Vishal Agarwal is a scholar of Hindu shastras and a Hinduism teacher. A practitioner-student of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, he has authored over dozen publications on childhood spirituality, ancient Indian history and archaeology, and historiography as research papers in peer reviewed journals, and chapters in American and Indian school textbooks. He has also written several articles in American Hindu community newspapers. He has served on the boards of several academic associations and Hindu community organizations. Recipient of several awards, he has been invited as a keynote speaker in dozens of conferences, churches, synagogues, high schools and temples. He lives in Minneapolis with his family.
A Review of ‘Introducing Hinduism’ by Vinay Lal (2005), Totem Books, USA.
By Vishal Agarwal
The book under review combines cartoons with text – an attractive and light-hearted style for introducing Hinduism to beginners. Unfortunately, the author succeeds in perpetuating negative stereotypes about the 3rd largest religion of the world, and presents a non-insightful and a biased view of the faith. This is hardly surprising, because the author is a well known (http://www.uclaprofs.com/profs/lal.html) hardcore, ultra-leftist, often included in the list of ‘the hundred most dangerous professors in the United States.’ In the past, Lal has written apologias for Palestinian suicide bombers and for the Taliban when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. He has also apparently suggested that the United States brought 9/11 terror attacks upon itself. He has penned reams of intolerant rant against the USA, Israel, India in several radical left websites and publications. In the book’s acknowledgments section, he dedicates the book to Professor I K Shukla, whom Lal himself describes as a ‘committed Marxist’. In the Indian context, being a Marxist typically means bearing an animosity towards Hinduism, the dominant culture and faith of India. This background about Lal is important for understanding the subtle and not-so-subtle biases against Hinduism that the present reviewer found in the book.
In her recent work “The Hindus: An Alternative History”, Wendy Doniger – whose view of Hindu traditions is often of a paparazzi variety, terms Lal’s book as ‘delightful’. My review below of Lal’s book will perhaps enlighten the reader about the cause of Doniger’s delight.
In the approximately 170 page long book, Vinay Lal devotes 3 pages to illustrate Lord Krishna’s ‘cunning’ and ‘deceptive’ behavior; 10 pages on excoriating Hindu Nationalism in India; 6 pages on Bollywood and Hinduism; 5 pages on untouchability; 6 pages on Sati, Dowry and other ways in which Hinduism has allegedly mistreated women; 4 pages on a rather negative depiction of the Ramayana (in particular on the treatment of Devi Sita). Negative and snide remarks abound in other pages too. Rather than devoting these 34 pages or about 20% of the book to an obsessively negative ‘caste-cow-dowry-Sati’ stereotype of Hinduism, he could have used this space to present more meaningful and relevant topics such as
contributions of Hinduism to human civilization;
the proverbial tolerance of Hindus;
Hindu arts, music, sculpture and temple architecture;
the spread of Hindu faith and culture to different parts of the world (especially S E Asia) in ancient times;
Hindu festivals and pilgrimages (yes, even these are absent in the book!);
Hindu view of other faiths;
The doctrines of Rebirth and Reincarnation, Samsara and Karma.
All of these missing topics are vital to understanding Hindu world view, and practically ignored in the book.
If these omissions are glaring to a reader knowledgeable in Hinduism, the distorted way in which Hinduism facts are actually presented is even more alarming. At the very onset, Lal claims (p.3), in the vein of Indian Marxist historians, that Hindus did not refer to themselves as Hindus before the 18th century. The assertion, which serves the political agenda of Indian Marxists and Communists, is contradicted by research of Indologists like David Lorenzen.
Several cartoons and other pictures in the book are plainly wrong, misplaced or offensive. In the discussion of the caste system (pages 18-19), it is unclear why a picture of the Hindi movie ‘Teesri Manzil’ (with the face of the actor Shammi Kapoor) has been inserted. Lal erroneously shows (on page 140) the actress Kajol saying – “In the film Guddi, I play a teenaged girl who had a crush on the filmstar Dharmendra”. The actress in the movie Guddi was actually Jaya Bhaduri, and not Kajol! Kalki, the last incarnation of Lord Vishnu is likened to the ex-US President George Bush (page 92) in a rather insensitive way. The photograph of Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883), the founder of Arya Samaj given in the book (p. 119) is actually that of a currently living Swami Dayanand Saraswati, who is the founder of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Pennsylvania. The face of an ‘Aryan’ looking woman (page 6) is superimposed with a Swastika, drawing the reader’s mind to Nazism. Either the Swastika should not have been drawn on that figure, or Lal should have delinked Nazism from Hinduism.
Surprisingly, Lal, a self professed crusader against racism, subscribes to the Aryan Migration Theory throughout the book. If the source of any Hindu tradition cannot be traced historically, Lal attributes it to that mysterious black-hole, the ‘pre-Aryan, Dravidian natives’ of India! His view (page 6) that the Caucasians from Georgia (in the Caucasus region) may have pushed the Dravidians of the Indus Valley Civilization to South India reads straight out of a 19th century colonial textbook on Indian history. The claim that the worship of Devi and image worship in Hinduism is pre-Aryan (page 8) is simply unattested. And of course, the idolization of Ravana by a remote tribe in Orissa is mentioned and, as expected, traced to that black-hole – ‘Pre-Aryan India’ (page 63).
In his lengthy depiction of untouchability pages 18-24), the author of course omits to mention that the practice has no sanction in Hindu scriptural tradition, and that it was either absent or a marginal practice in ancient India according to scholars of Hinduism. The pervasive impression created by Lal is that untouchability is intrinsic to Hinduism, which it is not.
Often, when Lal mentions something that may be construed as a positive feature of Hinduism, he takes care to ‘balance’ it with a negative statement. For instance, when he mentions that the Upanishads were admired by several Western philosophers (page 28), he does not forget to state that these scriptures are known to ‘very few Hindus, Brahmins or otherwise’. The much reviled, unique passage of the Gautama Dharmasutra (‘the ears of a Shudra who hears the Vedas shall be sealed with molten tin or lac’ etc.) is of course reproduced in extensor, without mentioning that no clear historical instance of this injunction having actually been put to practice. And when Lal does concede that a lady philosopher Gargi challenges Sage Yajnavalkya to a philosophical debate (page 32) in an Upanishad, he adds a mean-spirited commentary, quoting the Sage – “Gargi, do not question too much, lest your head fall off”, with the comment “what a thigh slapper”. Lal convenient ignores the fact that “your head will fall off” is a clichéd statement in similar texts that ‘raises the stakes’ of philosophical debates, and that Hindu scriptures do give examples of male philosophers who died unnatural or ignoble deaths as a result of losing debates. But the impression created by Lal is that Gargi was unfairly singled out by an allegedly male chauvinist Sage Yajnavalkya just because she was a woman. When Lal mentions that the Chhandogya Upanishad talks about a boy of unknown parentage being admitted to the spiritual school of Haridrumuta, Lal asks the question – “But would he have taken a girl” (page 32). Quite a silly question, because colleges were residential in the Upanishadic milieu and girls would have gone to a separate place to study.
Concerning Buddhism and Jainism, Lal makes a very questionable claim that these faiths introduced vegetarianism and monasticism into Hinduism. When Lal talks about Ramayana in 7 pages (pages 57-63), he devotes 3-4 of them to Sita’s agnipariksha and one on ‘alternate’ (= not conforming to the conventional versions) versions of Ramayana. There is barely any discussion on what the Ramayana is really about, why Hindus revere this scripture, why Rama is considered an ideal son, warrior and how it spread across Asia etc. The overall impression created is that the Ramayana is a misogynist text. Under the pretext of developing ‘critical thinking skills’, the author should have given some more substantial information about the Ramayana instead of indulging in a political agenda driven sermon.
In discussing the Pauranic Deities, Shiva is of course also referred to as a ‘Pre-Aryan’ transplant into Vedic Hinduism (page 68). The claim made that king Hiranyakashipu wanted his son Prahlad to stop worshipping Lord Vishnu because the father was a worshipper of Shiva (page 88) is contrary to the predominant narratives. Hiranyakashipu is typically represented as a godless egomaniacal king who considered worship to Lord Vishnu as superfluous because the king considered himself as the most powerful. Overall, Lal’s description of Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and the Devi is fairly comprehensive but one wishes that he had devoted some space to other prominent Hindu Deities such as Lord Ganesha (of whom he gives a rather superficial description on page 127). Understandably, Indian Marxists depict Hindus as polytheists (and try to ‘rescue’ Hinduism from Hindus when their own Priests and Gurus actually assert that Hindus believe in One God that manifests in many ways) and therefore Lal has not explained how Hindus often consider their Deities as manifestations of the same Divine Power.
Lal initiates the discussion of the Bhakti movement by making patently false assertions (on page 105) that the Bhakti saints rejected the Vedas as a source of authority, the sanctity of holy pilgrimage sites, temple worship and so on. Lal’s awareness of their literature and teachings is surely quite deficient because even the Bhakti Saints he has (selectively) quoted wrote hundreds of hymns to Deities in various temples, they sang praises of pilgrim centers and made salutations to the Vedas in their devotional writings. There were indeed a few Bhakti Saints who may have rejected these, but the overwhelming majority of them had a deep regard for the Vedas, for the temples and for holy pilgrimage centers. His claim (page 106) that most Bhakta Saints were low caste Hindus is also questionable. In fact, one can discern a typically Indian Marxist agenda in Lal’s pitting the Bhakti movement against the Sanskritic Hindu tradition, and in highlighting the role of Nirguni Bhakti Saints at the expense of the Saguni Bhakti saints. The former are more conformable with the political agendas of these Indian ‘secularists’ compared to the latter.
Coming to the British period, Lal makes several questionable (and plainly erroneous) claims about Hindu reformers. For instance, his assertion (page 118) that the Brahmo Samaj was ‘profoundly influential’ until relative recent times is not supported by any evidence. His claim that “[The Arya Samaj] is generally described as a revivalist movement, but Dayanand thought of himself as a modernist” is quite the opposite of what the Swami thought of himself – as a champion of ancient Vedic teachings. The Swami actually criticized the modernists (using the word ‘naveena’ in a pejorative sense against them).
Interestingly, in describing justifiable Hindu assertion or protest against transgressions of their religion, Lal assumes the posture “If you are not with us, you are against us” of his bête-noire ex-President George Bush. Hindu protests against the imprint of images of their Deities on shoe soles, toilet seats etc., are all lumped into a hateful and enemy category ‘VHP’, the pariah other of Indian (and Indian American) Marxists and Communists like Lal. Indian diaspora in the United States is stereotyped as ‘supporters of Hindu Nationalism’ – a constant refrain in the writings of Lal and his ideological comrades such as the ultra-Leftist Vijay Parshad. Whenever Lal refers to assertive Hindus, he does not fail to include a caricature bearing the letters ‘VHP’ or a caricature of a masculine male flexing his muscles (to imply that these Hindus are inherently aggressive and prone to violence). Criticizing western scholars who have popularized non-mainstream versions of Hindu history amongst the diaspora, Lal characterizes (page 157) Koenraad Elst, a Belgian scholar, as a ‘Belgian Priest’ (which he is not, in fact Elst flirted with Leftist ideologies for a few years). He also projects David Frawley as a non Hindu, unaware that Frawley has actually authored an autobiographical account called “How I became a Hindu” (Voice of India, New Delhi). Lal also mocks at Frawley’s credentials as a scholar of the Vedas, forgetting that he was bestowed the title of ‘Vedacharya’ by bonafide traditional Vedic scholars of India. Frawley’s credentials as a Vedic scholar are several orders of magnitude more convincing than Lal’s credentials as a scholar of Hinduism.
Lal’s book includes a long diatribe on how the worship of Devi does not translate to respect for women in the Hindu society, which has practiced, and practices dowry killings, Sati, female infanticide (the face of Leftist economist Amartya Sen is depicted as talking about this issue). Lal of course omits to mention that dowry is not mentioned in Hindu scriptures and is most likely a recent practice. Nor does he mention that even before the British, both Hindu (the Peshwas) and Muslim (Emperor Akbar) rulers tried to abolish the practice of Sati. Questionable also is his exaggerated claim that India has seen 5000 dowry deaths per year for the last two decades (page 129). While the murder of even one woman for dowry is unacceptable, Lal is clearly pandering to that faction of his readership that perceives the state of the Hindu society as the ‘White Man’s Burden’. Perhaps, the reader of my review of his book will understand my criticism by considering the fact that introductory books on Christianity do not dwell upon witch-burning, slavery, Crusades, racism and other evils found in Christian societies to the obsessive extent that we find in Lal’s book.
Indian Marxists have always hated the immensely popular Indian TV mega-serials on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. They blame the popularity of these serials for fueling ‘Hindu communalism’. So not surprisingly, Lal makes snide remarks (page 155) against the serial Ramayana, stating that ‘It privileged Ramacharitmanas over other versions of the Ramayana’ (forgetting that this was a TV serial for mass consumption by Hindi speaking audience, not a Leftist PhD dissertation), and that the serial depicted Sita as ‘flat and one-dimensional’ and an embodiment of ‘docility and submissiveness prized by Hindu males’(!). It is pertinent to ask if Lal saw anything positive worth talking about in that TV serial?
Consistent with the interests of Indian Marxists, Lal devotes an inordinately long section on beef eating by Hindus in ancient India. The political agenda served by this section is quite obvious – Indian ‘Secularists’ claim that modern Hindus justify their oppression of Muslims because the latter eat beef whereas Hindus do not. Therefore, these Secularists want to remove the very raison d’être of this alleged Hindu aggression towards Muslims by saying –“Look, your own ancestors ate beef. The Cow is not as holy in Hinduism as you want to claim. Therefore stop using beef-eating by Muslims as an excuse to oppress them.” On page 148, Lal mentions that in 2002, upper caste Hindu men killed 5 Dalit men who were caught skinning a cow. This leaves out a detail that explains what actually lead to the incident in Haryana – a state with a history of suppression of Hindus by the substantial Muslim minority before the latter’s expulsion in 1947. The word that went around was that Muslims had slaughtered a cow, inflaming passions in the Hindu community. It was found only later that the victims were actually poor Dalits who were skinning (for leather) an already dead cow. Not that all this justifies the killing of innocent human beings – but the use of this incident to kill two birds (Hinduism, upper-caste Hindus) with one stone, as Lal tries to, is reprehensible.
Practically every one of the last 10 or so pages of his book has a caricature of the VHP or some other Hindu organizations. What was the need to end an ‘introductory’ text on Hinduism meant for a western audience with such a heavy dose of Hindu Nationalist movement (with its accompanying descriptions of violence, riots, assassinations and so on)? The standard Communist Party of India line with regard to these issues is of course taken by Lal – that there is ‘no evidence’ that the Ramajanmabhoomi marks the birthplace of Rama (failing to mention that the archaeological opinion states that a temple existed at the site where the mosque was constructed later), that 2000 Muslims were butchered in Gujarat in 2002 (actual official figures by the Government of India are less than half that number), that the destruction of Babri Masjid was one of the ‘saddest days’ in the history of Hinduism. Expectedly, Lal, who is an apologist for the Taliban and the Al Qaeda is completely silent on the ethnic cleansing of 200,000 Hindus of Kashmir in 1990, silent on the continued genocide of Hindu minority in Bangladesh, silent on the marginalization of Hindus in Indian states dominated by Christians (e.g., Mizoram) etc. etc. Why are these instances not sadder than the destruction of a solitary decrepit mosque? Therefore, the sermons to Hindus of this ultra-left ideologue historian at the last pages of the book (pages 170-171) really do not carry much conviction.
Indian Marxist historians like Romila Thapar have perfected the art of ‘Hating Hindus in an Academic Manner’. With its hundreds of cartoons, caricatures and doodles accompanying a lucid (but faulty) text, Lal’s book breaks new ground – ‘Hatemongering against Hindus as a Fun Activity’. Perhaps, now we can understand why Wendy Doniger found Lal’s book so ‘delightful’.
Vishal Agarwal Vishal Agarwal is a scholar of Hindu shastras and a Hinduism teacher. A practitioner-student of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, he has authored over dozen publications on childhood spirituality, ancient Indian history and archaeology, and historiography as research papers in peer reviewed journals, and chapters in American and Indian school textbooks. He has also written several articles in American Hindu community newspapers. He has served on the boards of several academic associations and Hindu community organizations. Recipient of several awards, he has been invited as a keynote speaker in dozens of conferences, churches, synagogues, high schools and temples. He lives in Minneapolis with his family.