We are living right now in a moment of vast civilizational hunger. It is not fundamentalism, nor fascism. It is an exceptional historical moment in which an entire generation of young, modern Hindus in India and the diaspora is growing up and asking only one pressing question:
who are we, really?
You are an achievement.
You may not fully know why just yet. But you have probably felt, in some quiet way, the fact that you belong to something significant that has come before you in history. You might not always know how to express that feeling, but you know that it inspires you, and elevates you.
You belong to the one civilization that still stands much as it once did even after all these thousands of years of human history; thousands of years of wars, conquest, pillage, subjugation, desecration and devastation, thousands of years of supposed progress that have given us a world today that runs on brutal violence against nature, life and the planet itself.
You belong to a civilization that is still standing, but surrounded as it were, by a mess, in India and across the whole world, of environmental devastation, cultural confusion, ethical indifference, and economic insecurity.
But still, it stands. Still, there is hope.
For a civilization is not just buildings and machines, but its people, their thought, and their culture. It is a way of knowing the world, a way of giving meaning and value to the contents of life. It is a resource, most of all, for living intelligently. It is a form of culture, an expression of sensibility, a way of harmonizing science, philosophy, and ethics in a people’s every thought, word and deed. You can call it a religion, a way of life, or a civilization, you can call it what you will. But no word will suffice.
A billion people on this earth still call God by the same names that people did thousands of years ago. What exists on this earth unchanged for that long? What religion exists on this earth for that long, when so many people have distorted religion and dragged it down from being about love and freedom to being about hatred, coercion and war?
Hinduism could have been wiped out a long time ago.
But it wasn’t.
You are here.
You still adore and worship your Ganesha, your Hanuman, your Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi and Parvathi, and Rama and Krishna and Subramanya. You still have your name as did your forefathers. And you are able to deal as a friend and equal today with people of many faiths and races. It is an accomplishment unlike any other.
It is not a boast but a fact.
Your culture’s existence is a triumph of survival.
Your existence is a triumph of survival.
In you, in your life, is something that should be studied, preserved, and revered like a work of art in a museum. It may be all messy or mixed up, with good and not so good sensibilities; like how you can see Krishna in an exquisite ancient sculpture and also in a crude animation form. Hindu civilization is like that, all mixed up. But still, its greatest and most sublime elements are still here, and they are in you. These must not be worn lightly.
You must remember.
We came from a world of wisdom we can barely fathom in today’s terms.
And we are here, still.
We belong to a moment in history when Hinduism is beginning to wake up, if not from a long slumber, then at least a long silence. We did not speak to the world, and to ourselves, as Hindus, in a very long time. For reasons of strategy, and sensibility, we have been modest and easy-going about religion, despite some unpleasant encounters in history with forces to the contrary. For nearly three generations before us, from the time of India’s nominal independence in 1947 to the present moment of exuberant hope in 2014, Hinduism has been a religion lived in silence. We prayed, no doubt, and we went to temples and we made deals with God. We enjoyed our festivals and sang our bhajans and watched our Ramayan serials. But we did not ask, until the present generation came of age really, that provocative question: what does it really mean to be Hindu today?
We did not really stop and say, these are the problems in the world today; this corruption, this environmental devastation, this cruelty, this greed, and these are solutions that our civilization can teach us now to confront them.
We remained passive. We took Hinduism to be no more than our faith in God, and our ceremonies and customs. But now, we ask, who are we?
How did we make it this far?
What does the future hold for us?
This book advances an unusual claim, neither entirely academic, nor entirely spiritual, though it engages critically with the dismal academic approach to Hinduism in the first part, and gazes adoringly at the feet of the spiritual promise of Hinduism, in the second. Underlying both parts though is an insight you might have felt, but perhaps not quite always articulated (and it is not your fault if you did not have the words for it; for sixty years our government neglected the cultivation of its people’s own finest qualities in the educational system, tapping and selling our engineering genius but not much else).
The key premise is simply this:
Hinduism is about intelligence, more than anything else.
After all, we have survived and come this far not because of some brutish physical might, or capacity for cruel and annihilating destruction, but because our civilization’s reverence for intelligence has underscored its attitudes to nature, culture, human agency, force, restraint, and, some might say, its destiny itself.
And this was not intelligence of the sort demanded for survival in a brutal TV reality-show competition on an island, but a more elegant and life-adoring form of intelligence. It helped us balance our yearning and sense of surrender to the divine with our determination to remain strong and purposeful as humans. It helped us recognize where our agency, our free will, was necessary, and where we had to surrender our egotism to greater forces that guide our hands. It was, and is, still, not an intelligence demeaned to the service of lesser goals like selfish individual advancement, exploitation of others, unequal profit, cruelty and relentless destruction (though some of this has been done in the past because of forces then beyond our control).
It was the intelligence, simply, of a civilization that began its days in prayer before the rising sun asking the divine not for a good kill in a hunt, not for death to enemies, not even for some mythical paradise in afterlife, but only for--intelligence.
It was the mark of a civilization whose most ancient sacred chant says:
May your life-giving rays awaken my intelligence.
May your life-giving rays awaken my intelligence so that I may see You.
And in that exultant joy of worthy sacred adoration that is You,
Know this, that there is only You.
We pray not for unverifiable pleasures in the afterlife. Not for material gain in this, but just for the wisdom to know happiness, light, and joy; for the wisdom to know truth.
The Gayatri Mantra, again, rendered even more simply:
Let me see that
You are Light.
Long before we reduced prayer to deals with god for goodies and stuff, we were praying for one thing only, and that was simply the intelligence to see things as they are.
Millennia later, Mahatma Gandhi was leading us to sing and ask Ishwar-Allah for the same thing too, sammathi, equal-mindedness.
Six decades after the seeming collapse of the great promise of the Mahatma, we are back in the realm of intelligence once again, at Mother Saraswathi’s feet. We called it strength, governance, dynamism, but beyond these inadequate words, we know what really won the day in 2014. It was intelligence, and more importantly, the recognition, in our public discourses, of intelligence as the most vital part of our civilizational heritage, and our future. No matter what the critics may think, the present moment in India is not about pride and posturing, of trying to prove our past is greater than someone else’s past, much less about trying to prove our religion is better than someone else’s religion. It is simply about returning to the core of our civilizational self-understanding, which is to respect intelligence, and let it guide our actions and affairs.
The Sanathana Dharma. We might call it Nature’s Intelligence. It is a way that sees the wisdom in preserving life, and minimizing pain.
It works, even in the face of great odds, in the face of great forces of destructiveness and ignorance.
All the ancient civilizations we read about in our history books are nothing but names now, devoid of the power of their descendants to even know their past accurately, forced to accept sterile conqueror’s fantasies as truth about their past.
As for that ‘modern civilization’, one might say, like Mahatma Gandhi, that it would be a good idea! While we acknowledge that it is based in intelligence too, we have to point out that it is the sort of intelligence that makes us smart enough to fly to the moon but also oblivious to the destructiveness of a very costly way of life. It is like enjoying the warmth from a raging wildfire as it devours the whole planet. Today’s science and technology is not nature’s intelligence. It is artificial intelligence, unnatural intelligence. We can do that one too successfully, just as we can speak English, wear suits and ties, just do what it takes. But we must recognize that all of this worldview we take for granted today, all that we learn and accept as truth in the modern world, is rooted in an artificial, technocratic epistemology (a phrase we will discuss later in the book, suffice it to translate from academese for now as: machine-like thinking). You probably know what this epistemology has done to its depiction of Hinduism’s wisdom (if you don’t, you will see in the first half of this book). You can imagine what else it must be getting wrong about the big questions of life.
We will examine this worldview closely in the first part of this book. As a professor of media studies, that is what I teach and write about, how the worldviews, assumptions, commonsense ideas about our selves and the world, might actually be distortions, myths, and outright lies. My field has challenged many such assumptions in recent years, particularly about gender, race, caste and class. It has however, drawn a complete blank when it comes to Hindus, Hinduism and India. With this book, I try to make amends, and to provide the intellectual groundwork for media students, academics, and just intelligent human beings who care about the world and its lives, to expand their horizons and imagination. My aim is not to praise one group of people and condemn another. It is only to show us how recognizing Hinduism’s vitality is going to require a much more radical dismantling of today’s commonsense worldview than we have imagined so far. I believe that it is far more than the stray personal prejudices of people of other cultures that have distorted Hinduism. Hinduism to me is more than a religion, and even more than a way of life. To me, Hinduism is essentially a way of knowing life, intelligently. When Hinduism is distorted, by either ignorance from outside or complacence from within, a very smart way of knowing the world--perhaps we could even call it nature’s way of knowing the world--is distorted. Conversely, a world in which nature is demeaned and destroyed cannot understand Hinduism accurately either, and resorts to low and mean tactics against it.
Hinduism has travelled very far down the depths of time. Its future is now wide before us too, and it is a promising one.
That future is in each and every child who lives on this earth today, and wonders: what exactly is this world of gods and goddesses that my parents so revere? It is in every student and seeker, every teenager and every parent, who wonders: why is it that I feel, still, something in the presence of these gods and goddesses that no one else is able to explain?
That sense of wonder is important. Our comic book imagery and cartoon-DVD mythologies and history textbooks that do little more than regurgitate names and dates (and increasingly bloodshed and beheadings) should not replace the spirit of intellectual inquiry about our own thought.
It is only from a sense of wonder that the questions a civilization that cherishes intelligence needs to ask now will come.
What is God? Who are our Gods? Why is it that nobody has been able to explain what all of this means? Were these Gods great human beings who lived long ago? Were they symbols of natural phenomena? Were they mere superstitions? If so, why do they still feel endearing to us? Why do our arts, sculpture, culture, science, philosophy, poetry, music, revolve so much around them? Why do we feel their kindness, protection and wisdom so palpably?
We must listen to these questions, for we probably contemplated them too, when we were younger. We probably made our own conclusions, but for the most part, we went on praying, going to temples, fulfilling vows, without debating what it meant very much.
And then, there are the other questions too, questions not about our philosophy or our Gods, but about these strange times we live in, and the strange insults and lies they heap on our sacred sensibilities and values, the questions that our children who are growing up abroad ask with ever greater urgency.
Why do movies depict us as turbanned snake-charmers, beggars, or snake-eaters?
Why do some people say our tradition is to blame for India’s poverty, or our religion for the caste-system? Or for violence against women?
Why is it that our history books do not tell us the truth of who we are and what we are?
Why does this modern world seem so unable to recognize our inner world of tradition? Why do we not speak to the modern world as Hindus? Not as fundamentalists, not as apologists, but simply as intelligent observers who have been on this earth long enough to know a few things about it?
We have seen much of history. We have come from an intellectual tradition concerned with nature and life rather than dogma and ritual. We have come from a worldview in which the cruelty, destructiveness, and sheer unsustainability of today’s world should be obvious. Yet, we do not speak, for we do not remember.
We have adjusted much, over the centuries, not just with other people, but with other ideas too. It was inevitable, perhaps, and not always unwelcome. But a time comes when we need to ask if we have adjusted too much, if we have become parrots instead, repeating the clichés and ideologies of the time instead of clearing the morass of ignorance with one magnificent lion’s roar.
If you are a parent of a Hindu child, there is one more question you need to ask yourself too: if you, or your children, do not find intelligent answers for these questions, will your Hinduism still remain when they grow up, or when their children come?
Maybe you believe that Hinduism is just fine, and the ignorance of those who do not understand it will not affect us. After all, have we not survived so long? Have we not been smart? Did we not invent flying-chariots and missiles thousands of years ago as our Ramayana and Mahabharatha comics and movies seem to suggest? And are we not doing quite well now? We are successful. We have scientists and CEOs everywhere. We are considered a model minority in foreign countries. We build our temples. We enjoy our Yoga and our wisdom being discovered by everyone. We are annoyed though by some of our politicians and intellectuals who deny us our hard-earned rights, but otherwise, all is well. We might even be feeling triumphant that someone who respects Hindu sentiments has won the election.
But what we don’t quite realize is this. May 2014 is only a beginning, a kick back upward from history’s rock-bottom. There will be, and there already, is an intellectual and political backlash. Another concern is that triumphalism can easily become complacency, and even arrogance. It has happened before. It cannot happen now. Rebuilding India is the mandate that India might have given its new leader. But rebuilding Hindu civilization is something that every one of us must be doing, one personal, meaningful vision of Hinduism at a time. It has to be done, because even our Gods and Goddesses, even our past glories, real and imagined, and most of all, even our success and pride, cannot guarantee the survival of Hinduism if we do not intellectually confront the existential challenge threatening Hinduism today.
A prestigious university in America, a few years ago; the name of a cultural organization for students from the Indian subcontinent suddenly comes under fire. Its name, some believe, is discriminatory, communalist and hateful…
Discrimination has no place in a decent world. Racist names deserve to be called out, condemned, changed – that is the only way oppressed communities can resist oppression; African-Americans, Native Americans, Women, oppressed caste communities in India, all have challenged the demeaning names they were once given by groups that had power over them. If the name of the cultural organization was like that, it deserved to be condemned.
If the name was something else, and not ‘Sanskriti’.
‘Sanskriti’. A word that means culture. A word that means, not just culture in the sterile sense of books and paintings, but culture in the Indian sense of ethics, aesthetics, conduct, civilization itself; in the sense of ‘be nice to each other’, that’s Sanskriti. Being nasty or brutal is not.
Sanskriti kept its name in the end, luckily, and if we may add, luckily for all those who care about fighting hatred and discrimination too – no one would ever take their concerns seriously again otherwise.
This was not an aberration. This was not some ‘loony left-wing PC campaign’, as people sometimes like to call such protests. It was a sincere, and in principle, commendable effort to fight social hatred that somehow lost its way when it came to Hindus. This is the stark absurdity that confronts Hinduism today.
There is a lot of talk going on about Hindus and Hinduism around the world that actually has very little to with the realities of Hindus and Hinduism.
The Economist, a magazine so giddy about its urgency that it refers to itself as a ‘newspaper’ and not a ‘magazine’, describes the sacred Shiva Lingam at Amarnath as a ‘penis-shaped lump of ice’.
The Onion, another magazine like the one above, publishes a bizarre, violently pornographic cartoon of Ganesha amidst an orgy of saints and deities of various faiths. It is presumably a statement against the protests ignited by a You Tube movie offensive to Muslims. What Gautama or Ganesha had to do with that, we do not know. It’s an American magazine, by the way, the country whose government took forever to figure out that the cow-protecting people were their friends and not the Bin Laden-protecting regimes next door.
The New York Times, the paper of record, publishes several articles on and by Wendy Doniger, an American professor of Hinduism, and author of several ‘magisterial’ books on Hinduism. Doniger, whose work we shall look at closely later in this book, characterizes herself as a lover of Hinduism and her critics as nasty, militant, prudish fundamentalists. In all these reports, we do not find the slightest admission of the fact that many academics, not militants, not prudes, find her work flawed, if not absurd. She also presents herself as the victim of an Indian law that makes it a crime to offend Hindus (though no such ‘Hindu fundamentalist’ law exists in India; the law in question pertains to all religions and was deployed in the past in most cases to criminalize perceived offences to other communities).
The New York Times, of course, does not publish one opposing view of her work. Neither does USA Today, nor the Washington Post, nor the Guardian.
As for that BBC, that venerable beacon of veracity that generations of post-colonial Indians grew up revering, nothing much needs to be said either.
One billion people. Not one op-ed, not one letter, even.
Wendy Doniger, by the way, and as we shall see later in this book, compares the wanderings of the Vedic people to that of the cowboys who destroyed the Native Americans; and, for good measure, the Nazis during World War II.
Believe it or not, this is current academic knowledge. It is not idle talk, nor mere internet gossip. This is what is presumed to be fact in the institutions that declare what is knowledge and what is not. This is the sort of thing that universities, and serious news media, are saying about your Hinduism.
We Hindus stand accused.
We Hindus stand accused of being the Nazi-like conquerors of India.
We Hindus stand accused of being fundamentalists--despite having assured peace to numerous minority faiths in India for centuries, and despite having supported a secular idea of a nation even after partition. Just one example of this: India’s state policy, according to the “award winning” State of Religion Atlas, “favors the religion of the majority and limits freedom of other religions” right up there with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
We Hindus stand accused of being everything that we are not.
The truth though is that we Hindus, unfortunately, are typically too above such nonsense to be bothered, or too busy making money to be bothered too.
But in either case, this is not something that can be ignored much longer. There is at the moment a very powerful, sustained, and unrelenting cultural and intellectual attack on Hinduism in the media and in the academy. This is not the same thing as saying there is a worldwide Islamic and Christian conspiracy against Hinduism. We do say that though, but that remark loses sight of the friendship we enjoy with many Muslims and Christians and others, and it also forgets that this attack also increasingly comes not from devout Muslims and Christians but from sceptics angry at their own traditions and projecting that anger inappropriately onto ours (as for our own sceptics, we must recognize their valid points, but also encourage them to not get stuck in scepticism; when scepticism becomes the new orthodoxy, then we must be sceptical of that too). We must focus therefore not on political rhetoric but on the specificities of an intellectual position, and that is what the first part of this book does.
However, before we do so, we need to consider the possible consequences of ignoring it. I understand that is not quite a Hindu thing, or a cool thing these days in general, to be too hung up on arguments about religion. We would have probably been the last people to be doing so. There is a temptation no doubt, to ignore it. Hinduism, after all, is not going to vanish. The United States and many other countries where Hindus live respect our rights. Humanity is now in an age in which most countries respect our freedom to our own faith as a basic human right. That is what gives us our security, the rule of law, and faith in God, of course.
But the threat today is more existential than we have understood it.
What if very soon we arrive at a position when our very religion, our very culture, our names, our festivals, our gods and goddesses, come to be seen as antithetical to those very same human rights? Remember, in the past, the ignorance about Hinduism could be brushed aside as merely old world prejudice or stereotyping. It was openly expressed as religious or racial rivalry. It was ugly but at least honest. But what we face today is extremely devious, and dangerous. The attack on Hinduism today comes not from those who openly differ with us on religious grounds, but through a very ingenuous device: they say they are not against Hinduism, but only against Hindu extremism. Most Hindus are against extremism too, and would have probably been happy to agree with them, if only their position had been really against extremism alone. But virtually every book, article, and argument made by the world’s supposedly leading, important, and celebrated intellectuals today says the same thing: in the name of criticizing Hindu extremism, they savage the entirety of our religion. If they are not challenged, intellectually and culturally, soon our names, gods, goddesses, festivals, sacred scriptures, virtually everything that makes us who we are, will be defined by them as something that it is not.
Maybe a day will come when we will feel ashamed to bear our own names again, or worship our own gods and goddesses, freely. Maybe a day will come when Shiva’s trident can be legally interpreted as a weapon, or a Lingabhishekham at our temples banned as a primitive act of sexual worship.
Maybe a day will even come when even our breathing is deemed oppressive because it is saying ‘soham’ and invoking the swan of Goddess Saraswathi!
That last example might seem extreme, but the fact is that we almost lost a word like ‘Sanskriti’. We might lose a lot more too, if we do not recognize this.
What we are living through right now is nothing less than a war over the fundamental validity of Hinduism.
And this war is cloaked in the very language that guarantees us our rights today; that of freedom, equality, democracy and justice.
It maintains one shrill, moribund, position: if you are not with us, you are a fundamentalist. If you say our work is flawed and ignorant, you are a fundamentalist.
But if the kind of things that they write about Hindus as truth were written about women, blacks, gays, Muslims, or any other community today, they would be laughed out of their offices for their bizarre 18th century racism.
But the ignorance against Hinduism is not a joke.
It has consequences.
Primed to denigrate Hindu life, the papers of prestige will not report the truth, even if it is so harsh that it hurts their own people.
Pakistani terrorists massacre Indians, Americans, Israelis, and others on 26/11/2008. Leading U.S. newspapers like the New York Times and L.A. Times publish several op-ed pieces that blame India’s policy on Kashmir, the rise of “Hindu extremism”, and the appalling state of poverty among Muslims in India. There are at best only three op-eds that name the then un-nameable mastermind.
We know it was not poverty that caused a massacre. We know it wasn’t some romantic Robin Hood justice of poor Muslims fighting back against rich Hindus. No, the victims at the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus were poor, small, thin, human beings; fathers and brothers and mothers. They came to work that day so their children could eat the next day. They spent their bodies day after day to earn no more money perhaps than the cost of one bullet that would take their lives.
The day the op-ed pundits proclaimed that massacre as a triumph of human rights and social justice against Hindutva and India was the day they lost all moral and intellectual virtue.
No writer with million dollar advances and human rights and free speech awards wrote about what those bullets did to those poor bodies.
They did write, copiously, about one pompous thug among one billion Hindus who once boasted about killing people in Gujarat though. And they wrote, in vivid detail, about a pregnant woman whose baby was ripped out of her womb by a sword (an image, it may be noted, used by professional propagandists to start wars at least twice in the past century).
Hinduphobia is more dangerous than any other ideology in today’s civilization in some ways.
Racism, Fundamentalism, Sexism, these are dangerous, no doubt, and exist; but these are recognizable. People will know to get outraged, if a Muslim is detained unfairly in America or discriminated against in India, say.
But a massacre against Hindus does not seem to get the slightest reaction in the world press; except to perhaps say: ‘Let’s hope the Hindu fundamentalists now don’t go on a backlash!’
But a Hindu does not feel bad only for his losses; he also sees the pain of those who suffered, the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians, everyone.
A Hindu fights Hinduphobia because doing so is the only way to save them, and to save ourselves. Our universalism is like that. We know that the ignorance that hurts us also hurts others, in different ways.
Hinduphobia is not a quirk or an individual stereotype that afflicts some individuals. It is a systematic distortion in human thought that serves to distract the world from the cruelty and the needlessness of suffering, not just Hindu, but all human and non-human suffering too.
It exists not so much in the indifferent mind of the average world citizen today, the American, or Muslim, or Chinese, but in the upper echelons of the institutions that define the world and its people today; the media, and the academy.
It is there that we must begin our cure.
And it won’t be easy, because Hinduphobia has five hundred years of privilege that gives it a monopoly on the press and the academy, and a tremendous influence over our own postcolonial educational system and intellectual class as well.
But the time for change has come. We have a millennia-old streak of kindness finessed into intelligence. With the right determination, if all of us decide that this is important, that Hinduphobia needs to end, we can achieve what we want. We can, and we must, show those afflicted by Hinduphobia that they are not saving anybody from Hindus with their ignorance and lies. Instead, we must reveal to them how their misinformed obduracy has made them the last line of resistance between today’s Hinduism and tomorrow’s promise of a better world for not just Hindus, but indeed, all of this world.
We will break their fear. We will break whatever holds them, and us, back from something as simple as decency, honesty, and indeed, kindness to all.
How should we do this?
Forwarding emails proclaiming our ancient greatness and saying our ancient rishis were advanced missile designers will not save us.
Liking and Sharing stuff on Facebook alone will not save us.
Going to temples and doing pujas alone will not save us.
Sending our children to Hindu Sunday school alone will not save us.
Making our children memorize mantras without enjoying their meaning will not save us.
Mastering math and science and getting jobs and making lots of money will not save us (it will help though, so don’t neglect them!)
Bollywood fashions and pop Hindu bhajans might be fun, but will not save us.
And a word for those of us who already know we face an existential challenge and don’t need to be convinced:
Blaming Christians and Muslims will not save us either. In fact, it is counterproductive and un-Hindu. It is true we may be fed up with pseudo-secularism. But we cannot forget that we invented secularism in the sense of respect for all faiths long before other lands had even figured out such a thing was possible. We must find our strength in that once more. After all, when Hinduphobia is conquered, and the academy resumes its pursuit of truth, historians might find one day that it wasn’t just the zero and numerals that went West from ancient India, but its many humanistic ideals too. It is surely more than a coincidence that they got over their dark ages and had their Enlightenment just around the time they met us, but we don’t hear much about that at all. The old Eurocentric paradigm is changing though. It has just about started to acknowledge that much of its genius was stimulated by its contact with the Arab and Islamic civilization. In time, when Hindu scholars, writers, and informed critics of Hinduphobia find their voice, we might help push the paradigm even further. A prosperous India led by a restored philosophical vision is essential for that. And we are making it happen.
Like the iconic sculpture of Lakshmi-Narasimha from the ruins of Vijayanagara that you see on the cover of this book, Hinduism at this moment remains bereft of a hand with which to write its own story. But the important thing to remember is this. While they may have broken his hands, they still could not manage to put out the fire in the Lion-God’s eyes.
The Fire Faced One. The Volcano Faced One!
For Hinduism to survive this moment, as it has survived many other moments in the past, including determined efforts in the past by two powerful imperialist forces to destroy it (and we must reiterate that we do not have a problem philosophically with the spiritual aspects of Islam or Christianity, much less with Muslims or Christians, our critique is only of the imperialism that came with some of them in the past), we need to do two things:
First, we must turn to our Gods and Goddesses in prayer, and in a spirit of devotion and surrender. Our prayer though must be noble as their ideals. We must just remember that this is not about us in a selfish sense. It is not about our pride or egos. Standing up as Hindus is to stand up only for whatever goodness, kindness, wisdom and love, for all beings, that our gods have stood for. Standing up for Hinduism can be about raudra, but not krodha.
Second, we must act. We must assume responsibility for the future of our children, the legacy of our ancestors, and most of all, in the spirit of vasudaiva kutumbakam, the future of the world (and we really must take back this beautiful ideal from its rather superficial use of late). Saving Hinduism cannot be truly Hindu in spirit if it is also not equally about saving not just Hindus, but the whole world. That is the way it has always been. Hinduism after all has never been about us or them; but only about us and them, and that ‘them’ includes not just people of other nations or religions, but also those living beings of different species too. We must restore Hinduism not just for the sake of Hindus, but for all living beings in this world, for the sake of all nature. Though we are not in the business of saving anything or anyone against their will, we can’t help our kindness when we see destructiveness, and self-destructiveness.
Today’s global, educated, and assertive Hindus are in a position now to do what that half-failed project of global modernity has been struggling to do for so many centuries now: give the world the cultural resources, indeed, the intelligence of nature it has forgotten, so that it may understand universalism and freedom, those great ideals of modern life, a little better. India has chosen prosperity again. Rearming Hinduism, recognizing its vastness of vision and heart, can help us move the conversation beyond the clichés of the political Right and the Left; after all, the Right in India seems to say the right things about Hinduism (such as respect for cows) but sometimes for the wrong reasons (attacking whole communities over them) and the Left seems to have the right reasons (such as concern for the poor and oppressed) but seems to be all wrong about Hinduism (as we will see in this book). Rearming Hinduism has to be a first step in not only restoring Hindu thought, but also in finding a way for the world that will move our present models for prosperity and growth into new ways of living in and with nature rather than at great cost to it.
This book begins with an outline of the key assumptions in today’s academic Hinduphobia and offers a critical response to them. It might sound very academic at times, but it is not written strictly for an academic readership. My intention is to convey to a wider audience today what exactly academic writers, particularly those in what is called the critical tradition, are trying to do – and why they have failed enormously in their treatment of Hinduism. My approach is not to speculate on their intentions, or on possible conspiracies, but merely to use my tools as a media and cultural studies scholar to identify the myths in academia and commonsense that must be addressed not only by Hindus but by anyone who cares about humanity and nature.
I focus on Wendy Doniger’s controversial The Hindus: An Alternative History as an example of Hinduphobic historiography somewhat more than others because this book, more than any other, now defines current thinking in academic and media circles about Hinduism.
As an academic, and one who was trained in critical and postcolonial media and cultural studies, I understand, despite its jargon and jarring humour, and not without empathy, the intentions of Doniger’s book. I will however, show that this book does not live up to its own stated intentions either, and is merely a part of a massive, pernicious, and un-examined ideology prevalent in academia today.
My concern in Rearming Hinduism is with this ideology, and not necessarily with asserting another history of Hinduism. It is too vast a subject for us, or at least for me, to attempt at this time. I do however hope to prepare the ground for such work for others to do in the future by expanding the critique of the present historiography (how we speak about history), which I maintain, is a profoundly Hinduphobic one. And this Hinduphobia is not simply about hostility to Hindus emanating from Christian or Islamic zealots. It is part of a deeper, unexamined prejudice that remains pervasive in today’s supposedly scientific theories about the world against some of the things Hinduism has been deeply engaged with, such as animals, nature, and life in general. We cannot address Hinduphobic historiography, in other words, unless we also critique speciesist and social-Darwinist biases in today’s common-sense about our past. Just for the record, our view of animals in this book will be very different from the rather bizarre, metaphoric, and anthropocentric treatment they get in Doniger’s book.
Since this book believes that a history of Hinduism cannot ignore the question of what the divine means to Hindu, I offer in the second part an ‘alternative’ vision of sorts about Hinduism not so much as an exhaustive history of Hinduism but merely as an example of how one devout Hindu sees hope for humanity in the richness of Hindu thought. I present this part in a more personal and devotional tone rather than an academic one, and it is perhaps best read not as argument but simply as a set of thoughts, perhaps to be taken in and reflected upon in small pieces, about what it means to be human as reflected in the ideals and stories of Hinduism.
It is my hope that this book will be of interest not only to Hindus who wish to see a better understanding of their life emerge in today’s world, but also to everyone who cares about things like humanity, dignity, peace, non-violence, truth, and indeed, love for all beings in this world again.
We are not re-arming Hinduism really unless we are rearming our hearts with something like kindness, and love.
Mama dehi karaavalambam.
Grant us please, the refuge of Your hands.
Preface: Your Hinduism
As this is not a textbook or user-manual, translations are evocative rather than literal.
Excerpts below from the group email sent out to members of the Sanskriti email list (passed on to me by an alum) on January 27, 2009 summarizing arguments:
“FOR the name change:
1. The term "Sanskriti" has certain associations with the Hindu fundamentalist movement, both in South Asia and the United States. The discourse of Sanskriti has been widely used in a discriminatory, communalist fashion to incite hatred and Hindu nationalism.
2. The term "Sanskriti" has its root in Sanskrit (and a few related languages), Hinduism, and primarily north India. Thus, it can be an alienating term to people from other parts of South Asia.
AGAINST the name change:
1. The term may be used independently of Hindu fundamentalism and should be reclaimed from the Hindu right-wing.
2. Some people may not feel alienated by the term…”
“Economist” “Onion” “New York Times”
The Economist (July 21, 2011). Fleeting Chance.
The Onion (September 13, 2012). No one murdered because of this image.
Pankaj Mishra (December 1, 2008). Fresh Blood from an Old Wound. New York Times.
“State of Religion Atlas”
According to this otherwise authoritative-sounding book, Hinduism is India’s “state religion established in law” (56-57).
Joanne O’Brien and Martin Palmer (1993). The State of Religion Atlas. New York: Simon and Schuster.
“…. several op-ed pieces that blame India’s policy on Kashmir, the rise of ‘Hindu extremism,’ and the appalling state of poverty among Muslims in India”
Amitav Ghosh (December 3, 2008). India’s 9/11? Not Exactly. The New York Times.
Asra Nomani (December 1, 2008). Muslims: India’s New Untouchables. The Los Angeles Times.
Suketu Mehta (November 29, 2008). What they Hate about Mumbai. The New York Times.
Martha Nussbaum (November 30, 2008) A Cloud Over India’s Muslims. The Los Angeles Times.
Arundhati Roy (December 12, 2008) 9 is not 11. The Huffington Post.
Also see my discussion of these articles:
Vamsee Juluri (December 17, 2008). How the West Lost Us: A Critique of the Media Coverage of the Mumbai Attacks. The Hoot/ The Huffington Post/ Asia Pacific Perspectives Journal.
For a specific example of Doniger’s response to the controversy see her op-ed:
Wendy Doniger (March 6, 2014). Banned in Bangalore. The New York Times.
Vamsee Juluri & Murali Balaji (2014). 50 Shades of Mayo: Cultural Imperialism, Orientalism and the Media Framing of an Indian Book Battle. Paper presented at the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) Conference, Hyderabad, India.
“Vedic Hindus… Cowboys and Nazis..”
See p. 111 and p. 144 of The Hindus: An Alternative History.
See Arundhati Roy’s article, including the much repeated quote about “fetuses ripped from mothers’ wombs”:
Arundhati Roy (May 6, 2002). Democracy: Who is she when she is at home? Outlook.
Also see the refutation:
Balbir Punj (May 27, 2002). Fiddling with Facts as Gujarat Burns. Outlook.
The story about German soldiers bayoneting babies in the first world war is a well known example in the history of propaganda; this myth also reappeared in the Western press coverage of Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait in the form of an allegation that Iraqi soldiers had thrown out Kuwaiti babies from their incubators, a charge that reportedly led to widespread American support for the war. For more see:
Brooke Gladstone & Josh Neufield (2011). The Influencing Machine. New York: Norton
“Mama dehi karaavalambam”
Sri Sankaracharya, Lakshmi-Narasimha Stotram.