Intemperate Defense of “Being Different” by the Author Malhotra
Dr. Seshachalam Dutta
Much is said about the recent book tour and debates on the publication of 'Being Different' by Rajiv Malhotra. Some of the observations may not be valid, but the most recent three part article on www.sookta-sumana.blogspot.com and one previous article on the same blog are excellent critiques by G.P. Srinivasan outlining several factual blunders and logical inconsistencies.
This book, "Being Different," has also been reviewed objectively from academic view point by the present author in www.sookta-sumana.blogspot.com covering a wide spectrum of issues with particular emphasis on historical, theological and philosophical inconsistencies. Malhotra has indulged in constant rhetoric in his book tours in the U.S and India that he had no problem with Western audience but had great impatience with Hindus of Diaspora. It might be true that some Hindus are not as knowledgeable like him but many more Hindus have more than superficial knowledge of the subject at hand. Their observations and, particularly, well meaning criticisms have met acerbic and vitriolic abuse by the retorting author, Shri Rajiv Malhotra.
Unfortunately some well respected people have defended him in this exchange; Dr. Balaram Singh of U-Mass being one of them.
I agree that Rajiv Malhotra has his own right to write his books, speak and debate as a free agent, and nobody should criticize his activities, much less attribute motives. Whether he succeeds in debates with his Christian opponents or gets a black eye is up to him. In as much as he has a right to publish and propagate his views, his critics also deserve and reserve the same rights. If he is so sensitive to criticism, he should neither write and publish, nor undertake public appearances.
Dr. Balaram Singh's admonition that the critics of Rajiv Malhotra should not be guided by "emotional outbursts and should exercise rationality" is one sided and it may wisely be addressed as well to Malhotra. Whether the author of "Being Different" has achieved a grand inning for Hindus after a 1000 years of entry into Western academia, as commended by Dr. Singh is another matter, subject to further deliberation. I shall briefly address it here and have already addressed it in detail in my previous article in www.sookta-sumana.blogspot.com (2011).
It is Malhotra who called his critiques "half baked intellectuals," "new entrants into field", called them "sour grapes" and described some as "jealous" (of his achievement presumably), although he has not published a best seller yet nor achieved the recognition of Deepak Chopra at least! He called Hindu Gurus and Acharyas "incompetent" to conduct what he mistakenly calls "purva paksha" with adversaries. At the same time he carries his own baggage that runs afoul. He is the man who defended the charlatan Nityananda, in allegations of sex scandals, describing him as a great spiritual leader and concocted the story that the latter was defamed by some Christian conspiracy. Then he called Vijaya Rajiva, his former collaborator in activism as a ‘hero’. He gracelessly attacked Dr. Vinekar, who expressed his admiration for Malhotra's learning many a time. He advised that the latter should leave his job and go around the world for 20 years to learn Hinduism! Dr. Vinekar, professor of psychiatry, has done relentless service to the Hindu community for 40 years in a variety of ways, guided young generations of Hindus and is highly regarded for his scholarship. Malhotra also sets a qualification for his critiques and criticizes that they did not publish any books in 20 years and so they were not qualified to critique his book. He forgets that even criminals from prisons in the U.S. published books, some of which are widely read. It is, therefore, appropriate to address the unfortunate invective and appeal Malhotra to accept criticism with calm and dignity. The mark of true scholarship is humility. After decent interregnum of cooling of tempers one would have expected him to apologize for his remarks by now. That has not happened.
Coming to his oft repeated refrain that people should buy his book and read before criticizing, IT IS NOT EVEN NECESSARY THAT EVERYONE READ HIS BOOK TO BECOME AWARE OF THE PROCESS OF ENTERING INTO INTER-FAITH DIALOGUE THAT HE STARTED PROPOSING IN POPULARIZING HIS BOOK "BD". From the speeches of Malhotra one can glean nothing substantial as he seems to be inclined to market the book rather than explain his positions. But for those watching the discourse at U. of Mass presented as a dialogue/debate between Malhotra and Fr. Clooney, it revealed nothing substantive. Fr. Clooney, who was somewhat generous towards Malhotra, said that he was troubled by the third chapter (what is the third chapter for the audience?) in which the author made a distinction between Western synthetic approaches to Hindu integral approach. Then Clooney went on to say that when God said "let there be light there was light” and there is nothing synthetic about it. In answer to the author's position that Hinduism is Dharma not a religion and shall be addressed so to be linguistically correct, he defended saying that one day Dharma may enter lexicon and treated with the distinction which is for now quite trivial. If he wished to be stronger in his argument, he should have posed the question as "what is the Sanskrit word for religion?" The author presented no rebuttal or response in the debate-no poorva paksha. Fr. Clooney did not further press for what he meant by integral vs. synthetic for he was not a scientist. If we synthesize copper sulfate is sulfur not integral to the copper sulfate? The argument is plainly like "tweedledum-tweedledee."
The author indiscriminately flings expressions like “integral” “knowledge" and “endowed” "knowledge", "anxiety (angst) of being different" among Hindu scholars. He speaks of cultural digestion of Dharma by Western universalism, none of which have foundation in any systematic study. Hinduism is not monolithic as he narrowly conceives even as much like an esoteric occult practice of Yoga. Hindus are best defined as the original people of Bharat, just as Jews are original people of Israel. Hindus may be atheists like ancient Charvaka, polytheists, monotheists, monists, ultra Orthodox who view Vedas as God given (apourasheya), agnostics like Nehru or modern atheists like Savarkar, the great Hindu Nationalist... But they are all children of one civilization that survived for millennia not amenable to cultural “digestion”.
They are inheritors of an ancient culture, tradition, ethnicity and love of land they call sacred.
The author’s ideas of Western Universalism are derived from the popular, but, flawed work of Samuel Huntington, “Clash of Civilizations” which is essentially racist and imperialistic as reviewed by current author (www.sookta-sumana.blogspot.com (2011). Greatness or nobility of Hinduism is in its immense charity to people who worship any symbol or lesser God, so long as their conduct is commendable and if they are engaged in divine conduct. This is beautifully expressed in Gita in two verses;
Na buddhibhedam janayed Ajnanam karmasanginaam
Yojayet sarvakarmani vidwan yuktah samaacharan Chapter 3 verse 26
A wise man should not unsettle the mind of ignorant man engaged in (just) action, implying that he may not get any wiser by abandoning the proper action he is engaged in and in fact may lose in both ways.
Instead, a wise man is engaged in balanced (good) actions, all organized wisely, while remaining not overly attached.
Prakruter Gunasammoodaah sajjante gunakarmasu
Taan akrutsnavido mandaan krutsavid na vichaalayet Chapter 3: verse 29
Deluded by the gunas (qualities) of Prakruti, ignorant man is engaged in actions arising out of nature in an imperfect way and a wise man should not confuse such people (so long as they perform right actions) just because
they (the wise) are in possession of the knowledge of Karma (krutsavid).
Thus, Hindus take a charitable attitude towards spiritual individuals following all religious or spiritual persuasions, whether they worship Jesus, Mary or a village Goddess.
This statement was made prior to the onslaught of proselytizing religions with political agendas directed at destroying Hindu Society.
Unfortunately Malhotra adopts the stance of Wendy Doniger (author of Alternate History of Hindus) in characterizing Hindu Holy texts as supporting situational ethics. It is not surprising that Wendy Doniger can take that stand as she finds nothing of merit in Hinduism and its literature other than the sexual gymnastics of Kama sutra. But it is sad that a Hindu activist like Malhotra admires her and falls in line with her. It is already becoming self-effacing for Hindu youth in colleges in the U.S to accept such a claim as illustrated in a recent article by Hindu students of Wharton School of Management, who published in an article that Hindus don’t have ethical standards like Westerners have, arguing on the same lines as Malhotra and Wendy Doniger. The first generation Hindus may become like Jews of 1930s in U.S who were afraid to identify themselves as Jews.
It was not too long ago, only in 1950s that if a Jewish Rabbis wore Yarmulke in public he would be ridiculed, as narrated by Charles Silberman in his history of American Jews-‘A Certain people’. Jewish children were told in 1930s not to talk in public of their Jewishness and asked to remove Yarmulke when they go out. They were told that it was not ‘Nice’ meaning that they should be like others. There are parallels to Hindu immigrants in some ways. Hindu women are afraid to wear Hindu dress in public or wear a tilak (bindi) being afraid of dot busters in certain areas. We even truncate our names for the convenience of Americans, Shyamala as Sam, Arun as Aron and Gowardhan as Gordon. Being different and claiming so has no value and does not necessarily command respect... Young Hindus may be embarrassed or even feel ashamed to identify themselves as Hindus, when they are told that their country of origin is not only corrupt but even their Gods are liars and cheats!
The author of Being Different advances an argument, as if it is an an original invention of his, that Hinduism is not a religion but Dharma. What then is the religion of Hindus? Hinduism is a religion with its own epistemology, soteriology and philosophy. Dharma is the code of life as elaborated by scriptures. (Dharayate lokaaniti dharmah. Also Dhiyateevaajaneeriti dharmah. Dharmo dharayate prajaah.) There are several meanings of Dharma, but 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 all modern Hindu leaders from Tilak and Aurobindo to S. Radhakrishnan and Gandhi. Of late, it became Talmudic and trivial exercise of dwelling on the correctness of the translation of Sanskrit words into in English to describe Hinduism; for instance debating whether Caste is a correct word for Varna or Kula and Dharma is different from Religion and Atma is different from soul! Every one knows what Caste, which is ripping the society, means without going into its etymology, still we want a debate on its etymology, a Talmudic exercise, to use a Jewish term, where the form of argument is more important than its substance.
The real debate is either to search for the differences or alternatively look for the commonalities in the world culture. VHP advocated, (World Order of Ethics, Vishwa Dharma, whereas V. S. Naipaul recognized the world as progressing toward Universal culture and Gandhiji spoke of Sermon on the Mount and Bhgavad Gita on the same pulpit taking the best of both cultures. There is Christian Universalism, Muslim Universalism, nondenominational Universalism based on scientific humanism such as advanced by Julian Huxley and especially Carl Marx who based it on the philosophy of Epicurus.
But there is NO SUCH THING AS “Western Universalism" that Malhotra keeps drumming about. When Hindus talk of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam or advocate Krunvanto pruthviraaryam, it is Hindu Universalism. Probably it is this Hindu Universalism that appeared threatening to Western Culture that Alan Patton in his monograph on South Africa refers to saying that Hindus are regarded as a threat to their culture.
Greatest challenge to Hindus has been to consolidate their Hindu identity bringing into one fold all Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, emphasizing that they are all children of Bharat, of same heritage and bound by common thread of history and Culture calling them as religions all encompassed in Dharma tradition. When the British East India Company suppressed the Indian Liberation movement for Freedom (1857), it was the Sikh regiment that was effectively used to suppress it. Sikhs of that time did not feel that they were of the same blood as Hindus. Eighty five years ago Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedagewar took the mission of uniting all Hindus (indigenous cultures of Bharat) by making them overcome their differences. He dedicated his life to that mission and countless others followed him and sacrificed their lives in that effort. Yet this task inspired by Swami Vivekaananda is unfinished to this date. The call of the times is to seek unifying principle of all Hindus and not dwell on differences.
We discern parallelism with Jewish history to the plight of Hindus in many lands when we examine pogroms in Pakistan, appropriation of properties and exile of Ugandan and Kenyan Hindus, of Hindus in Burma (Myanmar), massacre of Hindus in Sri Lanka and even in India expulsion of Hindus from their own land of Kashmir. It took holocaust to unite Jews; one wonders what magnitude of atrocities towards Hindus (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) it would take to unite all "Hindus" meaning the original children of Bharat.
There is much work to be done for the uplift of Hindu Society. It is appropriate to emphasize their own uniqueness and assets of Hindu culture to the children of Hindus. But when with others, they need to seek commonality.
So we say E Pluribus Unum and not to go on endlessly debate how different we are. The attitude of Jews is very instructive in this aspect. They never tried to debate, for instance, they never make an issue 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 extremely hostile cultures. Moses Mendelssohn, regarded as German Socrates, when once asked to convert to Christianity 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 did sadly save them from Nazis. My advice to Hindu activists is not to go around debating how great our religion (Dharma?) is or how it is different from others. Mere difference does not command respect. They should remember Enoch Powell, whom British Prime Minister called a Parliamentary Leper, not only learned Hindi but also became familiar with Hindu traditions, and then campaigned to kick out all Indians from Britain!
So, in summary Rajiv Malhotra’s campaign is not likely to be fructuous but may even be harmful to Hindu Society and Diaspora. He may as well redeem his honor by apologizing for his intemperate attack on his critics. He should be reminded that Hindu Dharma is unique in regarding and respecting freedom of thinking and freedom of worship as "essential" for Hinduness; the essence of democracy too is criticism and dissent.