Wendy’s Children Versus Wendy’s Stepchildren

For the last six months I have been sandwiched between two tomes, Wendy Doniger’s own THE HINDUS – An alternative history (Penguin Books, London,2009) and Wendy’s stepchildren’s INVADING THE SACRED, edited by Krishnan  Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas and Aditi Banerji (Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 22007). Having just finished both, I tried to relate the two. The result is the brief rumination that follows.

For the last six months I have been sandwiched between two tomes, Wendy Doniger’s own THE HINDUS – An alternative history (Penguin Books, London,2009) and Wendy’s stepchildren’s INVADING THE SACRED, edited by Krishnan  Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas and Aditi Banerji (Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 22007). Having just finished both, I tried to relate the two. The result is the brief rumination that follows.

The concept of Wendy’s children is, of course, that of Rajiv Malhotra, perhaps the most colourful of Wendy’s stepchildren. However ‘Wendy’s stepchildren’ is my humble creation. While Wendy’s children can be traced back to Wendy’s own intellectual womb, her stepchildren were born out of wedlock, as it were, to harass their stepmother for being the mother of her children! If Wendy had not been there, there would have been no Wendy’s children, and if there were no Wendy’s children, there would have been no need for Wendy’s stepchildren. It is ultimately a quarrel within the joint family, since all of them, Wendy, her children and stepchildren share a common geographical and cultural space. That common space is the currently declining West. The question nagging me, a Hindu living in a genuinely Hindu space, is: Why worry about their quarrel? Why should we rack our brains about it? Their need for constituting a neo-Hindu identity to survive in a non-indu
universe seems to be irrelevant to us in India. But it is not so irrelevant at one level, because we have amidst us, right here on the soil of our punyabhoomi, a small number of people engaged in a similar enterprise, less for identity insecurities and more for immediate political gains in an electoral democracy. Thus there is some connection between politically motivated local Hindu elite and the diaspora Hindus worried about their identity. In fact, there is some evidence that the local Hindutva forces received financial support from the diaspora in their elections.

But for both groups, Hinduism poses an impossible identity challenge. Dr. Ambedkar whom Wendy’s stepchildren may not like and whom the Hindutva brigade hugs politically as a matter of political expediency asked the question, Who is a Hindu? His clear answer was that Hindu is a non-existent category and the real identity of Hindus so-called was merely their caste identity. The argument that the colonial rulers denied us agency and identity is true but it is not the whole truth. Colonial rulers could get away with their version of Hinduism because Hinduism itself was potentially favourable to them in their divide and-rule ploy. Identity issues make no sense to Hinduism because of its basic pluralism, hierarchy, hegemony and structural centrifugalism. To see this is the strength of Wendy, if not of her children. This is also why the stepchildren unleash such animosity against her. I am not suggesting that errors of scholarship, the misapplication of western psychoanalytical categories to Hindu myths of gods, spotted by the stepchildren, can be dismissed. But the point of the stepchildren is elsewhere. It is simply because Wendy, all her sins and evils counted and condemned, can still fl aunt before the identity-hungry stepchildren the futility of seeking a Hindu identity! The Hindutva people, whatever their rhetoric, realize the pluralistic nature of Hinduism and now, under the pressure of electoral democracy, are ready, as practical politicians, to abandon the agenda to concoct a strong Hindu identity.

As for Wendy’s volume, I think it is a good read with its quirky scholarship, its amusingly absurd psychoanalytical interpretations and her relaxing sense of humour. Her easy-going and light-footed prose helps. But Wendy’s essential makes her vision of India, if not of Hindus, somewhat fascinating in an identity-obsessed post-modern world. The stepchildren’s grouse is that their Hinduism is less compatible with Hinduism on the ground than Wendy’s children’s distorted and negatively motivated Hinduism. I think the stepchildren, like Gandhi earlier, have fallen into the binary trap of orientalism – spiritual India versus materialistic West. This is to miss the essential nature of Hinduism – a structure that deconstructs itself in order to reconstruct and survive. After all, the Hindu sense of evil has no Christian or Islamic sharp edge. What is evil in one context is seen as good in another context. A demon like Ravana is also a devotee of Siva. The notions of pure evil and pure good belong to dualistic Christianity and Manichean Islam. After all, our four purusharthas do not divide into the spiritual and the material. It is in their balance and existentially negotiated equation that human life is lived.

At the heart of the dispute lies a crucial moral issue. It is the issue of whether being a Hindu is a mere matter of individual choice or whether it is a choice embedded in a collective identity. If it is the latter, then how can a Hindu who flees from a collective Hindu environment to non-Hindu objectives realize in an alien land lay any moral claim to a Hindu identity? Also, given the nature of Hinduism, where is the real need for a Hindu to fl aunt his identity? Identity–mongering is a non-Hindu phenomenon. This can be reformulated as: do Wendy’s stepchildren have the same right to a Hindu identity as a native-confined local Hindu?

One of the major and fascinating figures in the camp of Wendy’s stepchildren, Professor Balagangadhara or as he prefers to be called, Balu, has asserted that it is possible to arrive at an objective and neutral interpretation and assessment of a religious system. One need not be a born Hindu to judge or interpret Hinduism. This leads to the thorny epistemological question of the relationship between faith and knowledge. Is religion a matter of mere faith? No definite answer is possible and one must allow the validity of both positions. Suppose one does not accept the validity of the sacred as a category and consign it to ignorance and superstition, then how can a believer in the sacred assess his position? Can a believer call a nonbeliever ignorant and superstitious? For instance, in his magnum opus, The Heathen in His Blindness, Balu displays formidable scholarship in the field of Christian theology and the history of the church. Does it make him a Christian? But Balu’s most brilliant and insightful thesis is the thesis of secularization of Christianity. The point of the thesis is that the secular nature of Western secularism is suspect because it is Christianity disguised in secular garbs. But then it is worth asking whether secularized Christianity is the same thing as Christianity proper? Balu’s thesis seems to reject the possibility of the secular a priori.

I come to the last issue that cannot be avoided when talking about Wendy’s stepchildren. That is the issue of whether Wendy’s stepchildren are engaged in a massive effort to propagate Hindutva on a global scale. I had occasion to put this question to Balu during one of the workshops organised on the campus of Kuvempu University in Shimoga, Karnataka, by one of his disciples. Balu’s answer, if I recollect, was autobiographical. He said that his whole life was a negation of such an impression. He said as a boy he spent most of his time with the neighbouring Muslim family, that as a college student he was a radical Marxist. He said that what he was doing was to question the Western Christian attempt to besmirch Hinduism. But intentionality is one thing, and objective Hindutva, but his views taken in their objectivity seem to be packaged Hindutva with scholarly coating. Whatever his Marxist past, he has now nothing to do with it. He rejects the theoretical possibility of secularism. In a recent speech at the Department of Political Science, Karnatak University, he advanced the remarkable claim that Lingayat Vachanakaras did not raise a revolt or revolution against the Hindu components of Vedas, caste system and the scheme of four stages of life. These are positions compatible with Hindutva. Balu has a charismatic personality, a short compact man with a beard, he exudes enormous personal power. His faith in himself is most frightening, and his casual dismissal of dissenters is part of this self-confidence. To be fair to him, he is an informal and friendly man with a keen sense of humour. It is not a question of personal integrity or personality of Wendy or her enemies that is at stake. The stake is nothing less than the choice of human vision – Do you want a modern life which is compatible with Hinduism or you want to live an artificial Hindu life concocted out of medieval Christian theology, Brahmanical orthodoxy and a reactionary version of Hinduism. Thanks to Wendy, her children and stepchildren, we are forced to confront crucial choices.

Prof K Raghavendra Rao is a reputed political scientist and commentator.

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