What is the Indian counterpart of American Exceptionalism?

This is a very important talk by Rajiv Malhotra delivered in Feb 2017 in New Delhi at an event organized by IGNOU. It addresses the question – what is the Indian counterpart of American exceptionalism?

The answer is – Bhartiya Exceptionalism. RM defines it, lays out the need for such a thing and compares it with the Grand Narrative of other nations. Of course, the sad thing is that there is need for articulation of Bhartiya Exceptionalism 70 years after independence!

For any student (this is, an honest student – not the Pollockian variety!) of Indian history and Hindu philosophy, it would be clear that Bhartiya exceptionalism would derive from Hindu heritage and philosophy.

The immediate next question, most likely from a confused Hindu, would be – what about the non-hindu minorities? Is there room for them? How can you right wingers be so intolerant?! First, let me remind you of the name of this blog: this-is-not-right-wing! Second – calm down. These would be non-issues in a society built on Hindu principles. That is because mutual respect (read Being Different) has always been a defining characteristic of Indian civilization. It has not just been an abstract idea but a ground reality and has actually facilitated integration of multiple immigrants over the ages.

So, how would we go about implementing Bhartiya exceptionalism in today’s India? Towards the end of the talk, RM clearly lays out there requirements that minorities ought to meet in order to integrate in a nation built on Hindu values. These are :-
1. Mutual respect should be a two-way street
2. Minority religions should disown foreign authority (apparently China has done this)
3. Minorities must accept the history of violence and oppression perpetrated in the name of their religions (think Aurangzeb).

I think these are perfectly reasonable requirements.

On the third point, note that no apology is being demanded from the minorities today. What is being asked is a recognition that, just like Jewish holocaust is a fact of history, so is Hindu holocaust. Anyone denying the Jewish holocaust in the west is promptly labeled fringe. But in India, Hindu holocaust deniers can easily be found writing for The Hindu, appearing on NDTV and, of course, raising slogans in JNU!

Sadhguru on the Damage done by 1000 years of Colonization of India

Greatly enjoyed and impressed by Sadhguru’s views and observations in this video. It covers a wide range of topics including who is a good student and a good guru? what is leadership? what is needed for a democracy to work? 

The things that impressed me the most was Sadhguru’s take on Indian history. He says clearly that we have been colonized for 1000 years by barbarians who had no respect for the inward looking vedic culture. And the reason that we fell to these invaders was that in the pursuit of higher knowledge we neglected the mundane task of building a good army. He also explains why we did not completely vanish like the Pagans and other civilizations who were demolished by western expansions.

His take on the history of education in India also hit the nail on its head. He correctly points out that the British systematically destroyed our superior education system to create subservient clerks instead of free thinkers. More importantly, he states clearly that the situation hasn’t been remedied after independence. In other words, we are still colonized. He also hinted at the need for Swadeshi Indology.

In short, Sadhguru gets Rajiv Malhotra’s message and is doing an excellent job of propagating it.

Gurus who impart abstract Vedic spiritual and philosophical teachings are important and should be revered. However, sometimes the teachings become too abstract and world-negating. We need more gurus like Sadhguru who bridge the gap between the spiritual and the mundane and take a stand on current issues – politics, corruption (Sadhguru on Demonetization), environment, science, other religions, individual responsibility, identity, and so on. I may not always agree with their stand, but that is a different matter.

By the way, Subhash Ghai’s interruptions in the video were quite dumb!

Bertrand Russell and Sadhguru on the Scientific Spirit

Recently I happened to come across two beautiful descriptions of the scientific spirit from two very different people – one by a Guru from the West and other by Sadhguru!

First, let’s listen to one of the greatest thinkers from the West:

When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts .. look only and solely at what are the facts.                                                –Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

And now Sadhguru:

[29 Dec 2016:  Unfortunately this video has been removed from youtube. I am looking for another clip where Sadhguru makes these points. If anyone has a suggestion, please share. Ideally please find me this clip – it was audio only with an image of an ash covered sadhu. Thanks.]

If you want to approach truth, the first thing is you don’t assume anything.                      -Sadhguru

Isn’t the similarity striking!

Sadhguru’s comments are interesting at many levels. First, it is one of the most elegant and passionate description of the scientific spirit that I have come across. And yet he is not a Nobel prize winning physicist, but a spiritual guru from a Dharmic tradition. Another illustration of the fact that the scientific spirit is at the core of Indian spiritual traditions. There was never any conflict between science and spirituality in India. So Sadhguru here is not an outlier. He is just rephrasing what has been practiced for ages in India. The West, on the other hand, discovered it only in Renaissance, and have not really been able to reconcile modern science with Abrahamic religions.

Another point is that the Indian tradition is that of seekers, not believers. In the above clip, Sadhguru does not mince his words in his criticism of believers:

Belief gives you confidence .. and fools getting confidence is dangerous; belief is death actually.  -Sadhguru

In the Abrahamic tradition, belief is absolute and unquestionable and leads people to get more and more trapped in their own echo chamber. Fanaticism and superstition are bound to take hold in such societies.

In the Indian system, the counterpart of belief is shraddha. In the context of education, shraddha towards a guru does not mean blind faith in the guru, but just allowing for the possibility that the guru knows more and may have something useful to teach. The questioning and seeking never ceases.

By the way, on the topic of education, check out this very thoughtful discourse by Sadhguru. Education is clearly one of his passions. Yes, gurus can, and ought to be passionate about things in the mundane world!





Ok, lets talk about Caste

This is my response to Caste in the caste, curry and cows caricature of India. Out of all the topics covered in this blog, perhaps none has vitiated the public discourse on India and Hinduism more than caste. Some of it stems simply from ignorance of history and context, but there is a good degree of malice too, particularly on the part of western indologists, Indian activists, ‘NDTV intellectuals’, and, of course, Indian politicians.

There is a lot to say on this topic and the discussion can quickly get all convoluted. Let me first say that caste discrimination in India is real and needs to be fixed. However, the solutions cannot be found till we understand the problem correctly and identify the forces which are working for and against caste discrimination. This post does not aim to be the last word on this topic, but hopes to highlight a few key points which are often overlooked.

Forces Working to Remove Caste-based Discrimination

1. Caste is much less of a problem in Indian cities than it is in the rural areas. Yes, India is still predominantly rural (67% in 2016), but it is rapidly urbanizing and by some projections the urban population may be in majority by 2050. Another factor which counters caste discrimination is education and that is also moving in the right direction. Economic development of Indian is also helping to weaken the caste divide.

2. Anecdotal evidence quickly shows up in any debate on caste. You start hearing statements like I have seen my own grandmother discriminate, or, that temple or that guru in my village does not allow people from that caste, etc. What fails to come out is stories of all the other relatives, friends, temples and gurus who do not discriminate. There are quite a few gurus out there today – Ramdev Baba, Sadhguru, Sri Sri, etc – who do not care about caste. As for temples, I have never had to declare my caste to enter in a temple. The point is that for every temple or guru who cares for caste, you would not have to go too far to find another who does not. So, just go with the one who does not! You have complete freedom to do so being a Hindu. This is where the inherent comfort of the Hindu tradition with diversity of opinion becomes important.

3. No debate on caste can escape the ghost of Manusmriti! Here, I really don’t understand what the whole fuss is about. Not only I have not read Manusmriti, I do not know of anyone else who has. Do you? I have heard temples hosting jaagran and kirtan to chant Ramayan or Mahabharat, but never Manusmriti. Have you? I know of a few translations of Gita which are commonly referred to and also where to buy them, but have no idea of about Manusmriti. Do you? My point is simple – if you have a problem with Manusmriti, just let it go. No one cares for it anyway. Again, inherent comfort and respect for different schools of thought helps here. As someone said – Hinduism is not a religion of A book, it is a religion of a library

In this context, it is also important to understand the fundamental Hindu concept of Shruti and Smriti (the master explains here). Shruti contains eternal truths and can be thought of general principles, for example, equality of all people. Smritis, in contrast, are context dependent and can be rewritten for a given society and age, for example a constitution implementing the principle of equality. In other words, Manusmriti, if you still want to read it (!), should be read in the context of when and where it was written.

Forces Propping Up the Caste Divides

Why then, instead of diminishing, caste seems to be only getting more prominent in Indian pop culture and also in academia? In western academia, caste has pretty much become a defining characteristic of Hinduism. Here are some thoughts on how we got here and who is working to deepen the caste divide, instead of healing it.

First we need to get the history right. The current version of the caste system in India is a direct result of multi-generational social engineering by the British as part of their divide-and-rule strategy. One of the key architects of this engineering was Lord Risley who institutionalized caste by making it part of the census. Over multiple censuses caste was inherited and soon one would be rigidly assigned to a caste right at birth. Caste-by-birth is a distortion of Hindu philosophy and tradition. Caste itself is a distortion and an European import, just like secularism. The closest Hindu construct is that of varna and jaati. This is a big topic, but Varna may be be thought of as division of labor in society and jaati as professional associations, like the Institute of Engineers. The relevant point is that these categories were fluid and could evolve over time and are certainly not fixed at birth. I repeat – Inheritance of caste is a distortion, and not a fundamental tenet of Hinduism. Most prominent scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Gita, completely reject the idea of ‘caste by birth’.  By the way, Lord Risley had gone further and also assigned a hierarchy to the different castes. That was the origin of the current upper, lower, scheduled, OBC and tribal categories.

Another notable Brit in this context is Sir William Jones. He interpreted Manusmriti to give Hindus their laws! My guess is that our current obsession with Manusmriti can be traced back to him.

Ok, so the brits messed it up big time. But that was nearly 70 years ago. Why was it not fixed after independence in 1947? Well, this is one of the biggest puzzle for me about our history. Not just caste, British messed up our education, legal system, religious harmony, and on and on. Why then, in spite of wide spread nationalism following the freedom movement, was there not a move to review and break free of everything that the British did? On the contrary, instead of turning to be deeply skeptical of the west like Chinese today, Indians seemed to have become anglophiles. Again, right after independence! Beats me!

Speaking specifically of the caste system, from a public policy point of view, since Independence no steps seem to have been taken to make the government and the society “caste-blind”, for example, by undoing what Lord Risley started. On the contrary,  our politics seem to have gone is exactly the wrong direction. Who would deny that caste-based reservation is a bad idea and Mandal commission in the 90s was a monstrosity? Vote-bank politics by politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Yadav is working to deepen the caste divide. Of course they claim to champion the cause of the downtrodden.

Such politicians are supported in not small measure by Western indologists like Sheldon Pollock, their leftists Indian sepoys in universities like JNU and Jadhavpur, social activists like Arundhati Roy and of course biased media like NDTV. Through muddled up interpretation of scriptures, selective presentation of history, exaggerated reporting of discrimination and deliberate suppression of efforts to remove caste divides, these people are effectively legitimizing caste-based politics and even providing ideological ammunition for it, again all under the veil of championing the cause of the ‘weaker’ castes. So next time someone expressed their dismay over caste discrimination in India, just ask if they would call for complete repeal of caste-based reservations, and replacing it with need-based reservation. If they say no or avoid the question, then call out their hypocrisy. It is the same as an animal rights activist eating meat.

[By the way, if all this sounds like one big conspiracy theory to you then all I can suggest is that you read Rajiv Malhotra’s book Breaking India. If even that doesn’t change your views, well, then see you in the next life!]


Hindu society in India is naturally evolving to remove caste divides, and there are plenty of forces within Hinduism working toward it. There is no need for importing western constructs of human rights, or conversions to other religions to free India of caste issues. What is needed is, first, a recognition that the current caste system is inconsistent with core values in the Hindu philosophy, and then working to heal the divide by appealing to those core values. An analogy would be that of slavery in the west. Slavery was initially not considered inconsistent with Christianity, but later the anti-slavery movements employed a different interpretation of Christian ideas to appeal to the masses. Finally, all the forces that are working to prop up the caste divides, regardless of what their motivations are, must be exposed and curtailed.

Further reading

  • Views of another master on this topic – Subramanian Swamy
  • In this video, in response to a question, Rajiv Malhotra explains in detail why the caste system as it exists today has nothing to do with Hinduism. He also explains jaati and varna.

[note to readers: please share any additional material on this topic, particularly talks or writings of RM. I will try to weave it into the above narrative.]



Dharmic Forest and Judeo-Christian Desert

An interesting excerpt from Rajiv Malhotra’s book Being Different:

In the West, the forest is often seen as a place of chaos, confusion and bewilderment; it is the ‘dark wood’ of Dante, the place where ‘the straight way is lost’).109 The desert is the place of illumination, where truth in all its black-and-white absolutism and starkness is revealed. It is also empty, barren and flat. In contrast, the forest in Dharmic traditions is a place of refuge, hospitality and profound spiritual inspiration.

Sri Aurobindo uses a forest analogy to show some essential differences between Indian and Western spiritual philosophy:

The endless variety of Indian philosophy and religion seems to the European mind interminable, bewildering, wearisome, and useless; it is unable to see the forest because of the richness and luxuriance of its vegetation; it misses the common spiritual life in the multitude of its forms. But this infinite variety is itself, as Vivekananda pertinently pointed out, a sign of a superior religious culture. The Indian mind has realized that the Supreme is the Infinite; it has perceived, right from its Vedic beginnings, that to the soul in Nature the Infinite must always present itself in an endless variety of aspects.

This is how Hinduism and India is taught in the West

Here’s an analogy to describe how Hinduism and India is taught to students in Western schools and colleges. Mind you, in most cases, this is the first time the students are encountering Hinduism in any serious manner.

The analogy is of teenagers in a driving school.

In the first lecture at a driving school, while the students still have the option of opt-ing out (with full refund!), the school will likely show videos of some one driving a car through scenic landscapes, or of a race car zooming past the background, and other enticing videos. And they will talk about the freedom which comes from driving. If not romantically positive, at the very least, it will be utilitarian – you will have greater job opportunities if you know how to drive. Then, once the student is in, they will get to the technical aspects of steering control, gears, etc and hands-on training. This will go on for a few months till the student is a confident driver. Then in the last lecture, they will talk about the potential risks. They may show videos of crashing or burning cars. But they will also tell you that all the hazards can be avoided if certain precautions are followed. They will be very clear that driving per se is not the problem, the real problem is not following proper traffic rules and safety precautions.

At the end of the course, the student will be confident and eager to drive and encourage his friends to do the same.

Now contrast that with how Hinduism and India is taught –

The course typically begins with multiple lectures full of gruesome videos of crashing  and burning cars, statistics of the number of people injured or killed, and so on [read – caste oppression, primitive, archaic, regressive, rigid, ..]. Then in the middle technical part of the course, it will be all about how the machine and the humans can go wrong [read – mechanics of how the evils manifest in the form of weird Gods, esoteric mantras, Brahmin supremacy, ..]. How one cannot count on other drivers on the road following traffic rules. They will point out that the there are continuous explosions in the internal combustion engine and how easy it is for the explosions to go out of control! [read – the whole system is fundamentally broken] Of course, there is no room for the romantically positive or even the utilitarian aspects.

At the end of the course, forget driving himself, the student will be scared just by watching a car on the TV!

Which one do you think is the right way of teaching a civilization?








Why Gurus should not talk Science!

One of my pet peeves with Hindu Gurus is how they talk about science. It is often something to the effect of what was known to our ancient Rishis, modern science is realizing only now. I have seen this happen in between an impeccable presentation of some deep Vedantic thought. Such a digression into science during a discourse often fails because Gurus mess up the science. At best the analogies do not work, and, at worst, the science is factually wrong. As my friend said – run away, as soon as a Guru utters quantum mechanics! By the way, rediscovery of ancient knowledge by modern science, if done independently, does not make modern science any less impressive.

The thing is that the Guru does not stand to gain anything here. The lay audience doesn’t care about science, while it puts off the scientifically literate audience. Even worse is that it gives ammunition to (pseudo) secularists who can point out that Gurus embrace science as long as it agrees with them, and when there is disagreement they start using phrases like higher consciousness, sat chit anand, etc. Javed Akhtar made this point in this debate with Sadhguru. This is the only place in the debate where I agree with Javed Akhtar, otherwise Akhtar is at his obnoxious best throughout the interview.

Such conduct by Gurus strikes seems strange to me because they would often like to say that the spiritual knowledge that they are imparting is more valuable and powerful than any other knowledge. Why then do they need the approval of modern science? By the way, I do believe that Vedantic teachings are incredibly enlightening and thank the Gurus for imparting that knowledge.

So, is it ever okay for Gurus to talk science?

The answer to this question is best given by an anecdote that Rajiv Malhotra often relates: A westerner asks a Tibetan Buddhist monk (his name sounds like Tai Sipuren Che) – Is Buddha same as Christ? The monk responds: I have dedicated my life to Buddha and have studied his teachings; So I can tell you all about Buddha, then you can decide if he is same as Christ. Likewise, Gurus should stick to Vedanta or what ever philosophy they know and let the scientists in the audience determine if science agrees with what he is saying.

Let me make this more concrete with some examples. No guru should talk about quantum mechanics till he can write down the Schrodinger equation and solve it for the electron in a hydrogen atom! No guru should talk space-time relativity till he can write down the Lorentz transformation. No guru should talk genetics, till he can explain the difference between driver and carrier mutations. No guru should talk artificial intelligence, till he can code a Hidden Markov Model. By the way, all this is undergrad level science. So knowing the answers to these questions is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one!