Friday, December 26, 2014

Answering the VHP's questions to Swapan Dasgupta

(VHP top official Ashok Chowgule has reacted to a recent column by Swapan Dasgupta, effectively a representative of the dominant wing in the BJP, viz. the economic rightists. Many of them regularly pooh-pooh the other wing of the BJP, viz. the cultural nationalists. It might be useful, for those interested, if I give my viewpoint to the same questions as put to Swapan Dasgupta, posed after his
NDTV column of 22 December 2014: "Some in RSS Have Profound Distaste for PM". Here goes: )

1.     How many in the BJP have a profound distaste for the RSS?
It is not for me to give numbers here, but after the Rama Janmabhumi agitation, which the BJP tried to shake off after reaping the dividends in the 1991 elections, my impression was of a constant growth in  the number of BJP men who wanted to distance themselves and the party from the RSS and from any Hindu ideology. The hegemonic ideology of secularism made ever deeper inroads among the members of a party started for the sake of Hindu interests. It reached a symbolic culmination when LK Advani, the face of the Ayodhya movement, called the demolition on 6  Dec. 1992 "the blackest day" of his life. The present government and its dependencies are full of time-servers and opportunists who don't want to be bothered with ideology and just want to make hay while Modi's sun shines. Those who cared for Hinduism were not always the most sophisticated either. I remember a conversation with BL Sharma Prem, BJP MP from Delhi, where he talked loosely about "teaching Muslims a lessen" and all that. Many Hindu activists confuse toughness and ideological commitment with a willingness to use unprovoked violence. They are the best allies of the secularist propaganda equating Hindu activism with violence against the minorities.
2.     Given that the BJP seeks and gets the support of the total Sangh parivar at the time of the elections, should not their concerns be addressed by the BJP? 
The argument used by the economy-wallahs is precisely that the BJP should do its voters' bidding, and that it won the elections on a development platform. No, it won the election because numerous Hindu voters finally believed there was a pro-Hindu among the serious candidates, namely Narendra Modi, and that is why exceptionally they bothered to go cast their votes. They never would have done that just for the BJP. Baba Ramdev is but the most famous of the numerous people who assured me that they voted for Modi, not for the BJP.
3.     You say that Narendraji made the VHP irrelevant in Gujarat.  Apart from being factually wrong, and assuming that the effort was made, was it the right thing to do in terms of the cause of a Hindu resurgence?
It is truly bad for a BJP man to treat the VHP as an enemy, on a par with the Nehru dynasty or the Naxalites. Indeed it is they who should and do treat the VHP as an enemy whom they mean to destroy. That the VHP was virtually destroyed in Gujarat, I heard in tempore non suspecto from a Gujarat BJP man, so I guess it may well be true. The infighting inside the Sangh Parivar escapes most secularist "studies" as these are meant to uphold the image of a "fascist" monolith, but we know that it is there. 
4.     Suppose the attempt was indeed made, and had it been successful, would not an important part of the Sangh parivar been organisationally destroyed?  And would this have benefited the cause of a Hindu resurgence?
Destroying a part of the Sangh Parivar is bad for the Sangh Parivar, but I would con,done it if it was somehow beneficial to the Hindu cause. But nothing indicates such an outcome, nor such a concern. If the present BJP acts against the most ideologically committed member of the Sangh Parivar, viz. the VHP, it is invariably an attempt to shake off ideology.
5.     You have talked about the Hindu Mahasabha.  Is this a member of the Sangh parivar? 
Originally, the difference was that it was a political party, while the RSS was not. It is on this ground that Nathuram Godse crossed over from the RSS to the HMS. After the founding of the Jan Sangh in 1952, then the BJP in 1980, this distinction has become irrelevant. The only difference in discourse is that the Hindu Mahasabha openly supports Nathuram Godse and the Mahatma murder, while the Sangh Parivar condemns them, in vain. The secularists are correct in pointing out that Godse has had his ideological education in the RSS, but the RSS is correct in stating that its strategy does not include targeted murders. In that sense, Godse acted on his own and made a very individual applicatio of the Hindu nationalism he had learnt. 
6.     You say: “There is also a media environment that is conducive to the fringe. It simply requires some 50 individuals, a controversial cause and a few TV cameras to give otherwise irrelevant people notoriety, publicity and even secure political impact.”  Is this not a bad reflection of the profession that you are associated with – namely journalism?
Is this a reference to my talk at the India Ideas Conclave, much filmed and talked about, especially to highlight the anti-Islamic element in circles associated with the Modi government? It is at any rate true that I am "irrelevant". None of my books or opinions personally communicated to Hindutva bigwigs during interviews or on group occasions has made any impact, and secularists have taken even less notice. If Swapan knows of a journalistic way to transmute this irrelevance into "political impact", he is welcome me tell me about it.
7.     During NDA 1, you had said that there are many in the BJP that are seeking a certificate of secularism from the very people whom they have labelled as pseudo-secular.  I wonder if this malice has not already become prominent in NDA 2.
BJP people seeking secularist certificates is still a problem now that they have an absolute majority. They have never elaborated an analysis of their own, so they are still dependent on the worldview furnished by the secularists.
8.     You say: “There is a feeling in government circles that the present controversies that led to the disruption of Parliament were wilfully triggered by VHP's Dr Pravin Togadia, an individual who has an acrimonious relationship with Modi.”  I really hope you are not serious.
I have no idea of personal relationships. I do notice, however, that the people who triggered the ideological controversies which Modi put down, have not done their homework. Rather than achieving pro-Hindu reforms, they merely ruffle feathers and create commotion by talking about them. Where is the strategy for pro-Hindu reform?
9.     Let me ask your personal opinion.  Should Ghar Vapasi programme be undertaken or no?
Ghar Wapasi is the only solution for the Dying Race. It should not be stopped or postponed for any other political goal. Any other strategy to stop the aggressive onward march of the minorities is doomed to failure, e.g. "teaching Muslims a lesson" or demographic mobilization. It follows, however, that there is no ground for an anti-conversion bill, which doesn't work anyway (cfr. China), antagonizes world opinion, and belongs to the mindless repressive policies (cfr. book-banning) with which Hindu activism is already too associated. 

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Down with despondency!


(The World Hindu Congress of 21-23 November 2014 in Delhi, an achievement by Swami Vigyananda, compares favourably with other similar initiatives, being more focused and free of compromise with secularism. It offered a taste of what an unfettered Hindu society in normal non-Nehruvian circumstances could be. One of the seven conferences was the Organizational Conference, which concluded with a panel debate. As another speaker had cancelled, I was asked to improvise an intervention. On the basis of impressions gathered at the congress and in informal talks in the lobby, I presented the following observations.)


One has to be in sympathy with the small minority of Hindus who like to pin-prick the hollow optimism typical of the RSS. This organization likes to style itself as the vanguard of Hindu revival, but has not stopped Nehruism and the decline of Hinduism. On the contrary, it plays by the rules laid down by its enemies. The commitment to Hinduism is subordinate to the eagerness for mere trinkets, such as the shine of secularist approval, a prize dangled before pliant Hindutvavadis but never really given.

Many Hindus like to boast how good Hindus are at making money, how they are the richest immigrant community in the US, but it always proves very difficult to amass funds for Hindu causes. And when they are available, they are squandered on luxuries rather than on substance. It is therefore quite an achievement to get this WHC on the rails, an event that has paid its own way thanks to the registration fees paid by some 1800 participants. The present successful achievement is but one of several signs of hope. 



At Hindu gatherings I attended during the past few decades, the atmosphere was distinctly “tamasic”. This is a concept from Hindu cosmology, where it is one of the three elements in a tripolar model of the universe. The three are (1) sattva, the light and transparent pole, (2) rajas, the dynamic and passionate pole, and (3) tamas, the dark and heavy pole. Tamas means inertia, passivity, slothfulness, confusion and resistance to innovation. It is not so good at action, but very resourceful at inventing excuses for inaction.

That was till recently the dominant mood at Hindu gatherings. There was endless wailing about what the enemies did to Hindus, but no plans were devised, let alone implemented, to remedy these injustices. There were also conspiracy theories, the wilder the better, to explain why the enemies were both evil and powerful, so much so that the thought of countering them did not even arise. Incidentally, a mirror-image of these conspiracy theories is the strawman that the secularists make of the Hindu movement: to their captive audiences, such as the consumers of the mainstream media or the Western donors of the Christian mission: they feed the lie that Hindu activism is evil, powerful and diabolically clever. The use of this untruth is that it can present any anti-Hindu action as brave and any anti-Hindu oppression as necessary.

But the difference is that they understand the difference between lies for public consumption and their private knowledge that Hindu activism is but a paper tiger. Hindu activists, by contrast, believe in their own conspiracy concoctions.

Thus, even at the otherwise stimulating media section of this congress, the forward-looking atmosphere was tainted only by a cursory remark premised on the canard that the foreign media are acting out a highly motivated anti-India strategy explaining their glaring bias and hostility. In reality, the foreign media have no stake in India and don’t care one way or another. Their partisan reporting results from the partisan information they are fed by their secular sources in Delhi, who control  the narrow bottleneck of information about India. This news monopoly has existed for decades and for all this time, it was tolerated and passively perpetuated by the Hindu forces.

Witness the tamasic implication of conspiracy theories: they justify and stimulate passivity. If the enemy is wily and all-powerful, it is no use trying to counter him, and effectively, Hindus have not bothered to combat the secularist dominance in the mainstream media. Similarly, the very false but very common belief that the Partition of India resulted from a British conspiracy. and not from the application of Islam’s political doctrine to the then Indian situation, relieves Hindus of the difficult task of analyzing Islam as a factor of anti-India and anti-Hindu policies. This way they, along with the secularists, can perpetuate the delusion that Islam is OK, that Hindus and Muslims have always been brothers only separated by a colonial ‘divide and rule” policy, and that India’s current problems with Pakistan are due to external factors, such as the influence of the evil Americans, who count as the secret puppeteers behind Islamic terrorism.

Against all these mysterious forces with their hostile agendas, no serious resistance is possible, and hence the Hindu activists have never organized one. Or have they?


The new media

At this congress, a different sound was heard. In the media conference, so-called “internet Hindus” have been reporting how their use of the social media has bypassed and outwitted the MSM dominated by anti-Hindu voices. Facts are reported through alternative channels and break through the curtain of silence about inconvenient information. Many a time, the MSM are forced to react to knowledge that has turned out to be common among the public, eventhough they had at first tried to keep the lid on it.

Opinion is being created through twitter messages. They are tailor-made for a generation with a short attention span, and hence far more effective than newspaper articles. They also generate quick and exciting exchanges of opinion. These twitter debates are very successful at giving the public a gist of the opinion spectrum that exists relative to a specific issue. They might not be as thorough as an in-depth article, but they certainly outdo the one-sided articles that make it through the censorship sieve of the MSM.

The new media have played a decisive role in winning over the new generation to the Narendra Modi campaign. That Modi won is admittedly a victory, but we should not lose sight of the old-style struggle that made it possible. For twelve years, Modi has had to struggle against an enormously mean secularist campaign of defamation, inducing even an anti-Modi intrigue within the BJP. Only a year ago, the BJP leadership tried to thwart Modi from becoming the Prime-Ministerial candidate. It is when this old-style struggle had been won, that the struggle for national electoral victory started and the adroit use of the new media made a difference. So, while the BJP’s media team has an achievement to be proud of, we should keep in mind the over-all context, where the secularists have not disarmed and their usual viciousness will certainly come to plague us again. Our newly acquired skills will be needed.



A pervasive form of tamas in society is corruption. It acts like a parasite, eating away at the vitality of a society, and at its capacity to act. In the main, the success of the present Hindu government will be measured by its capacity to curb corruption. It must not only effect a conjunctural dip, but a structural remedy. In miniature form, this very congress can serve as an acid test.

At Hindu conferences I attended in the 1990s, quite a few worthless papers were the result of the following corrupt practice. The organizers, starved for money, accepted contributions from sponsors in exchange for the honour of presenting a paper. In the present case, the organizers were approached several times for this kind of deal, but they refused. Papers had to stand by virtue of their own merits, not by virtue of the funds attached to them.  

This awakening to the need of more integrity and more purposeful action is part of a larger pattern set by politicians like erstwhile Kashmir Governor Jagmohan, former Minister of Disinvestment Arun Shourie and former Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi: to cut through the vested interests and not to let them sap the energies of society. All three have been have been criticized by the secularists as paragons of Hindutva. Indeed, we have it on the authority of the secularists that those whom we know as men of integrity and as spectacularly good administrators, are “rabid communalists”, while the opportunists and time-servers whom they call “moderates”, are practitioners and upholders of corruption.


Long live dynamism!

Following this pattern, we see that the effective leadership of the World Hindu Council (VHP) is now exercised by man who is both impeccable and a reputed Hindu radical. Swami Vigyananda is a veteran of the Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992, as well as a dynamic organizer with a modern outlook and a remarkable skill in means, an ease in doing things. So, he had the foresight to visualize the present congress, which he announced five years ago, and which happens to coincide with the first Hindu government in Delhi since 1192. (Well, I’ll grant you Hemachandra in 1556, but his rule lasted only a few weeks, until the proverbially enlightened Moghul emperor Akbar had him beheaded.) 

The window of opportunity opened by Modi’s victory will not last forever. We must use it to effect the needed changes in the Indian polity.

This very congress, very well-organized as you all have noticed, and with a preponderance of high-quality papers, proves that Hindus manage to outgrow their tamasic pattern. Correspondingly, the mood is upbeat and creative. There are successes to report and more to come. Down with the despondency of the past decades! Long live the self-made Hindu spirit of achievement!

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Letter to the organizers of the India Ideas Conclave

To the organizers of the India Ideas Conclave, Goa, 19-21 December 2014 (Mortsel, 23 Dec.):

Dear friends,

It seems the reaction of two foreign Muslims in my audience last Saturday to my critical scholarly remarks on Islamic doctrine and on the person of Mohammed has provoked quite a debate. It involved serious principles of free speech and the curbs on it by Indian laws instituted by the British rulers who, to prevent riots, wanted to protect Islam from scrutiny by a Hindu writer. Which reminds me that even after the publication of SR Goel's book Freedom of Expression, to which I contributed, the organized Hindu movement has failed to take a clear stand against these laws. If not abolished, they should at any rate be rewritten so that they can not be used as de facto blasphemy laws, which is how they are used against me. At the time of the Wendy Doniger affair, where Hindus have dishonourably used these same anti-freedom laws to pressurize her publisher to pulp her book, I have signed a petition for abolishing these laws (for the occasion even laying aside my differences with Romila Thapar). In fact, these laws affecting everyone who presents truly original ideas to the world would have been a truly worthy topic for an India Ideas Conference. 

An interesting detail: someone sitting behind the Jordanian protester heard him fumble that I had called Mohammed "a rapist" and "a pedophile". Such things were on his mind when he filed a complaint against me. The truth is that I have called the Prophet neither. The topic of pedophilia and Mohammed's oft-discussed marriage to 6-year-old Aisha didn't come up at all. If it had, I still would have refrained from calling it pedophilia, as in this case I want to make allowances for cultural differences, even if I still don't think that ancient Arab society fully condoned (as opposed to tolerated) marriage to pre-pubescent girls. I didn't call Mohammed in person a "rapist", although his forcing a Jewish woman into concubinage with him hours after killing her husband and male relatives would informally qualify as rape. Mohammed was too well endowed with wives and concubines to need rape, but on repeated occasions he condoned the rape of his hostages by his men, on one occasion stipulating that they should do it with coitus interruptus (even a hostage-taking mafia don has a sense of honour and doesn't want the goods he returns in exchange of ransom money to be damaged), on another that they needn't bother as God makes pregnant or not whomever he wants. That he condoned rape, I did indeed mention, viz. as juridically fully valid explanation for the Caliphate warriors' practice of rape.

It is a prime illustration of the Caliphate's self-justification by Mohammed's precedent, hence of my position that the Caliphate is but an application and vivid illustration of true Islam. No Islamic Judge or jurisconsult can condemn an act that is but an re-application of the Prophet's precedent, which itself is that basis of Islamic law. Else they would have to imply or say that "Mohammed was a bad Muslim" (or after David Cameron's exegetic wisdom: he was "a monster, not a Muslim"). Nor will any Islamic judge or jurisconsult deny the episodes of Mohammed condoning rape, which are the topic of well-known Ahadith (Prophetic traditions, a fully valid source of Islamic law). But no, I did not call Mohammed a rapist and certainly not a pedophile.

Explanation: the Jordanian reacted not to my exact position, but to the "Islamophobes" in general, of whom he assumes I am one. (Islamophobia is a nonsense term launched ca. 2005 by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and designates all active or outspoken non-believers. The Turkish participant, apparently an OIC veteran, used this term against me.) Among Islam critics, it is indeed common to call Mohammed a "pedophile". Like many non-specialized Muslims, he also had only a hazy knowledge of Mohammed's actual words and acts. Since childhood, Muslims are fed a very idealized view of Mohammed, a hagiography. This explains why they develop such an attachment to their saintly Prophet, reason why in lectures before mixed audiences I postpone an irreverent treatment of the Prophet as long as possible. In this case, he only came up in question time. But to be sure, I stand by each of my statements and can justify with full reference to Islam's most authoritative texts every claim I made, both about the Prophet and about the Caliphate. Anything I said can safely be quoted against me, I will not wimp out with special pleading to distance myself from my own statements.     

Abstraction made of high principles like freedom of expression, let us now focus on the meaning of the India Ideas Conclave for its organizers. A friend who was there sent me this comment:

"I don't effin' understand why they gave you that topic on the panel in that forum. They know what you think of Islam and they kind of set you up. Why in the hell, I wondered then and I wonder now, why they put you on a panel to speak about Islam at a Hindu Conclave??? You have not written about Islam for years. You are sort of like the Calcutta Quran Petition personified. You're rather a reverse authority on Islam. Everybody knew that. What about a panel on Hindutva? That's what you've been harping about for quite a while. Sorry to use such harsh phrasing, but sometimes I shudder when I read your critiques of Hinduism and Hindutva.  I think, is that me???!!  You could have had a far more effective use or placement for the purpose of this conclave. What was the point of rehashing your decades old cliques in that particular forum and no less on the same stage as a Bishop and a Muslim?"
To start with the last point: why this choice of the other panelists? The Norwegian bishop seemed alright, a harmless do-gooder until he was confronted with a question from the audience: "Do Hindus go to heaven?" He refused to say yes. It surprised me that as a seasoned interreligiousdialoguer, he would antagonize his audience so pointedly. Nowadays plenty of soft-brained Christians could be found willing to concede that non-Christians also go to heaven. Silly Hindus would then deduce that Christianity has changed and now allows non-Christians their non-Christian religion, even after death. In fact, these soft-Christians don't represent their Church and official Christian teachings, which haven't changed: outside Jesus no Salvation. But still, if your purpose was to have some interreligious chumminess (as, post factum, you apparently wanted from me), you could easily have found some Christians willing to say that even Hindus go to heaven. If necessary, knowledgeable people including myself could have informed you about how to deal with the Christian world. But then, you did not see the need to take advice since, as SR Goel observed, "Hindus always think they know everything about everything".
The other panelist was Sultan Shahin, a well-known activist for a moderate Islam. I am glad I had a chance to discuss Islam with him, and far was it from him to make a scene about our differences of opinion. His views are certainly worth discussing, and Hindus could well provide a forum for that. But even in his case, I wonder why he had to speak at an "India Ideas Conclave". The problem is that Hindus don't know themselves or their religion enough (let alone the other religions they engage) to confront third parties meaningfully. I am privy to interreligious dialogue episodes where Hindus gave a really embarrassing performance, not agreeing among themselves even about the fundamentals ("Hinduism is polytheist" -- "At heart, Hinduism is monotheïst"). It would be very useful to have a brainstorming conference where these fundamentals are discussed in a frank and truly progress-oriented manner, an "ideas conclave". But this very expensive conference was not it.
Then, you placed me in a panel on Islam. If you have followed my work, you should know that save for some opinion pieces, I haven't researched this topic for years (instead focusing e.g. on the Hindu-Buddhist relation, on the history of yoga, the Aryan debate etc., enough to choose from for an "Ideas" paper). The reason is that it simply holds no intellectual challenge for me anymore: Islam is a simple and straightforward topic, not worth a lifetime of research, and it is now capably handled by others, including ex-Muslims. Their websites give all the relevant information to Muslims and indeed to you. It was also a bit bizarre that I wasn't asked for a topic or title. Anyway, I had "ideas" on Islam which I did not expect anyone else to present, so I nonetheless accepted.
But as the conclave started, I saw that it was not at all a brainstorm session but a diplomatic exercise. Still, it was well-organized and interesting. I quickly wrote an alternative paper (at least, I jotted down some bullet points for it), less controversial but, I dare say, very appropriate and timely: the Hindu agenda and its implementation, yes or no, by the Narendra Modi government. I proposed it to moderator Sadanand Dhume, but he insisted that I talk about Islam. Well, he got what he asked for. Moral of the incident: be careful what you ask for, you might get it.   
More to follow, but this is already enough for now to ponder.
Kind regards,

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The gentle cure for intolerance

(The following paper was summarized during the India Foundation’s India Ideas Conclave in Goa, 19-21 Dec. 2014. When it started, I felt that the topic was too heady for the audience, or at least for the intent of the organizers, so I quickly wrote a second speech comparing the Narendra Modi Government’s performance with the Hindu agenda, a logical topic for this conclave yet conspicuously missing. But the chairman of my session insisted that I speak about Islam, as this would match the other papers well. With this, he can hardly complain.)




This is meant to be an Ideas Conclave. It follows that I should not try to please you with diplomatic niceties or electoral platitudes. Instead, we speakers have all been invited to brainstorm about hard data and the mechanisms behind them, to think issues through and fearlessly go wherever logic takes us, and stir your intelligence with sharp and novel insights. This remains true even for such a touchy subject as religious intolerance.

Allow me to start with an anecdote. As you know, Mahatma Gandhi, whatever his faults, was a staunch Hindu. Yet, when I stayed at the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi, I sat in on a conversation in which these Gandhians were debating whether Hinduism should continue to exist at all. Some thought it could perhaps still correct itself, others wanted to cut out the cancer of Hinduism altogether. And indeed, it is considered normal to question Hinduism’s very right to exist. Hindus are perfectly used to seeing their religion belittled, accused and insulted day and night.

Therefore, it is nothing new if I apply a similar treatment to Islam. Indeed, in this paper I will argue that the answer to the question why the latest wave of “Islamist” atrocities has happened, is very simple: Islam. I will show that Islam itself is guilty. I have been given to understand that the two other speakers will advocate a different opinion on the same topic, so if you don’t like my point of view, you still have theirs to comfort you.


The Islamic State

Today, we get a rare show of religious intolerance in the form of the Islamic State. Even more than the Taliban, al-Qaida and Boko Haram, the new-fangled Caliphate represents our worst nightmare of Islam. Ever since TV brought its images of sensational events and acts of war into our very homes, we have not yet been treated to such explicit intolerance of a type we thought relegated to the past. While murder remains a fact of life, the formal beheading of (Yezidi and Assyrian) Infidels and of (Shiite) Heretics has become exceptional, a throw-back to the witches’ trials and religious wars of centuries ago. While exploitation remains a world problem, the actual taking of slaves to auction them off at the slave-market is eerily premodern.

To be sure, for Indians it is not such an otherworldly fantasy. Their republic was born in 1947 in massacres unleashed by the militants and supporters of the Pakistan movement, finally killing a million or so and putting many millions to flight, most of them Hindus (including Sikhs). Many of you will remember the East Bengal genocide of 1971, where officially 3 million, according to scholars at least a million, were killed, most of them Hindus. In sheer magnitude, this death toll completely dwarfs anything that the Taliban or the Islamic State have done so far.

The grim advantage that the Islamic State now enjoys, however, is the omnipresence of internet reporting, which they themselves promote with their youtube videos of beheadings and other atrocities. Uniquely in-your-face. Another sensational novelty is the official re-institution of slavery. Numerous victims of earlier rounds of violence have effectively been exploited as slaves, particularly as sex slaves (remember Pakistani General Tikka Khan in the Bangladesh war of 1971 justifying his soldiers’ rape campaign openly: “If we cannot hold East Bengal, we will make sure that the next generation of Bengalis consists of bastards”); but a formal institution of slavery, complete with slave markets and the official fixing of auction prices, that is truly a return to the premodern age. This we hadn’t seen in our lifetimes.

Countries around the world take an extraordinary interest in the onward march of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The reason is that some of their own youngsters go there as military volunteers, or in the case of girls, as volunteers to render sexual services to those warriors. Some come in the news because they have been recognized on internet videos as executioners or bystanders during beheadings; others because their death in battle is reported; yet others because they are disappointed and have managed to get back home. The authorities are very concerned with what these returning warriors might do in their homelands, or what the sympathizers who never left but who support the Islamic State might do.


What motivates the Islamic militants?

It is but normal that we feel an urge to do something about these atrocities committed in the name of Islam. Often our actions do not match our emotional revulsion, though. The initial talk of “bringing our girls back” in the case of the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in early 2014 has petered out, and at this time they have not been brought back. At any rate, any thought of either remedying a condition that has just arisen, or preventing that it can happen again in the long run, raises the question: why do the mujahedin do all this?

For the mujahedin themselves, it is very simple: they do this in conformity with the commandments of Islam. If we take 11 September 2001 as a cut-off date, we have had since then hundreds of testimonial videos in which suicide-bombers and other terrorists set out the Islamic reasons for what they are about to do. When Mohammed Bouyeri killed Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, he not only added a death threat to apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a paper pinned in Theo’s corpse, but also explicitated that Islam made him do it. Statements by terror movements such as Boko Haram, Hamas, the Taliban and Islamic State are very explicit about their Islamic motivation. The first thing Boko Haram did when it abducted the schoolgirls, was to forcibly convert them to Islam.         

By contrast, our politicians, both Indian and Western, assure us that these atrocities have extraneous causes and are foreign to Islam. Thus, it is said that these are unemployed youngsters, often high-school drop-outs, losers in our society who see risking their lives in military operations as a shortcut to becoming important or at least someone respected. Yes, that is the route to success or at least to a meaningful life which marginalized young men have always chosen. But then why do non-Muslims not do the same thing? Why do they settle for less than becoming beheaders? And why do we also find well-to-do Muslims among the mujahedin, such as the late lamented billionaire Osama bin Laden?

No matter just how exactly the politicians and their media allies beat around the bush, about one thing they are all in agreement: it has nothing to do with Islam. Out of the dozens of big names I could quote here, let me settle for the eloquent judgment of British PM David Cameron: the Caliphate warriors are “monsters, not Muslims”. And since these warriors only want to emulate the Prophet, Cameron’s words amount to saying: “The Prophet was a monster, not a Muslim”. Mind you, I would never say such a thing (indeed, even in the secrecy of my thoughts I don’t consider Mohammed a “monster”), but Cameron comes very close to asserting just that.

Unfortunately, Cameron and many of his ilk don’t respect Muslims. Personally, I take Muslims seriously: if they say Islam made them do it, I take them at their word. But Islam-lovers like Cameron or US Secretary of State John Kerry overrule the Muslim perpetrators’ own testimony when it does not suit them. They have invested heavily in a rosy picture of Islam, and they are willing to lie and even to kill for it.

Yes, they are ready to kill Muslims in order to uphold their delusion. Indeed, John Kerry has said, justifying the armed attacks on the Caliphate, that one of the US war aims was “remedying the distortion of Islam” which he imagined the Caliphate’s orthodox Islam to be. This leads us to the paradox that Islamophiles are ready to kill Muslims in order to defend Islam.


What must not be done?

Several false trails are abroad, are even popular, nay, even espoused with firmness and fanaticism, which are given as solutions for religious intolerance.

The violent approach is at any rate the wrong one. Islamophile Western politicians have, between them, killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Syria, all while making statements calling Islam “great” and a “religion of peace”. Their only justification towards the Muslim world is that they are merely killing “monsters, not Muslims”, a lie which no sane Muslim will swallow. What the Muslim world needs, is a thaw. The present polarization, aggravated by every new Western intervention, freezes men in their beliefs and prejudices. In order to grow, they need some peace and stability. By contrast, the Western interventions in Iraq and Libya have only destabilized these countries, engendered a plethora of warring militias, and enthroned sectarian rivalries culminating in the Islamic State.

Along the same lines, many Hindus who want to get out of the Gandhian stereotype of the “meek Hindu” fall into the other extreme, throw their weight around and try to act tough: “Muslims should be taught a lesson!” While I recognize that in emergencies, physical methods may be necessary (the Army’s defence of Kashmir, the police’s re-empowerment in the no-go areas that have come up in places like Mewat or Moradabad, the organized Hindu self-defence against the rise of Muslim aggression in West Bengal), they will not go very far and will soon land into abuses if they are not informed by a more fundamental doctrinal strategy. So, my focus is to inform an elite capable of understanding Islam as an ideological problem, essentially as a mistake, and then let these insights percolate to the masses.

We have no reason to go down the violent path. We make a clear distinction between Islam as an ideology and Muslims as human beings. They are its captives, its abductees, but of course they are people like the rest of us. (This distinction is always and insistently blurred by the Islamophiles who, no matter how thoroughly you refute their allegations, go on claiming that Islam criticism amounts to “spreading hatred against 2 billion Muslims”.)  Among your friends there are nice Muslims? Well of course there are, the indoctrination in Islam sits lightly on numerous nominal Muslims, who remain human beings after all, and only after that, succumb in various degrees to the doctrine in which they have been raised. Their goodness is part of their general human heritage and says nothing about Islam.

In physicist Steven Weinberg’s words, “good people will do good and evil people will do evil; but for good men to do evil – that takes religion”. Or in other words, religion is like alcohol: some drunken drivers reach home safely anyway, some teetotallers still manage to be a danger on the road, but for most people, alcohol will affect their driving negatively. In the case of Islam, more followers than in other doctrines are swayed by it into acts of fanaticism against others.



An intellectual approach which appeals to post-religious atheists and secularists is the line that “all religions are the same”, that they all equally lead to fanaticism and terrorism. This is obviously untrue, and I am confident that I won’t be contradicted by the numerous victims of Jain terrorism. Nothing in other religions compares with the wave of Islamic violence that currently affects dozens of countries.

Note also the potential for religions to develop, e.g. Christianity gradually renounced its practice of violent persecution and of slavery, which it voluntarily abolished after having imbibed the spirit of the Enlightenment. Or consider Hinduism, which in its early history developed the institution of caste, and more recently has started eliminating caste. But such evolutions are more difficult in the case of a religion closely bound up with a law system deemed to be valid until Judgment Day, as Islam defines its Shari’a. Thus, the Islamic world has never abolished slavery but was forced to do so by an outside world that had outgrown it. (The antics of the Islamic State show how this abolition has been but skin-deep.)

The converse approach is the idea that all religions are good, and true, and noble. And yes, even Islam, a very late composite of elements from existing religions plus a few personal innovations by the Prophet, has to contain worthwhile points. But the fact that no religion equals zero, doesn’t imply that they all evenly equal one. There may be equality before the law between human beings, but there is no conceptual equality between doctrines, nor spiritual equality between paths. Just as in science one theory may be plainly wrong while another one fits all the available facts, one religion may be a false trail while another, though still imperfect, may essentially be right.

In particular, the second of the two points of the Islamic creed, that Mohammed was the messenger of God, is demonstrably untrue. Most religions don’t think of themselves as true or not: truth is for philosophy and scholarship, religion is about devotion and surrender. Yet Islam insists on being the true religion, while others are false. Alright then, let us judge Islam in terms of truth and falsehood. There is nothing in Mohammed’s collection of messages, the Qur’ân, that couldn’t have been said by a 7th-century Arab businessman, including clumsy superstitions typical of the childhood of mankind. Some parts may be OK as literature, but there is nothing divine about it. If we keep this in mind, we have made a great stride out of the confusion arising as soon as the word Islam is uttered. 


What is to be done?

In the case of the Islamic State’s attraction of youngsters, even from India, authorities the world over wonder how to deal with it. We should not combat the consequences, viz. the youngsters’ involvement in jihad, but the cause of this involvement, their prime motivator, Islam itself. In every generation, some youngsters will not settle for a syrupy version of their chosen ideology but insist on the radical version. That radicalism is a normal phenomenon and need not be punished, unless they have committed war crimes, and in that case, they can be punished under existing laws.

The current crisis situation only highlights the more general problem how to undo the impact of Islam on its followers. But followers of Islam as such must not be punished either, nor persecuted or discriminated against. This is useless and counterproductive, as the survival of repressed religions under Communist regimes should teach us, and it just goes against what we stand for. Freedom of religion should of course also count for Muslims, let there be no doubt or lack of clarity about that.

But I do propose that Islam should be phased out, as should any delusionary belief. The violent aspects of Islam make this need more pressing, but ultimately it is of wider application. Indeed, I will draw upon my own experience as an apostate from Catholic Christianity. I am but a representative of a whole generation that turned Western Europe from predominantly Christian to predominantly secular. Changes of religion do happen, even on a collective and continent-wide scale. There is no reason why they could not happen in the Muslim world.

About the homecoming of Muslims from their exile, their thraldom to Islam, my thoughts are admittedly incomplete, and I am only making a beginning here. If all the secularists in India had not wasted the past decades with defending religions (except for Hinduism), but instead started deconstructing their favourite religions, we would have been a lot closer to a solution. But the guilt and at the same time the ridiculousness of the Indian secularist scene are topics for another occasion. Fact is, some work remains to be done, and I welcome input from others. Here, however, are a few stray ideas that may be helpful.


Ideas on apostasy from Islam

·         The first thing to do is that we ourselves are clear about the nature of the Islam problem. Before we can even think of telling the Muslims how we view Islam, we ought to understand it for and amongst ourselves. Just a few days ago, I saw a TV debate in which a BJP spokesmen called the Caliphate warriors “heretics”, implying that they do not represent the true Islam. Sometimes this can be excused as an electoral gimmick or a diplomatic platitude, to be expected among politicians. But I know from experience that most Hindus are serious about such pseudo-expert notions. As a wise Hindu told me, “the typical Hindu always thinks he knows everything about everything”, and so he will pretend to tell Muslims what “real Islam” is. In this case, he will tell the accomplished Islamic theologians behind the jihad movements that they have it all wrong and that these are “heretics”. On the contrary, all that the Islamic State makes headlines with, has been done by the Prophet himself, who started wars of conquest, took hostages, ordered rape, took and sold slaves, had his critics murdered or formally executed, and discriminated between Muslims, other monotheists and real Pagans. Everything the Caliphate does, can be justified if brought before an Islamic Court, unless the judges are willing to state that Mohammed’s behaviour was un-Islamic and illegitimate. You cannot find a single Islamic Court, Mosque or Madrassa where it is held that “Mohammed was wrong”. The typical Hindu attitude to Islam is “under-informed but over-opinionated” wishful thinking. So we will have to convince them and other non-Muslims about the true nature of the Islam problem first.

·         Telling Muslims what we think of Islam is intellectually quite alright, but humanly we have to keep in mind that it is delicate to offend people’s cherished convictions. It should only be done, as it were, in self-defence. There is no need to “attack” Muslims with your opinions, it is only when they themselves give you as valid their own (or at least, Islam’s) opinions, that you may counter them. Only when they take the initiative to call your religion false, should you respond by questioning their own. This is but a matter of politeness and sensitivity, but also a premise of the eternal dharma: speak gently, and only confront others with a harsh truth when they ask for it.

·         When we approach the Muslim community, let us keep in mind how Christianity imploded in Europe. Since the 18th century, an elite of freethinkers left the Church but had little influence among the masses. After the Industrial Revolution, a large part of the working class also left the Church. But the real breakthrough took place around 1970, a generation after World War 2, when education was democratized and nobody who had gone to school could take the defining dogmas of Christianity (hereditary sin as the cause of mortality, Jesus as sole incarnation of God, virgin birth of Jesus, salvation from sin and mortality through Jesus’ death and resurrection) seriously anymore. It was no longer cool to be Christian, the defining beliefs were ridiculed. As soon as enough people had left the Church, the force of conformism, of doing like the others, which had so far retained people inside the Church, now started working inversely. Those with little conviction, who had only gone because of the neighbours, now stayed away because of the neighbours. So now only a marginal percentage goes to church. This is what will have to be achieved regarding Islam.

·         The magnitude of the task should not be underestimated. Thus, the comparison with European Christianity’s implosion is valid but with the nuance that in Europe, the change in worldview was facilitated by the high degree of individualism, which was both intrinsic to the culture and reaching a new high in the post-WW2 welfare states. In Islamic society, family and community ties tend to be stronger, and they in turn tend to stabilize religious identity. Another reassuring argument among non-Muslims is that the oil wealth is finite, so that the financing of Islam worldwide by the Arab monarchies is bound to come to an end. Arabs oil sheikhs know this too, and they prepare to switch to providing solar power to cold and cloudy Europe from the Arab desert. Other scenarios may develop, and we cannot count on an implosion of Islamic finances to solve the problem for us. People like to believe anything that implies we do not have to actually do anything, but often wrongly.

·         In the case of Christianity, it is the young who have convinced the old. Numerous are the families I know, where the first one to stay away was a rebellious son. Then other youngsters rebelled, and finally their parents followed suit. Aged people who once were devout Christians, and who –- you would think -– would take consolation from their faith in their declining years, openly confide: “Oh, how they fooled us in our youth!” Similarly, we have to focus on the young Muslims, whose self-liberation from Islam will then start taking along most of the older people. As for the older ones who stick to their childhood beliefs: we will just tolerate that, as we always have, because it is impossible and undesirable to pressurize them out of their beliefs. Thoughts are free, opinions are perfectly permitted, so if people insist on believing that the voice Mohammed heard carried a message from God, well, let them. But such a belief should not be promoted. We should finally get serious about India’s Constitutional provision that requires the promotion of the scientific temper. If we expose the Muslim youth to the scientific way of thinking, they will become sceptical of the defining dogmas of Islam.

·         While in Europe, many people have left religion altogether, it will be said that Indians are a religious nation, and that the only alternative to Islam is another religion. Indeed, even in Europe, many ex-Christians dabble in various alternative religions, including elements of Hindu-Buddhism. Well, in the case of India, you already have every possible alternative in place. For Indian Muslims, the alternative religion is all around them. For most people, the Ghar-wâpasî (“homecoming”), the return to their ancestral religion, will do. Moreover, it allows for the introduction of positive ideas and attitudes: far more than a critique of negatives, these will convince Muslims that there is a better world outside Islam.

·         Now, more concretely, expose youngsters in their education and via the general culture to the demythologizing information about Islam. This can be done not so much by the media which Westerners use, such as Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum or Robert Spencer’s Jihadwatch, but the forums of ex-Muslims like by Ali Sina (pseudonym of a Canadian Iranian) or by Ibn Warraq (pseudonym of a British Pakistani), or work by Anwar Sheikh, Taslima Nasrin, Afshin Ellian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other ex-Muslims. Respond positively to the demand of Muslim youngsters to pay more attention in schools to Muslim thinkers, but then tell them the whole story rather than the streamlined hagiography, e.g. the racist judgment by Ibn Khaldun on Blacks, or the account by the Moroccan globe-trotter Ibn Battuta of slavery in the Delhi Sultanate, or the motto of the Algerian Berber singer Lounès Matoub (murdered in 1998 by jihadis): Ni Arabe ni Musulman , “neither Arab nor Muslim”. There is nothing intrinsically Islamic in our Muslims, nothing they cannot outgrow.

·         Muslims will ultimately have to do it themselves, they will outgrow their Islam in a natural process. But this process should not be hampered by any artificial hurdles we put in its way. Let us at least not give Islam the extra advantages that it now enjoys to prolong its existence.

(More controversial statements came about only during question time. My response there, and to some objections uttered afterwards, will be presented in a forthcoming contribution.)

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hindus reclaim yoga


Is yoga Indian? Till a few years ago, the question would have sounded absurd. Only in some flaky New Age circles, there was talk of “Egyptian yoga” or “yoga among the Atlanteans”, but this was sensibly dismissed as fanciful. Now, however, some American scholars argue that yoga is a recent development owing more to British army drills than to native tradition. Or at least, that is how the New York Times has overstated their case. Enough for alerting US Hindus to “take back yoga”.  What is the true story behind this commotion?

Modern postural yoga, developed a century ago by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya at the Maharaja of Mysore’s court, does owe a few elements to Western culture. These include iconic exercises like the Headstand and the Salute to the Sun, a series of older postures now linked into a dynamic sequence. While there is no explicit record of Krishnamacharya borrowing either the general idea or the final product, earlier texts or depictions seem not to refer to them. Add to this the reorientation to a female public (“yoga for pregnancy”); traditionally, yoga was meant for men, mostly monks, not for expectant mothers.

Then again, Krishnamacharya only added some external details to an existing tradition. Hatha Yoga, featuring contorted postures and breathing exercises, is well-attested since ca. 1100 among a sect called the Nath Yogis. The American term “Power Yoga”, popular among showbiz celebrities, is only a rough translation of “Hatha Yoga”. Even the seemingly trendy promise of a lustrous body, attractive to the opposite sex, appears in some yoga classics. 

Under another name, the physical discipline may go back even earlier. The Naga Sadhus, already attested in the Rg-Veda, are martial monks who train in wrestling-halls. India’s martial arts, like China’s and Japan’s, contain both dynamic sequences and long-held postures, often requiring extremes of force, suppleness or will-power. From those practices to modern postural yoga is not such a big leap.

Most importantly, yoga was originally conceived as meditation, aided by a straight yet relaxed body. On Harappan seals, we find quite a few depictions of someone sitting in meditation posture, but never in contortions or standing on his head. So the tree trunk of meditation is already at least 4.500 years old in India, while some additional branches grew later. Of these, a small percentage may indeed have a foreign origin, but this makes little difference to yoga’s over-all rootedness in the Indian soil.

What is definitely Western, however, is the idea of a “Yoga Day”. Narendra Modi has managed to convince the United Nations to accept 21 June (Summer Solstice, no less) as a special day for yoga. Every disease, every long-dead artist and every attention-hungry cause now has its own day, or month, or year. But yoga is not a disease yearning for public money or for ego-stroking. India has shown for thousands of years that yoga can thrive without such a Day.

(India Today on-line, 14 Dec. 2014)

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How I did not become a Hindu


Both Sita Ram Goel and Vamadeva Shastri (David Frawley) have written a book called How I Became a Hindu. I could never write such a book because I have deliberately made a choice not to identify myself as Hindu. In this article I will explain “why I am not a Hindu”.


Leaving Christianity

Before starting out, let me put aside any possible confusion with another publication in existence: the book Why I Am Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah, a convert to Christianity. I have seen post-Christian Westerners grimly use it as a formidable argument against Hinduism, not realizing that it is an ordinary missionary pamphlet against caste, to which Hinduism is falsely reduced. Unlike Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim, hefty tomes written by apostates who knew their childhood religion very well, Why I Am Not a Hindu is a caricature for simpletons. It starts out with a few interesting sketches of caste life in his childhood village, but then descends into unwarranted theoretical speculations for which he is simply not equipped.  Essentially he assumes, like most haters of Hinduism, that “Hinduism is caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste”, and that the only way to break free from caste is to destroy Hinduism root and branch. The author is hopeful that Hinduism is indeed losing out, and a recent book by him muses about a “post-Hindu India”. That is of course the missionary vision.

It is not my vision. I think Hindus are better off staying Hindu, and that South-Asian Christians and Muslims had better shed their divisive faiths and return to the Hindu civilization which their ancestors left. I know first-hand that there is life after apostasy from Christianity or Islam, being an apostate from Christianity. I belong to the generation that collectively walked out of the Church. In my society, the Flemish part of Belgium, the vast majority in my childhood used to be practising Catholics, now these are only a small minority. There is no danger that many will return to the faith, even on their deathbeds: the knowledge pin-pricking the basic Catholic truth claims is just too strong.


Recognizing one’s friends

However, when tempted to think that that is obvious, internet Hindus are there to accuse me of being a clog in a world conspiracy, mostly as a missionary agent. These people really live in a fantasy world, for a real-world organization that means business, such as the Church (practically any Church), would at least pay its agents. Well, I am not being paid by the Church nor by any other lobby-group. Worse about their lack of worldly wisdom is that they haven’t heard about the very real decline of the Church. Anachronistically, they are still fulminating against TB Macaulay and Max Müller and feel very brave when kicking against corpses; more recent developments have passed them by. Yet, I keep on meeting Hindus who assume I am a believer, even after having read me, or who suspect I merely claim to be past all that in order to gain the confidence of the Hindus, but am secretly an agent for the Church.

Not being able to recognize your own friends is a very serious drawback in life. It is my experience that Hindus are very defective in this regard. One of the five books of the Pañcatantra is meant to teach “the art of making friends”, originally to three not-so-gifted princes. Presumably the fables succeed in making even these dummies understand how to make friends. Among Hindu activists, by contrast, I notice a greater proficiency in the art of making enemies. This takes two forms: treating friends as enemies, and turning friends into enemies.

In the diaspora Hindu movement in the US and the UK, I have been privy, just in the last three years, to good initiatives getting marred by infighting, defections and hostilities against ex-friends. In this case, it seems to me that giving names and details will only make matters worse, so I won’t. But one example I can easily divulge is the attacks on myself.  Ever since I took upon me the unpleasant job of giving Hindus feedback about their glaring and costly mistakes in history rectification initiatives, I have received quite an amount of hate mail. And mind you, I am not using the term “hate mail” (or “death threats”, a term used by Romila Thapar, who was safe and sound but couldn’t stand being criticized) lightly. It does not mean a mail from someone who disagrees. If only internet Hindus were to argue dissenting points of view, that would be fine; but more often than arguments they just give you abuse.

One serious example of making outsiders into enemies concerns those Hindus who borrow conspiracies about the Jews. Some Western forums and websites specialize in stories about “the Israeli secret service Mossad having engineered the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001” or about “the Jewish bankers behind the world financial crisis of 2008” (and of 1929 etc.). Individual internet Hindus sometimes interiorize this line of rhetoric, and they are too blind or too self-important to see that they are beautifully playing into the hands of their enemies. After centuries of Hindus giving a uniquely good treatment to their Jewish minority, after V.D. Savarkar and the BJP supporting Zionism, after cases of collaboration between American Hindus and the “Jewish lobby”, and after the mounting military cooperation between Israel and India, the powerful Indo-American secularist lobby, well-entrenched in the universities, would love to break this Hindu-Jewish alliance. Enter the Hindu lobby, that gives them all they want to hear, and especially to quote. Those lobbyists (once more confirming SR Goel’s impression that they are “the biggest collection of duffers that ever came together in world history”) are easily capable of driving a wedge between the Hindu activists and any friends they threaten to make. But the internet Hindus concerned are too smug and too wrapped up in their fantasies to see the strategic implications of their fanciful arrogance for the broader Hindu cause.    

In India, the Hindu activists are closer to power, with a handful of BJP governments in some states or other, and now (December 2014) even a BJP government at the centre. Power tends to quell infighting, firstly because there are constructive things to do, with tangible tasks and results; secondly, because any individual disgruntledness or unease can always be bought off with a post or perk. But that is the peace of the lowest common denominator. It is OK that Hindus don’t roll on the floor fighting each other, but it is another question whether they are focused enough to achieve anything in their times in power – other than keeping the enemy out of power.

At any rate, I am a friend. And that loyalty is not dependent on the attitudes of some Hindus towards my person. I am convinced that, in spite of some human failings, the best Hindu doctrines are true, and Hinduism is a far more desirable worldview and way of life than its challengers.




I do know that numerous Hindus object to foreign converts and spew their venom at “white Hindus”. They may even be the same people who otherwise like to quote the praises of Hinduism by Arthur Schopenhauer, Mark Twain, Romain Rolland and other Westerners. At one time I was not aware of this phenomenon. And yet it is but the in-your-face dimension of a deeper-seated mistrust and unease among Hindus of any transgressing of the boundaries between inside and outside Hinduism.       

Indeed, at one time I was so enthusiastic about Hinduism that I had made up my mind to formally convert. I mentioned my desire to become a Hindu to Prof. Kedar Nath Mishra, the philosopher of Banaras Hindu University who had accepted me as a Ph.D. candidate. However, I immediately noticed his lack of enthusiasm, much in contrast to how a Muslim would react. Out loud, he only commented that this matter should certainly not be hurried. This is in fact only common sense: even responsible Christian missionaries eager to make conversions still insist on verifying whether a candidate is serious. If he loses his initial fervour for his new religion and quits it, this would mean that much ado had been about nothing, and constitute a greater loss of face for his conversion sponsor than his accession was a gain. So, the temporization is universal and reasonable. But I sensed there was more to it than that.

One is member of a caste by birth. There is no conversion possible from one’s own birth-group to another. All the castes combined have been called Hindu society, so one is a Hindu by birth. One is born within a community, and while people can change jobs, swap wives or borrow new ideas, they cannot change the facts pertaining to their birth. So, Prof. Mishra was born as a Hindu and has remained a Hindu until his death; while I was born as a non-Hindu and will die as a non-Hindu.

Even Hindu organizations explicitly preaching and practising conversions, such as the Arya Samaj and the Vishva Hindu Parishad, only target former Hindus or people on the margins of Hindu society. Their “recoversions” only concerns Indian Muslims or Christians whose ancestors were Hindus, or tribals who only recently were seduced by the missionaries. We see the same thing among other national religions. In the Iranian community of Los Angeles, as well as in Ossetia and Tajikistan, many Muslims reconvert to their ancestral Zoroastrianism (eventhough the Ossetes’ Scythian ancestors may have largely escaped the specifically Zoroastrian reform of the Iranian religion), but the Zoroastrians do not welcome non-Iranians. In Yakutia, an ethnically Turkic republic within the Russian Federation, the traditional Turkic religion (which is not Islam) has become legally recognized in 2014. The Russian Orthodox Church (more nation-oriented than the Catholic and Protestant Churches) did not object, on the understanding that only native Yakuts would feel attracted to this religion, while Russians would remain Orthodox. So, outside Christianity and Islam, and even within some strands of Christianity, there exists an identification of religious traditions with national communities, into which one has irrevocably been born (or not).

Many Hindus welcome converts, and take pride in the existence of Westerners who have embraced Hinduism. However, I do not want to enter a house where other inhabitants object to my presence. I don’t mind if they object to my ideas or my conduct, but if they object to my very presence, I have to take their attitude into account. And so, I am only too aware of those other Hindus who find it rather bizarre that outsiders would want to become Hindu. Moreover, their negative attitude does not amount to disrespect: most of them can respect me as a Westerner, it is only the strange inclination to perforce self-identify as a Hindu which they object to.

Traditionally, Hinduism only knows collective conversion, or at least integration which Chrstians might describe as conversion, i.e. a whole existing community that retains its own ways and autonomy but accepts the over-all framework of Vedic society; and very exceptionally, individual conversion through marriage. If an existing Hindu community accepts you as a son-in-law, then everybody accepts you as a member of that particular community. One never knows whom one may yet meet in life, but so far, this hasn’t happened to me.


Link with India

This fact of a rejection by others, by a sizable part of the legitimate Hindu population, is already enough for me not to call myself a Hindu. It is a conception of converting religions to consider the most true or somehow most desirable religion as the one of which we should be a member. If you wax enthusiastic about a Hindu practice like yoga, most Hindus will say: go ahead and practise it, become a European yogi, or as the case may be, a Japanese yogi, a Rastafarian yogi, a Hottentot yogi. At the end of your life, you may write an autobiography: Story of a European Yogi, but please don’t affect being a Hindu.

A second reason is that “Hindu”, as the Persian form of Sindhu (the Indus river), refers to India. Originally it meant “one who lives at or beyond the Indus”, a purely geographical term meaning “Indian”, later the Muslim invaders turned it into a geographical-cum-religious term: “any Indian Pagan”. According to VD Savarkar, a Hindu is one who considers India both his Fatherland and Holyland. The West now has a sizable Hindu population, but they are for the most part People of Indian Origin. When Hindus praise the work benefiting Hinduism that I have done, they typically speculate that I “must have been born in India in my past life”. So, there is always that connection to India. Well, at present I may be a regular traveller to India, but my roots lie in Europe.

To put it crudely, I don’t care for India. It is true that Hinduism grew up on Indian soil, and I strongly disagree with those colleagues who insist that “yoga isn’t from India”. Of course India is historically the place where Hinduism grew up, and even now India is worth defending against those who besiege it. But the ideas and practices that make up the beauty of Hinduism could have come about elsewhere too, and partly they have. Religions related to or typologically similar to Hinduism have existed though they have largely been wiped off the map by Christianity and Islam, and even these have preserved certain traditions that Hindus would feel familiar with. So, India as the cradle of Hinduism is a fact of life, but it is also relative and a shaky foundation for a religion that sees itself as the eternal Dharma. “One day, India too will go”, to quote my yoga teacher Dr. Pukh Raj Sharma from Jodhpur. 

Compare with Christianity. Numerous Hindus have the tendency to identify Christianity with the West. In reality, Christian missionaries see it as the universal truth, equally valid for Indians as for Westerners. The geographical claim is at any rate historically untrue: in the Roman Empire, the Christians were called the “Galileans” to mark their religion as an import into the West from the Middle East. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the site of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection has a certain place in Christian history, if only because it provider the casus belli of the Crusades, but it testifies to the Europeans’ awareness that Christianity originated outside Europe. European ex-Christians with nationalist convictions hold it against Christianity that it is foreign. The Christian answer to that would not be to deny its foreign origin, but to insist that it is the true religion and that therefore everyone should accede to it. As for European culture and its national divisions, these can get a place in Christianity: inculturation has a long history, and to a large extent, national folklore has indeed merged with Christianity. So, in India’s case, a feeling of Indianness is welcome to flourish in Indian churches, using Indian materials during rituals or singing Indian music, as long as everyone believes in the imported teachings of the Church. 

Secondly, this identification with a nation just doesn’t apply. The motor car has been invented in the West, but the cars on the Indian roads apply the exact same mechanical principles which the German inventors once implemented to build the first motor car. There is no such thing as “Indian car mechanics”, this science is universal. The Law of Gravity was discovered by an Englishman, Isaac Newton, but would have been just the same if it had been discovered by anyone else, anywhere else. Likewise, anything true is universally true, so if the Christian core teachings are true, they should also be accepted as true by Indians; if not, they are not true for Westerners either. That is why it only shows incomprehension to argue about whether Christianity is or is not Indian; the only sensible question is whether it is true. Yajñavalkya never argued about the Indianness (a concept that didn’t even exist yet) of the doctrine of the Self. Nor did Shankara engage in debates about whether Dualism was more Indian than non-Dualism; he only cared about which view was more true. So, let us follow in the footsteps of these great Indian thinkers and forget about Indianness.

However, Hinduism pertains to more than just the truth of a doctrine. It effectively also has a geographical component. For that reason, I may agree with the Hindu thinker Yajñavalkya, be doctrinally on the same wavelength, yet not be a Hindu.


Hinduism as Paganism

Without creedal religions like Christianity, the world simply consists of a landscape of different sects or traditions. These are not foreign to one another, as witnessed by the practice of interpretatio Romana, i.e. Julius Caesar’s approach of the Celtic deities he encountered in Gaul and whom he “translated” into the corresponding deities in the Roman pantheon. The practice already existed in the ancient Middle East, and can easily be seen in the names of the week days, where the names of the planets were translated from Sumerian to Akkadian and Aramaic, these to Greek, thence to Sanskrit and Latin, thence to Hindi, English etc. The planet Jupiter was Marduk to the Babylonians, Jupiter to the Romans, Thor to the Brits, Guru to the Indians, etc.

The ancient Arab traders went on pilgrimage to the Somnath temple, because in the moon-bearing Shiva they recognized their own moon-god Hubal. And conversely, Indian traders doing business in Arabia went to the Kaaba in Mecca because its presiding deity Hubal was clearly their own Shiva. Yes, in the human netherworld there were local differences, but these were not consequential. The places from which you see the starry sky are different, but the stars in heaven are the same.

So, I have decided to focus on the absolute unity of heaven, more than on the relative difference of the vantage-points on earth. Therefore, I don’t care anymore about being from here or from there, the truth would in each case turn out to be the same. It doesn’t change anything to my worldview or my way of life whether I artificially try to change myself into a Hindu or naturally define myself as being European and all other levels of identity that happen to apply to me.


A Hindu name

In Western yoga circles, I know numerous people who have received a Sanskrit name, and many of them also use it. A few have even gone to the town hall or the court to change their civil names and officially register the Sanskrit names. Though I have received quite a few initiations (Diksha) from Hindu Gurus, somehow I have never been given a Sanskrit name. Fortunately so, for that saves me the trouble of having to decide whether to actually use this name or not. Probably not.

Not that it matters to me if others do it. Most Westerners who have a Sanskrit name live among Westerners and so there is no occasion for confusion. By vocation, I am more in touch with Hindu society, and that makes it confusing if I would adopt a Hindu-sounding name. (For the same reason, I disapprove of converts to Christianity retaining their Hindu names, a new Church policy consciously seeking to confuse and conceal.) Also, it is but normal that those who become Hindu monks get a monastic name, just as a Catholic monk changes his civil name to a given monastic name.

My own given name is Germanic and profound enough. Koen means “brave”, raad means “counsel” “deciding what is to be done”. Its Greek equivalent was Thrasuboulos, which happens to be the name of a victorious general, national liberator and pioneer of democracy in Athens, killed in battle while fighting for his polity. So, I will just keep it.

That also happens to be the Hindu thing to do. Thus, some equality-minded Hindus hide their caste-specific last name, e.g. calling themselves (to name one example I have known) Maheshvari Prasad instead of the recognizably Brahmin name Maheshvariprasad Sharma. Yet, they will never intrude into another caste by giving themselves a last name suggestive of another caste identity, say Maheshvariprasad Yadav or Maheshvariprasad Varma.  So likewise, I will not intrude into the Hindu commonwealth by claiming a Hindu identity and calling myself by a Hindu name.

Hindus don’t have this notion of a creedal identity. A creed or worldview can be chosen (and indeed I have the experience of trading in a religion imposed on me for another persuasion); while an identity is simply there. So, I just accept that I carry the non-Hindu name Koenraad without having chosen it, and I will not choose another one.

(Hindu Human Rights, 14 Dec. 2014)

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