The recent article titled, The neocolonial futurism of US Hindutva, by Dheepa Sundaram, goes to show how much Western academia is being troubled by the book, Snakes in the Ganga, recently published along with my co-author Vijaya Viswanathan.
Besides the factual errors Sundaram makes while naming me as her target, there are more serious issues concerning the manner in which it has been framed using categories of Western Universalism.
Western Universalism is the conscious and unconscious use of Western history, philosophy and social experience as the template presumed to speak for all of humanity.
A complete discussion on the use of such colonial categories is beyond the scope of this brief response, and I have written extensively on that subject before. I shall limit myself here to a few obvious blind spots in Sundaram’s piece.
But before examining her article, I congratulate Sundaram for taking the trouble to capture my thoughts, even though she is constrained to operate within the Western social sciences. Only through such conversations can bridges be built for more useful exchanges in the future.
Since her subject matter concerns the nature of Hindu dharma, I begin by explaining one of the most distinct aspects of its metaphysics.
In sharp contrast with the Abrahamic models that are embedded in Western Universalism, Hindu dharma does not presume an external god separate from the cosmos. Rather, the cosmos itself is nothing other than a manifestation of the supreme being. Nor is there the concept of a devil in this framework, and one must experience everything as forms of the 'one'.
All particulars are within this universal. All relatives are within this absolute. The appearances of form and functionality are like elements of a play. This divine play, known as Lila, is dynamic and ever evolving. It is the infinite that assumes every finite role in this play.
Beneath the ever-changing Lila lies the unchanging.
Therefore, the shastras (spiritual texts) are of two kinds of truths: eternal truths contained in the shruti texts, and contextual truths contained in the smriti texts.
Correspondingly, there are two realms of human experience. This separation is not so clear in the Abrahamic religions, where the eternal and the contextual have become collapsed into “one book” — frozen permanently. The Abrahamic religions suffer this deep-rooted reductionism that Hindu metaphysics resists.
The implication is that Hindu dharma cannot be homogenised: the divine play has infinite variations, and each form is transitory.
Yet, Sundaram makes the ridiculous allegation that we Hindus are guilty of “deliberate flattening of the historical diversity of Hinduism”. Because we do not subscribe to one closed book, one final prophet, or one deity, the Abrahamic systems have for thousands of years charged us with allegations of polytheism and idolatry.
So how can Sundaram find us guilty of “seeking to enshrine an essentialised, homogenous Hindu identity”. This is an oxymoronic understanding of Hindu dharma.
It is relevant to point out that Chinese and Islamic scholars have each insisted on using their own respective approaches to the social sciences, and each makes its own claim of universalism. Why is it considered wrong if we wish to approach social sciences based on Vedic/Hindu universalism?
To illustrate how we must assert our own approaches to social-political thought, let us discuss the fashionable assault on 'Hindutva'. This term stands for 'Hindu-tattva', which literally means Hindu-essence. Nothing wrong with that.
But critics find it problematic because the term was coined in the context of politics in the twentieth century. The charge is made by many (such as Shashi Tharoor) that Hinduism proper should stay out of politics. They use this view to create a wedge between Hinduism (which they claim to support) and Hindutva (which they fight fiercely).
Let me explain my views on this pivotal issue since Sundaram aligns with the anti-Hindutva camp.
Hindu dharma, like all other faiths, very clearly and explicitly includes the social-political dimension. That is what is called Kshatriya dharma, the dharma of political, military, judicial, and civic roles.
The Ramayana is about bhagwan taking birth as Sri Ramachandra — a Kshatriya king to perform that role. The Mahabharata is about Sri Krishna directing the Kshatriyas to perform their roles.
In the Ramayana, the Kshatriyas must fight an external enemy from another kingdom. In the Mahabharata, the Kshatriyas must fight internal enemies, in fact one’s own cousins.
To delete politics from dharma would mean deleting the agency of the Kshatriyas, and hence rendering both the Itihasa narratives outside the scope of Hindu dharma. This would amount to surrendering the political space to foreign rule, ie, colonisation.
I am not fond of the term 'Hindutva' because Hindu dharma more than suffices. But I fully support what it stands for. The Kshatriya roles are critical for Hindus in this era of globalisation.
Historically, all colonisers seek to exterminate the Kshatriyas of a defeated people, in order to render them helpless and dependent on the colonisers.
The defiance of British rule by Indian nationalists (ranging from Mohandas Gandhi to Veer Savarkar) exemplified the modern return of the Kshatriyas.
Those who seek to delete Kshatriyas are in effect paving the way for the recolonisation of Hindu society. I would go a step further and say that modern democracy can be seen as a form of participatory-Kshatriyata in which every adult citizen participates in the political yajna of protecting society.
Another blatant imposition of Western Universalism by the 'woke' academy is the way in which the Black/White race relations in America are being universalised and projected on other cultures. Sundaram claims that Hindus have created “a mythologised past” that denies “anti-Blackness”. Her assumption is that Blackness and Whiteness are the appropriate categories for understanding India’s past and present societies.
This is the blunder of Western Universalism being projected on others. I would argue that the concept of White people was peculiarly American and even different from Europe’s identities as English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, et al.
The framing of social problems in the ‘Blackness’ and ‘Whiteness’ grid shows the American colonisation of social sciences, because these categories are intimately linked with the peculiarities of American society and its historical conflicts. No two societies are the same, and thus no two societies have the same problems.
For example, the highest ideal in America is the individual ego’s freedom to act. This freedom has nothing to do with the ultimate freedom in the Vedic world view, which is freedom from causation. Thus, imposing a framework of power struggles onto a Vedic society is flawed and arrogant to say the least.
Snakes in the Ganga explicitly acknowledges multiple times that social abuse has existed in India, as in every other society. And that it has also found remedies from within the system over the ages.
The Bhagavad Gita and Chandogya Upanishad are examples of numerous resources available for countering the politics of prejudice. And now, once again, there are social inequalities that need to be addressed from within the Indian spiritual and democratic systems.
What is important to note are the numerous differences between Indian and American social histories that cannot be whitewashed. One cannot treat a malady based on a false diagnosis. India’s minorities (Muslims and Christians) came as foreign conquerors who ruled over the native majority of Hindus for centuries.
In contrast, the American Blacks did not come as African conquerors defeating the native White people and ruling over them. The Muslim rulers in India imposed their Persian language and the Christian rulers their English as the official languages of India. They imposed their own foreign social and political structures, named cities and monuments after themselves, and committed genocides that are well-documented.
Despite being numerical minorities, they installed their narratives on the Hindu majority which we are still trying to decolonise. Black Americans are not inheritors of any such past oppression committed by their African ancestors.
A common excuse being given to exempt Muslim invaders as colonisers is that they eventually 'settled' in India starting with Babur (several centuries after the Islamic invasions started). But nobody has given the White Americans of European origin the same free pass for the oppression of the native Americans, even though the Whites did become settlers in America.
White people’s atrocities and accomplishments are separately listed, and the atrocities are not denied. But there is a double standard in the treatment given to India’s Muslim colonisers: only their contributions are given prominence. Their genocides of Hindu natives, though documented by their own scribes as great accomplishments against infidels, are deemed politically incorrect to mention.
I wish to emphasise that India’s present-day Muslims and Christians should not bear any responsibility for the past atrocities committed by previous generations belonging to the same faiths. This is just like saying that whatever my past ancestors might have done is not my personal burden and responsibility.
Just like I want to be judged only by my own personal conduct, so also, I must judge others solely by their own personal conduct. This is why I oppose blame games in which oppressors/oppressed are assigned based on their respective past ancestors.
Regarding the internal social structures of India and the abuses therein, Snakes in the Ganga devotes chapter 6 (the largest chapter by far) to discuss this history. It explains how social structures have changed and evolved, varied from one region to another, and one era to another. It explains the different notions of varna, jati, and caste, and the reductionist blunder of collapsing these into what has now become “the caste system”.
Clearly, Sundaram is completely wrong when she alleges that we are engaged in “efforts to censor discussions on caste violence”, or that we are using “the language of decolonisation and anti-racism to inoculate themselves against charges of discrimination”.
She is also blind to the fact that 'wokeism' is not the only framework in which present-day caste violence can be discussed, and certainly not the best. For reference purposes, Mohandas Gandhi insisted on using the Hindu social structures as his framework to reform its abuses. This was decades before the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) came into existence.
Sundaram has been tutored by scholars known for selective citing of evidence. When evaluating India’s track record of hospitality towards foreign migrants, they conveniently forget that Hindus have an unprecedented track record of giving refuge to Jews, Iranian Zoroastrians, Syrian Christians, Tibetans, etc. But when foreign migrants are denied entry in an already-overcrowded country, the alarm bells go off with outrageous charges of fascism.
For the record, I would like to say that I have never accepted Savarkar’s position that Hinduism is a race. That would negate my views on the notion of Vedic/Hindu Universalism, which like all other universalisms is, by definition, beyond any race, geography, space-time boundaries — applicable universally to all humankind.
The core of Vedic teachings on the nature of the self, and the theories of karma and reincarnation, become meaningless if one were to consider them applicable only to some specific race of humans.
In fact, the same metaphysical principles apply to all life forms, including non-humans. Hence, a race-based reductionism is totally unacceptable to me.
The Hinduphobic lobby is especially bent on wanting to contain Hindu dharma geographically and curtailing its globalised expressions.
However, the Kurukshetra (the metaphorical battlefield where the Kshatriyas must operate) has become global. All other faiths operate globally.
So why does Sundaram find it troubling that Hindu diasporas want to “leverage transnational relationships with India”? The Abrahamic religions and the Global Left certainly consider the entire world their playing field.
Western academics must stop treating Hindus as native informants — even though we live among them as their doctors, classmates, neighbours, chefs, politicians, scientists, relationship partners, and in every imaginable capacity as Americans.
Is this a posture of unconscious racism? After all, other dual/hyphenated identities of Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans, etc, are seen as normal. So why is there something wrong when Hindus from India introduce their rich heritage as part of the American tapestry?
I wish to encourage Sundaram and others like her to continue this back-and-forth conversation with Hindu intellectuals.
There are so many issues raised in our book that ought to be debated. For instance, I list the following topics as food for thought by Sundaram and her peers:
1. What are the similarities and differences between Blacks in America and Dalits and other minorities in India, both historically and in contemporary terms?
2. In Marxist terms, should all Muslims be treated as victims and designated as a “protected class”? Or should it be more nuanced and dependent on individual context?
3. Just like the aggressive calls by woke academicians to dismantle Hindutva/Hinduism, why is there no equivalent call to dismantle Christianity and Islam? Their record of atrocities is certainly far greater.
4. Is the designation of Hindus as “white adjacent” false and arbitrary? One should not deny that Indian Hindus have a history of being oppressed by foreign oppressors.
5. Though wokeism champions indigenous people in other continents, why does it fail to provide the same support to Hindus as the indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent?
6. Is French President Emmanuel Macron right in claiming that rights and liberty should be at the level of individuals and not be given to groups and identities? Why do wokeists not want to debate the differences between classical liberalism and wokeism — explained in Snakes in the Ganga?
7. Are India’s laws on reservation more woke than American attempts to bring equity of outcomes? Why is there no discussion on this?
8. Why are wokeists selective in the application of intersectionality? Aren’t poor Brahmins today the worst hit and beyond any possible privilege accrued due to caste?
Before Sundaram and others could open such conversations, they would need to tackle the widespread 'cancel culture' in their own camp. It is amazing that she writes: “Only Hindu ‘insiders’ can speak about Hinduism”.
The facts are opposite. We have been inviting the opponents to discuss in public forums. In fact, Prof Bal Ram Singh invited Harvard’s Suraj Yengde numerous times to participate in my book discussions at Harvard a couple of weeks ago. But all his attempts fell on deaf ears. No interest from Yengde to get involved. They prefer to hit and run.
When I saw this latest article by Dheepa Sundaram, I sent messages to the journal where it appeared, requesting a chance to post a response. This seems fair since the article names me as the central protagonist. But no such opportunity has been granted.
In this regard, the difference between Hindu tradition and wokeism is poignant. There were no incidents in Hindu history of burning the books of those one disagrees with. No injunctions by god to harm infidels.
In fact, in the Bhagavad-Gita, Sri Krishna’s final message to Arjuna may be summed up as follows: I have answered your questions and explained what you need to know. But now you may do as you please.
Multiplicity and even paradox in thought have been a cornerstone of the Hindu tradition, since Hindu Universalism truly and strongly aligns with the plethora of possibilities that constitute reality and truth.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.