Tuesday, March 6, 2012




Dr. Seshachalam Dutta

Rajiv Malhotra’s argument that Hinduism is Dharma and not a religion is untenable. Hinduism is a religion with its own epistemology, soteriology, and philosophy. Dharma is the code of life as elaborated by scriptures. (dharati lokaaniti dharmah.) Also "Dhiyateevaajanyriti dharmah. Dharmo dharayati prajaah." In the context of religious life of Hindus, it refers to code of life in accordance with the scriptures, but not independent of religion. The term Hindu religion was always used by many Hindu leaders from Tilak and Aurobindo to Radhakrishnan and Gandhi. Of late it became Talmudic and trivial exercise of dwelling on the correctness of the translation of Sanskrit words into English to describe Hinduism; for instance debating whether caste is a correct word for Jaati, Varna or Kula and whether Dharma is different from Religion and Atma is different from soul!!! Everyone knows what caste (which as viewed by many is ripping the society) means without going to its etymology. Every culture, not just Hindus, from ancient times had and has its own Dharma which precedes the advent of religions. Here again the Vedic definition "Dhaaranaat Dharmamicchaahu” translated that which abides the society is, therefore, called Dharma because it is 'worn' (abided) by people... It is the tradition which abides the society without which it will disintegrate. Father’s love for son abides the sons respect for father. That came before advent of Biblical saying "Honor thy Father and Mother." As early as in Babylonian times Hammurabi codified that what is natural into law that a son who raises his hand against his father shall be put to death. That was the Dharma shastra of Babylonia. A son who is so ungrateful is not worth sparing. Tradition either codified into law or not is predicated upon Dharma. In India Sanatana Dharma preceded all religions and is accepted by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. Religion is subsidiary to Dharma which comprises of religion also. Hence substituting Dharma for religion is invalid and the phrase Dharmic- Religions adds to further confusion, for there are no Adharmic religions. Satya (truthfulness) is another example of universal Dharma (Vishwa Dharma). Hindu Dharma emphasizews Ahimsa -satyam-asteyam-brahmacharyam-asangraham. Once this ancient Dharma is accepted by the society, it is voluntarily accepted by people, but in special cases can also be enforced by law. For instance no societal order in any culture would have existed without abiding the principle of truthfulness. The Bible says: Thou shall not take Gods name in vain. Here the limit is set as people routinely speak (white) lies as telling a woman how beautiful she is. Will Rogers remarked that the Politicians wonder why anybody tells the truth. In principle one should not tell a lie, but to tell a lie under oath is a felony. It is not an issue of religion whether one believes in Bible or God, one cannot CONDUCT business if every one tells lies at all times, so law sets the limit to enforce a MINIMUM of morality. So Malhotra's assertion that Dharma was never enforced as legal code in ancient India is patently false.

Most egregious misinterpretation of Hindu Dharma presented by the author is that the principle of right and wrong is fixed and enshrined in Universal principles for the Westerner and it is flexible and situational for Hindus, advocating moral relativism. Here the author is groping to invent differences where none exist. To exemplify how Hindus deal "pragmatically" with right in particular circumstances, he cites, among others, the example of unjust killing of Drona against all the canons of the war in Mahabharata War. The episode states that Dharma Raja was made to tell half a lie to sound as though Drona's son was killed. He forgets to mention that the moment the lie was uttered, Dharma Raja's chariot which was traveling a few inches above ground sank down. The act was against all canons of Dharma. The author had no proper understanding of the Mahabharata War. It was ordained by God Krishna to end the age of Dwapara reckoning Kaliyuga. Krishna says in Mahabharata "kalosmin lokakshaya vrutpravrutto, lokasamhartumiha pravruttaha" Meaning "I have started to destroy this population." He further says that Arjuna was only an instrument for the destruction in order to auger the new era of Kaliyuga. YET the scripture clearly emphasizes the inexorable law of consequences of action called Karma phalas. This is illustrated in the death of Krishna struck by the arrow of a hunter. He tried to console the hunter by telling him that it was the inescapable result of past Karma. All the acts of Adharma in Mahabharata were portending the end of that era and beginning of a new one. Malhotra had a terrible misunderstanding in interpreting Hindu morality as based on "ends justify the means" however immoral, adharmic or anti-dharmic. (Editor's note: Thus Malhotra has disregarded the larger context of Mahabharata.)

There are other errors of facts and uncritical interpretation of facts in this book. I will enumerate only a few in the interest of space. Quoting Bertrand Russell that Karl Marx has the foundation of Christianity for his thinking, Marx, like all other public minded, had his hopes and speculated on them as he said that proletarian revolution would succeed in Industrial countries like Britain. He was wrong. It was in the agrarian countries like Russia and China that communist revolutions came to prevail. Russell attributed this kind of hope to theism: but Marx was known to be an avowed atheist.

When the non Hindus refer to the miracles performed by Krishna, they characterize them as MYTH, or a part of Hindu mythology. When Jesus revives a dead man, it is a miracle for them and it is some kind of scientific theology and not mythology. For a Christian it is offensive to call such miracles a mythology. The author of BD accepts that all Hindu miracles are mythology and endorses a pejorative term to describe Hindu belief in miracles. He failed to reverse his gaze in this instance and fails to find that in the past 200 years academic theologians questioned the historicity of Jesus. He failed to give the credit it to David Strauss, John Remsburg, Bruno Bauer, Paul- Louis Couchoud and other scholars of "Jesus mythology." Once Jesus myth is accepted, there is no history centrism for Christianity. He implies that Indians do not have any sense of time and History, ignoring shakas (Vikram shaka), ages like Kali Yuga and Manvantaras and Kalpas.

First person who drew the attention of the Western world to the fact that Hindus would not accept the dogma or doctrine of Sin was Swami Vivekananda, who brought it out in the beginning of his very first lecture in Chicago. He also in other lectures pointed out that there was recognition of polytheism inherent in Bible citing statements like “thou shalt have no God beside me for I am a jealous God”.

His idea of Western freedom and the concept of Eastern freedom is a muddle. According to him, Hindus have freedom of choosing Diety (ishta devata) and Swadharma. Here again he is wrong. Swadharma is not a choice, it is predetermined. As in the scriptural admonition Svadharmam nidhanam Shreyah, paradharmo bhayavahah (GITA 3-35 ALSO 18-43). The author makes his own theology. The Westerners, according to him, driven by desire for “infinite expansion in a finite” are lead to colonization. He is not cognizant of needless wars by Ashvamedha Yagnyas and historical fact that Srilanka was repeatedly occupied by Pandya kings. Later Rajaraja Rajendra Chola occupied the entire Simhala. Also Ishvakus of Ayodhya occupied Tibet and called it Trivishtapa. In modern times Ranjit Singh’s empire extended to Iran.

Science always has to overcome the tyranny of religion. While the coexistence was apparent in physical sciences, the intensified conflict came to surface in biological sciences, especially during last 150 years after advent of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The author ignores this in his narrative by citing the religiosity of Newton, a physical scientist who did not face the problems like Copernicus and Galileo did. He calls the schism between science and religion as "superficial" in the West. BUT THE TERM SCHISM APPLIES FOR A SPLIT IN RELIGION, AND SCIENCE WAS NEVER PART OF RELIGION. THAT SAID, NEWTON’S BELIEF IN GOD DOES NOT MAKE SCIENCE A PART OF RELIGION!

Time is always linear even though there are cyclic events like seasons in a year. There is no difference in Western and Eastern thinking in this. He also uses meaningless expressions like practice of “self evolution and embodied knowing” contrasting with revelation. Did not Buddha get revelation in Gaya? Order and chaos as different between East and West he says, giving another meaningless example of Khumbha Mela. How is it different from Haaj festival at Kaaba?

Malhotra's narrow perspective on Hindu theology. Hindu theology in this book was reduced to some transcendental, occult practice apart from main stream practice of Hinduism. The author says, “even if all historical records are lost, historical memory erased, and every holy site destroyed, the ultimate truth could be recovered by ordinary humans through spiritual practices” (emphasis added).

Really? By ordinary humans?. WHICH IS the ultimate truth THAT can be discovered ? The book further goes on, “Anyone in this life has the potential for achieving in this very life, the state of satchidananda. Anyone may explore and discover autonomously the meaning of our existence.” Is this THE essence of Hinduism, the goal of satchidananda? The promise of spiritual moonshine sounds like the sermon of Nityananda. But this is not mainstream Hinduism. Bhakti (devotion) and prapatti (surrender to God) are the main practices in the Hindu worship of God. The author has complete misunderstanding of the term unity with God. In contrast to Malhotra's "anyone can have self-realization" stand -- Bhagavat Gita says;

Manushyanaan sahasreshu kaschityadati siddhaye
Yatatamapi siddhaanaam kaschinmaam vetthi tattwatah
(Gita Chapter 7-3)
Bhagavaan Krishna says: Among the thousands some rare one strives for self realization and among those who succeed only a rare one realizes My true nature.

Further, He says after several lives or rebirths only one can attains the true knowledge of Brahman that every thing is pervaded by God.

Bahunaam janmanaa mante jnanavan maam prapadyate Vasudeva sarvamiti sa mahaatmaa sa durlabhah. Gita 7-19

The bulk of Hindu population follows the path of Bhakti and Prapatti, by nine ways of worshiping God (Nava-vidhaa Bhakti), and therefore, they have temples built. Of course, there are enough dollar earning Tantriks and Yogis PEDDLING short cuts to direct touch with God.

To say that "Rama and Krishna are mythical characters" is no different than admitting that Hindus are idolaters. Ramayana and Mahabharata are itihasas (facts so heard). Valmiki, the great epic writer wrote Ramayana taking what has been believed as ancient history and embellished it with literary flare to produce a great epic. The narrative of the same facts can be structured into an epic depending on the ability of author as Tulsidas in Hindi and Kamban in Tamil. The narrative may be different; but the underlying facts should remain unaltered. Hindus accepted these as sacred works for three or more millennia. This is in contrast with the great English writer's work, "Paradise Lost" by John Milton, who was jailed for altering the narrative of the story of Adam and Eve. It is worth remembering the words of Samuel Johnson, the literary redactor if not dictator of English language. He remarked commenting on the achievement of Milton in composition of Paradise lost, "history must supply the writer with the rudiments of narration, which he must improve and exalt by a nobler art, must animate with dramatic energy, and diversity of retrospection and anticipation .” That was the artistic achievement of Valmiki, Tulsidas, Kamban. In addition they were totally immersed in the devotion of Rama and total surrender to their Lord. Millions worship Bhagvaan Rama and many pray every day and often the word Rama is on their lips till the last breath. Did not Mahatma Gandhi breath last saying –HEY RAM? To say that Rama is only a Myth and some kind of a Bhavana is offensive to countless Hindus of present and past generations of antiquity and portrays darkest ignorance.

On globalization, the author accuses West of 500 years of exploitation and cultural misappropriation. Here again he is short on economic history of India. Globalization immensely benefited India, Malhotra himself is the product of globalization. Like any economic competition, success depends on several factors. When India had upper hand, she acquired wealth and prosperity by globalization. Vijayanagara Empire was so prosperous by foreign trade, it was the only Hindu empire in the south which maintained standing armies. Currently China and India have advanced economically by globalization. Arguing that eating with fork and spoon, an example given by the author, as cultural misappropriation is truly silly. How would one eat ice-cream without a spoon? Lick with fingers? Use of silver at dining is modernity, neither Western nor Christian. Even Samuel Huntington would agree.


The real debate FOR 21ST CENTURY IS either to search for the differences or focus on commonalities in the world culture. VHP talks about Vishwa Dharma, V.S. NAIPAUL talked about the world progressing toward Universal culture and Gandhiji spoke of Sermon on the Mount and Bhgavat Gita on the same pulpit taking best of both cultures. There is Christian Universalism, Muslim Universalism, nondenominational Universalism based on scientific humanism advanced by Julian Huxley and especially Carl Marx who based it on the philosophy of Epicurus. But there is no "Western Universalism" as Malhotra keeps drumming. When Hindus talk of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam or advocate Krunvanto pruThvIRARyam, or vishwamaaryam it is Hindu Universalism.

There is much work to be done for the uplift of Hindu Society. It is appropriate to emphasize their uniqueness in inculcating pride in the Hindu children. But with others, they need to seek commonality. So we say E Pluribus Unum and not to go on and endlessly debate how different we are. The attitude of Jews is very instructive in this regard. They never tried to debate, for instance, that there is no Hell in their religion in contrast with Christianity! By keeping their distinct identity and conforming to the universal culture of humanity, they survived for 2000 years in hostile cultures. Moses Mendelssohn, regarded as German Socrates was once asked to convert to Christianity. He replied, "why should I leave the true religion?" Sadly all his children, except one and their grand children converted to Christianity. Some of them became great celebrities in Germany. Neither conversion nor great recognition saved them from Nazis. My humble advice to Hindu activists is not to go around debating how great our religion (Dharma?) is. They should remember Enoch Powell, whom British Prime Minister called a Parliamentary Leper, learned Hindi and became familiar with Hindu traditions, and then campaigned to kick out all Indians from Great Britain! Don’t try to educate your adversaries. In a debate between a Hindu sadhu (Sri Sri Ravishankar I learn), a Muslim debater opened with a line “what your God (Vishnu?) can do with four hands which he cannot do with two?” In such debate Hindus are thrown off balance into defense. Fr. Clooney cannot explain why Jesus called out to his Father in Heaven “ My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me! E’li, E’-li, la’-ma, sa-bach’thani --(Mathew 27-46) He would rather debate why Kali has blood in her mouth!!


How do I respect an evangelist who tells me that I go to Hell if I do not accept Jesus as the only way and redeemer, and I will burn in eternal inferno? The author has to explain his position as how he expects a Hindu to respect an evangelical position -tolerate, may be, as we have to live as neighbors on this little planet.

In summary, the book has been commended by knowledgeable Hindu scholars in the U.S. as judged only by the cover DESPITE THEOLOGICAL CONFABULATIONS, ERRONEOUS HISTORY AND CONTORTED SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY. But the book should not be judged by cover only; obviously JNU in Delhi has done precisely that by making it a required reading for Masters degree in Psychology, again judging the book "Being Different" by its cover only!

From: Seshachalam Dutta


  1. Svadharma implies your calling in life- if your are a teacher out of compulsion, it is career but if you are a teacher becasue you enjoy teaching , it is a calling. Svarharma means spontaneous occupation or what you are naturally inclined to do.

  2. How do I respect an evangelist who tells me that I go to Hell if I do not accept Jesus as the only way and redeemer, and I will burn in eternal inferno?

    You misunderstood what type of respect is called for by Rajiv Malhotra. He says "mutual respect". If the otherwise is intolerant, there cannot be mutual respect. In fact, Rajiv says that you do not offer respect to a counterparts that is exclusivist. Sounds like you agree with Rajiv Malhotra, not disagree with him.

  3. On globalization, the author accuses West of 500 years of exploitation and cultural misappropriation. Here again he is short on economic history of India.

    Rajiv Malhotra supports Globalization as in cultural and economic exchange. He points out that what are considered universal values are really Western values and Western values are really Christian values. In the name of Globalization, Western values are being pushed globally as universal values or secular values. Rajiv Malhotra is saying that such things are not the desired effects of a globalization we speak of these days.

  4. It is not clear to me that the reviewer has actually read the book.....