Plurality in Hinduism Shouldn’t be Used to Deny its Integrity
First published by Swarajya, February 04, 2015
Prof. Juluri’s earlier work has focused on media and media influences, especially in the Indian context. His two books, “Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television” (Peter Lang, 2003/Orient Longman, 2005), and “Bollywood Nation: India through its Cinema” (Penguin India, 2013), establish his reputation and standing as a media scholar. However, Prof. Juluri is also a raconteur of tales, and his novel, “The Mythologist: A Novel” (Penguin India, 2010) has been well-received in India and the US. His commentaries and op-ed articles have appeared regularly in the Huffington Post, Times of India, Open, and other newspapers and magazines, and his latest foray is into India and Hinduism studies, and his book “Rearming Hinduism” (Westland Press), already published as an e-book, will be out in print in early February 2015 (visit www.rearminghinduism.com for more information).
In this book — a passionate, inspired, and even lyrical account of the nature of Hindu beliefs, practices, and faith – Prof. Juluri focuses his ire and his disapprobation on Western academics and media for a calculated campaign of calumny against Hinduism and Hindus. He does not spare the Indian Left/liberal elite for their participation in this demonization and marginalization campaign, and argues that only with a celebration of the timeless values enshrined in Hinduism can the world discover afresh the essence of life and love.
Prof. Juluri is the son of the well-known Telugu actress, Jamuna, who acted in more than 200 films, in four languages, and who also served as a Member of Parliament representing the Rajahmundry Lok Sabha constituency from the Congress Party. Vamsee’s father, J. V. Ramana Rao, a professor of zoology at Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupathi, and later Osmania University, Hyderabad, passed away recently at the age of 86. Vamsee has also written about growing up as the son of a famous film star , and of his other big influence, Sri Sathya Sai Baba His memoir about Baba, “The Guru Within,” will be published by Westland Press later this year.
It seems the immediate trigger for your book was Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. Is that so, and if so, what is it about her book that set you off on this reverie, this response?
The media storm that erupted over the withdrawal of The Hindus: An Alternative History in early 2014 silenced any kind of reasonable and informed discussion of the book. It turned into a grotesquery of what free speech and debate really ought to be about. In a way, the silencing of debate about this book was more harmful than the lawsuit and actual withdrawal of the book in India. At least the latter was seen by the world as an assault on free speech and intellectual freedom, even if it was done within the scope of the law of the land. But the sweeping way in which elite commentators in New York and London, and even New Delhi, rushed to dismiss even measured and informed criticism of the book as Hindu fundamentalism was monumentally ignorant. I suspect that some of the book’s supporters did not even read the book, and blindly bought into its heroic “alternative” subaltern reading premise—something I think was fundamentally questionable.
Your criticism of Doniger is not in the form of a point-by-point rebuttal of the claims she makes in her book but more in terms of the overall tone and approach of hers to Hindu matters. Were you more angered by the mocking tone of hers than the specific historical details which she presents to build her “alternative history”?
My criticism comes from a somewhat different place than that of Hindutva activists, or purists. I understand why they are offended by her mocking tone though. To a large extent, I too don’t find the tone intelligent or mature. But if that were the only issue, then probably one could have tolerated it. The real problem is not that it offends extremist sensitivities, as her supporters have made it out to be, but that it perpetuates a much bigger and more serious tendency in academia and media, the total denial of Hindu thought and self-understanding. Worse, this systemic denial is backed by serious national, class, and racial privilege. An “alternative” viewpoint is one that lacks privilege. In the global context, the self-styled “alternative” is actually the dominant viewpoint. It denies Hinduism its validity (it says Hinduism was a 19th century invention, Yoga isn’t Hindu and such, but also insists every social injustice in South Asia is rooted in Hindu notions of caste for millennia), and it denies devout, educated, and reasonable Hindus a stand in the debate, let alone even a letter of disagreement in the papers (check out Stephen Prothero’s piece in USA Today for example, where he portrays Doniger as a latter-day Sojourner Truth, and the voice of liberal Hindus). What we have today is a bizarre travesty of the goals of secular progressive activism and scholarship. A totally dated racist, orientalist and colonial fantasy that would have been named and condemned in any other context gets celebrated instead because it seemingly represents liberal thought against religious fundamentalism.
You are upfront in your assertion that there is something rotten in academia and in the media in the way Hindus and Hinduism are portrayed, and that the challenge to Hinduism comes not from armies and governments but from academics and journalists. You call this Hinduphobia, and some may take umbrage at that. What fuels and sustains this Hinduphobia, and could you give us a couple of examples to support your claim?
Slumdog Millionaire changing the name of its protagonist from a religious everyman to a victim of Hindu oppressors; the Economist describing the sacred Amarnath Lingam as “a penis shaped lump of ice”; The New York Times blaming Hinduism for sanitation problems in India. These examples are just the surface. Think of how the media and experts responded to the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, blaming India and Hindus for Kashmir and Ayodhya rather than admitting there was a serious problem elsewhere.
What you term “Hinduphobia” is not something new, is it? We saw the rise of a shrill campaign against Hindus and Hinduism in conflation with Hindutva, by many of the Indian Left/liberal academics and their Western collaborators who have made it a career venting their ire on Hindus and Hinduism, didn’t we?
One of the biggest consequences of centuries of misrepresentation is the fact that we lose the ability to even recognize it. For lack of a better word, I use the term “Hinduphobia”. I know it seems to offend a bunch of otherwise socially sensitive commentators, perhaps because many of them are drawn from very privileged social and economic strata, true transnational elites whose passports and credentials place them above the struggles most average middle class Hindus and Indians face in a global world, including the disdain and biases they face in school and work because of the nasty stereotypes that exist about them. They argue that there is no Hinduphobia, maybe on the strength of the narcissistic certainty that they never faced it. But the fact remains that objectively speaking there is a systematic distortion and misrepresentation of Hinduism and Hindus in the media that has never been challenged by activists or academia in the way they have challenged misrepresentation of other groups.
You write that Hinduphobia comes at Hindus in America from both the Left and the Right. How do the Left/liberals end up as bedfellows with Right/conservatives in their critique of Hindus and Hinduism?
This is one of the strangest follies of our intellectual climate. There is perhaps no other issue on which you find Left and Right making common cause than in denigrating Hinduism. The Right might be hostile say to Islam and Hinduism. But the Left often comes to the defense of other immigrant and minority communities when they are attacked by the Right. Islamophobia, for example, is a recognized concern for the US Left. However, when it comes to Hinduism, we find the Left strangely silent, even denying that there is such a thing as Hinduphobia, or a bias against Hindus.
It is interesting that while American universities have faculty and graduate students who write passionately in support of Islam and Muslims, and that mainstream American media have their Fareed Zakarias and Aasif Mandvis to showcase benign Islam, there seem to be none who are called to speak for Hindus and Hinduism. How come?
I talk about some of this in a chapter called The Academic Mayasabha. The problem is that a lot of the academic discourse today has got caught up in a calculus of identity-based posturing. Some identities are expected to confer authority to scholars automatically, while others have been deemed suspect. You are right in noting that this has led to a near complete exclusion of Hindu voices in the media. It will change only when the community starts taking an interest in fields beyond engineering and business, and takes the world of culture and politics seriously as well.
These critics claim that they have nothing against Hinduism but are against political Hinduism or Hindutva. Do you buy their argument?
I wrote about this in some length in my review essay Hinduism and its Culture Wars: How Secularism Lost its Way to Hinduphobia (now available as an e-single from Westland Books). The secular argument against Hindutva, at least as it exists in the form that has gained global visibility through the writings of Doniger, Mishra, Nussbaum, Sen and others, suffers from a lack of understanding and respect for Hinduism. I don’t think many of us would have disagreed with them had their critique been precisely against the excesses and follies of Hindutva (and with things like flying chariot fantasies they are not hard to find or critique). But what they have done instead is to propose and present a normative fantasy about what a secular-liberal is supposed to be like (you will notice I didn’t say “secular-liberal Hindu” because the word itself seems anathema to them). Their response to Islamic extremism is to say let’s not make it hard for Islamic liberals by being too harsh on terrorism. Their response to Hindu extremism such as it is, is not to offer the same courtesy to Hindu liberals but to savage Hinduism altogether, as we saw with Doniger. This is all part of the same flawed “alternative” premise which presumes that Hindus are elites and oppressors and is at the core of much of their preposterous posturing—after all, who would describe the Vedic-age Hindus as forerunners of Nazism and their “invasion” of ancient India as being not unlike the conquest of the Americas by colonial Europeans? There was no holocaust or genocide in India done by ancient Hindus, as far as we know. And yet, this is the kind of comparison Doniger makes. Such is their resistance to respecting mainstream, rational Hindu self-perception, let alone Hindutva.
In a recent interview with India Abroad (January 9, 2015), Prof. Vinay Lal says that there is a lot of support for Hindutva among Indian-Americans, and he labels these Indian-Americans “Vanguards of Post Industrial Vedic Civilizations” stereotyping them as well-to-do simpletons who think they can influence politics and culture in India. Lal also says that many Hindus in the US are more Hindu than Hindus in India, and to support that claim he points out to the many pujas listed in the temple bulletins and on temple websites, and performed in the temples. Would you not say that these identity issues are the same for any ethnic, religious or national group – Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Bangladeshis or Italians, to pick a small set of them? And finally, Prof. Lal says that Hindus in the US are arrogant about their religion, that they think theirs is a tolerant religion, and that their religion is superior to other religions. Is that so, and what do you have to say in response to such an assertion?
These assertions seem to be skewed and decontextualized, as you point out in your questions. Many of the identity-claims that Hindus in North America make are no different from the claims made by other immigrant groups. Yet, the secular criticism asserts that to even speak as a Hindu-American is a mere front for some fascistic Hindu nationalist fantasy back home. The Hindu-American community includes not just a few prosperous first-generation doctors and engineers but the children of less privileged immigrants from India and the whole global diaspora as well. There are Hindus in America who are the descendants of families taken as indentured laborers to island plantations. There are Hindus in America who have faced very similar racism and marginalization as other minority communities in school. To paint them all out to be oppressive elites is inaccurate. It is partly true that many Hindus may think of themselves in simplistic civilizational terms and end up appearing arrogant about their religion (though I would prefer a religion being “arrogant” about tolerance over intolerance and violence any day). But what Lal appears to have not noticed is that this whole idea of “my religion (or culture) is better than yours” is not something innate to Hindu thought or philosophy; we have not typically gone around labeling non-Hindus as “unbelievers” in the past. So where has this identitarian discourse come from? We need to recognize that there is a lack of intellectual capital in the community that leads to this kind of superficial chauvinism. Liberal scholars should seek to speak to the community and elevate the discourse, rather than condescendingly throw a cut-and-paste simulacrum of critique at them (I’m thinking of Doniger’s pet phrase “Dead Male Brahmins” for example, or Lal’s bizarre dig at the twice stateless Telugu Brahmin community which he alleges is a powerful force). As for the claim that Hindus here are more Hindu than in India, the examples Lal gives are frankly quite inane, if not rather rudely normative. So, is there something wrong if temples in the US offer a lot of puja services? We go to our temples not just to make deals with God but to restore our attention to the divine in the midst and in the forms of our very real, human, and social obligations. We are serving our parents, our children, and our communities when we go to our temples. The “people” are not just revolutionary fantasies we have about them in some far corner of the earth, they are right here too. And the struggling and less privileged among them are coming to the temples for food, for healthcare, and many of the good things that a devout community also does in God’s name. If his criticism is addressed to second-generation Hindu Americans who don’t understand the complexities of Indian pluralism, frankly that kind of misunderstanding has also played out in the perception of some second-generation Hinduphobic secular journalists and academics too!
Tell me about your interest in Hinduism and what early experience growing up in India gave you the wherewithal to pursue that interest and commitment to a “Hindu way of life”?
I am drawn to Hindu thought because it helps me confront injustice and pain in this world, helps me believe that we can leave this world with a little less violence and untruth in it than when we came in. Can one do all these things without religion? Sure. But given the accident, privilege or destiny of my birth in the Hindu culture, I have found these resources in the idioms of Hindu art, thought, customs, and most of all in our popular culture and media. I was born into a fairly traditional and devout South Indian Hindu family. I grew up in a world of gods and festivals (and of course Amar Chitra Kathas) but my view of religion was fairly simple and instrumental. You prayed to God to get stuff, that’s all. I lost interest in much of the customs as a teenager. I was not necessarily skeptical or atheistic, because those things take commitment. I became somewhat indifferent, that was all. I was also quite indifferent to the identity politics that exploded in the 1980s. I honestly did not feel anything strongly about the Ram temple, perhaps because I thought we had a lot of temples already and the past was past. I did, however, recognize that it was not just fanatics but many devout Hindus too who became supporters of the movement. I chose to learn more, much more, before I made a claim on what it all meant. But more importantly though, my parents became devotees of Sri Sathya Sai Baba in the late 1980s. My plans to escape from home and parents coincided, if not collided, with a powerful and new sort of religiosity in our lives. It took many years, but I think I gained a much more respectful understanding of religion and history through the teachings of Baba. Throughout the 1990s, even as I read Marxism passionately in grad school, I also read Hindu philosophy, and could see that it did not have to be one or the other. We had incredibly influential religious figures in India like Baba who had come from poverty, from lower castes, and were able to connect spiritual yearning and social understanding in millions of people around the world. Baba was not just promising a better afterlife or mystical notion of happiness to devotees for praising him. He was inspiring millions of people to volunteer, bring water to the dried villages of Rayalaseema, the homeless in U.S. inner cities, simply serve and love, just as many other spiritual movements have done. And his teachings are far more radical and critical of dominant economic and political structures than cynics would give credit for too.
Was there a particular point/moment in the recent past that forced you to take up cudgels on behalf of Hindus and Hinduism? What was that moment?
I think I was heading towards understanding Hinduism seriously ever since I started reading Gandhi for a class I taught on media and violence, especially in the anxious days after 9/11. However, it was only during the California textbooks controversy in 2006 that I felt it was time to disagree, however respectful I might have felt towards some of them, with the academic community’s rather sweeping dismissal of Hindu concerns as Hindutva campaigns to saffronize history books in America.
You say in your book that a billion or so Hindus still call God by the same names that people did thousands of years ago, and while Hinduism could have been wiped out a long time ago, it was not. What do you mean when you say that “your (Hindu) culture’s existence is a triumph of survival” and that “we came from a world of wisdom we can barely fathom in today’s terms”?
Colonialism wiped out most other worldviews. Ours has still survived. It is amazing that a set of ideas, values, stories and symbols have been coming down for several centuries now, across generations, not unchanging, but somehow using change to restore what is important to our sense of self. It is a stunning accomplishment as far as Hinduism is concerned. Why did so many of us somehow hold on to these things, these poems, images, feelings most of all, even against great odds? In that sense, we are a survivor religion. The important thing is that the way we survived was not through brute force but through a particular kind of intelligence, a way of knowing the world that is beyond mere doctrines. I think the challenge now is that modern educated Hindus are highly self-aware and assertive, but are not yet fully intellectually equipped to flesh out what a modern Hindu global worldview might look like. We are grasping at fantasies at the moment. We get excited, for instance, about things like Vedic aviation. I do not know why it is important to believe we had missiles and planes in the past. Why would we need planes in a pre-modern society when most trade was local, when most people lived with families in the same village or area? We are merely projecting present day biases into our vision of the past. It is a distraction from real intellectual imagination. But I think in a few years we will see Hindu historiography maturing, and we will begin to appreciate the real wisdom that lies in our philosophy and heritage.
You say that the basic premise of your book is that Hinduism is “about intelligence, more than anything else”. How is Hinduism different from other religions and faiths, and if your claims about Hinduism are to be taken seriously would it not affirm Lal’s assertion that Hindus think of their religion as superior to other religions?
My book is a celebration of what I think is good, noble, and indeed “eternal” about Hinduism. I use the term “intelligence” to describe it, because I approach Hinduism in the book as simply as a cultural resource for living smartly with others, people and nature. I don’t know enough about other religions to compare them with Hinduism, but I am Hindu enough to respectfully believe that such intelligence is not exclusive to Hinduism. I suppose I think of all religions as essentially cultural resources for ethical and meaningful living. The question is who gets to speak for and speak up for each religion at a time and place in history, the philosophers and the saints, or the ideologues and the assassins?
“When Hindu thought truly informs the social sciences and humanities, it will revolutionize knowledge, humanity, and indeed the future of the world itself”, you say. Can you elaborate?
My book is a beginner’s attempt to look at the world, or more precisely, look at the dominant worldview today, as a Hindu trained in the social sciences, and see what is wrong with it. The problem with Hinduism being misrepresented is not the only problem here. What we have to recognize is that the world, and not just India, is confronted by an incomplete decolonization. For several centuries, European colonialism profoundly reshaped the way we think about ourselves, nature, and life itself. Since the end of colonialism, a bunch of nationalist and transnationalist fantasies have come to the fore. We have a world as Samuel Huntington described, of competing civilizations armed with technology and very modern attitudes towards identity and power. In some places, this is tempered with a respect for modern democratic institutions. In others, it is raw and ruthless fundamentalism. But Hindu civilizational thought, and Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj in my view is the best introduction to it, rejects even this. We need to name what is wrong with the world itself, and not just with its attitude towards Hinduism, though both are interrelated. Today, we have decolonized our views about gender, race, sexuality and so on, but not quite our views about nature, animals, and life in general. That’s what we could do if the next generation of writers, scholars and artists take Hindu thought seriously.
You take issue with the “Aryans from Central Europe” version of history and Hindu beginnings still being proffered as authentic history. You call this an “absurdly false story” of Hindus. What has been the political, social, and cultural fallout from this version of Indian/Hindu history?
The fallout has been ridiculous, and not in the good way the word “ridiculous” is used these days! We have Hinduism experts like Doniger still making Hindus and Nazis comparisons on the basis of that strange old relic. Different groups of people seem to have an entrenched interest in imagining some kind of ancient European lineage for Hinduism and Hindus. We just need to acknowledge that tall claims about origins like this are at best debatable. I do not engage directly with the politics of the Aryan Invasion Theory, but I do raise some questions about biases in how history is narrated more broadly, and how all sorts of assumptions and projections are made in asserting that Hinduism is alien to India thus. The defenders of Aryan Invasion Theory view any questioning of it as Hindu nativism, and I think that’s a disservice. Scholars must accept that we must begin to discuss a better way of presenting these “origin” stories than what colonial Indologists gave to us, especially at the school level. Hinduism has constantly changed, absorbed, influenced, and been polycentric in ways that elude easy categorization like other religions. But that innate plurality in Hinduism shouldn’t be used to deny it its integrity, and its deep connection to places in the Indian subcontinent.
Your book seems inspired by a passion, by some kind of a deep response within you to what you thought were affronts to your way of worship and life. Was this something that you had been mulling over, and how much time did it take you to complete the manuscript?
That is a very perceptive way of putting it. Yes, the book is indeed a response to a sense of affront to a way of worship and life. That sense of affront however is not simply that my identity or my community is being misrepresented, for that would be merely narcissistic. The book is born out of perhaps many years of wondering about the question of why there is so much unnecessary suffering and pain in the world. It is not a metaphysical question at all, but a social, historical and political question. I think that the world as it exists today is profoundly violent, cruel and unjust to life. I think that we barely manage to even recognize this, given our distraction by media, given the modern global culture’s inability to understand life on its terms. I do think though that a better understanding of Hindu thought will help us confront these questions, and that is why I wrote this book. It is not a conventional academic book, and while it reflects years of reading in Hinduism, Gandhian thought, nature and animal studies, it is in the end a short, direct expression of pain, anger and hope, all written in a matter of a few weeks last April. As the epigraph from the Sri Rudra Prashna Laghunyasa says, it is about righteous anger, anger born not out of self-concern but out of outrage against whatever is wrong in the world.
You take issue with philologists’ interpretation of the term “yagna” or sacrifice. You say that these academics have made killing the prime meaning of the term “yagna”, especially Doniger who you say declares her intent to “confront violence in the Vedas”. She is a Sanskritist (though other Sanskritists have taken issue with her command over the language), whereas you are not. What would you tell your critics about violence in the Vedas that they don’t know or have not cared to acknowledge? You also say that violence is prime and center in Western thought and myth, and that is the reason why Western academics seek to see analogies in Indian/Hindu thought and myth. Can you throw some more light on this claim of yours?
I think that the biggest myth that still remains entrenched as much in academia as popular culture and everyday commonsense is that of nature and violence. I examine these in the book in the light of some of Doniger’s claims about Vedic violence. I am not a Sanskritist and cannot argue over what certain words mean or meant. But as someone who critiques the way stories are told in the world for a living, I can see how a lot of Hinduphobic historiography suffers from certain normative assumptions about violence and human nature. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the popular Hindu response to Hinduphobic history too suffers from a lack of self-reflexivity about violence and nature. I argue in the book that we need to learn to recognize that what we have been taught in our schools and popular culture about nature, human nature, pre-history and early civilizations all need to be reexamined carefully on this count
“There is no denial of the consequence of violence in our stories. There is no pornography around pain in our stories”, you say. What do you mean?
I make this point in reference to the vague and inexact way in which recent critiques of violence and terror in the name of other religions have been transposed onto the Hindu context by poorly informed critics (“But Ram carries weapons!”) I agree that there has been a general decline in the aesthetics of popular Hindu representation with the proliferation of digital technologies (Rama, and even Sri Raghavendra are more muscular for example). However, in spite of how much our TV and comic book stories obsess about bows and arrows and fights, our stories are rooted in a foundational concern about the enormity of violence. Our narratives do not portray our gods killing whimsically or unjustly. Some of our popular media forms may play it up, but in general, our aesthetic traditions don’t.
Doniger, you say, describes “the violence that followed India’s partition as similar to the Vedic culture of revering violence”. How does one rebut such a provocative/vulgar generalization?
This statement is on par with The New York Times piece blaming the Manu Smriti for where Hindus go to defecate. I think that there is such a vested interest in Hinduphobic discourse in equating the place of violence in Hinduism with that of other religions that all respect to facticity and balance are forgotten. I do not suggest that Hindus are literally non-violent. Hindus, like Muslims, Christians, Stalinists, others, are not above committing acts of violence, deplorably so. And religious identity politics sometimes do play a role in them. But to somehow pretend that Hindu thought is rooted in prescriptions for violence and mutilation seems a very far-fetched claim to make.
By challenging the Western/modern analyses of Hindu thought and myth, are you not aligning yourself with Hindu “fundamentalists”?
It would be an outrageous cop-out to dismiss a reasonable intellectual challenge in that manner! I am not aligned remotely with any kind of fundamentalism for the simple reason that I do not believe there is such a thing as one authentic, originary or literal scriptural injunction that Hindus have to follow. I have several versions of the Bhagavad Gita simply because I enjoy the flavor of the same noble ideas being expressed in different ways. But I think I do share with devout Hindus a sense that whatever the plurality of forms we may use to describe the divine, affection and reverence are important. I do differ from the modern academic insistence on bestowing an equal and relativistic status to all forms of mythological expression. Insisting that a version of the Ramayana where Rama is mocked or villainized, for example, be taken as seriously as a version where readers feel love for Rama, is itself a kind of academic literalism, if not fundamentalism.
You say that Hindus believe God is one, but do not insist that there is only one God. What is the difference in meaning and consequence?
Saying God is one is an elegant way of recognizing that the divine can be known by many names and paths. Saying there is only one god can also mean the same thing, but more often than not is used to imply that “my god” and “your god” are somehow different. The former makes it possible for different groups of people to live together in peace. The latter has often led to unending disasters.
You say that academics are “hell-bent” on proving that our god stories are fiction, and in response some of us have claimed that our gods too are historical. But you say the stories are neither fiction nor history but are altogether something else. What?
I think we have seen some really puerile misrepresentations of our god stories by well-meaning critics from the Left and the Right. The Left insists that they are all myths, and presumes that we ought to be thinking about Rama and Krishna the same way we think about Hercules or Batman. The Right tries to clumsily defend Hindu sentiments by insisting that we speak about Rama and Krishna the same way we speak about say Ashoka or Shivaji, and then leaping ahead to insist that every bit of what we have seen or heard is literally true, notwithstanding whether these magic boxes, airplanes and arrows were imagined by Doordarshan in the 1980s or someone else over the centuries. There is, I think a better way, but we do not quite have the intellectual capital yet to assert a suitable language about it (read Chaturvedi Badrinath’s study of The Mahabharatha for a great insight into this). To begin with, we might simply recognize that our god stories are essentially a civilizational investment of great exquisiteness in ensuring we think rightly about ourselves and the world. They are only as good as the artists and writers who breathe them into form. But whether the gods that live at the center of these stories are mere “fictions,” it would be too presumptuous of us to answer.
You say that “even the terms on which we argue about history need to change”. How so?
When I was in school, I used to think of history as a set of dates and names that happened in the past. But now I see it, perhaps in a Hindu social scientific way, as something more karmic, immediate, consequential. I see history as a living thing, as all the forces and events that have brought each of us to exist in this moment in time, in this place, in this particular experience of pleasures and pains. Think of why all of us are here, say in America. We might think we made choices, as individuals. But we were also part of a great displacement, the aftermath of colonialism. Some of us came in desperation, some us less so. But we are all but ants before the hurricane of time. It is an enormously disparate situation, our minds and our place in the world. We need to think, speak, and act urgently, and we need to know what to say to the future, to our children and grandchildren. Can we tell them where we came from, and where we are going? We are trying, for sure. But at best, we tell them we come from an ancient civilization that was very advanced and had flying chariots. But that is not enough. We can’t simply go on thinking history is just kings and wars and gadgets and stuff, though that’s about all we are taught. We need to also start thinking about the history of worldviews.
How did our ancestors see the world? What did they feel when they chanted the mantras we still chant? How did they balance their duties between their own elders and towards their children? What did water and food mean to them? How did they see the living world, the world of ants, birds, plants, monkeys, snakes, and elephants? One of the biggest challenges with Hindu historiography today is the fact that neither the Left nor the Right have woken up to the limits of their own perceptions of history. What I try to do in Rearming Hinduism (and there’s an animal god on the cover for that reason) is get us to think more about how the past few centuries of colonization (and Macaulayization) have warped not just our identity, but the way we look at nature itself. When Hindu history is decolonized, we will also begin to decolonize natural history, the way we narrate the story of life itself (see my article in the Huffington Post on Big History).
You are both a social scientist and a novelist/writer. So, you have a way with words but you also bring the rigor and attention necessary to unpack academic theses. How difficult was it to balance the two in the writing of “Rearming Hinduism”?
The writing came first, borne out of a sense of pain and urgency. I care about how I write because I see writing as an aesthetic, if not always sacred, experience. Words are seldom a mere tool for me, I feel a presence in them the same way I feel when I see, say a picture of Shiva, or a word from a Sanskrit hymn. But having said that the book also reflected several years of reading on a range of topics, and I have shared many of these sources in the endnotes so the academically inclined can enjoy reading them too.
There is some wonderfully lyrical prose, writing that makes “one’s hair stand on end”, to use a typical Hindu expression, in your book. It is as if you were on some kind of spiritual trip, a psychedelic journey as you wrote this book. What and where did you seek and get the inspiration for such writing? I give an example here, though there are very many in your book: “”Sons and daughters. Mothers and Fathers. Brothers. Cousins. Friends. Between them, sometimes, also burns all the folly of hate in the universe. Eviscerating Hate. Body-eating hate. Hiranyakasipu hate. Kamsa hate. Kaurava hate. Kingdom-scorching hate…” Also, “For us, God is always someone’s someone. Rama is not just Rama; but Hanuman’s master, Sita’s husband, Ayodhya’s king, and most of all, that moment where it all started, Dasaratha’s, and even Kaikeyi’s son…” And about Krishna: “And he stands, in life, disguised as rock. He lives, in Udupi. He lives, in Pandharapur. He lives, in Tirumala. He doles out food. He doles out music. He doles out wealth. He is a giver. He is our god”.
These excerpts from Part II are perhaps the heart of the book. I wrote it to share how I feel about our gods, about our culture. I don’t fall in worship at the feet of our gods because I think our culture is superior. I do so because I cannot think of any other way to be. I cannot think of how else to find something like love again because in this world and in this life we do see from time to time and from close quarters what it is like to be loveless. It’s the poetic, less “scholarly” part of the book. But I hope it will prove educational too.
“What if sanatana dharma really was the primeval and universal way of knowing the world?”, you ask. What if?
Unanswerable, for me at least. I have to wonder now what it will come to mean in the words and hearts of those still to come.
What do you tell readers who expected a support for or explication of “Hindutva” but instead found little or no mention of Hindutva?
I do not offer an explicit engagement with Hindutva because my love is for Hinduism more broadly, rather than with the issue of nationalism. At the same time, I acknowledge that Hindutva has become an important part of Hindu life and aspiration today. I do not offer an endorsement of it because I know where it’s been. I do not offer a condemnation of it because we cannot preclude the possibility, or hope, that it will outgrow the less intelligent and uncivil aspects of its past. In either case my sense is that the present moment of civilizational awakening and renewal among Hindus is way bigger than what the usual debates about secularism and Hindutva have framed it as. The challenge is whether the Hindutva movement which has clearly gained from this civilizational energy will rise above the more petty aspects of identity politics and avoid becoming a pseudo-Hindu mirror of what used to be called pseudo-secularism or prove more worthy of the causes and ideals they wish to represent. Civilization cannot be won any other way.
What did you want to accomplish with this book? What is your goal, your aim in dismantling Hinduphobia?
I just want to suggest that there is a better way to talk about Hinduism and the Indian civilizational vision than what we have been offered so far. We have an intellectual establishment that denies the place of Hindu thought and culture in India’s past, except to say it’s responsible for all social evils in the subcontinent. We have a rising counter-narrative in the Hindutva movement which rightly recognizes the mistakes in this view, but is simply incapable of articulating critique in an educated manner, choosing to offer slogans and clichés instead of hard intellectual work. My hope is that readers will get a feel of what it means to look at the world today in the best spirit of Hinduism, to understand that we must reject not just Hinduphobia in the form of media misrepresentations of us, but that we must reject the violent and exploitative foundations of modernity’s rapacious view of nature altogether.
It is also my hope that Rearming Hinduism will open up a better conversation between Hinduism and the social sciences. Because of the general absence of social and historical training in our school curricula, many of us think of Hindu philosophical ideas like karma only in metaphysical or even superstitious terms. But I think it’s not just metaphysics and afterlife concerns when we talk about things like karma. We can also see the ethical imperative in such concepts rationally. When we live in the kind of cultural and social order that we do today in the world, we are accumulating the karmic debt if you will, of being a part of a way of life today that is profoundly destructive and systematically unjust. Conversely, the social sciences, and especially those of us in critical or progressive intellectual and activist traditions, need to get over Hinduphobic biases and recognize that what Hindu, and Indian spirituality broadly, is saying is profoundly revolutionary: control your senses. Control your senses, and you begin to cut loose from the predatory way of life that rules the world today. Imagine a billion people deeply content within themselves, deeply at peace within and with others, seeing pain and untruth clearly, resisting it. Hinduism can fuel social change in ways none of the progressive icons or ideologues have even dreamed of.