Free E-Book: Swami Vivekananda’s Ideas on Hindu Reform

‘Our vigor, our strength, nay, our national life is in our religion… for good or evil.’ At a time when everybody who was anybody in India had a theory on the reasons for British colonialism and how to get out of it, Swami Vivekananda was absolutely sure that religion was the key. To ‘the Indian mind there is nothing higher than religious ideals’. Whether you like this fact or not, ‘You are bound by it, and if you give it up, you are smashed to pieces.’ Religion was not only the highest ideal but also the ultimate unifying force in India—he was speaking at a time when the country could certainly use some—before which ‘race difficulties, linguistic difficulties, social difficulties, national difficulties, all melt away.’

svivekebook

‘Our vigor, our strength, nay, our national life is in our religion… for good or evil.’ At a time when everybody who was anybody in India had a theory on the reasons for British colonialism and how to get out of it, Swami Vivekananda was absolutely sure that religion was the key. To ‘the Indian mind there is nothing higher than religious ideals’. Whether you like this fact or not, ‘You are bound by it, and if you give it up, you are smashed to pieces.’ Religion was not only the highest ideal but also the ultimate unifying force in India—he was speaking at a time when the country could certainly use some—before which ‘race difficulties, linguistic difficulties, social difficulties, national difficulties, all melt away.’

It wasn’t as if this unifying force lay on the shelf waiting for the right person to pick it up at the right time and flag off the melting process. The religion in question had its own difficulties that begged melting. Hinduism had itself to be unified first. The ‘first plank in the making of a future India’, declared Vivekananda, ‘is unification of religion.’ His idea of Hindu reform was essentially this unification, and as I gather from his speeches and writings, it involved work on three vectors: (1) denominational unification via Advaita, (2) linguistic unification via Sanskrit, and (3) caste unification via uplift to ideal Brahminhood.

Download the full e-book (14 pages), from my website, http://kiranbatni.com.

Generalization Is Inevitable When Talking Meaningfully about India

Prof S. N. Balagangadhara’s argument that the Europeans described their experience of India and not India itself is obviously right. It is only from the frame of reference of one’s own culture that anyone can describe what one sees in the world. The observer is intimately connected to the observation. It is only from the frame of reference of their culture that the Europeans saw and talked about Hinduism, the caste system, etc. I’d like to submit here that the Europeans had another important compulsion over and above their culture: the need to generalize what they saw.

Prof S. N. Balagangadhara’s argument that the Europeans described their experience of India and not India itself is obviously right. It is only from the frame of reference of one’s own culture that anyone can describe what one sees in the world. The observer is intimately connected to the observation. It is only from the frame of reference of their culture that the Europeans saw and talked about Hinduism, the caste system, etc.

I’d like to submit here that the Europeans had another important compulsion over and above their culture: the need to generalize what they saw.

Prof Balagangadhara will agree that words like Hinduism and caste system are huge generalizations. But generalization is inevitable when one is compelled to account for innumerable and diverse phenomena. European colonial writers had to generalize what they saw because their Empire had spread itself recklessly wherever possible. The colonizers didn’t have any reason to stop their conquests at any sort of previously existing boundaries because easy money didn’t stop at those boundaries. How does one talk meaningfully about such a recklessly spread Empire without making generalizations? It’s impossible.

To make matters worse, the list of collective nouns the Europeans used to describe and generalize what they saw has another entry in it which Prof Balagangadhara doesn’t seem to have paid attention to: India. As long as we wish to take this entry seriously, there is no escape from generalization. Every statement about India is a generalization because the very word is the result of European generalization. I’m not saying that we must refrain from making any statement about India. I’m only saying that we must recognize the fact that we’re compelled to generalize when we make one.

I think it’s still possible to make a very good generalization, but we have to be careful. If we aren’t, what we end up calling the Indian way to generalize will continue to have European generalization at the base because European generalization thrives in the very word India. In some sense, we have to remove Europe from India before making our generalization, and it’s not an easy task. (In passing, I have to point out that even European is a generalization, but we can live with it because Europe is quite far away from us and we’re not interested in describing Europe but India here.)

Fortunately, we can talk much more easily about generalization by a Vedantin, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Lingayat, a Shudra, and so on, without including European generalization by default. Similarly, we can also talk about generalization by a Kannadiga, a Tamil, a Telugu, a Gujarati, and so on. These categories were attested before our brush with European colonialism, and continue to exist even today. But we have to be very careful when we talk of an Indian way to generalize because the very category owes its birth to our colonial experience.

Let me end with a few comments on how we could think in order to arrive at an Indian generalization. In some sense, we must arrive at the least common denominator of all the pre-attested categories described and implied in the above paragraph. We must arrive at what is common to all of them and lodge ourselves in that common frame of reference before making our generalization. Most importantly, our generalization must apply to the new India, which is a product of European generalization, and which we also like to call as a democracy.

The task is neither impossible nor simple. Until we come up with such a generalization, there is no option but to use what the Europeans have left us with — Hinduism and caste system. Unfortunately, it is also true that different people will naturally come up with different ways to tinker with these concepts in this interim period. They will infuse them with their own meanings, knowingly or unknowingly retain the European-ness in them to different degrees, and try to explain their version of reality as well as they can.

Why India Wasn’t a Nation

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I take Rabindranath Tagore’s definition of nation as an ‘organization of politics and commerce’. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s definition. However, as long as one writes down a definition and sticks to it, discussion and debate are possible between people who define it differently. In this article, I will make a few comments on Sankrant Sanu’s article Why India Is a Nation, which may be seen as representing all shades of popular political thought in India.

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I take Rabindranath Tagore‘s definition of nation as an ‘organization of politics and commerce’. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s definition. However, as long as one writes down a definition and sticks to it, discussion and debate are possible between people who define it differently. In this article, I will make a few comments on Sankrant Sanu‘s article Why India Is a Nation, which may be seen as representing all shades of popular political thought in India.

The first difficulty in commenting on it is that I agree that India is a nation. Where I disagree with him is the why part, and as my title here makes it clear, on the idea that India was a nation. As I see it, India is a nation because there is one organization of politics and commerce encompassing India the country as we see it on the map today. And yes, it was indeed the British who created this organization. It’s not as if Sankrant doesn’t thank the British for it. In his own words, the “British experience is part of who we are today, so they certainly added to our civilization.” That’s a clear recognition of British presence in the genes of the Indian nation of today – exactly the line I take in my book.

Coming to the question of definitions, what I call the nation is what Sankrant calls the nation-state in his section titled ‘The Modern States and Their Origins’. He admits that the very concept of nation-state (to use his word) is new to the entire world, not just to India. This, of course, is correct. But the problem is, in making the point that the world didn’t have nation-states until recently, Sankrant picks up tiny pieces of land in Europe – the nation-states of Europe, to be precise – and compares them with all of India taken as one nation-state. This is remarkable because it’s like comparing an apple to a apple tree.

That apart, after dismissing the ‘shifting nature of political kingdoms and their boundaries over the centuries’ as a way to ‘legitimize’ a ‘country’ (that’s a new word, but I’m not surprised), Sankrant goes on to suggest later in the article that India had something called political unity from the 6th Century BC. I will come to this notion of political unit shortly, but I’ll let you guess why he makes this argument if it’s no way to ‘legitimize a country’.

Next, Sankrant asks the question as to whether ‘a particular set of people, within a particular geography, imagine of themselves a common socio-cultural geographical heritage that comprised them as a nation’ in India, suggesting, of course, that the answer is ‘yes’. To support ‘a particular geography’, he offers a physical map of Asia and asks his reader to ‘take a deep breath’ and ‘reflect on the significance of this geography’. These deep breaths work wonders in academic circles, don’t they?

Proceeding, Sankrant argues that ‘civilization’ developed on the ‘great river systems of the Indus and the Gangetic plain’. Meanwhile, eminent historian K.A.Nilakanta Sastry writes on page 44 of his History of South India that the antiquity of human life in South India ‘goes back about 3,00,000 years’ and goes on to provide several reasons for this claim. There is a whole lot of recent research which suggests an independent centre of civilization in South India, away from the two river plains of North India mentioned by Sankrant. But this doesn’t figure in Sankrant’s north-centric narrative. The problem with this omission is, it destroys his very thesis that there was ‘a particular set of people’ with a ‘common socio-cultural geographical heritage’, that there was ‘a unique and diverse civilization’. The ‘diverse’ in this last claim, of course, is a weak, unsubstantiated (by him) and half-hearted plug for people who point out India’s diversity.

Sankrant then goes on to provide what he thinks of as examples of political unification in India’s history. Curiously, none of his examples (or any that anyone else can provide) are examples of unification of all of India. The Mauryas conquered almost all of India, admittedly, but did not touch south Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Kerala. He doesn’t mention that. The other kingdoms mentioned by him didn’t unify all of India even by his own admission. Kanishka didn’t go below central India; the Satavahanas didn’t touch the north; the Guptas didn’t go below the Narmada, but Sankrant pulls some interesting things from the top of his hat: that they were ‘possibly exerting political control even further down south’ and that the states of the south were ‘quite likely de-facto vassal states, paying tributes to the Emperor’; and finally, the Chalukyas and Cholas didn’t conquer the north. Let me leave the Mughals and the British aside because they were indeed not native kingdoms, and everyone knows that they did more to politically unify India than any native kingdom. So much for Sankrant’s suggestion that there has been some sort of unbroken political unity in India.

He says ‘Thus, there was an idea of India that made it be regarded as a separate and whole, even through political change and shifting boundaries of internal kingdoms’, but he has provided not an iota of evidence that any of these kingdoms had an ‘idea of India’, or for the claim that India was ‘separate and whole’ in any sense. All he has provided is proof of political change and shifting boundaries of kingdoms, not ‘internal kingdoms’. One can talk about ‘internal’ when the unit is first proved to exist, and that it can be seen as different from other units. And he hasn’t proved that. What he has proved is the existence of several units with changing boundaries and fortunes on Indian soil.

Āryāvarta
Āryāvarta (Source: Wikipedia)

Next, Sankrant proceeds to his own trap by claiming that ‘the idea of India, as Bharatavarsha or Aryavrata, appears to have been alive for thousands of years’. Many things can start appearing when one is dreaming, and here it is the idea that Aryavarta was all of India. Sankrant purposely twists Manusmriti 2.22 in reporting Aryavrata as a land ‘stretching from the Himalayas and Vindhyas all the way to the eastern and western oceans’ according to the text. In reality, even this sentence of his doesn’t make any sense. There’s half of India lying between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas, and it’s outrageous to say that there’s one piece of land from ‘the Himalayas and Vindhyas’ to something else. You don’t combine the Himalayas and the Vindhyas like that. They’re two separate mountain ranges unconnected to each other.

For a sentence which claims that there is something which stretches from A (Himalayas) and B (Vindhyas) all the way to C (eastern oceans) and D (western oceans) to make sense, A, B, C, and D must form a quadrilateral with A and B as one pair of adjacent sides, and C and D the other pair. But here, if only one looks at a map, A and B are opposite sides, as are C and D. Clearly, this is an attempt to confuse readers into thinking that Manusmriti refers to all of India using the word Aryavarta, while in fact, only the India above the Vindhyas is referred. It is this region of India which he is calling by the name Bharatavarsha, not the whole of India unless you haven’t recovered from the deep breath he wanted you to take earlier.

Sankrant mentions Mahabharata and Ramayana as further proofs of ‘Bharatavarsha or Aryavarta’. While there is no doubt that these epics are popular all over India, he forgets that they are popular even outside it – for example in Cambodia, Thailand, etc. He also forgets to mention lands south of the Vindhyas when he says the Mahabharata ‘shows a remarkable degree of pan-Indian context’. To be fair, names of kingdoms down south are indeed mentioned in both; I’m only pointing out the fact that it suffices for Sankrant to take names from the north. But to come to the larger point he’s making, it is indeed true that these two epics talk about a large part of what we call India today. The question is: So what? They’re chanting Buddhist texts in China, Japan and Korea even today. So what?

After talking about Mahabharata and Ramayana, Sankrant is acutely aware that these are texts written in the north, in Sanskrit, and wants to prove that there’s been flow in the opposite direction, too. For this he mentions the Bhakti movement, crediting Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for its origin. That’s quite nice, thank you from a Kannadiga, but so what? Let us agree that post the 6th or 7th century AD, there has indeed been this cultural export from South India. So what? Does it prove the existence of an Indian nation or nation-state as in ‘organization of politics and commerce’? No. All it proves is that there has been quite a bit of religious churning within the Indian subcontinent, that the north pioneered the culture of today, and that the south made its contribution beginning the 6th or 7th century AD.

In the rest of his article, Sankrant takes the usual path of taking religion as the basis to claim that there was an Indian nation. If this is all he had to claim, why did he get into the mess he got into with respect to politics? Why did he have to twist the Manusmriti and redefine Aryavarta to fit his political message? I will gladly agree that India is the land of Hinduism, although I will never cease to point out in the same breath that it is extremely diverse and that it sets a not-so-good example of handling human diversity with its caste system, its method of attaching inferiority and purity to people, languages, everything. In fact, I increasingly tend to take S.N.Balagangadhara‘s view that there is no Hinduism at all, if and when I’m forced to reckon with someone who doesn’t admit these things. And I don’t see Sankrant Sanu admiting these things. And finally, what has religion got to do with nationalism, unless as a nation we agree to do nothing more than meditate or worship?

To summarize, then, Sankrant Sanu hasn’t provided any evidence of an Indian nation existing before the British, if by nation one means what Rabindranath Tagore meant, i.e., an organization of politics and commerce. He has, however, reiterated the fact that Hinduism exists almost all over India. He has tried to force fit history and religious texts to support his political message, and has hidden the fact that the roots of Hinduism lie in the India above the Vindhyas. He has taken a definition of nation which has nothing to do with politics and economics (‘a particular set of people, within a particular geography, with a common socio-cultural geographical heritage’) and applied it mostly to Aryavarta, misinterpreting it as all of India. He has displayed no understanding of the pre-history of South India. In all, he hasn’t said anything which proves that India, as we know it today, was a nation. Nobody ever has, or can, and I take this point up in detail in my book. As to India being a nation today, all one needs is to mention the Constitution of India.

The Balagangadhara Problem

Prof S.N.Balagangadhara, in The Heathen in his Blindness, says ‘religion is what Christianity, Islam and Judaism are’ and goes on to argue that Hinduism is not a religion. Given this definition of religion, anyone can arrive at this result. I don’t see the point in trying to make it impossible to compare Hinduism with the above religions in any manner whatsoever.

I understand that Hinduism is not a religion according to the above definition, but I reject that definition. Yes, Christians, Muslims, and Jews would, in all likelihood, agree with Balagangadhara’s definition, but that should be no inducement for me or anyone to follow suit. Yes, Balagangadhara’s definition might have been the working definition of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but that doesn’t require us to refuse to redefine it.

I don’t understand why Balagangadhara and his research group seem to find it impossible to come to a definition of ‘religion’ which includes all the above religions. I know that they claim that they don’t even want to try, but I don’t understand why. It’s like claiming that one doesn’t want to try to arrive at homo sapiens as a category.

I offer, as a definition of the word religion, ‘a set of methods for spiritual uplift’, and I think it sits well in all the situations in which the word ‘religion’ has been used. Religions differ with respect to what the method is and what spiritual uplift is, and with respect to the intended and unintended effects on society, but every religion of the world falls under the umbrella of this definition. In short, I don’t think the Balagangadhara problem exists.

How Hindutva kills Hinduism

I.

In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4, the sage Yājñavalkya decides to retire to the forest after dividing his property between Maitreyī and Kātayāni, his two consorts. Maitreyī then gets into a discussion with Yājñavalkya on whether the property would keep her happy forever. She asks:

yan nu ma iyaṃ bhagoḥ sarvā pṛthivī vittena pūrṇā syāt kathaṃ tenāmṛtā syām iti.

“Would I become immortal if all the wealth of the world were to become mine?” Yājñavalkya has to make a clear choice between artha and moksha here, and this is what he says in response: no.

neti hovāca yājñavalkyaḥ. yathaivopakaraṇavatāṃ jīvitaṃ tathaiva te jīvitaṃ syāt. amṛtatvasya tu nāśāsti vitteneti.

“No, your life would be like that of those who have rich possessions. There is no hope of immortality through wealth.” And then the Upanishad goes on with Yājñavalkya revealing, upon request, one after the other spiritual truth to Maitreyī.

This short episode should clarify beyond doubt that the true focus in this, as in every, Upanishad is moksha, not arthaamṛtatva, not vitta. If it weren’t for this focus on deliverance or salvation, the Upanishads would have lost meaning long ago, as many of the other parts of the Vedas have.

Noise can make us forget that the Upanishads, not other texts, are central to Hinduism. But in reality, one cannot claim to uphold Hinduism but let go of Upanishadic messages. It is impossible to uphold some other text or portion thereof, if it contradicts the message of the Upanishads, and claim to uphold Hinduism.

II.

Why am I writing this? This is to set the record straight after reading an article titled ‘The Desirability of Artha’ by Bibek Debroy. I would perhaps not have bothered if it were from someone else, but for such a prominent public intellectual to let go of the centrality of the Upanishads in advocating for Hinduism illustrates that the intellectual disaster that has struck India’s right-wing elite is of a greater magnitude than I had imagined.

In an article which sets out to establish the desirability of artha, which desirability is, of course, not questionable, Debroy makes the point that the superiority of moksha in Hindu scriptures is ‘superficial’. This is an unpardonable mistake. There is no question of comparing artha to moksha in the core of Hinduism; the latter wins hands down, and explicitly.

After having made this seminal mistake, Debroy’s article gets entangled in a mess of absurdities.

Take, for example, the idea that the Varna system represents ‘nothing but economic specialization’ if we were to consider it ‘without defending its subsequent hereditary aspects’. This is like saying cyanide represents harmless matter if we were to consider it without defending its poisonous character.

Debroy also claims to give the original meaning of Brahmacharya. According to him, it need not necessarily involve celibacy. No doubt one can achieve moksha even while being a gruhastha, but that does not mean you go and preach sexual intercourse to the Brahmachari.

Continuing, Debroy argues that Hinduism is quite concerned about wealth creation (one could argue it’s always transformation); the impression that it isn’t concerned comes, according to Debroy, from a selective and biased reading of Hindu texts. Well, one can argue without end about which texts are part of Hinduism and which aren’t, but there is no doubt that the Upanishads are. There is also no doubt that they are central to the religion; any selective reading must involve them in order to remain meaningfully Hindu. In such a situation, to bring the limited scope of a couple of parvas from the Mahabharata as proof that ‘Hinduism’ cares for wealth-creation – so much that moksha loses its supreme position among the purusharthas – is to give up the core of Hinduism and wallow in superficiality.

Debroy even pushes his economic agenda into the mouth of the scripture. According to him, because public works were driven by individuals, not kings, we must take it as an acknowledgment by scripture that there should be little State involvement in public works today, too. I am not opposed to the proposition itself, but the farce of deriving it from the Mahabharata.

And what is that reference to the Buddha doing in the last paragraph of the article? The claim is that the vaishyas supported Buddha. So what? That makes moksha‘s superiority superficial as claimed? Or is it that we should welcome the author’s economics as ancient and absolute truths which supported the Buddha? Or is it a way to draw to his brand of western economics those who are concerned about the economic state of the Dalits?

Why is this intellectual disaster happening? Why are the self-appointed protectors of Hinduism themselves defaming Hindu scriptures (Debroy is apparently translating the Mahabharata and it is said to be a seminal work in Indology)? Why are the Hindutvavadis defending the indefensible exterior of the religion and discarding the perfect core, i.e., the Upanishads? Why do they not even hesitate to deny supreme importance to moksha to argue for their brand of artha?

The reason is that they try to approach Hinduism through the politico-economic lens. What appears through it is the monster created by the British and worshipped by Indian nationalists – the Indian Nation. This monster is their God. In singing its praise and positioning themselves as its high-priests, they do not seem to understand that they are destroying the impeccable spiritual core of Hinduism.