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Why Scroll’s article on Vivekananda is a textbook case of Hinduphobia

An intriguing quote

Consider this striking quote by Gaurav from several years ago: “In secularism Hindu is the Untermensch.”

I won’t ask you yet to believe this strong statement, the necessary justification being beyond the scope of the present post, and perhaps beyond the present writer. For now, I have a considerably more modest aim of illustrating how this claim is served by several of the points made by Girish Shahane’s Scroll essay `crediting’ Swami Vivekananda of laying the foundation of India’s “politics of sectarianism”.

1. The subtly Hindu-blaming headline

The bit in the headline, “laid the foundation for India’s politics of sectarianism” (italics mine), unambiguously implies that India’s sectarian politics was unilaterally started by Hindu fundamentalism, after the Swami’s life time. We have enough instances of centuries of Hindu-Muslim strife to contest the chronology and the “Hindus as initiators” assumption here, for instance, with the great Al-Biruni writing: “Mahmud utterly ruined the prosperity of the country, and performed there wonderful exploits, by which the Hindu’s became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions, and like a tale of old in the mouth of the people. Their scattered remains cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims.”

The headline is thus already quite telling, irrespective of whether it was chosen by the Scroll staff or Mr. Shahane.

2. Any criticism of a bunch of Muslims should be counterbalanced with positives of Islam

Mr. Shahane writes, quoting from a letter of the Swami:

In Vivekananda’s view, “the Hindu nation” or “the Hindu race” suffered, “a thousand years of slavery and degradation”, “at the feet of foreign conquerors”, “savages from Central Asia”. The idea … ignores developments in architecture, mathematics, the arts and music in those centuries, not to mention the Bhakti movement that swept East and North India, and the many contributions Muslims made to the nation’s cultural wealth. BJP leaders harp constantly on the thousands years of slavery theme, and I wasn’t surprised it featured in Modi’s tribute.

What chance is there for a tolerant polity to emerge from such a relentlessly negative account of the encounter between Islam and religions of Indian origin?

Let me list a bunch of problems here:

(i) The Swami is not making any comment on the common Muslim of his time, nor any on the common Muslim of the medieval period. In that letter, he is only making references to marauding armies from Central Asia, without even mentioning the word Islam. And his focus is not on how cruel the armies were, but on how the “mass of Brahmin and Kshatriya tyranny has recoiled upon their own heads with compound interest” as a sort of karmic retribution against casteism – something one would expect to warm left-liberal hearts. One could separately ask if this attribution of foreign-attacks to karma is offensive to Hindus.

(ii) Notice the suggestion that any criticism of a specific, small, non-representative set of Muslims should be counterbalanced with mention of contributions to “architecture, mathematics, the arts and music” (the mathematics part of the claim is not clear to me, but let’s ignore this). It takes an unbelievable amount of elitist (some would use the term “Brahminical”) snobbery in equating the value of the lives of large numbers of common people with “high culture”.

(iii) For a moment let us locate Mr. Shahane’s article in the larger context of Indian historical narrative. À propos point (ii), these are people who go on and on about various Hindu excesses without any mention of Hindu contributions. And while doing so they criticize not merely specific members of a faith as the Swami did, but the religion of Hinduism as a whole. In fact, if anything, Hindu contributions have been cleverly coopted by a diabolical artifice of categorization: “Indo-Islamic contributions”, so that any explicit credit goes to India or Islam and not to Hinduism, ensuring that Hinduism per se is left with caste, sati etc. Thus, we arrive at the following table of left-liberal interpretative convention in indology:

Religion Hinduism Islam
Postive feature Deny credit, if no Buddhist connection categorize it as Indian or Indo-Islamic Give credit, and use it to “counterbalance” negatives
Negative feature Specifically blame religion, no counter-balancing Do moral equivalence and counter-balancing with positives

Indeed, if you think of a group of people as untermensch, you would accordingly tweak credit or blame assignment heuristics in favor of strengthening systemic inequity targeting your object of hatred, which is exactly what you see in Mr.Shahane’s and many other left-liberals’ writing.

(iv) Another letter from Swami Vivekananda. Now let me quote from the Swami’s letter to the then Diwan of Junagadh: “Why amongst the poor of India so many are Mohammedans? It is nonsense to say, they were converted by the sword. It was to gain their liberty from the . . . zemindars and from the . . . priest, and as a consequence you find in Bengal there are more Mohammedans than Hindus amongst the cultivators, because there were so many zemindars there.”

But for Mr. Shahane, this wouldn’t suffice – he is unhappy that a different, equally private, letter to a Maharaja blames a specific collection of long dead Muslims without compensatory encomium of Islam, though the Swami’s mild assertions are supported by a whole host of Hindu and Muslim historical sources, including the great Al-Biruni as quoted above. Allow some time for this to sink in, and you realize that the authoritarian fascist left-liberal/left-“libertarian” brooks nothing short of complete, humiliated, capitulation.

3. Equality for me but not for thee

Accepting that all religions can lead to the truth does not earn the Swami any partial credit from Mr. Shahane:

As for the truth of all religions, Vivekananda replaced the old distinction [with]… a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. Just as societies could not be deemed true or false but could be labelled undeveloped or developed, Vivekananda’s hierarchy placed Advaita Vedanta at the peak. In his scheme, all belief systems were equal, but some were more equal than others.

Here I have to agree with him partially: Swami Vivekananda did likely believe that not all religions were equal, which is entirely consistent with the belief that all religions can lead you to the truth (as in, everyone takes you there, some offer you a more diverse package etc.).

But Mr. Shahane’s malice shows in using this to negate claims on tolerance, and in the implicit suggestion of its relevance to his central claim on sectarianism and bigotry. Let us examine why:

(i) It is considered entirely fine for a Christian or a Muslim to believe or preach that their faith alone is true and that the rest lead to hell. Hindutvavadis who use this as an evidence towards “semitic intolerance” are ignored or countered, under the tacit convention that these believers should be left alone unless they get physical. Classical liberalism, where my nose begins etc.

(ii) Do left-liberals themselves believe that Hinduism is only as bad as other religions? They, in particular Mr. Shahane, by countering claims on Hindu tolerance, say that Hinduism is every bit as intolerant and violent as other religions, but caste is universally treated as a problem uniquely or predominantly a feature of Hinduism. Thus their work effectively characterizes Hinduism as inferior to other religions. The only instances where an Indian school/college level text book singles out a specific religion and criticizes it is while talking of caste. There are many other ways in which left-liberals believe Hinduism to be inferior: by portraying Hindus as more superstitious than members of other religions (e.g., as in the Dabholkar law and the narrative surrounding it), characterizing Hindu festivals alone as causing pollution, public nuisance and animal cruelty, and so on.

Thus, the left-liberals as a group objectively treat Hinduism as an inferior religion (while taking care to not explicitly state this sentence as such, in the interest of providing themselves cover), and yet analogous-yet-much-milder Hindu beliefs in the superiority of Hindusm in certain respects are not merely combated in their own terms: Rather they are stigmatized on meta-considerations that the left-liberals themselves do not respect in other contexts. The far milder views of the Swami, milder than the scripturally sanctioned and wildly held beliefs in other traditions, are branded as no less than laying the foundation for sectarianism in the country.

“Some are more equal than others”, indeed.

4. License to exaggerate for me, but not for thee

Mr. Shahane:

Vivekananda claimed that Hinduism was the originary faith; that it was uniquely tolerant; that it led to a nation that was uniquely committed to peace; and that it was congruent with science. These are all demonstrably false claims.

The Swami’s strong rhetoric on caste should show that his claim on the tolerance of Hinduism was to be understood in a strictly relative sense. This is not a “demonstrably false claim”, but quite a legitimate point of view, as one sees from reading Koenraad Elst, or by adapting to our context ideas written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on paganism and polytheism.

To the modern ear adapted to a more austere literary aesthetic, the Swami’s ornate statements can appear to contain several exaggerations. But let us consider some of Mr. Shahane’s own exaggerations from the article: “Everywhere he went, whether to Madras or London, he spent time in photo studios, posing in a variety of stances and costumes. Every change of headgear and hairstyle, from turban to high cap, from long hair with a centre part to the close crop of a mendicant, was recorded by the camera.”.

Their exaggerations differ in a crucial way: the Swami’s exaggeration can very well be attributed to the flow of his flowery style (he followed literary and oratory conventions that were popular at the time – just read a few Sherlock Holmes stories to see this point), while Shahane’s exaggeration is a deliberate and calculated one in the interest of optimizing manipulation, i.e., creating a “reality distortion field”, to borrow his own language.

The claims on “originary faith” and “congruence with science” are subtler ones, that will take us too far afield to counter. Suffice it, for now, to say that one should guard against being uncharitably literalist while interpreting the Swami, and that, within the context of the World Parliament of Religions, it is a legitimate assumption that the speaker talks from the perspective of a believer, and not from the perspective of a historian. Again, keep in mind how you would judge a Muslim preacher who makes analogous claims in religious space such as the World Parliament of Religions.

5. A case-study in left-liberal psychological manipulation, courtesy Mr. Shahane

Mr. Shahane makes a “By choli ke peechey I really meant dil”-type argument (analogy courtesy greatbong):

“I have not pointed to Vivekananda’s fondness for his portraits in order to denigrate him. His physical appearance, like Modi’s, was far more impressive than that of Gandhi, so a little vanity is understandable. Few who read Vivekananda’s compelling Collected Works can fail to be fascinated by his mind and personality.”

Two points on this count:

(i) If his intention weren’t to denigrate, what he considers a relatively harmless vanity would not be deemed relevant to be mentioned in his article, let alone be worthy of so much space in it. The reason Mr. Shahane wants to include this is quite obvious: bring in a parallel with Mr. Modi, while not extending this parallel to Hindutva in order to maintain plausible deniability, and yet leave a subconscious association between the two among his Modi-hater readers who may have a more neutral view of the Swami (in contrast any Modi-lover reader would miss this chicanery).

(ii) Let me alert you to another literary artifice here. Mr. Shahane praises the Swami for writing well, and calls his life “fascinating”. These are not moral virtues, so the Swami doesn’t stand to really “gain points”, so to speak: yet, the praise is calculated to give Mr. Shahane greater acceptability among those who are relatively less unfavorably disposed towards the Swami. Thus, without having to make any real compromise, it enhances his elbow-room to cast more aspersions on the Swami later. Be careful to prevent your sympathies from being led astray by such tricks.

6. A few epistemic precautions that are necessary while reading left-liberals.

Let me put the above observations into a more general context in the form of pitfalls to be wary of while reading left-liberals in general:

(i) Make sure to not limit yourself to following just the textual meaning of their writing: they are experts in plausible deniability, their core competency is in subconsciously impressing their ideas on the reader without having to take any responsibility for the frequently elitist bigotry that lurks behind their superficial lip-services to egalitarianism. Always look for the subtext, and not merely the text, of their writing.

(ii) Do not look at a point made by them in isolation. In fact, a lot of the left-liberal criticism of Hinduism is legitimate when viewed in isolation: these are criticisms many Hindutva-vadis themselves make. Thus, Mr. Shahane’s own criticisms of Hindu fundamentalism would have been more, even if not entirely, understandable, had he not insisted that the Swami counterbalance his criticism of specific Muslims (that too in the course of his criticism of Brahmin-Kshatriya tyranny) with odes to Muslim cultural contributions.

To put it another way, there are two ways for a non-religion-sympathizer to treat a religion:

Approach A: Be relentlessly critical, use language and parallels geared towards shaming the followers out of the religion , and repeatedly emphasize everyone’s freedom to do the same. Example: Nilanjana Roy blaming our epics while writing about Nirbhaya rape; and

Approach B: Be extraordinarily sensitive, urge the same of others, try to highlight the positives of the religion and use it to tone down criticism, resort to some so called “whataboutery” etc. Example: many of the points made by Martha Nussbaum while writing against Burqa bans – see this rejoinder.

To some extent, most of us view both Approach A and Approach B as legitimate. So a given point made by a left-liberal on Hinduism/Islam would appear legitimate in isolation, as it would involve an application of either of these legitimate approaches. The real problem, namely, that left-liberals reserve Approach A exclusively for Hinduism, and use only Approach B for Islam, will escape us if we engage their points in isolation – too many Hindus fall for this trap. We should perhaps feel thankful to Mr. Shahane that he used Approach A for Hinduism and Approach B for Islam in the very same article, making our job of seeing through his bigotry easier.

As many left-liberals themselves like to say, inequality is a subtle phenomenon. Forms of discrimination against women or dalits that look so obvious today escaped the attention of many of the very smartest people a century ago. The only way to identify entrenched inequality is to actively look for it, constantly seeking out and studying comparisons.

(iii) Watch our for “reality distortion field” tricks like the ones mentioned in point 5 – the price of freedom from being carried away by seductive prose is eternal psychoanalysis, especially while reading skilled writers like Mr. Shahane.

7. Plausible practical implication of such “heuristic engineering” narrative for the value of Hindu lives.

It is an unfortunate reality that there is Hindu-Muslim strife in the country that takes too many valuable lives on either side (the numbers may not look lopsided unless you restrict your attention to the major riots that the liberals cherry-pick, as numerical superiority plays a more decisive role in major riots). Crucial to harmony is equally valuing the loss of life on either side. Entrenched inequality in this regard can irreversibly damage the societal fabric.

However, let us step back and look at how we budget our limited attention across a welter of complicated issues. The complication and non-quantifiability are serious enough problems that we cannot apportion our focus across issues in any scientific manner. Moreover, even if perfect fairness were possible in this regard, we would probably be spreading ourselves too thin, unable to do justice to any one issue.

Rather, we all fall back on heuristics and anecdotes to take our picks and focus efforts on those selected ones in the hope of setting healthy moral precedents, while periodically sanitizing our stock of heuristics and anecdotes to make them as representative as possible.

Unfortunately, rather than trying to sanitize the collection of heuristics and anecdotes, the focus of left-liberals has been to engineer a narrow class of heuristics among the populace. Namely, those along the lines of “the issue matters if and only if it concerns one of our designated victim classes”. Well meaning unsuspecting gentlefolk with a fascination for good prose, such as much of the South Bombay elite, subconsciously internalize such heuristics, because the carrots of social validation dangled by their left-liberal peers are dispensed in accordance with the very same heuristics.

Aside/example for the heuristic nature of thought process: An example that highlights the heuristic-based nature of our thought process is that the gay marriage debate in the US was phrased in terms of “the right of gays to marry”, as opposed to “income tax parity/visitation rights for gays”. The former description is less accurate (it is not like any one emotionally cares for the government to recognize their marriage), but does a better job of locking onto and resonating with existing heuristics.

The long term casualty of such liberal heuristic engineering, and conventions of anecdote selection and amplification, I fear, is the value of Hindu life. No left-liberal explicitly calls for undercounting the value of Hindu life, and many if not most of them do not consciously hold it as an ideal either. Nevertheless, the heuristics that they unwittingly assimilate trains them into coming up with reactions dependent or contingent on the identity of the victims: with visceral course-over-correction enthusiasm to the injustices towards Muslims, and with silence or “urge for calm/resisting stereotypes” to the injustices against Hindus.

Examples from recent news items about the worrisome correlation between religion/political ideology of victims and news coverage, such as the Kamlesh Tiwari/Basirhat silence vs Gaurakshak exaggeration, abound; let me not go into this as I presume that most people who read this article are likely to be aware of what I am talking about. Do read, if you haven’t already, this tour de force by Anand Ranganathan on how selective usages of a very powerful word, whataboutery, act as a powerful shield for certain conveniently handpicked strands of hypocrisy. This is a great example of left-liberal heuristic engineering.

If these fears sound exaggerated, please remember that the UPA government had tried to bring in a communal violence bill that sought to deny equal treatment to Hindu victims of communal violence. So the concerns about the possible material impact of left-liberal narrative are far from merely theoretical.

And this my dear friends, I hope you will realize some day, is how to convert a whole chunk of the population into untermensch in a democratic manner. Using persuasion, as Scott Adams would say.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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