Letter to Editor Vol5, Issue 1

Reversing the Gaze By Rajiv Malhotra

Responding to your recent article, "Wendy’s Children Versus Wendy’s Stepchildren," by K. Raghavendra Rao, let me start by saying that if there is no definable thing as Hinduism, with its own internal coherence and distinct from other faiths and, then the whole idea of Wendy representing Hinduism, or others critiquing her works is a futile waste of time.

Reversing the Gaze By Rajiv Malhotra

Responding to your recent article, "Wendy’s Children Versus Wendy’s Stepchildren," by K. Raghavendra Rao, let me start by saying that if there is no definable thing as Hinduism, with its own internal coherence and distinct from other faiths and, then the whole idea of Wendy representing Hinduism, or others critiquing her works is a futile waste of time.


Anything said about it would be equally valid or invalid, and simply irrelevant. By the same token, the whole discourse on Dalits, dowry, etc as "Hindu" problems ought to vanish on the basis that the culprit religion does not even exist, or that it is so diffused as to include everything else within it, anyway. The problem I am pointing out is that Rao implicitly uses Abrahamic religious criteria to examine dharma, which is neither religion nor "law" in the western sense although it overlaps with both.

In my forthcoming book, provisionally titled,  "The Audacity of Difference," the whole argument is about explaining what makes dharma traditions distinct from the Abrahamic religions as well as from Western Enlightenment. Rather than starting with value judgments (of superiority or inferiority), the real issue before us is to understand the classical dharma categories (mostly in Sanskrit) that are simply not translatable into English, because they represent worldviews and experiences of one civilization that are not found in the other, or at least not expressed in the language of the other. I explain 20 such non-translatable classical Indian words to make the point that there is a dharmic meta-worldview that is not only distinct and internally coherent, but is not easily mapped onto the Western lexicon of ideas. I treat with appreciation the vast divergences with Buddhism and Jainism, as well as among the variety of Vedic and non-Vedic traditions of what is nowadays called Hinduism. Yet there are underlying principles that unify almost all the dharmic worldviews and set them apart from the Western worldviews. This has to do with things like the notions of time, space, matter, essences or lack thereof, wholes and parts, causation, attitude towards uncertainty and chaos, relevance of history or lack thereof, institutionalization or charismatic gurus, and so forth. Neither dharma nor the West are simple or homogeneous, yet each side has strong internal family resemblances based on shared core categories in which they have debated internally. It is a philosophical work emphasizing what is different rather than the conventional approach that focuses on what is the same.

In this brief note, I cannot go into the details of that book, but when it appears in early 2011, I shall be glad to debate its thesis on: what makes the dharma traditions sufficiently diverse to include many kinds of ideas internally and yet different as a family from the Western intellectual traditions in very serious ways. Hence, in this note, I shall take the liberty of assuming that popular Indian fads such as "all religions are the same” or "there is no such thing as Hinduism" are naive, simplistic and often driven by politically correct trendiness. This state of ignorance and superficial discourse among Indian "experts" (including many gurus, Hindutva leaders, secular and pseudo-secular "intellectuals") is largely the result of Indian education’s lack of the academic discipline of Religious Studies within the humanities, caused by the misconceived notion that such studies are anti-secular. In fact, academic Religious Studies in the US is amongst the largest humanities disciplines and one of the fastest growing and its effect has been the exact opposite – producing serious thinkers who can cross-examine each religion objectively. Those Indians who do study dharma in its own categories are introverted and lack a good understanding of the West as "other", and hence cannot produce quality comparative analyses. The purva-paksha tradition of studying others using our own categories has been long lost in Indian scholasticism, and hence we have gurus talking like village bumpkins when they deal with the West – lacking a serious study of the history, philosophy, social and political institutions of the west. I find this deficiency in the various religious institutions where they train acharyas, swamis, pandits, etc. Other Indians who call themselves post-colonial scholars of various sub-types tend to be uneducated in dharmic categories and philosophies, and hence they mimic what the West has exported as its own self-critiques using Western theories and worldviews. Most Indians in South Asian Studies in the US tend to be of this variety. Finally, the Hindutva brigade lacks both areas of competence – its idea of dharma is a recent political construction and Semitization, and it also lacks the requisite depth in Western thought. None of these three different categories of Indians have produced a single study gazing at the West using Indian siddhantas (i.e. dharmic theories/hermeneutics).

Gazing is a source of soft power and, conversely, soft power gives one side the privilege to gaze at others on one’s own terms and for one’s own agendas. Reverse gazing is a form of residence and can rebalance the lost soft power. Gazing in the purva-paksha sense cannot be done in imported categories and theories, as the very installation of such foreign categories into Indian minds constitutes colonization, which, ironically, these post-colonialists shout against. Indian post-colonialists’ parroting of the West’s self-critiques makes no difference to the West. Such Indians are living in what amounts to academic ghettos, largely ignored except by other Indians. They are useful sepoys playing a role to make the West seem self-critical, while exporting Western siddhantas to colonize more Indians. 

The clash of civilizations is about competing categories and worldviews, and these do matter if one understands the practical implications deeply. This is why China seeks to contest Western supremacy not only in hard power, but also in soft power; hence its launch of 100 Confucius Institutes worldwide to propagate its indigenous categories and worldview. Islam is already very clear about its distinct worldview and categories, and their practical implications – except in Indian discourse where the "everything is same" fad prevails and serious discussions on difference are taboo. Where is India in this clash of worldviews? Does it want to get digested in the bellies of the other three civilizations, as proud citizens of the "global village" or some post-modern ideal? Most Indian intellectuals I have talked to cannot define Indian distinctiveness except as a mumbo-jumbo combination of: (i) in terms of secular democracy that are not Indian per se but western imports (which does not deny that they do have considerable benefit); and (ii) the "page 3" pop culture of cricket, Bollywood, gossip, and "becoming white" aesthetically by showing off the latest etiquette of wine, Italian cuisine, foreign trips, getting invited to pageant parties, etc.

With this background, I shall address a few of the main claims in Rao’s article. He asks: "how can a Hindu who flees from a collective Hindu environment to non-Hindu objectives realized in an alien land lay any moral claim to a Hindu identity?" My response is that just like the particular economic model or claim of physics has nothing to do with where one is located, so also the categories of various civilizations each claim universalism and are independent of physical location. If the claims of Plato or Aristotle, or those of Jesus or Mohammed, can be universal claims, so can the claims of dharma. This issue by Rao indicates how the western liberal arts have colonized many of us, for he assumes without even being conscious of it, that the western humanities discourse is universal, and that dharma is pertinent to a specific geography, just like monsoons and snakes.

He is too presumptuous in knowing his protagonists when he assumes that, "like Gandhi earlier, have fallen into the binary trap of orientalism – spiritual India versus materialistic West." It might trouble him to know that, far from being the anti-materialistic stereotype he imagines, I am materialistically successful and quite happy with this, not seeing it as a contradiction with my interest to understand dharma. I drink wine/whiskey, live the materialistically good American life, both my kids have Muslim names (Kabeer and Yasmin), and all my schooling was in a Catholic school in Delhi followed by St. Stephens College. Both my parents are well-educated (engineer and medical doctor) and we were raised in a westernized atmosphere. I am formally trained in theoretical physics, computational linguistics and logic. I mention all this to point out that none of this fits into his little box profile of what we so-called "Hindu chauvinists" are supposed to be like. In fact, it bothers Rao’s kind of person to have to deal with those like me who argue for the dharma as a serious alternative meta-worldview that deserves to be examined critically alongside the other major claims (namely, Biblical, Western Enlightenment, Western Post-modernism, Chinese Confucian-Daoism, and Islam). He needs to imagine opponents who he can dismiss easily.

Rao asserts: "Identity issues make no sense to Hinduism because of its basic pluralism, hierarchy, hegemony and structural centrifugalism." He lumps too many unrelated qualities in one sentence and these need to be parsed separately. He misses that pluralism does not have to mean relativism. It does not mean that all views are dharmic. After all, there is the category of a-dharma, hence not all claims of truth are true. Being pluralistic in the dharmic sense is given extensive treatment in my book, specifically to show that it does not mean "everything is the same." A common approach to trivialize dharma is to start by praising how pluralistic it is, and then jumping to the conclusion that therefore there is no such thing definable because everything would belong in that category. Rao should read Mahabharata and Gandhi to get practical insights into pluralism without relativism. The second descriptor in his sentence is that Hinduism is ierarchical/hegemonic; hence there cannot be an identity. This is a ridiculous claim. Where does he get this from, that hierarchical/hegemonic groups cannot have identities? Every identity-laden system – from the army, to Christianity, to Islam, to corporate multinationals, to governments, and also media celebrities – function within hierarchies and hegemony. There is no contradiction between hierarchy and identity. His description of "structural centrifugalism" is the only serious one on his list. I agree that this tendency exists in dharma and also that it is symptomatic of lacking identity. But here is a hint I offer him, as food for thought to understand a different  kind of identity in the case of dharma: imagine a negative set of principles that opposes any exclusivist history of revelations from God, exclusivist institutional club to join; imagine an open architecture to pick and choose from a marketplace of suppliers, new experiments, new claims and ideas, etc. Imagine such an open source based system. It deserves to be given its place and hence a name to refer to it by. That’s a different kind of "identity" from that which Rao is limiting himself to consider. Krishna asks for action to be taken for the wider good, unselfishly. Such action to be effective requires organizing, understanding others (as Krishna did), and today this involves having an identity to gather like-minded energies. (Post-colonialist scholars are also an identity.) Rao is assuming political identity, but there can be affiliation with a worldview without political mobilization. 

Rao does not seem to understand America one bit when he asks: "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?" America is the land of hyphenated identities of all sorts, ethnic, religious, racial, etc. These identities are very explicit and public in the case of religion, unlike in India where pseudo-secularism has created a taboo about religious distinctiveness (and thereby played into the hands of fundamentalists). One of my first experiences in the US was at dinner tables where white Americans discuss their religious backgrounds in a very calm, relaxed manner – "I was raised Presbyterian", "we are Methodists", "I am Catholic like my mother but my father being Jewish made me appreciate that faith," etc. One of the most moronic beliefs I find among Indians is this notion that Americans lack identities. One has to see the various identity-based parades in New York – Irish, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and so forth, several dozen different kinds every year, and the city is proud of this showcase. One has to see how many thousands of US government-recognized "historical societies" there are across the nation, that each specialize in the history of some specific identity, be it local or global. There is nothing "flaunting" about being a Hindu-American, with all due apologies to Indians ashamed of dharma as something explicit and distinct.

Finally, from his cursory treatment, I doubt that Rao has carefully read Invading the Sacred. This quality – of dishing out profound analyses without reading the subject matter – is yet another sign of the times.

Rajiv Malhotra is an independent public intellectual focusing on issues of Indian civilization’s place in the modern world.



Reversing the Reverse Gaze By K. Raghavendra Rao

While welcoming Rajiv Malhotra’s response to my piece in Ghadar Jari Hai as opening up a debate on the important question of Hindu identity, I must register my resentment at the tone of intellectual arrogance that pervades his text. He accuses me of not having read carefully the volume, Invading the Sacred, and he is partly right in the sense that my concern with both the texts was not to focus on their content but to use them as an occasion for raising the issue of Hindu identity. I am surprised that he thinks I am operating with an Abrahamian/Semitic model of religious identity. In fact, my point is that Malhotra and his friends are doing it. I suggest that there are two modes of constructing a religious or any group identity. One is to define the difference between the self and the other as theoretically unbridgeable and the second mode is to minimize the difference between the two, implicitly accepting the possibility of an overarching universality relating the two. I think the first mode is the one favoured by the Abrahamian / Semitic model, which emphasizes differences. One important manifestation of this is the logical need for conversion. The Hindu mode of identity construction is to minimise the difference between the self and the other, implicitly assuming the possibility and necessity for a unifying framework. Also the first mode not only absolutises the difference between the self and the other but it also minimizes the differences within the self. The Hindu mode minimizes the differences between the self and the other while emphasizing the within-group differences as providing an identity security. This was the essence of my position and Malhotra seems unwilling to go along with it.

Other points are secondary. For instance, he mentions that he enjoys the material goodies available in America and his two children have Muslim names. Both these are eminently Hindu features; the fi rst because Hinduism in its axiological scheme of Purusharthas recognizes doctrinally the need for both materiality and spirituality in stark contrast to the dichotomy and hierarchy between the two structurally built into Christianity and Islam. Local neo-Hindus in India would have dubbed Malhotra as a renegade Hindu or even a non-Hindu had he been in India. The second feature which does not banish the other absolutely is also a very Hindu quality. On Gandhi, I am afraid that he is too simplistic. Gandhi is not a consistent thinker, and while in his only theoretical work, Hind Swaraj, he proposes a binary structure, sharply dichotomizing between spiritual India and Godless / Irreligious West, falling into the orientalist trap, in other places he does not emphasise the binary paradigm. On the question of the distinction between pluralism and relativism, I think the conceptual distinction collapses once you move the terms into existential operation. In applying to concrete situations, the two tend to flow into each other. As for his contempt for democracy and secularism, I can only say that he has a right to it just as I have a right to disbelieve in the sacred as a category.

Finally, as far as I am concerned the debate between us cannot go beyond this point of closure, because an intellectual discourse or a rational debate suffers a logical closure at the point where value commitments and interests emerge. But this does not mean that others cannot join the fray and move further the debate and discussion. Before I close, two final points, I do think that hierarchy and identity are not compatible while diversity and identity are. This is because there can be no common identity between the oppressor and the oppressed and the exploiter and the exploited in a hierarchical system involving asymmetry of power and privilege. Also, I think he dismisses too easily the importance of spatial location. But spatial location defines the political and cultural context of life and thought. For instance, my not being located in America offers me a different world outlook and context from those Malhotra faces. To me as a Hindu living with fellow Hindus in India for more than eighty years, the identity problem is not pressing but for one living in a non-Hindu world as Malhotra and his friends do, the need to construct a Semitic or Abrahamian mode of identity may be necessary.

K. Raghavendra Rao 



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