Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Meera Nanda against Hinduism and its friends: (4) The new Hindu Right

Meera Nanda’s main target, the “new Hindu Right”, is introduced as follows: “The new Hindu Right has been honing its radical critique of Islam and Christianity from the perspective of ‘yogic spirituality’ largely through books published by the Delhi-based publishing house Voice of India (VoI), which was founded in 1981 by two ardent Hindu revivalists and anti-Communists, Ram Swarup and his friend, Sita Ram Goel (both now deceased). Voice of India’s goal is to produce ‘bauddhik kshatriyas’ (intellectual warriors), who will defend Hindu society against the triple ‘threat’ of Islam, Westernisation and Marxism. The signature theme of Voice of India thinkers is to attribute these three ‘evils’ to ‘Semitic’ or monotheistic religions that are ‘inherently intolerant’ because they believe in One True God, One Truth and One Book. In recent years, Voice of India has emerged as the hub where ‘Sanatan Dharma movements’ make common cause with Islam-bashers, anti-Christian pagans, New Age seekers, deep-ecologists/eco-feminists and other disaffected right-wingers from Europe and the US.”

To get a confusing side issue out of the way first, we have to admit that many Hindu authors, including even the great Ram Swarup, have indeed used the term “Semitic” as a common denominator for “Christian and Muslim”. In certain theoretical contexts, the term may also include Judaism, but often it does not, especially because in the real world, this religion never posed a problem for the Hindus. Judaism practises ”live and let live”, it doesn’t try to convert Hindus by means of missionary propaganda or forceful imposition, unlike Christianity and Islam. Numerous times have I tried to convince Hindus to drop this usage of “Semitic religions” where they mean “aggressive prophetic monotheism”, but to no avail. (If Meera Nanda thinks I have influence on my Hindu contacts, she is mistaken.) Precisely because they don’t mean any harm with it, they don’t see a need to change it.

My oft-stated reasons for avoiding this usage are briefly these: (1) It creates all the wrong connotations among an English-speaking audience accustomed to the synonymy of “Semitic” with “Jewish”, particularly confusing since most Hindu nationalists are outspokenly pro-Zionist; and (2) it is completely inaccurate. There is nothing intrinsically prophetic-monotheistic about Semitic-speaking people: the first known propagator of monotheism was the non-Semitic Pharaoh Akhenaten, while the first mortal victims of prophetic-monotheistic intolerance were Semitic Israelites, viz. the 3,000 worshippers of the Golden Calf lured into the open by Moses’ brother Aaron and killed on Moses’ orders. The priests of the stellar temples in Babylon and Harran, paragons of Pagan polytheism, were Akkadian- or Aramaic-speaking Semites, while the monotheistic fanatics who started a genocide on the Hindu idolaters in 1947and 1971 were Panjabi and Bengali Indo-Aryans.

Though few in the West would characterize “New Age seekers” and “eco-feminists” as “right-wingers”, the latter term has such a potential for conditioning Meera Nanda’s target audience to hold them in contempt that she has given in to the temptation of misusing it. Some “Islam-bashers” may be right-wing, but others are not, and there is no intrinsic relation between Islam criticism and the Right. Many in the Old Right, especially its anti-Semitic section following the elad given by Heinrich Himmler, tend to have a lot of sympathy for Islam, the martial and natalist religion that keeps people in their proper places. In the Muslim world itself, Islam criticism mostly has left-wing roots, e.g. the late Aziz Nesin in Turkey, or closer to India: Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen.

According to Dr. Nanda: “Evidence of the global reach of the VoI school of Hindutva can be found in the 1,518-page-long manifesto titled 2083: European Declaration of Independence that the Norway killer posted on the internet just hours before he went on his rampage.”

The Voice of India authors deliberately avoid the term “Hindutva”, a clumsy neologism combining the Persian root Hindu with the Sanskrit suffix –tva, and properly designating only the specific Hindu nationalist line embodied in the Hindu Mahasabha (HMS, Hindu Great-Assembly) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Corps). They were never too enamoured of the brainless nationalism of the organizations properly described and self-described as championing Hindutva. Calling them a “school of Hindutva” is part of a widely-used terminological strategy of prejudicing the audience against anyone taking any pro-Hindu position, along with older Procrustean misnomers like “Hindu Right”, “Hindu fundamentalism” and “Hindu fascism”. In many cases it is not even a “strategy” but an instance of intellectual laziness: being on top of the world in an all too comfortable power position, the secularists don’t even take the trouble of using or coining an appropriate terminology specific to the Hindu revivalist phenomenon. At any rate, Voice of India is not a “school of Hindutva”.

The influence of the Voice of India school of thought is, at present, extremely limited. Among Westerners, you can count its readers on your fingers. To my knowledge, only one of its books was ever translated into a European language (Ram Swarup's Hindu View of Christianity and Islam, into French). Some influence is visible in the written output of NRI/PIO groups in London and Houston, i.e. among people who have a foot in both Indian and Western culture, just like Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel themselves had. No major political party or organization has incorporated any specific Voice of India ideas in its manifestoes or policies. Few if any new writers have developed them further.

Only time will tell how far its influence will ever reach, but for now, the attention paid by Meera Nanda to Voice of India is far out of proportion to its impact in the real world. Then again, since she is an intellectual of high calibre (a far worthier opponent than the more famous secularists), her focus on Voice of India should be read as a compliment: though vastly outnumbered by mainstream Hindutva, the quality and potential of its ideas is far superior to the dumb and repetitive nationalism of the Sangh.

[to be continued]

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Hindu-Christian relations: the Kentucky case

In autumn 2011, Kentucky politics was enlivened by an incident over Governor Steve Beshear’s participation in a Hindu ceremony for the Diwali festival and the attack by Senator David Williams, his Republican challenger in the upcoming elections, on the Governor’s descent into “idolatry”. This led to a discussion on the RISA (Religion in South Asia) internet list in early November, with thread header: “Hinduism has become an issue in Kentucky politics”.

Hindu-American response

After drawing attention to the event, a list member sent in an article presenting the Hindu American Foundation’s protest note: “Hindu Americans Shocked By Kentucky State Senate President's Intolerant Remarks”. Suhag Shukla, HAF’s managing director and legal counsel, said: "The words of Sen. Williams are not only an affront to Hindu Americans, but all Americans as he conjures up the lowest sentiments of exclusion and bigotry. He’s shown he’s ignorant and intolerant -- two qualities that we hope Kentuckyians will reject at the polls.” We learned that Williams was trailing Beshear by a nearly 2-1 margin in the polls, that he criticized the Governor for sitting cross-legged with a “dot on his forehead” in a ceremony that he described as “polytheistic”, and that he “disparaged” the “Hindu gods”.

I commented: “As usual, the HAF isn't getting the real import of this salutary incident. Candidate David Williams is reminding us of the essentially unstable and merely provisional nature of ‘interreligious dialogue’. He is only stating the proper Christian position: polytheism, idolatry and all the other heathen stuff that Hindus are guilty of, leads to hell and away from salvation. Christian love requires that Christians refuse all compromise with the devil (the horned antigod with his trident, elsewhere known as Shiva) and tell Hindus on every occasion that only Jesus can save them. Liberals and liberal-talking HAF Hindus may call that ‘hate’ (yes, of false religion leading fellow-men astray) and ‘intolerance’ (yes, of sin masquerading as openness), but it is only unadulterated Christianity. Any respect paid to false religion may cause people not to find the way to salvation, which in the Christian perspective is the most horrible thing you can do to them. As a student for the Catholic priesthood once told me with a little hyperbole: ‘We should not talk with the heretics. We should burn the heretics!’

“To be sure, there are Christians, not just the Kentucky Governor but also Church officials, who play the game of interreligious chumminess. While HAF seems implicitly to applaud such exercises, it ought to realize that the difference with the likes of candidate Williams is mostly only one of manners, or rather, of tactics. Those Christians who mean it, don't represent a Christianity recognizable to its founders, which was a radical religion, but a made-up religion mixing some elements from Christianity with modern liberalism. As for the others: the biggest player of this game, the Catholic Church, has openly stated in successive encyclicals that the diplomatic exercise of interreligious dialogue does not nullify the duty of all Catholics to propagate Christ. In this approach, interreligious dialogue itself is only one front in the missionary offensive. The much-touted dialogue pioneer Bede Griffiths with his ‘Christian ashrams’ and saffron robes explicitly justified his approach as the remedy for the limited inroads that the mission had made into Hindu society.

“I am not at all against interreligious dialogue, but I want to be clear about the inevitable finality of real dialogue. It is to transcend the viewpoints from which the participants start. Either one religion has the exclusive truth (as claimed by the founders and ideologues of at least Christianity and Islam), and then all open-minded participants will eventually leave their own religion and embrace the true one; or all the doctrines that constitute the separate identities fall short of the truth and have to be transcended. Now, in the decades that interreligious dialogue has been a big thing, numerous people have crossed or transcended religious boundaries, but not in the dialogue forums, on the contrary.

"There, all participants merely defend their own religion, at most reformulating their religion to bring it in tune with the fashionable values, pronouncing absolute bunkum with a straight face, e.g.: ‘The Bible is against slavery’, ‘Mohammed was the first feminist’, ‘the Buddha preached a social revolution’, ‘the Veda too is monotheistic at heart’, ‘caste is totally un-Hindu’. If you hold the claims made in this context against the light of the real traditions and their real history, a candid observer can only conclude that, while religion-in-general remains a valid project, each of these specific religions have to shed a lot of harmful baggage that is bound up with their self-declared essence (or is there a Christianity without the Bible, an Islam without Mohammed?). They have to shed what is most distinctive about themselves. The Kentucky officials' participation in a Hindu ceremony is to be welcomed to the extent that they do sincerely outgrow basic Biblical assumptions, the ones which Williams has helpfully restated, such as the evil nature of polytheism and ‘idolatry’.

“At the ‘Religion in Asia after 9/11’ conference in Jamia Millia 2009 (featuring all the usual suspects: the Dalai Lama, Mark Tully,..), Hindu liberation theologian Swami Agnivesh spoke at a session called ‘Is interreligious dialogue the solution?’ and cut out all the crap in his first sentence: ‘No. Interreligious dialogue has not yielded any meaningful results. It is time we tried something else.’”

My opening line disparaging the HAF as simply not understanding the stakes, “as usual”, was based on earlier experiences with the clumsy performance of Hindu-American organizations in debates and struggles such as the one about the California textbooks (which gave a hostile outsider account of Hinduism, contrasting with the insider accounts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and the fairly respectful account of Buddhism) in 2005-2009. However, a few weeks after this exchange on the RISA list, I met the new HAF at the Annual Conference of the American Academy of Religion and its RISA subdivision in San Francisco. No less than five HAF members were present to follow and to report on the sessions pertinent to Hinduism or to the position of the Hindus in American society. To my satisfaction, Hindu Americans are getting their act together at last.

“Believers don’t care a fig”?

Professor L. sent in some helpful polling data about how the majority of American Catholics, Evangelicals and Muslims answered in the affirmative to the claim that "many religions can lead to eternal life". In detail: “Hindus 89%, Buddhists 86%, Jews 82%, Catholics 79%, Orthodox Christians 72%, historically Black churches 59%, Evangelicals 57%, Muslims 56%, Mormons 39%, and Jehovah's Witnesses 16%, = 70% of Americans in all.” For Hindus and Buddhists, this position is only natural, so it is no wonder that they are in the lead.

To these data, I replied: “This mainly proves that people cannot be reduced to their religious denomination, that their opinions aren’t effectively dictated by their church’s official teachings.” Lapses from orthodoxy by the flock have always been a headache for Church leaders. Many baptized Christians have retained or adopted views and attitudes that are properly Pagan, such as the acceptance that other religions may be just as salvific as the one to which they themselves happen to belong.

I had to agree with the professor’s observation that “we all know that many religionists don't really care a fig for what their Pope, synod President, acarya, mullah, etc. says, or may give only lip service while thinking and doing something else.” And I added: “Exactly. But then, while people cannot be reduced to their church’s official teaching, neither can the church’s teaching be reduced to what its contemporary members give as their opinions. Good to hear that 79% Catholics grant salvific power to other religions; but still, Catholicism doesn’t.”

The evils of essentialism

A Professor P. from Maryville TN was sharper in his reply to my position: “I wish to take a stronger stand against Dr. Elst’s remarks than [Prof. L.]’s more measured response just has. Ignoring the fact that the HAF statement that apparently provoked Elst’s reaction neither implicitly or explicitly references interreligious dialogue, I believe his latest post really crosses a line and portrays a religious tradition in a way that has no place in an academic forum like RISA-L. There is nothing scholarly or even minimally informed about his caricature of Christianity. It is pure polemic: utterly ahistorical, essentialized, two-dimensional, and bigoted. I object in the strongest possible way.”

Before reproducing my actual reply, we should first clarify some terminology. My view that Christianity at most tolerates other religions but does not respect them is denounced as “a-historical” and “essentialized”. In academic circles, you can expect to score if you denounce an opponent in these terms. But do they apply?

That Christianity merely tolerates the existence of other religions but does not really grant them legitimacy, is a consistent fact easily verifiable on both ends of the concept “Christianity”: in its doctrinal foundation and in its practice today. Yes, even today, when Christians claim to have freed themselves from medieval cobwebs, we see that in missionary frontline states like India, Christians still denounces Hinduism as a “false religion” or even “devil-worship”. Papal encyclicals keep on reconfirming the Catholic Church’s claim on a monopoly of access to salvation. This is just factual.

But by “a-historical”, the professor probably means something else than “in conflict with the facts of history”. This can be deduced from the juxtaposition with “essentialized”. What he objects to, is that I don’t treat Christianity as merely a set of phenomena conditioned by and evolving through history, but as having an “essence” that remains the same throughout its history and offers resistance to change-inducing influences from historical developments. “Essentialism” is now the central bogey of fashionable postmodern discourse. Not being a follower of fashion, I consciously stick to an essentialist view of the major religions. And so do the legitimate and acknowledged leaders of those religions.

For clear thinking, every concept used should have a clear definition, a criterion that allows us to separate the phenomena covered by the concept from those that fall outside the domain of the concept. That criterion marks its essence.

The attack on essentialism is most visible in the numerous attempts to blur or block the debate on Islam. When people link the facts of Muslim terrorism and of Muslim oppression of non-Muslims with doctrines laid down in the Quran, Hadith collections and the corpora of Islamic jurisprudence, they are told that they are guilty of “essentialism”. Yet, in Muslim circles everyone agrees that Islam does have an essence. While there may be a grey border zone, there is an undisputed core of what constitutes Islam both in Mohammed’s time and today, starting with monotheism and the belief in Mohammed’s final prophethood. I challenge Professor P. or anyone else to find me one self-conscious Muslim who would deny that there exist ideas (say, polytheism) or practices (say, idol-worship) which are intrinsically “un-Islamic”, which fall outside Islam by their essence. What the anti-essentialists do, is to arrogantly overrule the consensus of all doctrinal authorities in Islam from Mohammed till today.

In the case of Christianity, a few more lines will be needed to capture its essence than in the case of Islam, but it still has self-consciously endowed itself with a clear essence, chiefly the Nicene Creed. And this includes exclusivism, the belief that there is no salvation outside Christ. Baptized people who play to the gallery, who affect and perhaps also interiorize liberal attitudes of religious pluralism, objectively place themselves outside Christianity. Christians may have changed, i.e. absorbed modernism and gotten estranged from the defining Christian doctrine, but this doctrine itself has not.

In my opinion, Prof. P.’s overreaction is at least partly the psychological consequence of his sneaking realization that he is standing on very shaky ground. He can only get away with his denial of Christian exclusivism on that particular RISA forum because its dominant agenda is to belittle and criminalize Hinduism and hence to blunt all Hindu (or, in my case, pro-Hindu) criticism of Christianity and Islam.

Reply to Prof. P.

Now follows my RISA reply to Prof. P., dd. 6 November 2011:

“Dear listfolk,

“I’ll have to write a proper paper to explain my position vis-à-vis these various Christian positions, and time is running short now before taking the plane across the pond [i.e. from Belgium to San Francisco, where the AAR annual conference was about to take place]. So, just a few parting shots on this admittedly sensitive topic.

“The gestures of interreligious chumminess, with the Kentucky governor pronouncing a Diwali sermon, are fine for politicians or ordinary laymen. Such gestures don’t bring religions together, but they bring people closer together, and that is good. They may even make people realize that those others whom scripture taught us to see as benighted or unclean or agents/prisoners of the devil, aren’t all that different from ourselves. That exactly is what David Williams sees as a danger, for it blurs the radical Christian distinction between the doomed and the saved. The governor, on the other hand, may not see a conflict between his own Baptism and hobnobbing with idol-worshippers, but the Baptist missionaries in India certainly do.

“Re: ‘There is nothing scholarly or even minimally informed about his caricature of Christianity. It is pure polemic: utterly a-historical, essentialized, (...).’ The religions under discussion are by their own self-understanding ‘ahistorical’ and ‘essentialized’. Religious doctrines do define an ‘essence’ of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc., implying criteria which allow them to discern insiders from outsiders, the faithful from the infidels, the ‘real’ from the ‘nominal’ church members. The postmoderns who ‘problematize’ this straightforward fact are themselves outsiders to the religions and project or impose their own secular categories onto it, i.c. their allergy for ‘essentialism’. Now I personally don’t care for these essences, don’t throw stones at me, I am merely being respectful of the essentialist self-understanding of accredited religious leaders/ideologues.

“Some religious doctrines are also essentially and ostentatiously a-historical. I am aware that in the Catholic Church, the Holy Ghost can inspire the Council or the Pope to introduce non-Biblical novelties, much to the indignation of Protestants, but even the infallible Pope doesn’t treat the old-time religion lightly. Likewise for Muslims. Once in a debate on Islam I proved a point by quoting from the Quran, to which my opponent answered: ‘But the Quran is already an old book, it has little to do with today’s Islam’! But he was a pro-Islamic non-Muslim, for a Muslim would never have dismissed the Quran like that. The whole point of Islam, practically its ‘essence’, is that it takes the Quran as divinely revealed and valid until Judgment Day, exactly as all-important today as it was in Mohammed’s day. I don’t think any accredited Islamic authority will deny or doubt this, because by his colleagues’ reckoning he would place himself outside Islam if he denied the permanent validity and centrality of the Quran. Hindus, whose Vedas according to the texts themselves are merely human products composed by poets situated in time and space (unlike the Quran), spoil it by likewise claiming that their Vedas have been divinely revealed on Creation Day, unchangeable and valid forever.

“As for ‘scholarly’, I readily admit that my understanding of a scholar’s proper job in interreligious dialogue is miles away from that of many nice people here. For scholars it is proper to not just clothe this superficial bonhomie in academic jargon, but to see through it. The commendable desire to be nice to our fellow-men should not stand in the way of the scholar’s duty to be tough on ideas. While Obama was doing a politically sensible thing when he went to Cairo and pleased his Muslim audience by praising their religion, a dialogue between Christian and Muslim scholars should have a different agenda. Thus, instead of hollow jubilation that ‘after all, we both give a special place to Jesus’, they had better say: ‘Alright, we see Jesus as the son of God, saviour from sin, and resurrected after dying on the cross, while you deny each of these core beliefs. On each of these points, either your position is correct or ours is, tertium not datur. The two positions are logically irreconcilable, so let us not waste time anymore by leaving half of us in error, let us see if we can decide from the sources which of them is the right one. We being scholars, it goes without saying that we will abide by the scholarly findings: if the Islamic position proves right, we will accept it and drop our present belief, and if ours proves right, you will convert to our side.’ That would be the old-school approach, simple logic, valid in all sciences worth the name, but so far purposely shunned in interreligious dialogue. What immense service scholars would render to mankind if they could strip religion of all its deadwood like this, instead of further legitimizing the status-quo.

“Hope we can discuss it in San Francisco. As the song goes: ‘I lost my faith in San Francisco...’

“So long,

“KE, non-affiliated Orientalist”

The outcome

The issue was not decided by us scholars on our little debating forum. The discussion petered out as we were getting ready to catch our planes for San Francisco. However, just before leaving, the news from the real world out there provided me an opportunity to add a tongue-in-cheek little coda. The elections were won by the liberal governor Beshear and lost by his sincerely Christian challenger:

“Dear listfolk,

"Remember Kentucky governor Steve Beshear taking some flak over his participation in idolatry from righteous Christian David Williams:
Skipping some later rounds in this debate, we can now comment on its happy ending:

"Like in a heathen ordeal, this victory may be taken to provide divine justice. It proves that the many false gods bestow more favours on their faithful than a lone true God can muster. At least in the case of politicians, those notorious peddlers of falsehood.

"Kind regards,

“KE, non-affiliated Orientalist”

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Meera Nanda against Hinduism and its friends: (3) Breivik, India and National-Socialism

According to Meera Nanda: “India, it turns out, figures quite prominently in this web of hate. So far, the India connection has been limited in media reports to the 100-odd references to India that appear in Breivik’s massive manifesto, including his ringing defence of ‘Sanatan Dharma movements’. The irony of a Muslim craftsman from Banaras embroidering the skull-and-sword badge for his army of ‘Knights Templar’, modelled on the 12th-century Christian crusaders, has also evoked much commentary. But there is a lot more to the India connection than it appears at first glance.”

One of the badges tailor-made in India for Breivik has a dagger cutting through the symbols of Islam, Communism and National-Socialism. Though the laziest pressmen have described Breivik as a “neo-Nazi”, purely out of habit, he actually presents himself as an articulate anti-Nazi. He has taken the trouble of explaining (quite sensibly) that National-Socialism is un-European at heart. Indeed, Europeans and especially Nordic Europeans are traditionally freedom-loving, individualistic and uncomfortable with the purity obsession and racial hyperfocus of the Nazis. In the Germanic pantheon, the different classes of gods, the Aesir, Vanir and Giants, freely intermarried. In real life, the Vikings assimilated into the populations among whom they settled within two generations at most, adopting the local language and religion and intermarrying with the natives.

Breivik has also pointed out that in the larger scheme of things, the Nazis have caused Europe tremendous damage. One of his heroes is Winston Churchill, whom he quotes or mentions dozens of times, because he stood firm against the Nazis as well as warning against Islam. Finally, he keeps his distance from the National-Socialists because ultimately they were losers (he advises nationalists to study winners instead, such as Mao Zedong). Only alcohol-disturbed loonies and police infiltrators join the meagre ranks of the extant neo-Nazi groups, an inspiration a contrario for Breivik to act scrupulously alone and in secrecy.

All the same, few commentators have the discipline to discuss the Breivik case without bringing in their usual cheap shots involving Nazi references. Thus Meera Nanda: “The simple fact is that some of the most revered personalities of the Hindu Right have actively cultivated and nurtured links with the European New Right. We don’t have to go as far back as the Nazi-loving founding fathers of the Sangh Parivar. The Savarkar and Golwalker generation that admired Adolf Hitler for trying to exterminate the ‘Semitic races’ has been replaced by a newer generation of Hindu chauvinists that raves and rants against ‘Semitic monotheistic religions’—Islam, above all. This new Hindu Right has managed to move beyond the old Nazi fixation on racial purity to a new ideology of hate based on cultural and religious purity that is proving to be attractive to ‘crusader nationalists’ such as Breivik and his fellow ‘patriots’ from Europe, North America and Israel.”

We will come to the topic of the contemporary “Hindu Right”, but now let us consider the old “Hindu Right” which Meera Nanda tries to link to National-Socialism. Having written two books on the falsity of the “Hindu fascism” rhetoric (The Saffron Swastika, Delhi 2001, and Return of the Swastika, Delhi 2006), I need not go too deeply into the worn-out Nazi allegations against V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar once more. Suffice it to say that what ignorant Golwalkar applauded when he wrote We: Our Nationhood Defined in 1938 was only the intended territorial separation of Germans and Jews as an application of the homogeneous nation-state principle (itself admittedly conflicting with the Hindu tradition of internal multiculturalism, the fatal contradiction of Hindu nationalism). Golwalkar did not refer to any “trying to exterminate the ‘Semitic races’”, which started only in 1941 and in secrecy. Well before that, in September 1939 immediately after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, Savarkar called on Hindu young men to join the British war effort, a call heeded by hundreds of thousands. Actions speak louder than words, and Savarkar contributed a lot more to the Nazi defeat than the non-cooperators Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

A minimum requirement for a Nazi sympathizer should be hatred of Jews. But in fact, in 1938 in the same publication, Golwalkar holds the Jewish people up as his very first example of resourceful nationalism, an example for Hindus to emulate; just as Savarkar had done in his 1924 manifesto Hindutva. On this, admittedly, they don’t differ much from Breivik, who likewise supports Israel against its Muslim enemies and welcomes it as Europe’s natural ally in West Asia.

Meera Nanda admits that “this new Hindu Right has managed to move beyond the Nazi fixation” — as if it had ever been involved with that. The two thinkers of her “new Hindu Right” whom she is about to attack, Ram Swarup (1920-97) and Sita Ram Goel (1921-2003), took their first non-Hindu inspiration elsewhere: from British liberals like Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Ram Swarup worked for the American war effort in 1944. Both were active leftists in the subsequent years, and Goel nearly joined the Communist Party of India in 1948. As they gained maturity and better knowledge of ideological and geopolitical realities, they turned against Communism; and as their reflection on the roots of the Communist evil deepened, they started rediscovering their own Hindu civilization. But they were never involved with any “Nazi fixation”, on the contrary.

This much is true, that many politically illiterate Hindus admired Hitler because they had heard he was a vegetarian and a “brahmachari” (celibate), because he had adopted a swastika as his party’s and later his country’s emblem, and because he was the enemy of the British colonizers. In reality, Hitler was entirely in favour of the British empire and its hierarchical relation between a Germanic master race and the subservient darker races, and he had advised Lord Halifax to shoot the leaders of the freedom movement. But fact remains that the war against Hitler bankrupted Britain and greatly contributed to the decolonization of India. Having read a great deal of what Hindus have written about World War 2, both during and after the event, I must say I have never encountered anything remotely resembling a call for exterminating the Jews nor applause for the Nazi extermination policy.

This contrasts with the Muslim world, where many then and later supported the idea of solving the “Jewish problem” by the most radical means. Genocide did not horrify them: in 1947 in West Panjab and again in East Bengal in 1971, South-Asian Muslims did effectively attempt to commit genocide on the Hindus. It is therefore logical for people interested in the problems Islam poses, not excluding Anders Breivik, to focus on the Indian experience.

[to be continued]

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Meera Nanda against Hinduism and its friends: (2) Sources of Breivik's terror option

Dr. Nanda casts the net of guilt for the Oslo slaughter as wide as possible: “Even though Anders Breivik alone pulled the trigger, the massacre in Norway was by no means the work of Breivik alone. He is a product of years of immersion in a worldwide web of anti-Islamic ideas espoused by cultural purists and nationalists of all stripes.”

What triggered Breivik?

Actually, if we are to believe the sincerity of his manifesto (and Dr. Nanda, who bases her argument on it, clearly does), Breivik the mass-murderer was the “product” of something more elementary. He testifies that he embarked on his crusading mission against Islam in 1999, well before reading up on any “anti-Islamic ideas”. A number of Islam critics profusely cited by Breivik, such as American scholars Robert Spencer and Andrew Bostom and Dutch politician Geert Wilders, and the websites www.gatesofvienna.org, www.jihadwatch.org and www.brusselsjournal.com, only became active on the Islam front in the years after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Likewise, Bat Ye’or had written important studies on Islamic history earlier, but her crucial thesis on “Eurabia” only appeared in 2005. The late Oriana Fallaci only turned from left-wing writing to Islam criticism years after Breivik had made up his mind. No, according to his own testimony, he conceived a hatred of Islam as a consequence of bitter personal experience rather than of reading.

This experience included a number of physical batterings he and his friends endured from Muslim gangs, as well as the estrangement from a Pakistani school friend who evolved from a well-integrated Norwegian with Paki roots to an Islamic fanatic living in a Paki ghetto and reportedly involved in a gang-rape of a Norwegian girl. And speaking of rape: a wave of Muslim-on-Kafir rapes in Norway (and likewise France and other places), later documented in detail by the Norwegian Arabist Peder Jensen writing under the pen name Fjordman, was apparently the foremost factor of his budding hate. Empathy with rape victims is a logical source of hate, for who would deny rape victims the right to hate their rapists?

That intellectuals and political parties critical of Islam were not the inspiration for his crime, is explained in so many words by Breivik himself. He chides them for being all talk and no action, being more concerned about their own respectability than for the tough measures required. (p.764) But he realizes, knowing the vileness and meanness of most caviar-leftist intellectuals, that the Islam critics will nonetheless all be smeared by association with him. And he welcomes this prospect. He wants them to be discredited, for that way alone will the common people come to see that talking in seminars and parliaments cannot be the solution. From the Islam-criticizing parties he borrows some rhetoric but emphatically rejects the solutions. Taking the example of the Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party), of which he himself had been a member years ago, he expects it to suffer seriously by association with himself and applauds this as a way to make the population shed the illusion of countering Islamization by democratic means and choose the revolutionary path instead. (p.1401)

This violent alternative has nothing to do with anything written by the Islam critics quoted elsewhere in his manifesto. It taps into a different and well-known source of inspiration: the Far Left. From the 19th-century anarchists to the German Rote Armee Fraktion and the Italian Brigate Rosse of the 1970s and the Maoists of today’s India, left-wing terrorists have always believed that their actions would serve as an ignition mechanism for the revolutionary uprising of the masses. Although their terror never led to the revolution intended (and Lenin, who did succeed in making a revolution, firmly denounced their counterproductive “childhood disease of Communism”), at least it didn’t damage the standing of their ideology of class struggle. The same rhetoric used by left-wing terrorists simply continued to be repeated in the respectable media by Marxist commentators. These handled the question of moral responsibility adroitly by passing the buck on to the “root causes”.

The example of Islam itself is even more inspiring for the Breiviks of this world. After 9/11 all politicians and opinion-makers closed ranks around Islam to shield it from criticism. While the perpetrators themselves were absolutely clear about Islam as their motivation, and while they were applauded as brave Islamic martyrs by Muslims the world over, the media claims of Islam being the religion of peace were never louder. Numerous dignitaries including President G.W. Bush paid visits to mosques and Islamic centres to reassure the Muslims that nobody in his right mind would ever think of connecting the attacks with Islam. Whoever drew the logical conclusions from the Islamic motivation invoked by the perpetrators themselves was denounded as a criminal guilty of “racism”, or as a psychiatric case suffering from a new disease called “Islamophobia”. Never did Islam get a better press than after this murder of three thousand innocent people. If anyone convinced Breivik that blind violence pays, if anyone “created the climate” for his jump from a political conviction to an act of terror, it must be those who so crassly rewarded Islam for 9/11.

Incidentally, neither me nor most of the others who have argued the scholarly case against Islam, have ever espoused “cultural purism” or “nationalism”. While everyone is welcome to cite and borrow our arguments, including even cultural purists and nationalists, there is nothing particularly nationalistic or cultural-puristic to stating the historical and doctrinal facts concerning Islam. Nor will those facts change as a consequence of being mentioned by a disturbed personality, now officially diagnosed by Norway’s court psychiatrists as a “paranoid schizophrenic”.

[to be continued]

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Meera Nanda against Hinduism and its friends: (1) Anders Breivik's faith sister

When corpses lie about after a massacre, vultures descend to feast on them. After Anders Behring Breivik’s bomb-attack in downtown Oslo and shoot-out on the nearby island of Utøya, journalists and academics espousing the dominant ideology have indulged their ill-concealed euphoria at this unexpected occasion to smear a school of thought mentioned with partial approval in Breivik’s manifesto, viz. the critics of Islam. Among these exploiters of the massacre, we notice a number of secularists and other anti-Hindu polemicists from India. The most eloquent of these is probably Meera Nanda, fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Institute of Advanced Study, Delhi, who contributed an article to Open Magazine (4 August 2011), titled “Spiritual bedfellows. The Norway massacre and the Indian connection”.

Anders Breivik and Meera Nanda as Crusaders

Dr. Nanda starts with a brief description of the event: “On 22 July, Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian, set off bombs in the heart of Oslo. He then went on a shooting spree on a nearby island where young members of the Labor Party were holding a summer camp. All told, he killed 77 people that day, many in their teens. He targetted Labor Party youth because he saw them as part of a multicultural left-wing cabal that was allowing a Muslim takeover of Norway. In his view, they were ‘category A traitors’ who had to be eliminated to save Europe from Islam.”

The first thing to note in Prof. Meera Nanda’s opinion piece on the Oslo massacre is a tiny but telling detail, viz. her spelling “Labor Party”. In British and also in Indian English, as normally used in Open Magazine, the first word would have been spelled “Labour”. But her orthography betrays the American roots of her ideological orientation. In 2005-2007 she was in the employ of the John Templeton Foundation, an American Christian lobby-group that claims science as compatible with and even a product of Christianity. In that position and ever since, “Nanda has supported Protestantism as being scientific, while describing Hinduism as the exact opposite”, as Rajiv Malhotra points out. [Breaking India, Amaryllis, Delhi 2011, p.262]

It is not clear whether Meera Nanda has actually converted to Christianity or is merely one of those secularists who, after the fall and discrediting of Communism, have found new patronage in the US-centred Christian network. But fact is that she champions the Christian cause in India. And it explains the most remarkable oddity about her article on Anders Breivik’s massacre: she conceals from her Indian readership that the killer explicitly defines himself as a Christian. It was impossible to omit mentioning that he modeled himself on the Crusaders, but since the word “Crusade” has passed into general usage without necessary religious connotation, it needed explicitating that he goes out of his way to describe his own religious position as Christian. Not just a Christian by baptism, like myself, but a conscious Christian who, breaking with his secular family background, sought and received baptism in Norway’s Reformed (= Lutheran) Church at age 15.

As a self-styled warrior, he doesn’t lose much time on elaborate pieties, anymore than his Crusader and Templar role models did, but that doesn’t make him any less Christian. Indeed, he does take some time in his manifesto to discuss theology, e.g. to argue (as did many before him during the Romantic period) that the Protestant Churches ought to seek rapprochement with their Catholic mother Church. The Regular-Masonic Lodge of which he was a member required in its charter all members to be believing Christians. In spite of the attempts by American Christians to deny it (e.g. by Timothy Dalrymple http://www.patheos.com/community/philosophicalfragments/2011/07/25/was-anders-breivik-really-a-christian/ and by John Shore http://johnshore.com/2011/07/26/is-breiviks-blood-on-us/) and even to slanderously mislabel him as a “neopagan” (by Roland Shirk http://www.jihadwatch.org/2011/07/who-benefits-whos-behind-it.html), Breivik was very much a Christian. If you’re looking for his counterparts in India, forget about the usual Hindutva bogeys and look for cross-bearers. Think of Swami Lakshmananda’s Maoist-trained Christian murderers, think of Sonia Gandhi, of John Dayal, of Father Dominic Emmanuel, and perhaps of Meera Nanda herself.

The apparent difference in attitude to Islam between neo-Crusaders in Europe and Christian activists in India stems from different circumstances. In Europe, Islam is emerging as the biggest threat to Christianity, bigger than secularism and even bigger than the persecution by the late Communist regimes. Whereas the soft secularism of European liberals (like that of the Nazis) has left Christians free to practise their religion even after losing their grip on the state; and whereas the hard secularism of the Communists had only offered a negative alternative, a void that Christianity has been able partly to fill up again; Islam offers a positive replacement for Christianity, one that can strike far deeper roots than secularism, one that can consign Christianity to the history books the way it did in North Africa ca. 700 CE or in Turkey more recently.

Short-sighted Christians welcome Islam as an ally against secularism, e.g. after the murder of Islam-critical filmmaker Theo van Gogh (2004) and the Danish Mohammed cartoon crisis (2006), the left-leaning Christian fundamentalist party Christen Unie in the Netherlands tried to use the high tide of Islamic activism against “blasphemy” to reactivate the country’s dormant anti-blasphemy law. But those Christians who can read demographic data and who are in touch with the persecuted fellow-Christians in Muslim countries, are alarmed at the rising presence of Islam in their midst.

In India, by contrast, the threat of lslam to Christianity is not that imminent. Locally, it is felt acutely and is provoking reactions similar to what Breivik dreamed of for Europe. Thus, in Nagaland, the Christian-dominated National Socialist Council of Nagalim has decreed the death penalty for Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants marrying native girls. In Kerala, after the 2001 census showed a decline in Christian (and Hindu) percentage in favour of the fast-growing Muslim community, some bishops have called on their flock to suspend their cooperation with the Government’s birth-control policy and have at least four children per couple. But in the well-to-do places frequented by JNU professors, the malodorous presence of idolatrous Hinduism is a more immediate concern. There, Islam is a welcome ally in a common minorities’ front against Hinduism. As long as both Islam and Christianity have Hindu society to prey upon, the latter acts as a buffer between the two. That is why a Templeton Foundation agent on a mission to demonize Hindu resistance seizes on this opportunity to criminalize criticism of Islam by associating it with Breivik.

[to be continued]

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

History of Hindu India for everyman

Nowadays, multiculturalist state authorities in Western countries encourage the newer and more exotic religious denominations to produce textbooks explaining in simple language their own traditions and doctrines. While formally serving as textbooks for the religion’s own followers and their children, their interest for the authorities lies in the religion’s self-presentation to society at large. This way they know what gestures to make and what gaffes to avoid, and what holidays to acknowledge in the official calendar. An additional benefit is that it streamlines the religions’ self-understanding in a multiculturalism-friendly sense: even religions with a record of intolerance find they cannot get away with a straightforward restatement of their monopolistic claims on truth, and end up teaching pluralism to their children in spite of their inherited dogmas.

This latter consideration is really quite unnecessary in the case of Hinduism, because the Hindus never needed any prodding from outside to take a pluralistic view of religion. Hinduism itself is already a commonwealth of communities, doctrines and practices, so it is thoroughly comfortable with peaceful co-existence in spite of differences. The Dutch, British and American textbooks of Hinduism that we have seen are simply being authentic when they declare unisono that Hinduism has a hoary tradition of heartfelt pluralism. Thus also the latest Hinduism textbook, under review here, The History of Hindu India from Ancient to Modern Times, by the editors of Hinduism Today magazine (Kauai, Hawaii) and Prof. em. Shiva Bajpai. It says: “Hinduism does not dictate one way as the only way. Hindus believe ‘truth is one, paths are many’” (p.6), and: “Hindus accept the spiritual efficacy of other paths and never proselytize” (p.107) So, no chest-thumping let alone the sound of war-drums in this pleasantly shaped Social Studies “textbook for all ages”.

General appreciation

The internal plurality of Hinduism is at once a major challenge for those who cherish an ambition to present the religion to the world in a not-too-bulky textbook. In comparing Dutch and British textbooks published by the Arya Samaj, Vivekananda Centre, Vishva Hindu Parishad, ISKCON and other Hindu groups, we could not help noticing a certain bias in favour of the publishers’ own sectarian assumptions in spite of a serious over-all effort to make the presentation inclusive of all strands of Hinduism.

Thus, the ISKCON textbook speaks of the Devas (normally translated as “gods” or “deities”) as “the demigods”, in keeping with the quasi-monotheistic ISKCON view that only Krishna is God, all while recognizing the other gods as lesser but nonetheless divine beings. The edits proposed by the Vedic Foundation in the California textbook affair included the systematic replacement of “the gods” by “God” or “the manifestations of God”, obviously from an internalized Anglo-modernist bias (borrowed from Christianity) against polytheism. What such organizations should keep in mind during their editing is whether every Hindu can recognize his own religion in the description they give of it. We don’t believe that the Vedic seers thought of Indra as merely a “demi-god”, or that today’s ordinary Hindu devotee thinks of Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati, the three deities he worships on Diwali, as lacking in distinct identities.

The great step forward made in this book is that it is consistent in its attempt to represent Hinduism rather than just one of its sects. While some textbooks try to confine Hinduism to the Vedic tradition, here we read that by 600 BCE, “the social, religious and philosophical ideas and practices central to Hinduism are fully evident. These are in continuity with the religion of the Indus-Sarasvati culture, the teachings of the Vedas, Dravidian culture and elements of the tribal religions.” (p.4) If any bias was to be expected here, given the affiliation of the Hinduism Today editors, it would be to Tamil Shaiva bhakti, embodied in the tradition of the Nayanar poets. These get hardly half a page (p.33), and after having been ignored in so many introductions to Hinduism, it was about time they got their due. (For the same reason, it is commendable that Tiruvalluvar, recently honoured with a giant statue on India’s southern tip, is highlighted, p.77-78.)

The general structure of the book is chronological, from the Vedic poets and Harappan cities down to modern Indian democracy and its state religion, “secularism”. These chapters are interspersed as appropriate with cultural intermezzos on dress, food, the arts, rituals, pilgrimage cycles, etc. As a didactic device, every chapter opens with a challenge about what you would do in a thorny situation in which Hindus have found themselves, and ends with a list of exam-type questions. Where would you go if you lived in a Harappan village and you found the river on your doorstep, the Saraswati, was drying up? If in the present age, you are given the chance to go to college, would you abandon your family of blacksmiths back in the village? If after growing up in the West with a resolve to be independent, you meet the prospective groom your country-born parents have sought out for you, what would you do?

The hard part

And when faced with the back-breaking toleration tax and numerous discriminations imposed by the Delhi Sultans and Aurangzeb, would you convert to Islam? For indeed, this book doesn’t avoid the unpleasant issues of Islamic persecution and “British rule’s mixed blessings” (p.62). We can only commend the spirit in which the authors go about this challenge: “We now enter what historians call a ‘difficult period’ of Indian history. (…) Muslim historians recount in detail the destruction of cities, sacking of temples, slaughter of noncombatants and enslavement of captives. British accounts reveal the mismanagement and greed that led to famines that killed tens of millions of people and ruined the local industry during their rule. (…) It is difficult to study such unpleasant pasts in a way that leads to understanding, not hatred. (…) True reconciliation comes when people honestly face the past, forgive misdeeds, learn to truly respect each other’s religious beliefs and traditions and promise to move forward in peace.” (p.42)

Very briefly, the canard is laid to rest that Hindus lost to Muslims because of the caste system, a claim heard from both anti-Hindu missionaries and Hindu reformists. In fact, many castes participated in warfare together. As any strategist could have told the moralizing caste-mongers, victory was by virtue of “superior military organization, strategy, training, weapons, horses and mobility”, which the natives had neglected. (p.45) Conversely, “the caste system was a main obstacle to conversion. It guaranteed to Hindus a secure identity and place in their community, which they would lose by converting.” (p.49) In their revolt against Muslim rule, Hindus observed a certain morality of warfare: “While Shivaji was not above sacking an enemy’s city if he needed the money, he did not kill noncombatants, take slaves or damage Muslim holy sites.” (p.48)

Far from fostering resentment, these chapters breathe a spirit of positive thinking. As illustrated by the title of chapter 3, “Hinduism endures: 1100 to 1850”, it emphasizes Hinduism’s capacity for survival over its losses. In the time of Muslim and then British domination, “the country remained overwhelmingly Hindu despite foreign domination and religious oppression”. (p.41) Since all is well that ends well, this makes it easier for Hindus to take a cool view of these painful episodes than for, say, the Zoroastrians or the Australian Aboriginals.

If anything, this book errs on the side of being over-diplomatic in describing inter-religious conflict. Consider this: “India’s transition to freedom brought with it a terrible tragedy. Pakistan was partitioned from India on the basis of religion. A huge migration followed as 7.5 m Muslims moved to Pakistan from India and an equal number of Hindus and Sikhs fled Pakistan.” (p.65) The first two sentences keep the active agent of Partition out of view, as if it was impersonal destiny overcoming India, when in fact it was the Muslim League’s violent agitation that forced both the British and Congress into compliance. The last sentence suggests a symmetry between the Muslim and Hindu-Sikh “migrations”. In fact, Hindus and Sikhs were terrorized into fleeing their ancestral homes which they had wanted to stay inside multicultural India, whereas the Muslims simply moved to the promised land they had carved out for themselves (with the seeming exception of East Panjab where the Muslims were put to flight, but only after millions of hapless Hindu-Sikh refugees from their own new state started streaming in with their horror stories).


On the whole, this book respects the findings of modern scholarship, rather than sweepingly committing its allegiance to either the traditionalist or the secularist position. Thus, rather than speaking out prematurely, it acknowledges uncertainty where appropriate: “The relationship between the people of the Indus-Saravati civilization and those who composed the Vedas is not clearly understood.” (p.3) Rather than triumphantly dismissing the Aryan Invasion Theory as a well-refuted colonial conspiracy, it soberly observes: “Many scholars now dispute this theory because all the evidence for it is questionable.” (p.4)

Another nod to prevailing scholarly custom is the periodization implicit in this chapter title: “Hindu India: 300 to 1100 CE” (p.21), for indeed, the Orientalists divided Indian history into a Vedic, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and British period. Concerning the authorship of the Vedas, the existing belief is noted: “Hindus regard them as spoken by God” (p.3), only to return to the realistic assumption of human authorship: “the holy texts had to be composed well before 2000 BCE” (because by that time the mighty Saraswati had shriveled, p.3), and “a few [women] even composed several of the holy Vedic hymns” (p.5).So, clearly the Vedic hymns were the handiwork of human poets.

On the other hand, introducing the epic’s hero Krishna as “the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu” (p.9), without quote marks, detracts from the book’s purpose of teaching “history”. Let alone the secularist deconstruction, even in the epic itself he is a down-to-earth war consultant and womanizer suffering an all too human fate, with most of the Bharata clan killed in the fraternal war in which he guides them, all his own relatives killing each other while drunk, and he himself dying in a silly hunting accident. It is only in later interpolations like the Bhagavad Gita that he gets deified.


In a book review, it is only proper to indulge in some fault-finding, if only by way of useful suggestion to the publishers for well-deserved future editions. So, please bear with the pedantry that follows.

There are extremely few spelling errors in this book, but I found a few on the maps, where Tapti is rendered as “Tapi” (p.112), and Mizoram as “Mizeram” (p.87). The river-name Satlej is given the sloppy British-colonial transcription Sutluj, following the same confusing pattern as Panjab/”Punjab”, Pashtu/”Pushtu”, Pandit/”Pundit”. No big deal, but considering the importance the Vedic seers accorded to correct pronunciation, why not just do our best? And speaking of maps, the map of pilgrimage sites (p.87) should have covered the Islam-occupied parts of the subcontinent along with the Republic of remainder-India, so as to include places like Hinglaj and Nankana Sahib.

The epic’s name Mahâbhârata does not mean “Great India” (p.9). Rather, it means “great [epic of Vedic king] Bharata’s clan”, just as Bhâratanatyam, discussed on p.55, refers not to Bhârat/India but to the dance style conceived or at least described by an ancient choreographer named Bharata.

Likewise, it is admittedly traditional but by scholarly standards not acceptable to analyze the word guru thus: “gu means darkness and ru means remover.” (p.14) Well, guru is cognate with Latin gravis, whence English gravity, and means “heavy”. Anyone is free to fantasize meanings into words, but a textbook should aspire to higher standards.

The history of the caste system is complicated and the authors have wisely chosen to treat it only briefly. Still, they could have done better than this: “Later on, the varnas divided into hundreds of sub-sections called jatis (castes).” (p.4) Varna and jâti are two distinct systems that ended up combining, and if at all one preceded the other, certainly jati came first. Varna is the layeredness of complex societies, characteristic of late-Vedic society when it started expanding from the Saraswati-Yamuna region to the rest of India; jati means “tribe” and was the social formation prevailing in most of India. As these tribes integrated into the wider Hindu society, they retained their identity through endogamy and became castes. In most of India they received or grabbed a place in the varna hierarchy, but that was mainly a ritual label immaterial to their internal self-organization. Varna is late-Vedic, jati is pre-Vedic.

Finally, in our opinion it was not a good idea to include a section on the chakras (p.94-95). Kundalini yoga and the chakra system are medieval innovations, i.e. fairly recent by Indian standards, and have remained very marginal before becoming fads in the 20th century. Of all pre-Independence Hindus, 99% never heard of them. Writing their exact history is a job that largely remains to be done, and an introductory textbook is not the place to do it.

That said, among social studies textbooks this book is now the best introduction to Hinduism.

Shiva Bajpai & editors of Hinduism Today magazine, 2011: The History of Hindu India from Ancient to Modern Times. A Textbook for All Ages (a Social Studies textbook), Himalayan Academy Publications, Kapaa (Hawaii), 119 pp., US $ 19.95, ISBN 978-1-934145-38-8, also available as e-book.

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Vedic Monotheism? 2. Discovering monotheism underneath polytheism

Christian and post-Christian scholars have often attempted to recast other religions in the monotheistic mould. This endeavour was usually motivated by one of two contradictory motives, both of them presupposing a superiority for monotheism. Either its intention was sympathetic, in the case of liberal-Christian or post-Christians students of other religions: they tried to upgrade them from the general Pagan polytheistic category so as to make them more respectable. This was mostly the background of 19th-century descriptions of Buddhism or Zoroastrianism as monotheistic. Alternatively, it was a missionary stratagem to wean populations earmarked for conversion away from their polytheistic roots in their past or in the larger society to which they belonged. In particular, Catholic missionaries in India have tried to prove that tribal religions are basically monotheistic, hence ”not Hindu”, and at any rate typologically closer to Christianity than to Hinduism.

2.1. Monotheistic Buddhism?

When the study of Buddhism was first taken up by European Orientalists, even basic data about the religion were unknown or misunderstood. Thus, it took a while before scholars realized that the Buddha had been Indian rather than Chinese. After all, there were no Buddhists in India then, while they were omnipresent in China and her cultural satellites: Korea, Japan, Vietnam. And when the scholars started exploring Buddhism’s Indian genesis, they tended at first to project European and Christian experiences onto the Buddhist account.

As a towering figure who launched a distinct system of philosophy and practice within an existing Brahminism-dominated religious landscape, the Buddha has been likened to Moses challenging the idolaters, to Jesus challenging the Pharisees and the Temple establishment, and to Martin Luther challenging the Papacy. Whether his role was similarly revolutionary is another discussion (we don’t believe it), but at any rate, even if it was, this doesn’t imply that his doctrine was similar to that of the said Abrahamic figures. Yet, one conclusion briefly drawn from this purported likeness was that just like Moses and later Mohammed, the Buddha threw a monotheistic challenge into a polytheistic environment.

This idea was only a brief blip in the development of Buddhist studies, swiftly refuted by the Orientalists. It was too obviously untenable, for the word “God” or some credible equivalent is simply absent from the Buddhist canon. Yes, gods in the plural play an auxiliary role, as when Brahma and Indra are witnesses to the Buddha’s Awakening. In later devotional Buddhism, the Buddha is worshipped, but in various personae such as the Amitabha Buddha, and along with the Bodhisattvas Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, Guanyin and others. Much of the Hindu pantheon was represented in Buddhist temples and taken along during Buddhist expansion abroad, so that Saraswati or Ganesha can be found venerated in Japan. However, these gods play no role in the original Buddhist method of Liberation, and the Buddha is never presented as their spokesman. The message he teaches is of his own yogic discovery, not a divine revelation. In that respect, Buddhism is atheistic. So, polytheistic on the one hand and atheistic on the other, Buddhism is anything but monotheistic.

Wherever the gods are acknowledged, Buddhism makes no fuss about their number. It never cares to replace the many with the One. So, it fails both tests for qualifying as monotheistic: it doesn’t worship a single God, and it doesn’t denounce or oppose the worship of the many gods.

It goes without saying that Buddhism never militated against so-called idolatry (mūrti-pūjā) either. First of all, the use of sculpted idols was probably rare in the India of the Buddha’s day. There simply were no idols to smash. Secondly, once the Buddhists came in touch with the Indo-Greek tradition of religious sculpture, they adopted it to create what was to become the world’s most popular sculpture: the Buddha statue. Later, Muslims in the area would name the generic phenomenon of idols after this proliferating Buddhist idol: būt. In Persian, būt-parast became the standard term for idol-worshipper.

However, this much is true that the Buddha himself is said to have forbidden his disciples to make images of him. If historical (and why not?), that injunction was not a stricture against the use of idols but rather against his own deification. He reasoned that if people were going to extol him above themselves, they would see his yogic method as likewise belonging to a level above their own, and would consequently fail to practise it.

2.2. The one and only Ahura Mazda?

The first translators of the Asian religious source texts were children of their time and religious background. They projected themes from Jewish and Christian history onto Zarathustra, the Buddha, Confucius and other Oriental "prophets". Among these was the struggle against polytheism and idolatry. They credited Zarathustra with being a pioneer of monotheism. Unlike in the case of the Buddha, the monotheistic tag has stuck to Zarathustra. In non-specialist circles, the received wisdom nowadays is that he was a kind of Iranian Moses and that his religion may also have influenced the Israelites in a pro-monotheistic sense.

The Mazdean or Zoroastrian religion, like ancient Vedicism and most ancient Indo-European religions, was aniconic, i.e. it didn't use "idols" or representations of the gods. Iranian Muslims label Zoroastrians as ātiš-parast, "fire-worshippers", distinct from the idol-worship practised by the Pharaonic Egyptians and by ancient Semites such as the Ugaritics, Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, pre-Moses Israelites and the pre-Islamic Arabs. When the Muslim conquerors of Central Asia encountered the Buddhists with their elaborate sculpture art depicting the Buddha, they termed them būt-parast, "worshippers of Buddha statues", then retro-actively generalized this term to all "idol-worshippers". But they did not apply it to the Mazdeans.

It is possible, but not attested in so many words in the Bible, that the Israelites had a higher opinion of the Mazdean religion than of the idolatry of the Semites in Canaan and Babylon. As an aniconic form of worship, it may have seemed pleasantly familiar to the Israelites, who were recent converts to aniconism. They were at any rate grateful to the Persian emperor Cyrus for liberating them from Babylonian captivity in 539 BC. The Bible editors even have their god Yahweh call Cyrus his anointed and his shepherd (Isaiah 45:1-13; 44:28; 2 Chronicles 36:22,23; Ezra 1:1-11). He and his successor Darius organized the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem by Zerubbabel and the codification of the Bible by Ezra (Ezra 5:13-17; 6:1-16). A certain Jewish-Persian friendship resulted, lastly in the form of active Iranian cooperation with Israel under the Shah; as late as the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Iraqi Arabs chided their Persian enemies for being friends of the Jews. However, neither from the common aniconism nor from this historical alliance can we deduce that the Mazdeans shared the monotheism of the Jews.

There are other elements in common between the two religions, probably borrowed by Judaism from Zoroastrianism. Thus, the belief in a future saviour already existed in the Avesta, where the Saošyant, “benefactor”, virgin-born from among Zarathustra’s own progeny, is awaited to set all injustices right. Some Bible scholars think that the Jewish notion of the awaited Messiah (Mašiah, “anointed one”, i.e. heir to King David’s throne) came about as an adaptation of this Mazdean concept. Likewise, the replacement of the belief in the afterlife as a mere shadowland with the notion of a final judgment showing the deceased the way to either heaven or hell, has been attributed to Mazdean influence (after having earlier been repudiated by the Israelites as a characteristic part of the Pagan Egyptian religion). Finally, the concept of angels and demons is said to be Mazdean in origin.

However, none of these modern interpretations of the Avestan and Biblical data, much less the Bible text itself, attests or proves the idea of Ahura Mazdā, “Lord Wisdom”, as the one and only god of the Mazdeans, to the exclusion of all others. Given the Bible’s focus on monotheism, it would have been logical if they had highlighted the discovery of a ready-made monotheism among a second and friendly nation.

On the contrary, some Bible commentators see an allusion to the ancient faith of the Persians as utterly Pagan in Ezechiel 8:16, which describes people bowing to the rising sun, an act of sun-worship comparable to the Hindu Sūrya-namaskār, which it next denounces as an “abomination”. Since Ezechiel predated the Persian conquest of Babylon, this would require a later interpolation; which is common enough in the Bible but unnecessary here, because no doubt other West-Asian peoples also practised sun-worship. However, Christian sources later confirm the same about the Iranian “Magians”, that they were sun-worshippers. Hence also the Magians’ enthusiasm for astrology after their conquest of Babylon (it is as astrologers who had “seen His star in the East”, that the three Magoi visit the newborn Jesus), and their purely solar calendar centred on Spring Equinox or Newroz.

The Norwegian scholar Prods Oktor Skjaervo has recently argued [“Zarathustra and monotheism”, in Beate Pongratz-Leisten, ed.: Rethinking Revolutionary Monotheism, Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism, Eisenbrauns 2011] definitively that Zarathustra’s writings were not monotheistic at all. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the primary texts and Persian religious history suggests to us that Mazdeism was polytheistic. Beside Ahura Mazda are well-known: Anāhitā, goddess of the heavenly waters; Zam, the earth; Mithra, the sun (though Greek sources also interpret him as Venus, the morning star who clears the path for the sun), Sraoša, “willingness to listen”, and his female companion Ašī, = Mithra’s charioteer; Airyaman, the divine healer; Tištriya, the brightest fixed star in the sky, Sirius; and the psychedelic plant brew Haoma. Though the rejection of the Vedic storm-god Indra is central to the Avesta, we find that even he lives on in the Iranian pantheon under his epithet Verethraghna, “Vrtra-killer” or “dragon-slayer”. Zarathustra himself was also worshipped as a deity, a typical instance of the Pagan procedure of apotheosis (Greek: “elevation to divine status”) or širk (Semitic: “association” of a mortal with a god or with the pantheon). Achaemenid and Sasanian inscriptions confirm the worship of many gods.

If Ahura Mazda (Middle Persian: Ohrmazd) enjoyed an emphatic pride of place and was in some texts and rituals the only god worshipped, this is an instance of henotheism, lacking the condemnation of other gods beside him, a defining trait of monotheism. Sasanian highpriest Kerdir, ca. 240 CE, calls himself “in the services of Ohrmazd and the gods”. In the Younger Avesta , the generic term for a (male) god is a yazata, “worshipped with sacrifices”, “someone worthy of sacrifice”. This shows the same semantic development as the Germanic word god, equivalent to Sanskrit hūta, “worshipped with libations”. In the Old Avesta, this term is used only once, viz. for Ahura Mazda.

One of the most popular Mazdean deities was the sun-god Mithra. The latter was adopted into Mithraism, a kind of Freemasonic tradition popular among the Roman soldiers, which gave pride of place to the Zodiac as the twelve-stage road traversed by the Invincible Sun, Mithras. Because Ahura Mazdā probably originated as a form of address for the Indo-Iranian sky-god Varuna, the cult of Mithra along with Ahura Mazda can be seen as continuous with the Vedic cult of Mitra-Varuna, the twin deities of the day sky and night sky.

Under the impact of the monotheism espoused by foreign rulers (Arabs in Persia, Turks and Afghans and then Britons in India), the Zoroastrians have gradually reinterpreted their gods as aspects of the One God, just as some modern Hindus have tried to twist their polytheism into a kind of monotheism. As Skjaervo writes: “The pantheon was never eliminated, and Zoroastrianism, in some sense at least, remained a polytheistic religion throughout its history, although today the many deities have lost their individual divine character and are not worshipped for themselves but have been reinterpreted as allegories or symbols.”

Thus, the Ameša Spentā-s, “life-giving immortals” (viz. Best Order, Good Thought, Well-Deserved Command, Life-Giving Humility, Wholeness and Immortality), were conceived of as divine persons in the Older Avesta; in the Younger Avesta, they become Ahura Mazda’s first creations; and more recently, they have been understood as his own virtues. Or as “angels”, i.e. celestial persons with their own intelligence but not with a will of their own, totally integrated in the single God’s functioning. But this is an innovation, not reflecting the ancient situation where distinct divine personalities were acknowledged. So, far from being a pioneer of monotheism, Mazdeism, even to the extent that its contemporary form can be described as monotheistic, is a polytheistic religion that has only undergone the influence of Christianity and Islam later on.

If ancient sources, both internal and external, are lacking in testimonies of Mazdeism denouncing god-pluralism, whence then has the notion arisen that Zarathustra was a kind of Moses smashing the false gods? This hypothesis was deduced from the well-attested rejection by Zarathustra and his followers of a particular class of Indo-European and Vedic gods, the Daeva-s (= Sanskrit Deva). Not only had he abolished their worship, he had at once turned them into demons. Daemon est deus inversus, “a demon is a god turned upside down”. In particular they demonized the champion of the gods, the thunder-god Indra, renaming him as Angra Mainyu, “destructive spirit”. (Given the naïve fascination of our ancestors with the traps of language and the consequent abundance of puns in their religious texts, we may surmise an allusion here to Angiras, name of the Devas- and Indra-worshipping Vedic priestly clan.) This process of inverting a god into a demon greatly resembled the Judeo-Christian rejection of the Pagan gods and the transformation of the Horned God (Ba’al, Shiva, Cernunnos) into the Devil.

However, this rejection of particular Indo-Iranian gods was not a rejection of god-pluralism per se. In many Indo-European pantheons, we find several distinct categories of divine beings, e.g. the Gods and the Titans in Greece; the Aesir, Vanir and giants in the Germanic world; the Deva-s and Asura-s in the younger parts of the Veda-s. In the oldest Vedic phase, the terms seem to have been interchangeable. The term Asura had no negative or demonic connotation yet, nor was there a notion of a Devāsurasangram, a “conflagration of gods and demons”.

But then a conflict arose between the Vedic Indians and the Iranian tribes. Two highlights are decribed in the Rg-Veda: the Battle of the Ten Kings (7:5 and 7:18), named after the western alliance facing the Saraswati-based Vedic king Sudās, and a few generations later the Vārsāgira Battle (4:15 and 1:122:13), named after the patronymic of its commanders on the Vedic side. In the latter battle, one of the enemy (and allegedly defeated) kings is called Istāśva, the Sanskrit equivalent of Vištāspa, the royal patron of Zarathustra. It is highly plausible that the emerging opposition between Devas and Asuras, with the former worshipped and the latter demonized by the Indians and the latter worshipped but the former demonized by the Iranians, finds its origin in this war. Thus, we can imagine that both sides invoked the storm-god Indra before the battle, but that he awarded victory to only the Indian side. The Iranian side, instead of looking for an explanation for their defeat in their own ritual or ethical shortcomings (as religious people tend to do), squarely blamed Indra and broke off their relationship with him. This way, a mundane event led to a whole theological construction of an enmity between two classes of gods, and ultimately to the dualism of cosmic good and evil that has been deemed distinctive of Mazdeism for most of its history.

To sum up, it has been the received wisdom for over a century now that Mazdeism started as a monotheistic revolt against polytheism. This impression sprang from the spirit of the times, with the fledgling science of comparative religion working from the assumption of monotheism’s superiority and generously trying to find as much of it as possible in exotic religions. The number of competent scholars who could critically rethink this common opinion was just too small, so misconceptions once accepted took long to get abandoned. Today, however, there is no excuse anymore for inertially holding on to this distorted understanding of Mazdeism. Ahura Mazda clearly had a supreme status, but among a crowd of other gods.

2.3. The one and only Sing Bonga?

For about a century and a half, the Mundari-speaking tribes in what is now Jharkhand have been the favoured hunting-ground for soul-hungry Jesuit missionaries from my homeland, the Flemish part of Belgium. They codified the native languages, devised a script for them and the first-ever school textbooks. Count on Flemish Jesuits to do a thorough job; if one of these languages, Santal, is now an official language of the Indian Republic and not an extinction-bound wilderness dialect, it is largely thanks to their efforts. They also made themselves useful by providing legal assistance to the tribals in their struggle against landholders, moneylenders and even the colonial authorities. This way, they won the confidence of the natives to the extent that quite a few of them converted.

The Jesuit study of the native religion set a template from which later students found it hard to free themselves, all the more so because many of them, esp. the so-called secularists, shared the anti-Hindu animus of the Jesuits. Non-specialist reports on the Indian tribals in Western and Indian-English media commonly claim that their religions are completely different from Hinduism. For Western secularists, wary of Christian claims of doctrinal superiority, the specific theological differences are not that important (in contrast with the supposed greater egalitarianism of the tribal cultures), but Christian news channels regularly push the claim that unlike polytheistic Hinduism, “Aboriginal” religion is monotheistic.

However, already a first acquaintance (even through first-hand descriptions of actual religious practice by Jesuit missionaries) will make clear that tribal religion In Jharkhand is polytheistic. Consider this recent media report on a festival of the Ho tribe: “Maghe Porob was celebrated in honor the Sing Bonga, the mythological God as creator of universe and his amazing creation of nature by 'Ho' community, at Ashura, Jharkhand.” (19 March 2011, http://www.demotix.com/news/645129/maghe-porob-ancient-festival-ho-community-jharkhand )

The term “creator of the universe“ is a bit suspect, it may well be a Christian transposition of a Biblical notion. Then again, astrophysics and geology have taught us that the whole solar system, including all the substances and biomass on earth and in the atmosphere, have all originated as solar dust, the gradually condensed remnants of clouds emanating from the sun during its formation. Since Sing Bonga is the sun god (quite literally “Sun God”), it makes sense to say that he is the origin of at least the relevant part of the universe, the solar system; as long as we acknowledge that this doesn’t make him the only entity fit to be worshipped.

Now, let us listen to some details: “‘Maghe’ was being celebrated in honor of Sing Bonga, and his incarnations like Singi (the sun), Chandu (the moon), Deshauli (sacred groove of trees), Nage-Bindi era (A deity of river, pond and spring etc), Marang Bonga (a deity as protector of the village), Pauri Bonga (a deity as guide to marriage life) and Bagia Bonga (a deity as protector of cattle)”, and “Densari Bonga (the deity of craft)”. Bonga means “god”, and in a mere newspaper report, we already meet eight of them. Further, we know that the tribals worship their ancestors, the spirits of trees and wells, and other sources of sacrality. So, Sing Bonga may be a supreme deity, but is definitely one among a number of deities. He is the pinnacle of a prolific pantheon. The acceptance of one god as higher in rank than others doesn’t constitute monotheism, or else the Church would not have condemned the ancient religions of Zeus, Jupiter, Woden, etc. as polytheistic.

Even if Sing Bonga were the only god of the Mundari tribes, there is no record of their condemning or trying to suppress the worship of other gods, a key condition for monotheism. And at any rate, their worship of the sun as sole deity without a second would not save them in Christian eyes. To Christians, the sun is a false god, usurping the place of the one true God who was incarnated as Jesus Christ. The sun- worshipping Inca Athahualpa was killed by the Spanish Christians because he remained true to his sun worship: “Your god died on the cross, but mine rises every morning.” So this whole Christian game of reinterpreting the tribal religions as somehow more monotheistic than Hinduism is not going to save them, it is only a tactic to isolate them from the Hindu mainstream all the faster to destroy them.

2.4. Conclusion

The obsession with curtailing the existing pluriformity of religious expression is a fairly rare phenomenon in human history. The Buddhists didn’t have it, neither the profound philosophers who went without worship of any gods nor the lay folk who continued the existing worship of the Hindu (and Chinese, Japanese etc.) traditional gods. Instead, they only added the Buddha and related Buddhist figures to the pantheon, making it even more densely populated.

The Zoroastrians, at least the early ones who still had an acquaintance with the worship of the Daeva category of gods, had a peculiar hostility to these Daevas, esp. Indra or Angra Mainyu, but they (and their descendents, to whom “Daeva” had become an empty word) nevertheless continued the worship of other gods beside their mascotte god Ahura Mazda. In spite of numerous contacts with monotheists, friendly with the Jews and hostile with the Christians and Muslims, they were never recognized as monotheists.

Of preliterate tribals, no case is known of the imposition of the worship of a single god at the expense of all others. Everywhere, they have venerated the ancestors, the Mother Earth, the Father Sun, the heavenly host of moon and stars, the spirits inhabiting mountains and rivers. This is also true of the Indian tribals whom the Christian missionaries have tried to isolate from their Hindu neighbours by reinterpreting their religion as monotheistic and thus an exceptionally worthy preparation for the ultimate monotheism of Christianity.

[to be continued]

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