Monday, November 19, 2012


Koenraad Elst’s latest book is a collection of his views on Hindus and Hinduism. While well intentioned, it tends to give a misleading picture by focusing on personalities more than issues. Readers need to distinguish between transient trends and those likely to prove more enduring.
By Navaratna Rajaram

The Argumentative Hindu: Essays by a non-affiliated Orientalist (Aditya Prakashan, 518 pages, Rs 450 PB) is Koenraad Elst’s latest book on the state of Hindu society and civilization which he sees as being dangerously adrift. As with his other recent works it seeks to diagnose its ills and offer prescriptions for their remedy. In his words, the book is meant to address the “illiteracy about Hinduism among Hindus” which he sees as “the most consequential weakness in the struggle for survival.” The book is written, we are told, “to wake up the Hindus to their mistakes as well as their potential.”

This may sound suspiciously like an evangelist heaping abuse on the heathen to save his soul, but there can be no doubting the author’s sincerity or good intentions. Some may not take kindly to his superior tone— he speaks also of the Hindus’ “Stunted ideological development and an anachronistic worldview…,” language that can lead some to infer he has a low opinion of the intellectual and moral capacity of his readers. The author should not be surprised if his readers are equally unsparing in their reactions. It is called Newton’s Third Law.

The Argumentative Hindu by Dr. Koenraad Elst The Argumentative Hindu by Dr. Koenraad Elst

The book has as subtitle “Essays by a non-affiliated Orientalist”. It means the author is not affiliated with any organization— political or educational. This can be both a strength and a weakness: it allows him to take independent positions on issues; at the same time, when commenting on academic disputes to which he devotes considerable attention, his ignorance of the inner workings of academia can lead him astray to conclusions that are at best naïve, at worst totally wrong. No one, especially an academic, likes to admit defeat in public. So one cannot take their public postures at face value, which Elst invariably does. This is apparent for example in the case of the Harvard linguist Michael Witzel and his political activities.

AIT and Witzel: missing the real story

It is worth looking at this case, especially Witzel’s involvement in the California textbook affair which the author sees as an example of Hindu bungling (quite rightly) and an unmixed triumph for Witzel in having his pet Aryan theory (AIT) retained in school books (theories on which Witzel’s own career and reputation depend). Elst ignores Witzel’s personal stake (more later) by giving a simplistic account based on some internet reports and the propaganda put out by partisan websites, colored by his own views of what Hindus should have done. Having never served on the faculty of any institution Elst does not realize that curriculum change is an agonizingly slow process with many turns and twists. One has only to look at how schools in America are still grappling with the far more important problem of teaching the theory of evolution.

The AIT is nowhere near as important as teaching evolution and the stakes were high mainly for the career and reputation of Witzel and his colleagues. Seeing it in this light we get a very different picture of the episode and its aftermath. Witzel and the California Education Department paid a heavy price both financially and in credibility and goodwill. Elst completely misses this side, especially the financial angle— that it was pressure (and incentives) from the publishers that brought Witzel into the picture in the first place. And he soon found himself in disreputable company with fly by night evangelical outfits, communist groups and the like, hardly worthy of a senior professor at a prestigious university proud of its liberal credentials.

Elst also seems to have an exaggerated idea of the enduring power of the Aryan invasion theory (AIT) and of academics (like Witzel) who subscribe to it. The fact is both are headed into the dustbin of history. In 2005, when Witzel and his ilk were fighting to save it, the Journal of Indo-European Studies carried an article titled “Collapse of the Aryan invasion theory” by the respected Greek Vedic scholar Nicholas Kazanas. Also, Witzel took a beating in the media, in India and even in the Boston Globe, his home newspaper. It was a disaster for Witzel, his department and the whole academic discipline he represents.

By then the collapse of AIT was already old hat. Where are its advocates today? Mostly in the wilderness, fighting a losing battle to save themselves and their programs from being eliminated by universities from Berlin to Cambridge (England) to Cambridge (Massachusetts) and beyond. Witzel’s own department no longer exists and he has hardly any students. His tour of India where he tried to drum up support for his program was an embarrassment. He was held to ridicule even by school children questioning his Sanskrit while at the prestigious India International Centre in Delhi, the venerable scholar Kapila Vatsayan politely but firmly put him in his place. Neither did Witzel cover himself with glory during the notorious campaign against Subramanian Swamy. He is now a dinosaur and a liability but Harvard is stuck with him because he is a tenured professor.

Here is the official version from the Harvard Crimson: [Wtizel’s] Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies has laid out plans to adopt a more interdisciplinary focus as the renamed Department of South Asian Studies— a move… that professors hope would attract more concentrators [read students] and faculty affiliated with other departments. …the department will draw from other departments like anthropology, history, religion, folklore and mythology, music, and archeology to expand its current faculty from eight to 15 professors, according to Sanskrit Professor Michael E. J. Witzel. The change would also allow the department—which had only three declared undergraduate concentrators this past year…” (Sic: Three undergratuate students and eight professors!) This was in 2010. Today the situation is worse. The reshuffling has yielded little result.

Here is the real story: Witzel was fighting for the survival of his department (and his academic reputation) by demonstrating its importance in far off California and failed. He had better resources than his unsophisticated Hindu opponents: text book publishers and their friends in the California Department of Education who didn’t want to go to the trouble and expense of revising textbooks. None of this convinced his superiors at Harvard. His ‘success’ if any was at best temporary a public relations victory on the internet, but the damage was permanent: loss of credibility for Witzel followed by the closure of his department and program. Elst in his isolation missed all this.

(Here is something else: Witzel had compelling personal reasons. Alan Bersin, the California Secretary of Education at the time was also on Harvard’s Board of Overseers with which Witzel was already in hot water because of complaints over his IER hate group. Bersin was certainly in a position to give Witzel’s superiors at Harvard the true picture beyond the internet hype and the publicity. The real motive behind Witzel’s otherwise inexplicable involvement in California state affairs might have been a desire to impress Bersin—an influential voice at Harvard—of the value of his work. The full story of this bizarre episode remains to be written.)

Personalizing science
Koenraad Elst Koenraad Elst

This episode merits some attention because it illustrates the hazards of basing a narrative on personalities rather than issues. Personalities come and go while issues change much more slowly but have more lasting impact. (Whatever happened to Angana Chatterji by the way?) The real issue today is no longer the Aryan invasion but creating a foundation for the study of ancient history on a scientific basis. Several publications today treat the Aryan theories in the same light as Creation science and reject papers that use it. This needs to be mentioned because the author devotes a great deal of attention to personalities like Meera Nanda and their positions. Real issues tend to get subsumed, even sidelined by his preoccupation with personalities.

It is a similar story with OIT (Out of India Theory), which Elst and a few of his colleagues like Shrikant Talageri are holding up as an alternative to the AIT. If something like OIT eventually becomes established it will not be because of the methodology or reasons they are espousing. It will be for reasons of science, natural history and genetics in particular. As things are shaping up at present, linguistic similarities can be traced to major disturbances in the natural world going back 70,000 years, perhaps more.

A major part of the problem is that Elst (and his valued colleagues like Talageri) have no inkling of science. When they get into disputes on scientific matters they muddle the issue. Here is an example. When S. Kalyanaraman complained in a letter charging that biologist Mark Stoneking was trying to prove the AIT by using a circular argument, Elst sprang to Stoneking’s defense writing (in first person): “It is simply not true that Stoneking ‘proved the AIT using the AIT’. His paper argues that there was an inflow of genes from Central Asia to India…”

This is demonstrably wrong— for one can always find some gene exchange between any two populations; the issue is the quantum and age of the genetic marker in question and the population group with the greater diversity (which happens to be India). Unlike Elst, Stoneking could not have been ignorant of this but still went on to drop a sly hint that it fits Romila Thapar’s (and Witzel’s) invasion-migration model.

So Kalyanaraman’s complaint was not without merit. But Elst will have none of it. He notes that nothing happened to the scientist in question, with the authorities standing by him—they always do against an outsider but negatives tend to accumulate over time as happened with Witzel. Still not satisfied, Elst describes the Hindu opposition to the AIT as being monopolized by crackpots. (This crackpot brigade includes Hindus and non-Hindus like this reviewer, geneticists Vikram Kashyap, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Stephen Oppenheimer, and archaeologists B.B. Lal, S.R. Rao, R.S. Bisht and others.)

But Elst doesn’t want to leave the ‘crackpot’ Kalyanaraman even at that. He gratuitously adds “But then it is precisely Dr. [another crackpot not named here] and Dr. Kalyanaraman who always jump to conclusions on the basis of very tentative and provisional genetic research finding.” This is hardly the language calculated to win friends and influence people especially from one ignorant of science to the point of not knowing the depth of his own ignorance. It was also totally unnecessary; nothing was achieved and no knowledge was advanced by this pointless but highly personalized polemic. It was a case of polemics for the sake of polemics.

Weakness of Hindu intellectuals

A running theme in the author’s recent writings, including The Argumentative Hindu is the decline of Hindu intellectuals. In this the author harks back to his mentors Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel, especially the latter who provided an intellectual foundation for nationalism. He laments their passing and also the fact that such vigor and intellect are absent among present day workers. This may be so, but as the author himself notes, their work is now common property and many of their ideas have been adopted by Hindus and non-Hindus worldwide as a valid school of thought. Elst himself is an example— a protégé of Ram Swarup and Goel, yet a critic of the deficiencies of their followers. This is a healthy development.

This is not to suggest there is no room for improvement. The author is very much on the mark when he accuses Hindu intellectuals of lethargy and a tendency to slip into obscurantism in the name of spirituality. Their leadership would do well to pay heed to the author’s well thought out criticisms. One should ignore his provocative language and listen to his sound criticisms. Where the author goes wrong is when he ventures into unfamiliar territory like science (genetics) and public affairs where he fails to distinguish between transient trends and enduring substance.

One cannot do full justice to a book that covers such a large territory. There are discussions of karma and rebirth, humor in Hinduism, Macaulay, historicity of the Vedas and the like in which he expresses opinions on these and other topics where the reader has to accept or reject them based on one’s own beliefs and preferences. This reviewer found most of them to be familiar and a few, like his interpretation of apauresheya, to be plain wrong. Philosophy, at least Indian philosophy, metaphysics in particular is not the author’s strength. He is too literal minded to see the nuances of philosophy and science.

At the same time the patient reader with a forgiving spirit will find the book thought provoking even if the author’s positions are not always sound. The book would have benefited from a strong editorial hand and a language less strident. To be effective, criticism is best administered in moderate language and small doses. There is no denying Elst’s intentions or knowledge but an excess of personalized polemics can be counterproductive.

Internet ‘publication’

An unusual feature of the book is the chapter titled Internet Discussions. It is a rambling account of the author’s many exchanges with various individuals on topics ranging from Witzel’s California campaign (but not his fiasco in India or the Subramanian Swamy scandal) to Rama’s Bridge to Sati and Vedic Seers. In these the author liberally quotes himself— a practice he follows throughout the book. This has its drawbacks like the risk of reproducing in print unseemly language from an unguarded personal exchange.

The practice though raises a ticklish question for publishers: this being the internet age, what are publishers and editors to do upon receiving a ‘manuscript’ made up of printouts of internet exchanges? One is also left wondering for whose benefit these exchanges are reproduced in print. Are they meant to emulate Albert Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions, a posthumous compilation by others?

In summary, Koenraad Elst has produced a trenchant book of opinions spanning a wide range of topics of interest to students of India, both Hindu and non-Hindu. It covers familiar ground covered by him and by others in previous works. As a long time India watcher, his observations are always relevant and thought provoking, but unlike some of his previous works, notably Negationism in India, The Argumentative Hindu contains no radically new ideas or insights.

Dr. N.S. Rajaram, a mathematical scientist is the author of several books on Indian history. His current interest is history and philosophy of science.

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