Spare Us These Hindu-Sympathisers

The Weekend Observer, January 31, 1998
Spare Us These Hindu-Sympathisers
J. K. Bajaj and M. D. Srinivas

Review of
Bharatiya Janata Party
vis-à-vis Hindu Resurgence

by Koenraad Elst
Published by Voice of India
pp. 177. Rs. 90

We have got into the habit of looking at ourselves and the world from other’s perspective. Few of us have dared to see things in the light of our own self-interest and our own understanding of man and the universe. Shri Ram Swarup and Shri Sita Ram Goel are amongst the rare Indian scholars and public figures who have tried to do just that. And they have not done it merely as an academic exercise for themselves; instead, having looked at the world from an Indian perspective, they have tried to educate Indians about what they have seen. They have told us about the essential nature of the alien religions and ideologies with which we are surrounded, and some of which have taken root in India. They have shown us how these religions and ideologies militate against the essential Indian ways of comprehending and living in the world.

In the 1950s, they led an intense ideological movement against international communism, and some of the books they produced at that time, especially the two books of Shri Ram Swarup, Communism and Peasantry and Gandhism and Communism, still remain important documents for understanding the vacuousness of not only the philosophy and ideology, but also the economics of Leninist-Marxist interpretation of the communistic ideal.

Later, in the early 1980’s, they started “Voice of India”, an intellectual organization aimed at, as they put it, “providing an ideological defense of Hindu society and culture through a series of publications”. And since then they have published a number of books, explaining the nature and practice of Hindu thought, and that of Islam and Christianity. They have continuously meditated on defending the essence of Hinduism, from both the ignorance of Hindus themselves and the designs of alien religions and cultures.

Theirs is indeed a stupendous effort. To think seriously about Indian religion, culture and civilization and about ways of defending it against alien incursions at a time when most of thinking India had decided to forget about herself and to learn the new secular ways of the modern West, required extraordinary courage and commitment. Many of the books that they have written during this period offer an enlightening experience of the immense depth of Indian thought, and about the immensity of the effort mounted by Islam and Christianity to subdue the Indian way of thinking and being.

In this context, we must mention the seminal work of Shri Ram Swarup, The Word as Revelation: Names of Gods, which was published by Shri Sita Ram Goel in 1980. This extraordinary book shows how the daily practice of the ordinary believing Indian of nama-japa, of repeating the names of Gods, puts him in intimate contact with the varied aspects of the universe and the innermost essence of his being. Similarly, Shri Sita Ram Goel’s, Hindu-Christian Encounters, brings to light how not only the great Indian thinkers but also the ordinary Indians have always considered Christian thinking about divinity and creation to be somewhat naïve.

The effort of Shri Ram Swarup and Shri Sita Ram Goel, as we have said, is stupendous. And the Indians who are committed to a resurgence of Indian civilization owe a debt of gratitude to them. The public organizations that represent such resurgence, and which are jointly though somewhat incorrectly referred to as the Sangh Parivar, have been generous in paying due respect and honour to them. Even though Shri Ram Swarup and Shri Goel have often been critical of what they believe to be lackadaisical and compromising ways of the Parivar, the Parivar has cherished Shri Ram Swarup and Shri Goel as modern rishis.

The Voice of India has recently published a book entitled, “Bharatiya Janata Party vis-a-vis Hindu Resurgence” by Koenrad Elst. According to the blurb, Mr. Elst was born a Catholic in Belgium and studied at the Catholic University of Leuven, before visiting India for the first time in 1988. He has earlier published some books on the Ayodhya issue and on the general religious-political situation in India; all of these were published by the Voice of India. From what he says in the present book, it seems he has over time rejected both the Church and Christ; and he makes it clear that he is not one amongst the Hindus. He does not say what religion he practices, but from the tenor of his various assertions it seems that he is an agnostic rationalist. This is important because the book he has written is purportedly meant to advise Hindus on how best to practice and defend their religion.

The book is generally aimed at Hindus of today, but as the title underlines, he is specially addressing himself to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its sister organisations in the Sangh Parivar. And the advice he has to give is indeed exhaustive. It covers almost every aspect of their functioning. He advises the party on what words to use to describe itself, what flag to adopt, whom to admit in its ranks, how to conduct its foreign policy, and what issues should constitute its electoral and action platform. For the members of the sister organizations he has advice about how and what they should understand about Indian history from the ancient times to today, what and how much they should read, what relative proportion they should keep between activist and intellectual pursuits and, in general, how they should comport themselves in public and private.

Such advice coming from a rank outsider is baffling; normally even insiders would refrain from offering such extensive directions to a political party or a public organization. After all parties and organizations have a history of their own; they work in the background of that history and the constraints imposed by the public life of the time. Others can probably comment on and analyze their overall ideological direction; they can also try to create pressure and opinion for action on some issue or along a direction that they particularly value. But, how can anyone, outsider or insider, presume to present an ideology, a code of conduct and a manifesto for another party or organisation?

Even more baffling is the language Mr. Elst uses to convey his advice. The tone he adopts is that of a headmaster disciplining a wayward student; he freely uses derogatory words for the Parivar as a whole, and for the earlier as well as many of their current leaders. One of the milder epithets he bestows on the Sangh is that of “a big dinosaur with a small brain”, on which issue he writes a whole chapter.

However, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh are probably well-equipped to defend themselves against this abuse; they are in fact quite used to such abuses, which the Indian literate community, and particularly the media, routinely keep showering upon them. Their preferred way is to ignore such abusive language and get on with the work on hand. But even then it seems somewhat surprising that they have allowed Mr. Elst into many of their inner councils, and that numerous major leaders of the Parivar have deigned to grant him personal interviews.

However, what is really worrisome about this book is not what Mr. Elst has said about the Parivar; they ought to and shall defend themselves in the way they think best. But while advising the Parivar, he has dared to abuse much that most Indians hold to be dear and venerable in their civilization and history.

Thus he makes fun of the principle of non-violence, as practiced by Indians in general and Mahatma Gandhi in particular, and tells us that the ahimsa that classical Indian texts talk about is something else than what Indians have understood. He claims that even Mahatma Gandhi did not understand what that ahimsa meant, and what he practiced in the name of ahimsa was “a morbid kind of personal asceticism” and “passive masochism”.

Mahatma Gandhi in fact comes for heavy abuse at the hands of Mr. Elst; he makes the term “Gandhian” sound like an abuse, and devotes two chapters on expounding how the Sangh Parivar has gotten into error by trying to follow Gandhi. Here he also tells us that the ambivalence of Mahatma Gandhi, and perhaps of much of Indian society, about modern technology and science, was decidedly un-Hindu, and Gandhiji had got “his retro-mania from Christian romantics like Thoreau and Tolstoy”.

He even manages to accuse Gandhiji of being politically ignorant and hints that the Mahatma might have been seeking medals of loyalty from the British. In the process, he betrays lack of real acquaintance with Indian history. At another place he informs us that the Muslims destroyed temples in India and the British made great efforts to preserve them. He is ignorant of the large amount of historical evidence that shows how the British systemically undermined resources of the great temples of India and brought them to the state of decay in which we find them today.

Mr. Elst’s iconoclastic foray does not end with throwing stones at Gandhiji. Taking a wild swipe at the heroes of recent Indian history, he tells us that some of Guru Govind Singh’s writings were “superficially defiant but essentially toadyist”; that Maratha warriors were “vassals of the Moghuls”; and Dayanand Saraswati was “a bit clumsy” though “on the right track”. Moving even further afield amongst the venerated of India and taking on our great saints and poets he expounds, “It is not impossible that mentally afflicted individuals have been attracted to the religious role, particularly in the exaltation-prone Bhakti movement, and that the talented ones among them have acquired some fame as poets. …”

Mr. Elst reserves his crowning insult for us Indians until the last chapter, where he informs us that he has undertaken this effort to educate us for our own good, and that to him or to the west in general it matters little whether we survive or die. “Come to think of it”, he tell us, “I have very little personal stake in the political success of Hindu revivalism and the continued existence of Hinduism. Of course, there is an invaluable heritage contained in the Upanishads and other Hindu books; but they are available in Western libraries, we can take from them what we like without needing the help of a living Hindu. …If Sanskrit scholarship or yogic expertise dies in India, I am sure some aficionados in the West will keep it alive as a matter of antiquarian hobbyism … It is always deplorable when a dinosaur dies, but we can survive the demise of really existing Hinduism without serious losses. …”

Incidentally, neither the language nor the content of this epistle of Mr. Elst to the Hindus is new. During the nineteenth century, the West sent us a number of young men to teach us what Hinduism really meant, what was the “true” meaning of classical Indian texts, and how we needed to change and reform ourselves in order to be worthy of our great heritage. The writings of those scholar-missionaries are often as acerbic and presumptuous as that of Mr. Elst, though many of them were much more careful and painstaking scholars.

It is difficult to understand why the Voice of India has considered it fit to publish this book that dares to abuse what we venerate, takes us so lightly and shows such condescension towards us as a people. Before we try to formulate some answer to that question, let us note that the Voice of India has recently been publishing and promoting the works of another “Hindu sympathiser” from the West, Mr. David Frawley. Mr. Frawley, in his books like “Arise Arjuna” expresses much the same thoughts and sentiments as that of Mr. Elst, except that his language is more restrained, though not less condescending.

Mr. Frawley’s corpus is much larger than that of Mr. Elst. It includes, besides exhortative books like the one mentioned above, works that offer interpretation of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ayurveda, the classical Indian astronomy, the Tantra, the Yogic philosophy, and ancient Indian history and archaeology. To those who may be baffled at such extensive scholarship, Mr. Frawley replies, “…The only answer is the samskaras, the impressions from previous births. This was a knowledge that came with me, that I was born with, the result of a previous life which I have since come to remember in various aspects. …”

In fact, giving a somewhat detailed narration of his first acquaintance with the Vedic corpus in original Sanskrit, Mr. Frawley says:

“… A few years later when I was twenty-seven, having gone through most of what was available in English on the Vedas, I decided to look at the Vedas and Upanishads in the original Sanskrit. …I started with the Sanskrit texts and a Sanskrit grammar book and began trying to figure out the language myself, starting with the oldest Rig Veda itself. It was a rather unusual and haphazard way to learn Sanskrit …but somehow it worked. The Vedic language gradually unfolded its meaning… (and) I soon discovered that the interpretations generally accepted for the older Vedas – not only those done by modern Western scholars but the traditional school of Sayana – as Aurobindo had noted, were indeed limited and erroneous. …”

It is obvious that Mr. Frawley is not bound by the discipline of any school of Vaidika learning. He claims that the true Vedas have been revealed to him and it has been shown to him that traditional understanding of the Vedas is wrong; what can restrain him from imputing whatever meaning he likes on the Vedas?

“We are entering”, he say in a recent essay, “a new era of civilisation today, in which religion must be radically recast, if not discarded. Only those religions willing to undergo a radical transformation are likely to survive. This change will be in the direction of experimental spirituality, in which the individual’s direct experience of God or truth becomes the most important thing, and religious dogma and institutionalism is set aside.”

Given his claims of being the object of divine revelations and his disdainful opinions about disciplined Vedic learning, it is doubtful that any Hindu, who knows of the humility and discipline expected of a person desirous of approaching the Vedas, would even imagine that Mr. Frawley’s interpretations might be meaningful or trustworthy.

This brings us back to the question of why the Voice of India is publishing books by such authors. These authors are not only putting their fanciful interpretations on what it means to be a Hindu, but are also speaking in a tone that is likely to lower the respect we have for ourselves, and make us lose confidence in our capacity to put our house in order by our own effort.

Ordinarily, such books would not come to notice of many. But the books come with the blessings of Sri Ram Swaroop and Sri Sita Ram Goel; so they have to be taken note of by concerned Indians.

These books raise important questions that Sri Sita Ram Goel and Sri Ram Swaroop have themselves often raised in their writings. There are mainly four issues to which they have been drawing our attention. One, how does India come to terms with her non-Hindu, and especially Muslim, population and assert her essentially Hindu character? Two, what kind of understanding does India come to terms with the world today, which seems to be fundamentally devoid of a spiritual underpinning? Three, how to deal with the ascent of the representatives of the modern adharmika persuasions within India, operating in the name of secularism, communism, liberalism, and freedom of the individual, etc.? Four, given the presence of the faithful of alien religions and thoughts within India, and being surrounded by a world hostile to dharma, what aspects of Hinduism should we emphasise and nurture so as to overcome the situation?

Finding answers to these questions is essential today; with economic liberalisation and globalisation, the adharmika world has begun to loom larger on the horizon. But such serious questions can hardly be discussed when they are presented in the insulting language that Mr. Elst uses.

Sri Ram Swaroop and Sri Sita Ram Goel have been proposing a considered approach of their own to these questions. And it is probably true that the answers they have proposed and the dangers that they have pointed out have not been adequately addressed by those who ought to be concerned about such issues. Being the elders of our society, they indeed have the right to be angry and even to rebuke the present day Hindus for being careless and lazy.

However, if learned, highly committed and concerned elders like them begin to allow amateur Indologists of the West to teach and rebuke India, then we are indeed back to the dark days of the nineteenth century, when the intelligentsia of India began to look up to the William Joneses and Max Mullers of the world to teach us about our heritage. Yet, unlike Elst and Frawley, Jones and Muller were disciplined scholars in the western tradition, and they put on no airs of being particularly sympathetic to Indian thought. In any case, we really had no choice but to suffer them because they happened to be representatives of the alien powers ruling over India. Perhaps from them we did learn something of the way West understands us; though that learning cost us dearly as a civilisation. What do Elst and Frawley have to teach us? Why inflict them upon us?