ANALYSIS OF HINDU REVIVAL AND ITS CHALLENGES
Decolonizing the Hindu Mind: Ideological Development of Hindu Revivalism by Koenraad Elst. 2001. New Delhi: Rupa & Co. Pages 657 + xvii. Price: Rs 595 (HB).
When a history of the last decade of the twentieth century is written, the rise of Hindu nationalism or ‘Hindutva’ to the position of the dominant national ideology, replacing the muddle known as Nehruvian ‘secularism’, will have to be given a prominent place. It is therefore in the fitness of things that the book under review, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind by Koenraad Elst, one of Hindutva’s most eloquent spokesmen, should have been brought out by a major Indian publisher. This is not to suggest that there have been no significant contributions prior to this. Scholars have long known that some of the best work in the last twenty years and more has been done by Hindu scholars outside the ‘mainstream’ establishment. But mainline publishers have shied away from them despite their proven market potential. At the same time, several titles by Elst, David Frawley and this reviewer have sold out without any marketing support by major publishers and distributors.
In terms of quality of content also, publishers outside the mainstream — Delhi based Voice of India group in particular — have an impressive record. Some major breakthroughs in our time like N. Jha’s decipherment of the Indus script, K.D. Sethna’s work on the Aryan problem, Shrikant Talageri’s Vedic-Puranic synthesis and David Frawley’s insights into the maritime background to the Vedic Civilization, were first brought out by Voice of India and its sister publishers. Similarly, Harsh Narain’s The Ayodhya Temple-Mosque Dispute (Penman Publishing, Delhi) remains the best source for the facts about the Ayodhya dispute, at least in English. In contrast, mainline publishers have little to show on these important topics despite their being central to the historical debate today. In the circumstances it is most welcome to see Rupa joining Harper Collins (publishers of Arun Shourie’s books) in bringing out books like the present one. It is to be hoped that others will soon follow suit recognizing that publishing such books not only provides better balance but also makes good business sense.
The author states that his book is “based on the main part of my doctoral dissertation, accepted by Katholicke Universiteit Leuven [Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium] in 1998. For reasons of space, several peripheral chapters have been left out here and will be published separately.” A good part of this has already appeared in Elst’s two-volume The Saffron Swastika published by Voice of India, also distributed by Rupa. Further, “some argumentative sections which I had left out of the dissertation at the suggestion of my supervisor have been reincluded, and the general tone and conclusions have been made more forthright than was affordable in a dissertation.” This is welcome, for the book gains a lot from the author’s forthright style. Even when he is wrong, he is forthrightly wrong and it is easy to pinpoint the problem.
Mr. Elst (born 1959) submitted his doctoral dissertation only in 1998, but he is anything but a novice. He is the author of several significant works on India, whose best-known contribution is probably his diagnosis of ‘secularist’ historians’ approach as a manifestation of Negationism. He elaborated this in his well-known monograph Negationism in India: Concealing the Record of Islam, in which he compares the Indian secularists’ attempts to whitewash the record of Islam to that of some fringe groups in Europe that argue that the Nazi Holocaust never took place. So, when a new book from his pen arrives on the scene — even if it is his doctoral dissertation — one opens it with high expectations. And Decolonizing the Hindu Mind does not disappoint.
The author contends that the Hindu civilization is now in the process of coming out of a thousand years of colonization— first by Islam and then Britain. This is exactly the view of V.S. Naipaul also who noted that the first step in this is for the Hindus to regain their sense of history. This deloconization process is running into fierce resistance from residual colonial interests on two fronts— the Islamists and the ‘secularists’. In the author’s words (p 588):
“During the past millennium, India has gone through two colonizations, one by Islam and one by semi-Christian, semi-secular Europe. At the political level, the native society proved relatively victorious against both, though not without retaining a considerable residue of what they brought. The problem with that, with Hindus attached to their culture, is not that in the wake of Islamic conquests, a considerable amount of West- and Central-Asian human material enriched the Indian gene pool, nor that British rule brought immense transformation in material culture. What they see as the problem for Hindu society is that the Islamic and Western regimes brought world-views which still instill a profound contempt for and hostility to Hinduism.”
This is indeed the heart of the problem: this hatred of Hinduism not only persists long after India became free, but has also become the main agenda of the academic and even the political establishment in its attempts to make it the ruling national ideology. Transformations in material culture under the British would have taken place anyway, just as computers and the Internet are transforming society now without any colonial impulse. The problem is essentially one of ideology, not technology or economy. To continue with the author:
“The challenge facing Hindu activists is that for half a century after
India’s formal Independence, Hindu society has remained under the spell of a
colonial psychology in three different ways. First, power came in the hands of a
westernized elite which had been estranged from the native culture, and which
had established the same relationship with native culture which the British
overlords used to have. If anything, its members displayed more animosity in
their assertion of a non-Hindu identity for themselves and for India, apparently
because they had to exorcize the remnants of Hinduness out of themselves. At the
same time, they had the self-confidence, not to say arrogance, which comes with
being securely in power.”
“The challenge facing Hindu activists is that for half a century after India’s formal Independence, Hindu society has remained under the spell of a colonial psychology in three different ways. First, power came in the hands of a westernized elite which had been estranged from the native culture, and which had established the same relationship with native culture which the British overlords used to have. If anything, its members displayed more animosity in their assertion of a non-Hindu identity for themselves and for India, apparently because they had to exorcize the remnants of Hinduness out of themselves. At the same time, they had the self-confidence, not to say arrogance, which comes with being securely in power.”
The author goes on to point out that their anti-Hindusness was opportunistic as well, which served them well politically and professionally as long as the anti-Hindu (now Christian) Nehru-Gandhis were in power. With their decline, the secularists seem to have lost much of their swagger. Their arrogance is giving way to frenzied complaints of ‘saffronization’ of national life, especially education. (How it constitutes ‘saffronizing’ history when one tries to compare Vedic and Harappan civilizations — both of which pre-date Christianity and Islam by thousands of years — they are unable to say. Do they want us to see Harappan remains as Islamic and the Vedas as derived from the Bible?) At the same time, they show their true colors when, instead of taking their case to the Indian public, they run to Europe or America to complain about their loss of influence due to ‘saffronization’.
All this is well known to serious India watchers. The merit of Decolonizing the Hindu Mind lies not in its conclusions or any particularly new insights it has to offer, but the vast amount of material that the author has marshaled around his main themes: Indian secularism, the Islamic record, and the demonization of Hinduism and Hindutva. His method is to select a particular theme and present a substantial body of views from different sources with his own comments and explanations. The result is a spectrum of different viewpoints on the main themes like secularism, Hindutva and others. His quotes are truly prolific, especially from European sources. (There are 1674 footnotes and a 29-page Bibliography.) This makes the book a valuable source, but his approach can sometimes go astray and overlook realities. Also, his tendency to comment on topics of little relevance leads to technical errors, though mainly inconsequential in nature. Here are a couple of examples.
In a brief comment on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the author talks about their ‘alleged’ suppression by Church authorities (led by the Dominican controlled Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem). If only he were to read the first hand account of Robert Eisenman, or even the independent account by Neil Asher Silberman (and a host of others), he would learn that it is more than ‘alleged’. Another example: he disputes the charge that the severe decline in the study of exact sciences, especially mathematics in Medieval India was due mainly to the destruction of great centers of learning due to Islamic vandalism. His exact observation is (p 337, footnote):
“Remark, however the said universities [Nalanda, Vaishali, Sarnath, Vikramashila and others] taught philosophy and related subjects rather than exact sciences, and the same could be said for the theological academies which the Muslim rulers patronized.”
One wonders where Mr. Elst got his idea that pre-Islamic universities in India were Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina versions of Islamic academies where no science was taught. With one stroke of the pen he erases a thousand years of history of mathematics (and other sciences). The truth is as Alberuni himself recorded: “Hindu sciences… have fled to places which our hands cannot yet reach.” This being the case, how could Alberuni in the same breath complain about the “confused notions” and “mistakes” he encountered among Hindu scientists at every turn? Which Hindu scientists?— the ones that had been driven away? And yet, Mr. Elst quotes Alberuni as though he were an infallible source.
The historical record is very clear. During the medieval period, all learning including mathematics kept moving south until it had its last flickering flame in Madhava and his school in Kerala. (Madhava and his students worked with calculus problems and infinite series centuries before Newton and Gregory.) It is no coincidence that Ujjain in the north, which was arguably the world’s greatest center of mathematics for 500 years, ceased to be of any consequence with the arrival Islam. These are major research issues that cannot be dismissed in a flippant footnote.
These errors are of no great consequence: people do not turn to Decolonizing the Hindu Mind for expert opinion on the exact sciences— or their history. (So where was the need for such gratuitous comments?) But his somewhat discursive approach leads him to more substantial errors in areas where one does expect expert views. For example, in discussing Voice of India publications, he remarks: “Though most Hindutva stalwarts have some Voice of India publications on their not-so-full bookshelves, the RSS Parivar refuses to offer its organizational omnipresence as a channel of publicity and distribution.”
This leaves no doubt that Mr. Elst’s own bookshelf is quite full— witness the 1674 footnotes and the 29-page Bibliography. But the point is he is plainly wrong. All he has to do is to go to the Sangh Parivar bookshops in regional towns like Sahitya Sindhu in Bangalore to see Voice of India books. The basic problem in their wider distribution is not lack of interest but the fact they are written in English. This rules out marketing them in areas where RSS is most active. Even here, several Voice of India (and other) books have been translated and distributed by regional Sangh organizations where they have invariably done well. To take a specific example, my own Kannada book Itihasa, Samskriti Mattu Rashtriyate (‘History, Culture and Nationalism’) sold out in less than four months. And this is just one example. India watchers should get out of Delhi and look around in areas where the Sangh is really active. To understand the phenomenal growth of Hidutva, one has to reach out to areas where English does not reach.
The author’s methodology of stringing anecdotes and events around a theme can also lead to more substantial errors. One of his main points is that despite its commitment to the Hindu cause, the Sangh Parivar always bends over backwards in response to Leftist and minority criticism. This has some validity, though mainly a thing of the past. It ignores changing ground realities. Here is a case in point (p 238): “For an example of how the Sangh Parivar is forced to play by the rules set by its enemies, consider the period 1975-79.” (Emphasis added.)
So, we are asked to believe that the Sangh Parivar is forced (present tense) to play by the rules set by its enemies by considering an episode in 1975-79! Here the author is not only violating a fundamental principle of time analysis, but also ignoring ground realities when ample evidence is available to the contrary— that it is the enemies who feel they have to play by the Sangh rules. Let us look at a couple of examples. When Pope John Paul II visited India two years ago, the Sangh demanded that he apologize for the Goa Inquisition and also acknowledge that salvation is possible outside Christianity. My own somewhat scathing articles criticizing Christian missionary organizations and the Pope appeared in Sangh publications to be quoted in other newspapers. The editors even included my description of the Pope as the ‘Godman of Rome’. (But they drew the line when I called him a ‘Clean-shaven Chandraswami.’)
More recently, the Parivar has demanded that Christianity and Islam should become Indianized and cut all ties with foreign institutions like the Vatican. This has drawn furious reactions from Christian and Muslim leaders, followed by predictable pontifications from the secularist media. In the face of this, no one today, least of all its enemies, believes that the Parivar is playing by the rules set by its enemies. If anything it is the opposite: its ‘enemies’ believe that the Sangh is becoming overly aggressive.
One of the author’s main charges against the Sangh Parivar is that it has failed to build a strong intellectual base. This is largely justified and the Sangh would do well to take his advice and criticism seriously, even if it feels unpalatable. Many young people have told me that they find the usual dose of patriotism and Surya-Namaskars dished out at RSS Shakhas increasingly dull. Youngsters are more sophisticated today and have high expectations. The Shakhas should take this into account and present more interesting and intellectually challenging fare. The answer lies perhaps in setting up sister organizations with intellectual activity outside the Shakha network but attached to it. Whatever the solution, there is no doubt that the Sangh must change with the times to keep growing. I find that even on the Ayodhya issue, many members of the Parivar are supporting the Ram Temple for emotional reasons while they are themselves not sure if the facts are on their side. There is ample literature in support of the temple to which Mr. Elst himself has contributed in no small measure. The Sangh leaders should get familiar with the facts and enlighten their followers.
My message to the Sangh Parivar is to take the author’s criticism in the right spirit and heed his advice to strengthen its intellectual base. (His occasional condescending tone is best ignored.) He is a well-wisher who has many important things to say. He certainly has a point when he says that the Hindutva forces must develop an intellectual foundation in keeping with its growing stature as the voice of the people. In addition, the Parivar must recognize that it is now the mainstream, and no Government can afford to ignore its voice. It should stop reacting defensively to charges by taking a more pro-active approach on national issues. It must cultivate a more authoritative style and learn to articulate its positions with more clarity and purpose. This is happening but more needs to be done.
This brings me to one of the main strengths of Decolonizing the Hindu Mind— its comprehensive coverage of Hinduism in Western intellectual circles, especially Europe. The picture one gets is of unrelenting, mindless hostility to Hinduism — camouflaged as ‘Brahmanism’ — based on ignorance to deliberate distortion. The quality of Western scholarship is dismal, often amounting little more than polemics and personal attacks. This is only a reflection of the precipitous decline in standards in the humanities. Reading them is a curious experience. It is clear that Western intellectuals, Europeans in particular, are exhuming much of the same methodology that was directed at Jews and blacks in pre-World War II days when anti-Semitic and anti-black ‘scholarship’ was academically respectable. Even the same vocabulary may sometimes be seen, with some scholars asking questions like: “Can Hinduism be human?” A common refrain in pre-War writing was, “Can Negro be a man?”
What is there in the psyche of this tribe that they must constantly seek out targets for their hatred? This is beyond human comprehension. As Shakespeare wrote: “What private griefs these men have, alas I know not.” How should Indians react to it? My suggestion is to ignore the whole thing. These hate-filled souls count for little in their own countries. Also, this pathological hatred is not shared by the common people, in America at least. There is no reason why Indians should take them more seriously than they are taken in their own backyard. Ignoring them will ensure their irrelevance and their eventual extinction. The recent closure of the viciously anti-Hindu Indology List is an illustration of shape of things to come.
In summary, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind is an important and timely contribution to the growing collection of works on Hindutva. It covers a lot of ground, and it is to be hoped that it will be the starting point for serious works on specialized topics like education, economy and others. The production is outstanding, with editorial assistance provided by Biblia Impex. Rupa is to be complimented for bringing out the book, but a low-priced paperback edition would make it widely known.
Elst, Koenraad (2001) The Saffron Swastika, 2 volumes. New Delhi, Voice of India.
Frawley, David (1995) Arise Arjuna. New Delhi, Voice of India.
Frawley, David (1998) Awaken Bharata. New Delhi, Voice of India.
Rajaram, N.S. (1997) A Hindu View of the World. New Delhi, Voice of India.