Saturday, May 9, 2015

Alternate Hinduism or Hinduphobia? An Analysis of “Rearming Hinduism” by Vamsee Juluri

Recently an angry mob broke into a jail in Nagaland and lynched an alleged rapist to death. The mob was predominantly Christian and the alleged rapist a Muslim. The American media, points out Vamsee Juluri, the author of the recent book “Rearming Hinduism”, reported this as a law and order problem, not as a case of Christians attacking a Muslim.
Around the same time a septuagenarian nun was gang raped within the premise of a convent school in a place near Calcutta and few months before this, few churches were burgled in Delhi. Both the incidents were widely reported in India and the west as rising cases of intolerance towards minorities in a Hindu majority India. In the ghastly case of the gang rape of the Christian nun, the police would soon find the involvement of few Muslims from Bangladesh and burglaries in the churches in Delhi were found to be acts by miscreants. None was an act of violence against Christians, perpetuated, as was claimed, by intolerant Hindus.
A thought can’t but arise in the mind that perhaps, very consciously, an aura of Hinduphobia is being created. The aforementioned incidents and the way they were perceived by the world only reinforce this thought.
It is in this context that the book “Rearming Hinduism” is very relevant. The author first defines the premise of Hinduphobia as something being created and perpetuated in the Western academia and media which even went to the extent of relegating the 26/11 massacre by Pakistani terrorists as the outcome of India’s policy on Kashmir, the rise of “Hindu extremism”, and the appalling state of poverty among the Muslims in India. The misconception about the Indians (or should we say Hindus?) is not restricted only to contemporary affairs. The western academia is replete with works, Juluri points out, of the likes of Wendy Doniger who likens the ancient Hindus to the cowboys who destroyed the Native Americans and even to the Nazis who persecuted the Jews during the World War II. The New York Times, Juluri mentions, have published several articles on and by Doniger, who characterizes herself as a lover of Hinduism and her critics as “nasty, militant, prudish fundamentalists”.
The very name of Doniger’s book – The Hindus, An Alternative History – is perhaps meant to say on the face that hers or theirs “alternative history” is the real one, and that the “dominant” one of the Hindus is nothing but nasty, militant, prudish fundamental.
“There is at the moment,” asserts Juluri, “a very much powerful, sustained, and unrelenting cultural and intellectual attack on Hinduism in the media and academy”. His book “Rearming Hinduism” symbolically uses in its cover the image of the Narasimha, an iconic statue at the world heritage site of Hampi in Karnataka depicting a figure of a half man and half lion trying to write something even though one of his hands is cut, to stress on the need of the academic Hindus, “not prudes, not militants”, to write their true history to counter the flawed and misinterpreted “alternative” history.
While talking about the ideologies of Hinduphobia in the first part of the book, Juluri shows how the mainstream academia has “lost sight of Hinduism”, relying on “particular set of ideas, assumptions, and stereotypes”. He uses Doniger extensively, perhaps as a glorified representative of all the similar works – the alternative history – by western academics which, in the book stores, Juluri claims, occupy almost the whole shelves designated for Hinduism of Eastern Religions, any work of Indian author conspicuous by its almost total absence. He taunts at the hypocrisy of Doniger et al in creating an aura of phobia against the “dominant” history, allegedly purported by the Hindu writers who are always “fundamentalist” and “militant” in her views, however academic they may be.
Juluri brings out a very interesting point that what is actually being mooted as the “dominant” all-pervading view, which needs to be controlled or checked, around which all the Hinduphobia is being created and propagated relentlessly, has effectively become a very marginal view, totally overshadowed by the “alternative” views of the likes of Doniger, who rants about the Nazi like violence of the Aryans and the excessive animal sacrifices of the Hindus till the Buddha appeared in the scene to save the humanity, who extols the influence of the Greeks in the development of the fierce and independent character of Draupadi in the Mahabharata and who sees the Mughal age as an age of dialogue and tolerance.
In the second part Juluri talks about the Vedas and Upanishads, Krishna and Rama, Gita, from a Hindu viewpoint, in contrast to the main stream, heavily published and often flawed “alternative” views.
“Rearming Hinduism” is indeed a very apt book, to counter the many misinterpretations of the Indian culture and the stereotypes and clichés about it prevalent in the academia and media, not necessarily restricted only to the west. The Hindus themselves, perhaps like the image of Narasimha with a severed arm, find it difficult to understand their own culture and legacy, and write their real history, falling prey to “alternative” views.
There are a few things though which, if were handled in a better way in the book, could have had a greater impact on the very people for whom it’s written – the non-fundamentalist, non-militant and academic Hindus, “the entire generation of young modern Hindus in India and the diaspora” who is perhaps showing more and more interest in India’s heritage and the Indian identity.
The excessive criticism, not only of Doniger, but also of the likes of Amartya Sen and anyone else who espouses any view different from that of the author with regards to Indian history or culture, may not be palatable to everyone. At some point, it may appear to the reader that the book is more of a critique of Doniger than anything else.
The author touches base on many issues and myths but doesn’t put forward a proper scientific or historic analysis to debunk or accept a theory. He conveniently accepts the Out-of-India origin of the Aryans, attacking anyone who disagrees, but doesn’t provide any historical basis of his claim. The reality is that, the Out-of-India theory, or for that matter anything else about the origin of the Aryans, can neither be proved nor disproved scientifically, given the paucity of historical or archaeological evidences, but disciplines like Comparative Linguistics and Linguistic Palaeontology do point to an Outside-of-India homeland or Urheimat of the Indo-European languages and their native speakers. Ignoring the volumes of research by some of the most eminent linguists over the past one century and more, just because the findings don’t align with what the “dominant” narrative about Hinduism would fit into, weakens the very stand taken by the author all throughout the book – that any narrative, alternative or dominant, should be based on true academic quest, and not any hegemonic zeal.
Juluri criticizes Doniger for her chapter on “Sacrifice in the Vedas”, but doesn’t go at all into the counter interpretations of the very verses Doniger quotes to make her point. A cursory glance at the Rig Veda, as pointed out by Sri Aurobindo, may lead to the apparent belief that the hymns are desperate pleadings of a bunch of helpless people seeking divine intervention in almost everything. The invokers of the hymns seem to be lazy guys who want to win every battle with the help of the Gods. It also appears that the people of the Rig Veda have nothing else to do than to fight among themselves and also with the natives, who in most cases are demoted to the ranks of demons.
But a close look into the hymns reveal something more profound which’s hidden under the garb of simplistic physical, natural or historical things like fights, rivers, days and nights, mountains, clouds, floods, cows and, not to forget, horses and chariots. Going by Aurobindo's interpretation, each of these physical and natural things very logically point to deeper meanings which very consistently flow all along the Rig Veda. If we go by the literal meaning of all the words, then this continuity of thoughts is broken at various places. In other words the Rig Veda is full of double meanings. The simplistic meanings are meant for the normal people and the profound meanings for the learned. It’s obvious that Doniger took the simplistic meanings. But an in-depth analysis of the same verses by Juluri would have been much more effective in countering Doniger.
In this context it would be relevant to refer to something Doniger has mentioned in her book which Juluri criticizes all along. With reference to killing animals and plants for food, she quotes from Jaiminiya Brahmana that the “people who lack true knowledge and offer no oblations cut down trees for firewood, or cook for themselves animals that cry out, or cook for themselves rice and barley, which scream soundlessly”. Here she makes a very interesting observation that the reference to rice and barley as something “which scream soundlessly”, when killed and eaten, is almost like paraphrasing the words of the eminent Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, who “moved George Bernard Shaw deeply with his demonstration of an unfortunate carrot strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector.” Bose believed, very much like what the Jaiminiya Brahmana too might have hinted, that plants too can feel pains and emotions, like animals.
If such views are to be countered, it needs an equally in-depth counter analysis of the ancient Sanskrit texts, something which could have made Juluri’s views stronger.
The author finds Amartya Sen’s highlighting of the reigns of Ashoka and Akbar as golden epochs in the annals of Indian civilization objectionable just because neither of them were followers of Hinduism – Ashoka converted to Buddhism and Akbar was a Mulsim. Such a ground for attacking Sen appears clichéd and reactionary, something which Juluri himself accuses the secularists and the orientalists like Doniger and Sen of being.

Another thing which can perhaps create some confusion in the minds of a wider range of readers is Juluri’s reference to May 2014 as some sort of a reckoning of a new epoch in the Hindu history. Though he never takes the name of Narendra Modi, but the indirect references to his becoming the PM and the BJP coming to power in May 2014 leave no suspicion in the minds of the readers about the significance of May 2014. This is somewhat irrelevant and out of context to the main intent of the book, which is actually establishing the real and “dominant” narrative of Hinduism against the so called mainstream, and often flawed, Hinduphobic orientalist one.