A Personal Note After Attending a Conference Held by Balu’s Research Group

Last weekend I attended a 2-day conference titled Dharma & Ethics – VIII: Revisiting Swami Vivekananda. It was conducted by Prof S . N. Balagangadhara’s research group at Alva’s Engineering College, Mudabidri, Karnataka. I presented a paper titled Swami Vivekananda’s Ideas on Hindu Reform. It’s been available for free download on this site for years now: just check the right sidebar. I believe we’ll have a video of my presentation soon.

You probably know that I’ve previously criticized some of the output coming out of this group, including Prof. Balu’s thesis that there’s no religion in India. So what’s going on?

Just this: I read his Heathen in His Blindness with a keen eye, I realized that he has hit upon a goldmine inasmuch as the social sciences are concerned. The book sheds a lot of light on how cultural differences played out when the Europeans set foot on India. Specifically, I agree with Balu, now, that there’s no religion in India and that Hinduism cannot be called a religion.

This doesn’t mean I agree with everything the group has published or publishes. Wholesale agreeing or disagreeing is for the weak of mind. (The conference itself proved that this group is actually quite heterogeneous. It agrees on some things and disagrees on some. For those who can’t wait to hear, I think it can be safely stated that most of the papers presented in the conference were critical of Vivekananda. I didn’t see any of the usual mindless prostration.)

I have a long list of discussions and arguments I’ve had over several years with the people in Balu’s group, including Prof. Rajaram Hegde of Kuvempu University.

At one point of time, I had pointed out an error in Prof Hegde’s reading of the Apashudradhikarana section of the Brahma Sutras, specifically in the commentary by Adi Shankara. This was on nilume.net – a site which I painfully decided to stop contributing to after being ill-treated for speaking the truth.

However, the episode only brought me closer to Prof. Hegde who actually agreed with me and like a true seeker of truth, told me that he stands corrected. I met him twice afterwards, including at last weekend’s conference. I was there because of him.

It’s not just nilume.net that I ‘quit’. I also quit the group’s email discussion group on yahoo, again because actual discussion had slowly become impossible. But then I met the members of the group in real life last week: Prof. Shanmukha, Dunkin Jalki, Marianne Keppens, Prof. Jakob de Roover, etc., etc.. The experience was totally different. Actual discussions happened, and I’m glad I went to the conference.

When I wrote my book, The Pyramid of Corruption, I hadn’t read Balu. Therefore, I do call Hinduism a religion in it – like everyone else. However, I do add the following qualifier:

[S]ome people question whether there is any single entity called Hinduism at all, but I use the word as a collective noun for all the religious systems that have taken birth on the Indian subcontinent.

I criticize the caste angle to this Hinduism, and I continue to do so. Balu has unleashed a storm by showing that this Hinduism is different from what the Europeans called as Hinduism. Most people have the European definition in mind, and that’s what makes Balu’s thesis very important.

In any case, as a result of what I’ve learnt from Balu, I’m willing to remove all references to “Hinduism” and “religion” in my book. That will take away nothing from my thesis. My criticism of caste will remain, and so will the idea of the pyramid of corruption. What will go away is any suggestion (I can’t recall any) that the pyramid is deified by a nonexistent religion. In fact, I’ve explicitly stated that the pyramid wasn’t a proactive creation:

I don’t want to give the impression that the Aryan Pyramid of corruption was a perfectly executed ‘project’ with some sort of strict central control.

In the words of Balu’s group, the words “with some sort of strict central control” would change to “with religious sanction”. Balu points at the absence of this central control, more specifically via a “holy book”, when he says there’s no religion in India.

My book remains as relevant as before, but I’m willing to rewrite it in the new language I’ve learnt from Balu. I’m saying “willing to rewrite” because I no longer want to proactively go out and publish it myself. As the dismal sales of my book have proved, and as the drop in hits to this website have proved, I don’t think anyone has time for philosophical matters affecting society. There’s no time left after going through all the bullshit pouring into newsfeeds.

Besides, The Truth is not something I’m willing – any longer – to try and insert into newsfeeds or even the old-school email inbox. While I’ve already stopped broadcasting on facebook and twitter because of the low return on investment and high pain, even emails have proved equally useless. 80% of people who got this essay in their inboxes didn’t even open the email. Most of those who opened it didn’t care to read even the first paragraph fully. If you’ve read every sentence till here, you belong to a statistically insignificant group. Most who read this just jumped to this paragraph without reading in sequence (like reading should be).

So why not just keep The Truth to myself, maybe just murmur it to myself here on the website? Shouldn’t the thirsty should go to the well, like I went to the conference? Vice versa is a waste of time and energy, useless. So if at all I have something to say, I’ll say it on my website and be done with it. I’m stopping all sorts of distribution right away.

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 (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 irrelevance of atheism for the Upanishadist

Feeling depressed about the Paris attacks, I was browsing around when I found Richard Dawkins’s statements. A couple of hyperlinks led me to an interview of Dawkins by Mehdi Hasan in which I was surprised to find Dawkins not even acknowledge Hasan’s questions about Hinduism. I tweeted to Hasan and asked him about it and he told me it must be there in The God Delusion, which is a book by Dawkins.

Since I don’t have the book, I decided to watch the free documentary with the same title on YouTube. It’s a wonderful piece of work in which he makes a good case against God. I am totally impressed by what Dawkins has to say — and convinced. It’s a must watch for those who want to understand atheism.

But there’s a catch – a very important one. Dawkins doesn’t mention India or Indic religions even once in the entire documentary. This supports my point, once again, that atheism is not the negation of the Indic concept of Brahman (or, for example, Buddhist or Jain teachings, but let me leave that aside for the moment). As I’ve written before, denying the Brahman of the Upanishads is impossible. Yes, even for Richard Dawkins, and I am willing to debate with him about it.

From this point of view, I can appreciate S N Balagangadhara’s idea that only Christianity, Judaism and Islam are religions. If Dawkins could spend ninety minutes talking about religion without mentioning Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., why should Indians invite themselves into this word? Powerful.

But I still don’t think it’s necessary to call only Christianity, Judaism and Islam as religions. If we bring Hinduism, etc., also under the umbrella of the word religion, comparisons become possible. It is only because of this word that I take a look at what Dawkins has to say, a lot of which is indeed applicable to most Hindus.

It is only because I think I too belong to a religion that I listen to what the Christians, the Muslims, etc., have to say, a lot of which is, again, wonderful and applicable. If I were to look at the people of these religions as aliens, as it were, I’d build thicker walls between me and them, which is not good at all.

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.