Thursday, July 18, 2013

Gandhi and Mandela

Now that Nelson Mandela is leaving the stage, we can take stock of his role in history. His name will remain associated with two major turnarounds: the conversion of the nonviolent African National Congress (ANC) to the armed struggle in 1961, and the non-violent transition of South Africa from a white minority regime to non-racial majority rule in 1994. The latter leads to the frequent comparison of Mandela with Mahatma Gandhi, but the former was a conscious break with a policy that was inspired by the same Gandhi.

When the ANC was founded in 1912 (then as Native National Congress), Gandhi lived in South Africa and led the non-violent struggle of the Indian community for more equal rights with Europeans, with some success. Note that Gandhi did not work for the coloureds or blacks, and found it a great injustice that the diligent Indians were treated on a par with the "indolent" and "naked" blacks. He did not question the disparity between black and white, only the ranking of the Indians as black rather than white. Nevertheless, the budding ANC took over the non-violent strategy typical of Gandhi’s movement.

Later in India, he would lead the fight for a very ambitious goal, namely home-rule and finally the full independence of England's largest colony. That was more than the English would grant him, and in spite of the usual myths, Gandhi's mass movement (by 1947 a fading memory) contributed but little to the eventual decolonization. As Clement Attlee, Prime Minister at the time of India's independence, testified later, Gandhi's importance in the decision to let go of India was "minimal". In South Africa, however, the stakes were not that high. The struggle was over the status of the small Indian minority, without much effect on the British administration. For example, the overzealous decision to only recognize Christian marriages was a great source of annoyance to the Indians, but without much importance to the maintenance of colonial rule: it could easily be reversed on Gandhi's insistence.

The fight for the rights of the Indians was conducted non-violently. The Mahatma did not tarnish the fight for a noble cause with the use of evil means. However he was not entirely averse to violence: he took part in the Boer War (1899-1902) and Second Zulu War (1906) as a voluntary stretcher-bearer and recruited among Indians to participate in the First World War. His somewhat naive calculation was that for his sincere cooperation in the war, the British rulers would grant him political concessions in return.

In Mandela, we see that combination of armed struggle and non-violent political achievements. In 1961, the ANC noted that the peaceful struggle had only yielded failure and decline: the blacks were even worse off in the self-governing South Africa than under British colonial rule. A Gandhian analysis would be that the ANC had mastered the method of non-violent protest insufficiently, but it is understandable that the ANC saw as this as a failing method.

Spurred on by younger leaders like Nelson Mandela, the organization founded an armed wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe, "Spear of the Nation". It is no exaggeration to label the policy of the ANC and Mandela in the following years as "terrorist". When Mandela was put in prison, he was in possession of a large quantity of weapons and explosives. Very recently, my compatriot Hélène Passtoors admitted that she was complicit in a 1983 ANC bomb attack with 19 fatalities and 200 injuries.

As the memory of this face of the ANC dies, we pay more attention to the Mandela of 1994 and subsequent years. While the armed struggle was bloody but militarily fruitless, the ANC gained much more on another front: the mobilization of international public opinion against the Apartheid Government. This forced the white rulers to negotiate with the released Mandela, who now showed a lot of conciliatory goodwill. It was due to him that the transfer of power was peaceful. Later there would nonetheless be a wave of violence against the whites, with the frequent plaasmoorde (farm murders), but by then Mandela had already retired from politics.

Like Gandhi, he deserves a nuanced assessment. Both remain associated in our memory with a non-violent transfer of power, but have had their share of armed conflict too.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Yoga is not religious


Yoga is Hindu, but it is not religious. When Hindus go deep into the issues raised by the San Diego court verdict ("yoga is not Hindu"), they are bound to encounter some problems with their own tradition.

In my opinion, Christians who allege that Hindus mix up yoga with the worship of another supreme being than the jealous god Yahweh, have a point. And Hindus who think that yoga implies the worship of a Hindu god likewise have a point,-- the same point. But those are modern Hindus who talk a lot about yoga but are unlikely to practise it. Contemporay Hinduism is a lot more God-centred than the ancient originators of yoga, such as Patanjali, or even the late-medieval pioneers of Hatha Yoga. Ancient Yoga was certainly “Hindu” in any normal use of the term, but it was not theistic.

On Rajiv Malhotra’s discussion list, where the verdict is debated, one Hindu recently quoted Arya Samaj fouder Swami Dayananda Saraswati with approval as asserting that Yoga is “restraining all activities (vritti-s) of mind (chitta) from all evil and unrighteous affairs and fixing the same in God alone, for the bliss and beatitude is Yoga and disobedience of God's injunction and indulgence in evil thoughts and deeds is Viyoga, i.e., remaining away from God”. I am not sure about the exactness of this “quote”, but it gives the gist of Dayanada’s thinking, and it certainly renders the thinking of this particular Hindu and many millions of contemporary Hindus.

In reality, yoga is not about evil at all. It restrains good motions of the mind (i.e. thoughts) as much as evil ones. Hinduism is quite conscious of good and evil, but unlike Christianity, it subordinates this concern (on which the Christian core doctrines of hereditary sin and salvation are based) to the concern for Liberation. Patañjali defines yoga as “restraining the movements of the mind”, full stop. Dayananda’s additional considerations of good and evil, and especially his bringing in “God”, are typical of modern devotional Hinduism or bhakti. This very successful movement, which eclipsed the non-theistic trends in Hinduism (Advaita Vedanta, Sankhya, Mimansa, Buddhism), is the historical antagonist of Hatha Yoga. It teaches that Liberation does not mean “isolation” (of consciousness from its objects, Patañjali’s goal), does not mean identity with the Absolute, but aspires no higher than watching God face to face, much like Sufi and Christian mysticism. It also rejects the emphasis yoga puts on techniques. If God’s grace is there to help you, what use are techniques? By contrast, yoga means reaching the goal, Liberation, by means of techniques.

The trouble already started with the Bhagavad Gita. I have it on good Hindu authority, but I have also seen it for myself, that the Gita is a work of “synthesis”. Then already, Hindus were enamoured of synthesis. Thus, this is where we first find the notion of an equality between three disciplines: karma yoga, “the discipline of action” (then meaning Vedic sacrifice, now moralistically interpreted as good works), jñana yoga, “the discipline of knowledge” (meaning Upanishadic knowledge of the Self, i.e. yoga proper), and bhakti yoga, “the discipline of devotion”. In fact, when Yajñavalkya introduces the notion of the Self, he pits its knowledge against the Vedic rituals. The ancient Vedas and esp. the Brahmanas (the technical manuals of ritual) are centred on karmakanda, “the (ritual) action half”, while the Upanishads are centred on jñanakanda, “the knowledge half”. While yogis would simply choose the latter, the Gita proposes a synthesis, viz. the third pole, bhakti.

The book discusses a number of then-popular Hindu philosophies, but interjects in every chapter one sentence that does not follow from these philosophies at all, namely that all this shall be given to you if you are but devoted to Me, Krishna. You can read Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, but you will not find Krishna there. You can read the Buddha’s teachings on meditation, but Krishna is not there. Yoga can perfectly exist without Krishna.

Modern bhakti Hindus project their own bhakti beliefs on the whole of Hindu history. They deny the reality of change (both progress and degeneration) in Hindu history. In fact, it is they who realize the Westerners’ fond image of Hinduism as frozen in time, unchangeable. So, they rewrite the theory of yoga as dealing with God. In fact, the more God, the less yoga, and the more yoga, the less God.

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Monday, July 8, 2013

Is yoga Hindu? The court verdict


A county judge in San Diego CA has ruled that yoga is not always religious (Washington Post, 2 July 2013). Parents in a San Diego school district had complained that yoga is intrinsically intertwined with the Hindu religion and that its practice in a public school setting violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The court ruling means that these parents had it wrong: it is possible to divorce yoga from Hinduism, and that is how the local school authorities have gone about their yoga classes.

While yoga may be religious in some contexts, and then notably Hindu, it can also be practised and taught purely for its benefits. Modern school authorities see these benefits mostly in the form of strength, suppleness and nervous relaxation, as well as combating aggressiveness and bullying. Therapists might add the benefit of restoring or at least improving normalcy in individuals afflicted with burn-out, nervous breakdown, certain complexes and other mental disorders. Serious practitioners would invoke calmness, renunciation, even Liberation (howsoever defined), as worthy goals for human beings who are perfectly healthy from the beginning. But all of them would do so without reference to Shiva or Ganesha or whichever God it is that Hindu yogis invoke.


Yoga is intrinsically Hindu

This judgment is part of a broader struggle over the origins and nature of yoga. Some Christians, apparently including the litigating parents from San Diego, object that Yoga is intrinsically Hindu and that it serves as a conduit for Hindu polytheistic God-worship and even for “evil Hindu social mores” such as caste discrimination, arranged marriage and widow-burning. It is of course also debated in how far these mores and this polytheism are bound up with Hinduism, but it is universally agreed that at least as a system of worship, Hinduism is different from Christianity. For the same reason, these circles had in the past opposed Transcendental Meditation, a simplified form of mantra meditation, for being obviously Hindu eventhough advertised as “scientific”. They had hired specialized lawyers (or “cult busters”) to show that the various Gurus who seduced Americans into yoga were salesmen of Hinduism-based cults.

These Christians find odd allies in the Hindus who insist that yoga is indeed naturally Hindu, and that the bead-counting and incense-waving and greeting gestures and indeed prayers that Hindu yogis practise all come with the Yoga package and cannot be divorced from it. They criticize American yoga aficionados such as many showbiz stars and indeed the San Diego yoga schoolteachers for reducing yoga to a fitness system without its cultural roots.


Yoga is up for grabs

On the other side of the divide are those Hindus who say that yoga is scientific and universal, so that it is only normal for it to take on local cultural forms wherever it goes. The motorcar was invented in Germany, but few people driving a Japanese car still remember this. The aeroplane was invented in America, but this invention is now available to travelers all over the world. The Chinese don’t put a sign “invented in America” on their planes, nor do they pay intellectual property rights on them. Of course, Chinese textbooks have a line or two on the aeroplane’s invention by the Wright brothers, and that nod to American honour will suffice. As the late Bal Thackeray used to say: “You cannot take the ‘national produce’ (swadeshi) policy too far, for then Indians would have to do away with the light bulb.” So, Hindus should be happy that Americans are willing to practise their yoga, and apart from a historical detail of origins, India or Hinduism no longer come in the picture.

And this still is a neutral rendering of the viewpoint of a sizable number of Hindus. We don’t even mention money-makers like Deepak Chopra who try to obscure yoga’s Hindu origins in order to claim certain yoga techniques as their own. Some yoga schools, whether manned by native Hindus or by Christian-born Westerners, have patented their own brand name and techniques so that nobody, and certainly not Hindu tradition, can claim these. This tendency is strengthened by the attempt of some Hindus to deny a Hindu identity even to the worldview they themselves are advertising, e.g. the Hare Krishnas worship Krishna, a Hindu god par excellence, yet tell Western audiences that they are not Hindu; or the Ramakrishna Mission, founded in the late 19th century under the motto “Say with pride, we are Hindus”, now say that their message is “universal” rather than “narrowly Hindu”. 

Again these Hindus find odd allies in many Christians, both of the lukewarm and of the activist kind. Lukewarm Christians as well as New Age ex-Christians see yoga as a neutral and universal commodity. For them, it can be practised as a fitness system without having any serious implications on their worldview or religion. Just as the European colonizers used the compass and gunpowder without bothering that these were Chinese inventions, American yogis have taken yoga for its tangible benefits without bothering about its Hindu origins. Even the Sanskrit names of the yoga exercises have been translated, so that you can become an accomplished yogi without even being reminded of its exotic origins.

Activist Christians, by contrast, admit that yoga is not religiously neutral. They want to adapt yoga because of its inherent attractiveness and transform it into “Christian yoga”. To them, yoga has indeed historically been linked with Hinduism, but can be delinked from it and tied to another religion. We have even reached the stage where some Christian centres and schools in India offer classes in “Christian yoga”.  


Yoga has Hindu roots

So, the San Diego verdict was a victory for lukewarm Hindus and adaptable Christians, and a defeat for serious Hindus and doctrine-conscious Christians. But what do we ourselves make of the issue?

First off, it is a matter of course that Yoga is Hindu. The word “Hindu” is a very general term encompassing every Indian form of Pagan religion no matter how old. It is therefore simply silly to say “Yoga is older than Hinduism”, as salesman Deepak Chopra does. The question then becomes: whether Yoga can be divorced from Hinduism and given a neutral universal identity, as claimed by the San Diego yoga teachers, or even relinked to another religion, as is claimed by the adepts of “Christian Yoga”.

A system of physical fitness, if it is only that, can certainly be integrated in modern Western or purportedly global culture. The Shetashvatara Upanishad already says, and the later Hatha Yoga classics more colourfully assert, that the Yoga practitioner develops a healthy and lustrous body. They even lure the readers into practice by intimating that one becomes irresistible to the opposite sex – the very reason why most modern Americans take up Yoga. Like the aeroplane or the light-bulb, a system of physical fitness can be exported and inculturated, divested of its original couleur locale.

However, it is worth emphasizing that yoga, and even particularly hatha yoga, does have Hindu roots, because this seemingly trivial knowledge is now being challenged. A few academics have claimed that Chinese “internal alchemy” (neidan) travelled overseas to coastal India and influenced Indian Siddha yoga and Siddha medicine. A few techniques of hatha yoga do seem similar to Daoist exercises from China. The influence has been posited but by no means proven. I am willing to consider it probable, but even then it was only an influence on a few exercises in a long-existing native tradition. It is nobody’s case that the Rg-Vedic reference to “muni-s”, wandering ascetics with ashes over their naked bodies (still recognizable as the Naga Sadhu-s), or the Upanishadic glorification of the breath as the key to consciousness and self-mastery, or Patañjali’s description of a whole yoga system, is due to foreign influence.

Very recently, the American media have gone gaga over a theory claiming that hatha yoga is very recent and is essentially a gift of the British colonizers. This can of course not be said for the breathing exercises so typical of hatha yoga, but many of the postures are said to be standard exercises of British soldiers, or to be part of Western systems of gymnastics. Even in this limited form, the claim is ridiculous. The essence of hatha-yogic postures is relaxation and allowing a steadily-held pose to take its effect over time. By contrast, Western gymnastics pride themselves on being “dynamic”, on emphasizing movement and muscle strength. Further, a very physical circumstance comes in the way: yogic exercises are mostly done on the floor. In cold England, the floor is avoided, witness the generalized use of chairs and of the “English” water closet. Any influence would have to be confined to the standing exercises. At any rate, if at all there was Western influence, it can never have been more than an influence touching the skin of an already old native tradition. 

But even hatha yoga sees its physical and breathing exercises only as a means to a higher end: liberation. A fortiori, the ancient yoga synthesized by Patañjali was totally geared towards liberation, howsoever defined. The definition of the Buddha’s nirvana (“blowing out”, as of a burning candle) is to get off from the wheel of reincarnations by stopping its motor, viz. desire. Patañjali’s definition is less metaphysical: quieting the mind so that it consciously rests in itself and is not absorbed by its usual objects. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in reincarnation or an afterlife or nothing at all: it suffices to let the Self rest in itself, right now. Whatever liberation may be, it is definitely different from, and incompatible with Christian salvation.

But this is a goal not pursued in most American yoga studios. They aim to make singers better singers, caregivers better caregivers, workers better workers. This has been done before: after the Buddhists had familiarized the Chinese with meditation, some Confucians still rejected the Buddhist philosophy of renunciation and liberation but embraced the practice of meditation, just to "tune their instrument", to function better in society. You can do this, but it is not the fullness of yoga. Also, all the Western therapeutic adaptations of yoga, as a treatment of physical or mental ailments, are designed to make a defective human being normal; while the original yoga was meant to make normal people liberated. So, by commodifying yoga, Americans are importing something from India, but not the whole package.

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Leonhard Euler


Ghent University organizes all these interesting events. Just now, I have returned from a conference on Leonhard Euler, the 18th-century mathematician and physicist. Enlightenment philosophy and the early history of science are not my field, but I was intrigued by Euler’s combining the scientific outlook with a serious commitment to the Christian religion. He polemicized a lot with the encyclopédistes and other deists and atheists in defence of his old-time religion.

My suspicion, fostered by the sight of contemporary polemic between the “new atheists” and the diehard Christians, is that the exact sciences don’t foster critical thinking about human topics such as religion. The humanities, starting with philological criticism of the Bible, then psychology (Sigmund Freud: Religion, the Future of an Illusion) and sociology, reduce religion to a human artifact. They really deconstruct actually practiced religion. By contrast, till today, the faculties of science comprise numerous professors who have compartmentalized their thinking: critical when doing science, naïve when doing religion. All the time, you see Evangelical polemicists bring up the names of scientists who were also, after hours, believing Christians. Thus, Isaac Newton was a great aficionado of Biblical chronology, predicting the time of the Second Coming (he reassured his contemporaries that they would not live to see it; if anything, it was only for the 21st century). Among contemporary scientists, we hear of neo-Darwinian atheists like Richard Dawkins, but many more of his colleagues line up on the side of his Christian opponents.

In his time, Leonhard Euler defended religion against a rising tide of skepticism and was derided by icons of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Frederick the Great. These incidents in his admittedly weird biography gave me the impression that, in spite of his sophistication in science, he was very rustic in matters of religion. At the same time, his Briefe an eine deutsche Prinzessin (“Letters to a German Princess”) show that he was also an anti-fundamentalist: the only way to do science after Copernicus was to interpret the Biblical passages about nature symbolically, e.g. about the sun moving and the earth standing still. No special pleading to save the letter of the Bible from the challenge of science. His Protestant outlook on the Bible also made him less respectful of the elements of Greek philosophy that had entered Catholic theology. Thus, a rare case of that overrated influence of theology on physics is how he could criticize the notion of “emanation” (stemming from Neoplatonic philosophy, which greatly influenced Christian thought) when encountering it as a proposed explanation of the phenomenon of light.

Euler set the precedent of how modern believers could reconcile their religion with the findings of science. Till today, Christian apologetic works keep on reproducing his approach: sacrifice the elements from the Bible that cannot be saved, but stand fully by the core of the Christian religion and declare it off limits to science.  Some Christians go all the way and try to defend a literal reading of the Bible (with the world created in six days), but they don’t follow Euler’s approach. He, at any rate, did not see science as a real challenge to the truth of the Bible, moderately interpreted.

It had seemed to me, until this conference, that Euler was a prototype of the believing scientist. However, the debates he waged against the ideas he encountered were far better informed than the naïve religious discourse you hear from the token Christian scientists today. Whereas nowadays you can build an academic career as a scientist without ever having to deal with the great questions of metaphysics and religion, back then it was the done thing for fledgling science to address these fundamental questions. The basic concepts of science still had a theological component. Thus, Newton brought God into His creation by understanding space as an emanation of God.

It is said that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, ca. 1700 (or Johann Wolfgang Goethe, ca. 1800), was “the last man who knew everything”, i.e. who had a command of the state of the art in all sciences of his day. Today, this has become impossible. In this age of specialization, it is even frowned upon if you speak out on a matter outside your competence. That is another reason for the naïveté of today’s scientists: a physicist is not supposed to “meddle” in a metaphysical debate. Back then, it was still possible to be at the forefront of natural science and be competent on the ultimate questions of being as well.

There is also a simple fact that helps explain the religious naïveté of most contemporary scientists as well as the sophistication of the scientists in Euler’s day. Now, scientists are immediately thrown into a bath of nothing but science, in which they can develop and show their proficiency. They have to master Euler’s theorems but also the findings of Albert Einstein, of the quantum physicists and so much else that has been developed since. By contrast, in Euler’s day, science was far more limited and left more leisure for other pursuits. Moreover, students of science first had to study philosophy, typically for two years, often after they had had a religious upbringing far more thorough than anything we are used to now. So, they were far more aware of the extra dimensions of their scientific discoveries.

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Stalked by a "John Hopkins"

(Browsing through my extant articles in the computer, I ran into an unpublished testimony I jotted down in early May 2006. The Ayub Khan referred to as criticizing me has been answered in a chapter of my book The Problem with Secularism, Delhi 2007. I publish it here just for archival reasons.)

In the present case, I didn’t think Ayub Khan’s hostile but predictable and inconsequential attack on me warranted the effort.  However, my hand has been forced by the intervention of a certain “John Hopkins”, also operating through a variety of other false identities.  As per the search engines, none of these have ever been associated with any intellectual project or book publication worth mentioning.  But what I did find is that he has been advertising himself as an “esoteric consultant”, “intuition trainer” and “clairvoyant” in Germany, Austria and Thailand.  I surmise that the contradiction between his money-making status as an occultist and his aspirations to be acknowledged by academics as a serious researcher explains his attempts to cover his tracks by means of pseudonyms. 

The fellow also advertises himself as a trainer of meditation teachers.  Mind you, not just a meditation expert, not just a teacher of meditation, but a teacher to aspiring teachers (i.e. experienced practitioners) of meditation.  That should conjure up the image of an accomplished yogi, dignified, cool, with a radiant peace of mind.  In the reality of our internet discussions, however, he turned out to be just the opposite: immature, chaotic, spiteful, obsessed, hyper-aggressive and simply nasty.  Maybe it really is the same person, but once sober and once on drugs.

In April-July 2005, this character made a series of appearances on the internet discussion list, distinguishing himself by a diarrhoea of insinuations, insults and nonsensical jumps in topical focus, all in unfinished sentences in ungrammatical English, and either unsigned or signed with false names. “John Hopkins” also briefly tried his luck on the academic list, where the august professors gave him the cold shoulder when he tried to derail a discussion of Indo-European origins into a political discussion of the New Right, one of his obsessions. 

His main obsession, however, was Nazism, which may be understandable in a German or Austrian, so in every corner he tried to see Nazism, a topic quite unrelated to Indian civilization.  He was extremely self-centred and held it against people as a serious ground for suspicion if they hadn’t read and approved the latest book that he himself happened to have read.  Because of his impolite and destructive conduct, he was repeatedly barred from further participation on the IndianCivilization list, but came back, twice through a new name and address, once through the address of what is probably a really existing other person, though again I can’t be sure it wasn’t yet another alias.  The latter person unsubscribed himself when the moderator asked him to come clean about his identity. 

His presence soon became a crusade against Hinduism and Hindu self-defence as well as against me personally.  On his labyrinthine website, now defunct, he posted some interesting and decent articles about European or general religious history, but when it came to India or Hinduism, he merely reproduced all the worn-out secularist hate rhetoric.  Typically, he tried to reduce colonial-age Indian religious and political phenomena (Arya Samaj reformism, organized Sanatani traditionalism, Gandhism, Hindu nationalism, etc.) to the impact of Western occult movements and secret societies like Theosophy and Freemasonry, thus combining a still-common Eurocentrism with his personal penchant for the occult. 

In the rare instances of original research, there was reason to suspect cheating.  Thus, in a purported field report from Orissa about Hindu-Christian tensions there, he made an alleged RSS spokesman say that his chief worry was Dalit assertiveness.  This is something which Christians always allege of the RSS, viz. that it’s an upper-caste movement whose animus against Christian missionaries is but a cover for the desire to keep the low castes in bondage; whereas RSS men are trained to ignore caste (when you ask their caste, they say “Hindu”), and whereas no upper-caste chauvinists, RSS or non-RSS, would ever use the intrinsically anti-Hindu neologism Dalit (which, like Adivasi or “aboriginal”, is a falsely native-sounding recent Christian coinage) nor declare himself opposed to the advancement of the lower castes.  So there we have an RSS crown witness speaking totally out of character but perfectly acting the part which the enemies of Hindu society always impute to the RSS; and this with no name or otherwise verifiable reference given.  I think it’s safe to surmise that such a “testimonony” has been made up.

It is common enough even for normal and well-meaning intellectuals to switch to the hate mode when discussing Hindu revivalism.  The reason is simply that people mainly go by the information that has been fed to them.  Life is short and there’s only so much information that you can go and check at the source, and few people care to do so in the case of a seemingly unimportant topic like Hindu politics.  Since the concert of anti-Hindu reporting is rarely interrupted by a corrective voice, you can spend a career parroting anti-Hindu “information” without even realizing that something is amiss.  But if you then do get to hear such a corrective voice, you may feel highly embarrassed for having been fooled all this time by your trusted “secularist” sources.  At that point, you can either revise your position, thus putting yourself in the despised camp of the objective reporters, routinely denounced as “Hindutva apologists”; or you can cling to the more profitable dominant camp and try to stamp out the dissident voices.  It seems that, after having encountered my criticism of the secularist make-believe discourse somewhere, John Hopkins has made his choice and reconfirmed his adherence to the anti-Hindu camp.

In a grotesque application of the “straw man” technique of argument distortion, “John Hopkins” frequently attributed political opinions or associations to me which weren’t mine.  Thus, from the fact that I had attested that Georges Dumézil’s theory of “Indo-European trifunctionality” had gained wide acceptance, against his own uninformed claim that it had been generally rejected, he somehow deduced that I share any and every position ever taken by Dumézil.  When refuted, he simply levelled yet another claim about my supposed viewpoints, then another, and yet another.  Clearly, his crusade by then was not so much against a scholarly theory or political ideology, but against my person.  Let me tell you, it’s no fun being stalked by such a deranged character.

Among his personal attacks on me, he repeatedly included the claim that my “research methodology had been discredited”, with link to the electronic version of Ayub Khan’s review of the book based on my doctoral research.  Poor John clearly wasn’t familiar with the academic procedure which yields the doctor’s title of which he himself seemed so envious.  Mutual criticism is normal between researchers, and a doctoral defence in particular typically contains fierce criticism of the promovendus’s methodology by at least one of the jury members,-- who nonetheless adds his signature to the doctoral diploma.  Outsider Hopkins himself, by contrast, considered criticism as something extremely dramatic.  His own bad conscience seemed to make him panicky at the very sight of criticism, as if it reminded him of the possibility that someone may expose his own frauds. 

In conclusion, let me say that I greatly regret the personal animosity between this multi-masked character and myself.  After all, I too have on occasion been guilty of rhetorical excesses, and the topics that interested John Hopkins are or have been topics of interest to me as well.  In better circumstances, we might have been friends.  The record shows that I have done nothing whatsoever to provoke his ire, and that I have maintained a correct debating style long after his own lapsing into smears and insults.  It was his own fancy to attack me in reaction to my publicly known positions on certain philosophical, historical and political topics.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

A Palestinian idol



Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf is providing his people with a different role model than the holy warrior or suicide bomber. He won the song contest Arab Idol, much to the enthusiasm of his compatriots. The Palestinian struggle is not my struggle, but I acknowledge everyone’s right to advocate his own nation’s interests. It is better to do this with music than with terror.

The Flemish daily De Standaard (24 June 2013) hailed his victory with the title: Idool wordt icoon, i.e. “Idol becomes icon”. This pro-Islamic paper doesn’t seem to realize that it highlights two un-Islamic concepts. An “idol” is a sculpture of a Pagan god, an “icon” is a painting of the Christian saviour. Both are un-Islamic by being associated with other religions as well as by being depictions.

The young singer has already been arrested many times by the Islamic Hamas government. Mohammed was against music, and therefore Moghul emperor Aurangzeb (against whom the former palace artists held a demonstration carrying a coffin of the Muse) and Ayatollah Khomeini did away with it. There is no such thing as "Muslim music", only universal music which many Muslims happen to like, in spite of Islam. Music brings out their common humanity underneath the added layer of Islam.

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Hindu month in California and the lessons from the textbook controversy


Already the younger generation asks what the California textbook affair was. Now that California has been endowed with a Hindu awareness month (in a resolution co-authored by the Hindu American Foundation, Indian Express, 26 June 2013), the first one scheduled for this coming October, Hindus are enthusiastic that they will be able to show off their culture. But past experience shows that Hindus are not good at selling Hinduism, both because they misjudge their audience and because they don’t know their own tradition very well. The California textbook affair was a painful case in point.



The California textbook controversy


During the cold part of 2005-2006, the Hindu community in the USA lived in expectation of a school history textbook reform in which Hinduism would get a fairer deal and no longer be reduced to hateful stereotypes. All it took was to use the opportunities provided by the system, viz. to propose edits that were historically and philosophically impeccable and then focus the attention on the dimension of equal treatment in the textbooks for all religions. After all, Christian, Jewish and Muslim lobbies were having a decisive say in the portrayal of their own belief systems, with the irrational or inhumane points whitewashed or kept out of view. Given the fashion of multiculturalism and cultural relativism, it was in the fitness of things that the judgmental Christian account of Hinduism would now be replaced with something more objective, even with a Hindu self-description. But that was not to be.

Two Hindu organizations, the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation, handed in a list of edits they proposed to be made to the extant Hinduism chapter. Some of these alarmed a handful of anti-Hindu pressure groups and a few like-minded academics, among them Michael Witzel and Stanley Wolpert. They pressured the California Board of Education (CBE) to reject the “Hindu communalist” proposals. Though entering the fray as accusers, they were then invited to sit in judgment upon the controversial edits. This led to Hindu protests, and after everyone had his say, the CBE let Witzel and pro-Hindu emeritus professor Shiva Bajpai work out a compromise. Where they did not agree, viz. on most of the really controversial points, the CBE kept the old version, or in other words, it rejected the Hindu alternative. All the anti-Hindu lobbies cried victory. So did the HEF, pleading that 70% of the proposed edits had been accepted. Yes, but those were only the non-controversial points. Wherever an edit had really been debated, the Hindu proposals had been overruled. Briefly, it was a smashing defeat for the Hindu parents.

The anti-Hindu hate group Friends Of South Asia observed in its comments on the proposed edits, they show a replacement of philosophical with religious views, e.g. substituting “God-realization” where the textbooks had “self-realization”. If there is any victory in there, it is that of a sentimental anti-intellectual Hinduism over the more mature (though more ancient) and more skeptical Vedic philosophies. To the enemy’s glee, the edits, while totally impotent in their pretence at replacing the established anti-Hindu views, were successful in settling some intra-Hindu scores. The most demeaning trends in modern Hinduism joined hands, esp. the Arya Samaj cum ISKCON adoption of quasi-Protestant monotheism, hence several replacements of ‘gods’ with ‘God’ or ‘various manifestations of God’, obviously stemming from an aversion to or embarrassment with the polytheistic term ‘gods’. Apart from being untruthful, such attempts at covering up Vedic polytheism are also downright silly for being hopelessly transparent and unconvincing. Any Christian or Muslim seeing a Diwali display (Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganesha) will recognize Hinduism as polytheistic and idolatrous par excellence, and any denial of it in Hindu-dictated textbooks will only add the extra impression that Hindus are liars.

As the Wikipedia (California Textbook Controversy) points out: “The subcommittee approved some 70 changes but it rejected proposed major revisions from VF and HEF on monotheism, women's rights, the caste system and migration theories.” Wikipedia is not always reliable, but it is a good measure of the dominant opinion. In this case, it also happens to be truthful.


Hindu claims of victory

One of the odd things about the California textbook controversy is that the Hindu side refused to face its defeat. They went to Court to overrule their defeat at the CBE, then still refused to face their defeat at the Court. I made quite a few enemies by simply pointing out the fact of Hindu defeat. I am giving my feedback in order to spare Hindus a repeat of such defeats. But it seems some Hindus prefer more defeats to a critical analysis of where the past defeats came from.

The best proof of the Hindu humiliation is that a group of Hindus went to court to get the CBE decision judicially overruled. They set up a pressure group, California Parents for Equalization of Educational Materials (CAPEEM). In the phase called “discovery”, where both parties have to make available all documents in their possession demanded by the court, mostly at the request of the other party, some facts on the anti-Hindu lobby came out that ought to have been incriminating. A CAPEEM spokesman reported that a lot of evidence of the close cooperation between the court-appointed “experts” and anti-Hindu groups including Evangelical Churches and terrorist groups came to light. But that was not enough for CAPEEM to score a courtroom victory regarding the political issue at stake here, viz. the blatant inequality between the Abrahamic religions and Hinduism, which alone gets to suffer a schoolbook description imposed by its declared enemies. For a standard opinion, we may quote from Wikipedia again: “On February 25, 2009, the California Federal Court dismissed all CAPEEM claims and demands regarding content, and (…) the Court left the schoolbooks untouched. On June 2, 2009, the Court finally dismissed the case, with prejudice, meaning it cannot be raised again. (..) With this ruling the case was closed, nearly 5 years after the fact.”

The painful fact remains that all the suspense and the huge expenses incurred for the court proceedings could have been avoided, not by swallowing defeat but by achieving victory and justice to Hinduism in an earlier stage of the proceedings, free of cost. Namely, the edits proposed could have been crafted to such effect that they would have won the day, rather than having been such easy targets, indefensible even during litigation.

                Even after the CAPEEM defeat, many Hindus continued to claim victory. On the Abhinavagupta yahoo list, late March 2009, a US-based Hindu wrote to me: “You considered the outcome of the Hindu protests in the above controversy as a complete failure. But I wish to make the record straight as it is better to give the facts rather than making sweeping statements like you have done. We have been successful in correcting some of the horrendous mistakes. Instead of continuing the AIT as it is, the Witzel group was made to accept that the there are two points of view: the foreign origin of the Aryans and the indigenous origin of the Aryans.”

                Well of course, there is no indication that the Witzel group ever doubted the existence of the indigenist theory. Only, they think it is wrong as well as politically motivated.

He went on: “Though we could not get the AIT / AMT [Aryan Migration Theory, the velvet version of the AIT] deleted, the SBE president Glee Johnson announced that all textbooks will mention the contested nature of the AIT /AMT.”

                During a mass meeting, all Hindu parents could come and utter their complaint. They were appeased with sweet words and promises by the SBE spokespersons, only to see it all disregarded in the SBE's final decision. Note that this gullible Hindu doesn’t quote the actual textbooks, doesn’t prove (or even care to verify) that these promises have materialized. Hindus can be made happy with mere words.

                The American Hindu continued: “Further the Vedas will be mentioned as Sacred texts instead of calling them as poems, in spite of the opposition from the Witzel group. The gods and goddesses will be mentioned as deities. I hope these three points alone will show that the Hindu protest was not in vain like you wanted to project it.”

                Those two points are non-issues. Whereas Hindus apparently can be made to believe that there is a huge difference between ‘gods and goddesses’ and ‘deities’, as big as that between victory and defeat, Witzel c.s. are perfectly aware that these are simply synonyms. If Hindus are silly enough to treat as victory the replacement of a term by its synonym, all the better will they swallow real defeats. As for the Vedas, they are both poems and sacred, in the sense that there are people who revere them. This is a matter of observable status, not of history. Again, no controversy there, so no victory.

                The elevation of the Vedic poems to the status of ‘sacred texts’, while descriptively alright, is not that innocent either in the intra-Hindu quarrels. What is meant here, is that the Vedas are not of human origin but are a kind of Quran written by God Himself. In fact, the Vedic hymns are explicitly in the form of human poets addressing the gods (plural), contrary to the Quran where the imagined Allah is addressing His prophet or, through him, mankind. The Vedic poets' names are given in the Anukramanis and sometimes even mentioned or cross-referred in the hymns themselves. Composing poetry and chanting it was a profession that required payment, so we even have Danastutis in which poets by way of thanks praise their sponsors. Allah never did such a thing. But modern Hindus don't want to stand upright next to the Vedic poets, freethinkers who never crawled before ancient texts but composed their own. They want to crawl, to turn off their own thinking faculty and rely on texts, much like Christian Creationists. The great thing about Hinduism, at its best, is that it does not ultimately idolize a text but reveres a multiplicity of seers, a type of people that can be born anywhere and at any time. Modern Hindus could be seers, but instead they choose to be scripture quoters, or even just scripture worshipers. At any rate, their enemies do not feel defeated by this denial that the Vedas were compositions by poets.

                So I stand by my diagnosis. On all substantive points, the Hindu position was soundly defeated, the Witzel side totally victorious. But by messing up this unique chance at improving the textbooks within the limits of what was possible and at establishing the Hindu community as a trustworthy partner of the education authorities, Hindus have achieved more than just a defeat. They have established for a long time to come the impression that Hindus are untrustworthy, wily schemers with a reactionary and obscurantist agenda.

                The Hindu unwillingness to face facts, not just the complicated fact of the Aryan state of the art but even the very straightforward fact of total defeat, does not bode well. Such denial of reality in an individual would be deemed pathological. Here it affects a great many members of the Hindu community. This fact should be the stuff of some serious soul-searching.


A prediction

                It is not as if they hadn’t been warned of this perfectly predictable outcome. All through this process, I knew and wrote that the Hindu side was sure to be defeated. On the IndianCivilization yahoo list, in early November 2005, immediately after the proposed Hindu edits for the CA textbooks became known, I diagnosed some crucial ones among them as wrong and as not having a chance to pass. The enemy can get away with lies, but the power equation is such that Hindus cannot. The smallest mistake they make will be fully and cruelly exploited by the enemy. The enemy was mobilized, and the Hindu proposals doomed, by a mere handful of less-than-impeccable edits:

1) To pretend that the Aryan invasion theory (AIT) has been discarded, was simply untruthful. The Hindu foundations could simply have stated that the issue of Vedic origins is disputed. More importantly, they could have delinked the origins of Hinduism from any theory regarding any “Aryans”, for, as Shrikant Talageri has convincingly argued, even the AIT itself accepts that a large part of Hinduism is of “indigenous”, non-Aryan’ origin. But they had been misinformed by OIT triumphalists, whose “little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. The Hindu tendency to make false claims of victory was one of the causes of the defeat. Several of the edits were premised on the assumption that “the AIT has been disproven”, that “nobody believes in it anymore”, so that the Out-of-India Theory (OIT) has come out victorious. It is these edits which had drawn the attention of Witzel’s group and set the ball of the controversy rolling. Now, the assumption is simply not true. There are strong arguments against the AIT and in favour of an Indian homeland scenario, alright, but AIT proponents tenaciously swear by certain types of evidence (horses, chariots) which the Indian homeland theorists have not yet convincingly accounted for. In fact, till today, many Indo-European linguists don’t even know about an contemporary Indian homeland theory. In Leipzig, Germany, an Indo-European conference takes place coming December, and from the call for papers it transpires that the organizers only know about the East-European and the Anatolian homeland theory, both of them amounting to an AIT for India. Moreover, in a debate, as distinct from a physical war, a party is only defeated when it concedes defeat. As long as it doesn’t concede, the debate is still on. Now, it is simply a lie to pretend that the AIT has been abandoned by everyone. It is defended pretty vigorously by powerful academics, as the California Hindus were to find out.

                2) To insist on presenting temple worship as “monotheistic” was untruthful, or at least an unwarranted generalization. First of all, with their hazy knowledge and presumptuous notions about other religions, Hindus don’t know that “monotheism” amounts to more than “belief in one God”. The Greek word monos does not mean “one”, it means “alone”. It refers to the “jealous God” who does not tolerate another. If Hinduism believes in such a God, Hindu claimants should have come equipped with scriptural quotes to this effect: “For the greater glory of Shiva, smash the statues of the false god Vishnu!” Failing this, Hindus will have to admit that even their theism is a different type of religion than monotheist Christianity or Islam. The claim that Hinduism believes in only one God, albeit an inclusive rather than a jealous God, is, to put it charitably, an unjustified generalization.  While I have learned in the ensuing discussions that there is such a thing as Vaishnava monotheism, exemplified by ISKCon (Hare Krishna), fact remains that many Hindu temple-goers worship plural gods and experience them as plural rather than as faces of a single “God”. The Vedic seers worshipped many gods, 33 in Yajñavalkya’s count. Some Vedic hymns are addressed to “Mitra and Varuna”, others even to “all the Gods”. If Hinduism is monotheistic, then the Vedic seers were not Hindus.

                3) To resort to weasel expressions like “different but equal” in order to deny the inequality of men and women in Vedic and later Hindu society was silly. And likewise for any hushing up of caste inequality. Instead, it would have been more correct to acknowledge that deliberate inequality was a feature of every single premodern society. Instead of being defensive, Hindus should have aggressively demanded that, as inequality was a feature of the other religions too, the textbooks should explicitly discuss it. At any rate, a certain rewording of the existing text in this sense would have been justified. But anything that even smelled of caste negationism was sure to backfire. Or have NRIs in all their years in the West somehow managed not to learn that caste is the one thing that most Westerners know and hate about Hinduism? Moreover, while Muslims are known as violent, Hindus are likewise stereotyped to be hypocritical, and articles about caste never fail to mention upper-caste hypocrisy, so being caught as whitewashing the Hindu record on caste is fatal. Again, certain corrections were possible, but denying caste inequality was inviting trouble.

                4) To insist on the Hindiwallah form "Buddh" instead of the proper Sanskrit form "Buddha", accepted in English and in most Indian and foreign languages, was boorish, fully living up to the stereotype of the backward Hindi belt. While not important in itself, this spelling betrayed the lack of alertness to the public's standards, and the limited horizon, nay the wilful self-centredness of certain Hindutva circles.


Hindu scholarship

There is also a political background to be taken into account. The charge of “history falsification” sounds very familiar in Hindu contexts because of the much-publicized effort by the BJP government in India to effect glasnost (openness) in the Marxist-crafted schoolbooks. The BJP badly mishandled the textbook reform process in India (2002-2004), a horror show of incompetence. The textbook overhaul under Murli Manohar Joshi ended in embarrassment, ridicule and an ultimate massive strengthening of the Marxist hold on the textbooks. The BJP had set a precedent and associated Hindu advocacy with history falsification in the minds of the public, a mental impression that could easily be spoonfed to ignorant outsiders like the California Board of Education.

At a Hindu history-rewriting conference in Delhi IIC in January 2009, the usual wailing could be heard about the anti-Hindu bias in the textbooks. No mention was made of the fact that the BJP had been in charge for six years and that the textbooks had been changed already, only so miserably that the subsequent Congress-Communist combine had no problem at all in justifying a return to the anti-Hindu textbooks. The conference had no session on: “What did we do wrong?” This time around, I suggest that all those involved in or cheering for the CA textbook edit proposals face their own failure and do some honest soul-searching.

In the 1990s, under Sita Ram Goel's guidance, an alternative Hindu school of history was emerging. Today, most people involved (Harsh Narain, AK Chatterjee, KS Lal, BR Grover, Goel himself) have left this world, and their precious legacy has been mismanaged and squandered. They have not been succeeded by a new generation of historians. MM Joshi and his acolytes in India and the USA have a lot to answer for, but they carry on regardless.

The Hindu defeat in the textbook controversy was nearly inevitable. Hindus have not invested in scholarship, so they can not pick its fruits. Let’s talk a language that successful Hindus will understand: organization, and money. They like to boast of their success in business, how they are the wealthiest immigrant community in the US, how India is becoming a superpower, and all that. But they spend their surplus money on other priorities than scholarship, such as bribing the powerful: whether the gods, by building temples, or the ruling party. They also fund anti-Hindu scholars, feeling flattered that somebody wants to study India at all, and not having the basic discernment to tell friends from enemies. At any rate, the bottom line is that they still haven’t spent any serious money on pro-Hindu scholarship, yet are surprised to find that all scholarship is in enemy hands. They also talk a lot about “organizing”, after the RSS fashion. The RSS mouthpiece is called Organiser, and their philosophy is that Hindus have all along lacked nothing but organization. Well then, organize a contemporaneous scholarly institute to carry out the research needed for your aims. Not one that you dictate to what it should find, but one that is guided by the realities it discovers. Better still, insert scholars sympathetic to the Hindu cause in mainstream institutions, as the enemy does. But if you are not willing to make the effort and put the money on the table (or squander it on wasteful court cases ending in total defeat), then expect to be defeated again and again. I am reminded of SR Goel's observation: “The RSS has a pickpocket mentality, they hope to get things on the cheap.”



Whoever will take charge of the “Hindu awareness month” should remain aware of the experiences with textbook reform. Those who took the initiative to propose the edits were religious people with limited knowledge of the way of the world, esp. of contemporary American sensibilities. They surely meant well, but if they had applied their minds to the question of how the American authorities would react, they could have foreseen the opposition they encountered. Whoever will take similar initiatives in the future will need to impress upon himself and on all his supporters that good intentions are not enough. The hostile power equation imposes serious constraints, which were ignored this time by the naive Hindu religionists. But the situation is not all-suffocating and leaves room for manoeuvre to those who know how to play by the rules.

(Hindu Human Rights, 30 June 2013)

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