Sepoy Alert!

Finally there is some sign of sensible and urgently needed reform in JNU‘s humanities departments. But some intellectuals are not happy about it:

Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University

David Ludden, New York University

Lawrence A Kimpton, University of Chicago

Joya Chatterji, University of Cambridge

Mrinalini Sinha, University of Michigan

Francesca Orsini, School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS)

K. Sivaramakrishnan, Yale University

I am glad that they expressed their opinion as it is a good indicator of a Sepoy. Right, right, I am not using Sepoy accurately here, since some of these are actually Angrez, not Indians employed by Angrez to shoot at fellow Indians.

Ok, so let’s call this post Sepoy and Lords-of-Sepoy alert! I will keep adding to the list.

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Aryan-Dravidian Divide: One of the Biggest Bane of Videshi Indology

The Aryan Invasion Theory, although thoroughly discredited, still has deep impressions on the psyche of (confused) Indians. Along with Caste system, it is the poster child for the harm done by Videshi Indology. The most concrete illustration of the harm done by Aryan-Dravidian divide is the current politics of Tamil Nadu.

Dr Nagaswamy recently published a book titled Tamil Nadu: The Land of the Vedas which collects evidence against the Dravidian theory and sets the record straight. The following conversation between Rajiv Malthotra and Tamil scholar Dr. R. Nagaswamy talks about the book and much more.

More on the topic in this article on Pragyata.

 

The Deception of William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple is another character whom I admired in my confused days. I considered him to be a true admirer of India. I had browsed some of his books and seen them in many book shelves of friends and family.

I got suspicious when I learned that he is one of the main organizers of the Jaipur literary festival and has hosted and showered praises on Sheldon Pollock. While at the same time blocked Rajiv Malhotra from being invited to the festival.

That is guilt by association, and not a clinching evidence. I agree. Now read these articles:

  1. Does Willy get it Wilfully wrong? by Farrukh Dhondy (Outlook 2004)
  2. William Dalrymple’s incurable colonial hangover by Arvind Kumar (Indiafacts 2014)

Still not convinced. Ok, just consider this a red flag and BEWARE!

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!]

Conclusion

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.
  • I added this post on Ambedkar.

[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.]

 

 

Why bother with Ancient Knowledge when we have Modern Science?

I believe that ancient Sanskrit texts have a wealth of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, including science, and that it is well worth the effort to study them. A common response to this proposition is:

I doubt there is anything there which might be relevant today. In any case, even if there is something, why should I bother with a whole new approach when I already have something that works – modern science and technology. If it is needed today, modern science will rediscover whatever our Rishis found. 

In this post I would like to challenge this view with two main counter arguments.

Before I present the arguments, let me say that the progress that modern science and technology has made in short 500 years since Galileo is truly mind blowing. The advances in the last 100 years since the steam engine are even more spectacular. I am well aware of the recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics and computing. The potential of each of these technology individually is immense, but combining them really takes you into crazy science fiction realm.

In fact, science has come so far that Ray Kurzweil is able to talk about singularity and people actually take him seriously. Including me! I agree with Ray Kurzweil that technology can grow exponentially. But the point he misses, I think, is that exponential growth may not be sustainable forever as it may hit a fundamental bottleneck (think Moore’s Law). And once that happens, you need breakthroughs in basic science, which are completely random and unpredictable – you cannot generate an Einstein by design, just create conditions such that if an Einstein were to show up, he would not go unnoticed. So, yes, singularity is a possibility but it is not inevitable, and most likely not on the time scale that Ray Kurzweil imagines.

Here are my arguments for why we should study the Indian ancient sciences:

Argument 1: We need breakthroughs in Mind Sciences

I believe our ancient knowledge can inform a whole range of fields in both social and physical sciences. But one area where it can have a huge impact is mind sciences or neurosciences. In this domain modern scientific understanding is truly primitive. Needless to say, mind sciences can have direct impact on our emotional and mental well-being. Modern medicine’s understanding of the human brain is at the same level where modern physics was just after the invention of the telescope (I consider functional MRI as the telescope of neuroscience.) Mental health issues have reached epidemic proportions world over – this is better appreciated in the West than in the developing world, but the problem is universal. For most mental disorders, forget cure, modern medicine cannot even diagnose the problem with any confidence. It just comes up with different names. As an example, look at the history of autism described by Steve Silberman in this sobering TED talk.

I believe our ancient Rishis excelled in mind consciousness studies. They certainly thought very deeply about it, and more importantly, very differently from the way modern medicine is approaching it today. The reason for this, I think, is the absolutely central role of meditation in Hinduism. One just needs to read a good commentary on Patanjali’s Yog Sutras to get an idea of the depth of their knowledge (here’s one recommendation: Four Chapters on Freedom by Swami Satyananda Saraswati). In fact, I look at Swamis and Yogis more as psychologists and neuroscientist, than as spiritual or religious teachers! Other Dharmic traditions, particularly Buddhism, would probably also have something valuable to contribute here since meditation is a core practice in those traditions too.

Argument 2: Science is not at the center of the society due to it’s secular origins

My second argument is not about a specific area of science, but about the status of science and technology in today’s society. The spectacular rise of western science and technology has had some serious adverse effects. We have damaged the environment to an extent that some of the damage may be irreversible (watch the documentary Racing Extinction). We now have nuclear and biological weapons which have the potential to wipe out a good fraction of life on earth. I have already mentioned the mental health epidemic. There are other disease epidemics too, for example, auto immune diseases. Though modern science may have created some of these problems, I have no doubt that it can also find the solutions to quite a few of them.

But do we have the social, political and economic structures to enable this?

I would say – No, not by a long shot. In spite of the existential threats that we face today, science and scientists are hardly at the center of the society. If you don’t believe me, ask any researcher in a university or even one in a corporation about the funding situation. But do so at your own risk since the whining can go out of control! You will get sob stories of how screwed up the system is and how they have to beg before politicians and business heads who have no idea about the science and on and on. Most large scientific initiatives would not have materialized without a politician championing it, for example JFK for the Apollo mission and now Joe Biden for Cancer. In other words, regardless of how important or urgent the scientific question is, it does not go anywhere until a politician or a businessman gets on board.

Why is this so? Why does science, in spite of all its successes and potential, get a step motherly treatment?

So far I was talking like a journalist and just describing things as they are. Now let me put on a sociologist’s hat, and present an admittedly speculative theory on how we got here. I feel that the present status of science in society is to a large extent due to its historical origins as a revolt against the almighty Church. You just need to read Galileo’s Daughter to realize how strong the Church was in 16th century Europe and how hostile it was towards science. Modern science arose in the Renaissance period as a revolt against the establishment, which pretty much was the Church at that time. The impact of this secular origins linger on to this date and is partly the reason for science not being truly integrated into the society. Neil deGrasse Tyson summed it up well when he said something to the effect that it is ridiculous to see people bad mouth science while talking on their cell phones! I don’t think this is merely due to poor science education or poor out reach by scientists. The conflict between cultures based on Abrahamic religion and modern science continues to this date. Oh, by the way, left leaning atheists who claim to be champions of secularism and science are not doing themselves any favor by mocking religion and spirituality. They need to understand that spirituality does not equal blind faith and superstition, certainly not in the Dharmic traditions. I feel that extreme atheists can be just as obnoxious as religious fundamentalists, for example, Javed Akhtar in this conversation with Sadhguru.  If you come down on the side of Javed Akhtar, all I can say is try to suspend your arrogance for a bit and listen to a few more talks by Sadhguru.

Now, lets talk about the position of science in ancient India. And by ancient here, I mean pre-mughal. This conflict between science and spirituality never existed in Hinduism. Vedic philosophy does not dismiss the modern scientific method. In fact the two can collaborate fruitfully. It is already happening with Ayurveda and modern medicine, though modern science is the one who is more hesitant. In Vedic philosophy the ultimate goal for an individual is to gain a deep and clear understanding of the nature of the self. And the collective responsibility of the society is to create conditions for individuals to pursue this goal. Furthermore, the genius of the Hindu tradition is that it does not prescribe a single path leading up to the ultimate truth. In other words, freedom of thought and exploration is built into the Hindu framework. And science could, and, indeed was, one such path. The subtitle of Dr Alok Kumar’s wonderful book Sciences of the Ancient Hindus sums it up beautifully: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation. There could be a whole series on ancient Indian studies with subtitles like ‘unlocking music in pursuit of salvation’, ‘unlocking trade in pursuit of salvation’, ‘unlocking language in pursuit of salvation’, and so on. In other words, Indian civilization did not need secularism to develop as a culturally and scientifically advanced civilization. On the contrary it was the quest for the sacred and spiritual that motivated individuals to excel in different areas of human endeavor. When Rajiv Malhotra says that ‘Sheldon Pollock is removing the sacred dimension’ he is talking about attacks on this very foundation of the Indian civilization and we should take it seriously.

Now, let’s envision a society organized based on the Dharmic principles. Using the categorization of the varna system, the center of such a society would indeed be the Brahmins as they are the knowledge producers and disseminators. And Brahmins would include not only swamis and gurus, but also artists, musicians and scientists. Brahmins would not have political or economic powers but all other sections of the society would be obligated to heed to the advice of the Brahmins. In fact, everyone else, including politicians and business heads, would consider themselves support staff for the Brahmins!

Conclusion

In summary, we should realize that there is no conflict between modern science and the knowledge of our Rishis, and also that modern science may not be the panacea. By studying the ancients, modern science only stands to gain new ideas and insights. Let me remind you that I am not one of those who romanticize our past claiming that India was an utopia, err Ram Rajya (!), in 5000 BCE. But neither am I dismissive of my past. The way forward is not to try and regress to the past, but to study it with the attitude and humility of a seeker. I hope this post will encourage such exploration.

FAQs: Is this relevant for me?

Having read the previous FAQs posts in this blog, you may be inclined to ask: alright, lets say you are right – the system is messed up, first the Brits and then the Indian Left and Congress are responsible for it. But how is all this relevant for me today? I am just an aam aadmi going about my daily life untouched by any of this. I will give two arguments for how it matters to youfirst a mundane one reflecting on the current state of Indian politics, and then a philosophical and civilizational one.

Current State of Indian politics

This blog should be relevant for any Indian who is bothered by the rise of Kejriwal, the resurgence of Laloo and the perversions of the reservation system.

[And if you are not bothered you should watch this discussion of RM with former AAP members recorded in April 2014 while Modi was running his campaign. They spill the beans on Kejriwal, Shishodia, Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhusan and many non-AAP members too. They basically provide ground evidence for the various Breaking India forces that RM has been speaking about for a while now.]

There is no way of understanding the divisions in the Indian society today and the sorry state of Indian politics without a proper understanding of the history of India, especially the colonial period. Proper understanding of the Hindu Dharma is part of it.

Some of you may be wondering that things are different now given that Modi is in power. I don’t think Modi came to power because of a mass revival of Hinduism or because his positive message of development hit home. The most significant factor contributing to Modi’s success was the mess that the previous UPA government created for 10years! There are striking parallels with the election of Obama in the US. Obama too ran an extraordinary campaign but were it not for the previous 8 years of Bush Jr or McCain’s Palin blunder, I don’t think Obama would have made it.

The point is that in both cases a good fraction of voters stepped out of their comfort zones to vote for Modi and Obama. In the case of Obama the reluctance was due to race, and for Modi it due to his perceived non-secular character. It is not that the race fault lines in the US suddenly healed or that the 80% Hindu population of India suddenly discovered their Hinduism is not anti-anyone.

What this means is that all those voters who reluctantly voted for Modi may flip back, as has already happened in Delhi and Bihar state elections. It won’t take long for the country to relapse into old habits. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to educate ourselves on the  real state of affairs, not what is reported on NDTV.

By the way, in case you haven’t closed this window yet after labeling me a right-wing Modi supporter, in spite of the title of this blog :-), let me set the record straight about my political leanings. Yes, I am an unequivocal Modi supporter. But I am not completely sold on BJP. I don’t think most BJP leaders and workers have the perspective that I outline in this blog; they are just doing good old petty vote bank politics.

The Civilization Argument

Any serious and unbiased student of Indian history would appreciate that the Indian civilization is built on some amazingly profound ideas.

Ideas that are at par, if not much grander than the modern western conception of freedom, liberty, scientific spirit, economic and social justice, and environmental conservation. I will provide supporting evidence in this blog. And ideas are timeless, just like even  thousand years from now the atomic hypothesis or general relativity would be considered a triumph of human intelligence. I believe it is in this sense of timelessness of ideas that the Hindu Dharma is called sanatan (eternal) dharma.

But, you may say, the atomic hypothesis is now more of a great idea of the past with little relevance beyond a pedantic one. There are much more sophisticated theories today. Indian philosophical ideas may be in the same boat today.

Possible.

But I don’t think so. Once again, my views are not based on a nostalgic or a romantic idea of the past.  I invite the reader to do his own research and decide for himself. It would be a travesty if the grand civilizational ideas of India die out due to apathy of Indians.

The over arching goal of this blog is to reduce the barriers to such self inquiry.

Comments on The Battle for Sanskrit

This is an excellent review of Rajiv Malhotra’s book posted on writingcave.com. Some insightful remarks from the author (emphasis mine):

Why is it so important to counter this cabal of intellectuals and scholars? What’s the big deal if the scholars like Pollock go on twisting the Indian classics unquestioned? First of all, when our traditional ideas are translated in the West, in most of the cases they are taken out of the context, totally disconnected from the source. There can be many reasons, but one of the reasons is that the scholars who are trying to study the Indian tradition, the Indian sanskriti, they use a totally different model. They use the same scholarly models they have used to study Greek and Latin cultures.

This is a small problem actually. The bigger problem is the way the entire Hindu community is being portrayed as a highly biased, repressive entity that thrives on exclusion and casteism.

:

We shouldn’t rescue Sanskrit from the clutches of American Orientalists simply because of its exotic value or because of a hollow sense of pride; it actually contains a wealth of knowledge, and this knowledge is already being mined by Western scholars to make it their own.

I will just add one comment. RM had cautioned against academics like Pollock long back in 2003 in this Rediff article titled Does South Asian Studies Undermine India? He wrote

Many eminent Indian-American donors are being led down the garden path by Indian professors who, ironically, assemble a team of scholars to undermine Indian culture. Rather than an Indian perspective on itself and the world, these scholars promote a perspective on India using worldviews which are hostile to India’s interests.

:

An academic chair is a knowledge production center of very high leverage, and has the potential to do a lot of good or a lot of harm … There is a strong case for independent external audits by the funding sources to monitor standards of rigor, objectivity and quality.

Of course, no one paid any attention in 2003 or since. But now, in 2016, this book is making waves. I think the difference is that now RM is not talking in general terms, but is illustrating the problem concretely by targeting Sheldon Pollock. One can get a very good idea of the whole kurukshetra by just studying Pollock. Kudos to RM on this tactical master stroke!  But make no mistake that there are many more Pollocks out there (some listed in my other post on red flag personalities). I suspect that quite a few of them would provide enough material for many more volumes of The Battle for Sanskrit!

  • One of the endorsement of the book that carries special significance for me is that by Bibek Debroy in this video –

  • This is a review by another scholar – Koenraad Elst – who I greatly respect.  At the JNU event of TBFS Koenraad Elst’s gave a powerful rebuttal [video] to Pollock’s claim of a divide between Hinduism and Buddhism.