An education in religious studies and bias – Padma Kuppa

Hindu Activism

Padma KuppaI was pleased to start the new year off with information about how, in pre-colonial India, Hindu temples were premier educational institutions. January also reminded me of my own pursuit of Hindu studies: several years ago, I wanted to enroll in a Hindu studies program at a local college, and found there are no such classes in our region—especially not one solely focused on Hinduism, and especially not taught by a practicing Hindu. I enrolled at Ecumenical Theological Seminary—but due to financial and other challenges, I had to abandon my path to chaplaincy. Even Michigan’s own Hindu Chaplain Shama Mehta has struggled to find funding for chaplaincy studies at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary—there are no Hindu organizations willing to fund our theological pursuits, especially at a seminary.

Prof Ramdas LambBut then came a ray of light—the Dharma Civilization Foundation has recently given major gifts to universities in California, in order to encourage the study of Hinduism, especially at the graduate level.  When I discovered DCF’s mission, and specifically their initiatives in California, I was thrilled—maybe there would be a ripple effect, and universities and individuals around the US would also receive funding for Hindu studies!  And then came the naysayers, who object to Hindus funding Hindu studies.  To clarify my understanding of why this is even an issue, I reached out to the University of Hawaii professor Ramdas Lamb, who shares his thoughts in this guest post.

Dharma Civilization Foundation In the last year or so, a Hindu organization named the Dharma Civilization Foundation became involved in the process of providing funding to two University of California campuses for the purpose of promoting the study of the Hindu tradition. That religion-related money is being donated to an institution of higher education is nothing new, especially from the Abrahamic religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) but the protests in the current situation are. In order to put their hypocrisy into context, one needs but to take a brief look at the history of religious money and involvement in higher education in America over the last two centuries.

The first American colleges were started by Protestant groups and individuals to provide an education to their young men, and a primary goal was that they become clergymen. As an example, Harvard college was founded in 1636 and during that century, 70% of its graduates became ministers. With the exception of the College of Philadelphia, all the early colleges in the American colonies were started by various religious denominations, and the training of future ministers was integral.

Early on, there was a great deal of anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic attitudes in these schools, and it continued into the early 20th century. Members of both traditions were largely kept on periphery of higher education (although clearly not as far removed as Blacks and Native Americans). Eventually, both religious groups were able to break through many of the barriers through persistence and through buying presence. In addition to establishing their own educational institutions, participation in and donations to existing universities eventually led to changes. Catholics started their own universities, and in the late 19th century also began establishing Newman Centers at universities in Western Europe and North America. Now overseen by the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, there are hundreds of these centers affiliated with colleges and universities. Many of them use campus buildings, where they provide pastoral services for Catholics who work at or attend school there. Jewish philanthropy to institutes of higher education was also begun to help bring about a more positive understanding of Jews and of their religion. Abrahamic ReligionsToday, there are over a hundred Jewish Studies programs at universities across the country, more than 200 funded Jewish chairs, and hundreds of other universities and colleges where Judaism is taught. Such presence, participation, and monetary expenditures on campuses can and often does lead to a more favorable atmosphere and attitude in dealing with the traditions generally as well as in courses.

Since the 1970s, pro-Muslim groups have entered the academic arena as well to influence the way their religious and political views are depicted. In recent decades, Saudi/Wahhabi sources such as the he King Faisal Foundation and the King Abdullah scholarship programs have poured millions of dollars into institutions of higher education, including Boston University, Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell. Although much of the money has gone into other fields than religious studies and the humanities, the size of the donations clearly influences the way Islam is presented at recipient institutions. In the 1990s, Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal gave $20 million each to Harvard and to Georgetown specifically for Islamic studies programs. In total, it is likely more than two hundred million dollars of Arab/Muslim money have been donated to academia, and prestigious institutions and recipient scholars have warmly welcomed such funding with open pockets.

How much of this money would continue or what kind of pressure would be applied if serious criticism of Islam or Saudi restrictions on women or prohibitions on non-Muslims was to begin at a recipient institution or by a recipient scholar? Have there been protests against the possibility of undue Muslim influence in such programs by students or faculty at recipient institutions? How loud were the protests by students or faculty at other institutions of such donations? On the contrary, the donations have been praised, while anyone who protests is called “Islamophobic.”

In recent years, money from other religious groups and traditions has also begun to make its way into American higher education. Buddhist organizations such as the Numata Foundation and the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation are now involved as well with providing scholarship money and supporting programs. The latter has also donated funding for the Buddhist Ministry Initiative at Harvard. There have also been an increase in various Sikh scholarship programs in California and in Canada with chairs in Sikh Studies typically held by practicing Sikhs. Are these all not done with the view to have a positive view of their respective traditions presented? Of course they are, and there has been relatively little protest, with the possible exception of a few conservative Christians who do not want other religions studied positively.

It is important to understand that faculty in most colleges and universities who conduct research on and teach any of the major religious traditions beyond introductory courses are very often either practitioners of the traditions they specialize in or are at least involved in and generally supportive of the traditions they are researching and teaching.

That is, with the exception of Hinduism, where most who teach about the tradition are not practicing Hindus, and many Hindus see the result of this being a decidedly anti-Hindu attitude in many departments and courses. Consequently, Hindus are now wanting to become involved and have a say in Hindu boy with a swastika drawn on his head during a upanayana ceremony.the way their traditions are being presented. Hindu groups that have begun to adopt an activist approach regarding education in response are actually following a path similar to that of other religious and minority groups in America. In her book entitled, A Place at the Multicultural Table, Prema Kurien suggests Hindu American activism mirrors in many way that of other immigrant groups in the United States who have sought a place at the multicultural table.

Are Hindus wrong to want their voice to be heard or do only academics and members of other religious traditions have that right to influence the process? Do those who criticize Hindu groups do the same to the other religion-related groups and programs mentioned above and with the same self-righteousness? Have those who have supported an anti-DCF petition at UC Irvine ever protested the influence Arab/Muslim money has on Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies programs such as that of Alwaleed bin Talal? Have the protesters at UCI complained that one of the requirements of the Boukai Family scholarship money given to students at their institution is that the recipient “has advocated for Islam?” Does anyone really think all the various religion-affiliated moneys have not bought influence?

The reality is that money with ties to all the major religious traditions has been on campuses and having an influence since the founding of Harvard College, and it appears that it will continue to play a fundamental role in financing higher education in this country and abroad. On the whole, I actually see it as a very necessary and beneficial practice. Both public and private funding for the humanities and social sciences have been diminishing for years, going instead into the hard sciences and other money-making fields. The humanities and social sciences need benefactors to keep our programs alive. However, as those of us in these disciplines conduct research and teach about the way any group of people think, believe, or live, it is incumbent for us to include the views of the members themselves in the process. Their self-understanding has as much a right to be heard as that of anyone else, whether or not we agree. The job of a scholar should be to hear much, learn much, digest it all in an unbiased manner, and then present our understandings in ways that inform and enlighten our students, not prejudice them against those with whom we disagree. That said, if one wishes to single out one religious tradition to criticize, that is a scholarly prerogative. However, one needs to objectively make the case that the particular subject of censure is somehow uniquely deserving of it. Simply that the subject is Hindu is not sufficient. Is there only room at the academic and multicultural table for current members, i.e. those of the Abrahamic Don Lemontraditions, ideological secularists, and others that either of these groups deem ideologically correct? Is this not the definition of narrow-mindedness? Is this the way higher education should function today?

This past June, CNN’s Don Lemon was interviewed in an online radio program and was asked about the “politically correct” culture in the US and issue of free speech. His strong views on contemporary “Liberalism” and its adherents’ inability to hear alternate voices are instructive. Once upon a time, that label actually meant open-mindedness and tolerance of diverse viewpoints. Such traits seem to be increasingly unsupported by far too many in higher education and in our society at large. As academics, it is our job to push boundaries of understanding and broaden our willingness to entertain new ideas and approaches, not narrow what we choose to accept with ideological walls. – Patheos, 6 January 2016

» Padma Kuppa is a Hindu American and community activist working for social justice and understanding. She is a co-founder of both the Troy-area Interfaith Group and the Bharatiya Temple of Metropolitan Detroit’s Outreach Committee, and as a Board member of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. Padma focuses on inter-religious cooperation as a Board member of the Hindu American Foundation. 

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


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