Defence against “Hinduphobia”

Koenraad Elst

Jul 09, 2016, 01:18 PM | Updated 01:17 PM IST
  • Rajiv Malhotra’s new book, ‘Academic Hinduphobia’, is a serious commentary on the ineptness of the so-called experts of Hinduism, holding positions of power and prestige at American universities.

  • Rajiv Malhotra is the belated Hindu answer to decades of the systematic blackening of Hinduism in academe and the media. This is to be distinguished from the negative attitude to Hinduism among ignorant Westerners settling for the “caste, cows and curry” stereotype, and from the anti-Hindu bias among secularists in India. Against the latter phenomenon, Hindu polemicists have long been up in arms, even though they have also been put at a disadvantage by the monopoly of their enemies in the opinion-making sphere. But for challenging the American India-watching establishment, a combination of skills was necessary which Malhotra has only gradually developed and which few others can equal.

    In the present book, Academic Hinduphobia (Voice of India, Delhi 2016, 426 pp.), he documents some of his past battles against Hinduphobia  in academe, i.e. the ideological enmity against Hinduism. We leave undecided for now whether that anti-Hindu attitude stems from fear towards an intrinsically better competitor (as many Hindus flatter themselves to think), from contempt for the substandard performance of those Hindus they have met in polemical forums, or from hatred against phenomena in their own past which they now think to recognize in Hinduism (“racism = untouchability”, “feudal inborn inequality = caste”).

    In this war, American academe is linked with foreign policy interests and the Christian missionary apparatus, and they reinforce one another. Hindus have a formidable enemy in front of them, more wily and resourceful than they have ever experienced before. That is why a new knowledge of the specific laws of this particular battlefield is called for.


    Rajiv Malhotra correctly lays his finger on the links between Christian traditions and present-day Leftist techniques to undermine India. Many Hindus think that Western equals Christian, but this is wrong in two ways: not all Christians are Western, and not all Westerners are Christian. Yet, secular and leftist Westerners are nonetheless heirs to Christian strategies and modes of thinking. Thus, many of the Christian Saints have a narrative of martyrdom, and usually, it is that which made them Saints. The early Church deliberately spread or concocted martyrdom stories, for it empirically found these successful in swaying people towards accepting the Christian message.

    Today, this tradition is being continued in secularized form: “Western human rights activists and non-Westerners trained and funded by them, go around the world creating new categories of ‘victims’ that can be used in divide-and-conquer strategies against other cultures. In India’s case, the largest funding of this type goes to middlemen who can deliver narratives about ‘abused’ Dalits and native (especially Hindu) women.” (p.219)

    Here, Malhotra prepares the ground for his Breaking India thesis, where different forces unite with a common goal: to deconstruct India’s majority culture and fragment the country. At the same time, he sketches the psychology of the Hindu-haters, explaining why they have such a good conscience in lambasting Hinduism and trying to destroy it. They like to see themselves as the oppressed underdogs, or in this case as champions of the oppressed, in spite of their privileged social position and their senior position vis-à-vis the born Hindus who come to earn PhDs under their guidance.

    Among those confronted here are Sarah Caldwell, David Gordon White, Deepak Sarma, Robert Zydenbos and Shankar Vedantam. Note the names of some Hindu-born sepoys. The term “sepoy” for Hindus trying to curry favour with their white superiors needs to be nuanced a little bit. In colonial days, it was black and white: Britons trying to perpetuate and legitimize their domination, and Indian underlings trying to prosper as much as possible in the British system. Today, American Indologists are also partly influenced (esp. in their furious hatred of Hindutva) by Indian secularist opinion, but then this has, in turn, been oriented in an anti-Hindu sense precisely by the earlier cultural anglicization of the elites during colonial times. Anyway, in the present context, it is indeed Americans leading the dance and Indians trying to keep up.

    Principally, Malhotra focuses on different episodes in the one controversy that made him a household name in Indology circles: exposing Wendy Doniger’s brand of roundabout and candid-sounding anti-Hindu polemic. By his much-publicized example, he has galvanized many Hindus into actively mapping the battlefield and even coming out to do battle themselves against the mighty and intolerant Hindu-watching establishment. There is no longer an excuse for the all-too-common Hindu attitude of smug laziness hiding behind the spiritual-sounding explanation that, instead of our own effort, the law of karma will take care of everything.

    The book is a pleasant read because the described characters are variegated and the events on the ground are swiftly advancing all while the ideas are being developed. For understanding the entirety of its message, I can only advise you to read it, it is really worth your time. Here I will limit myself to a searchlight on a few passages.

    Wendy’s psycho-analytic free-for-all

    One of the faces of academic “Hinduphobia” is the flippant eroticizing discourse about Hindu civilization developed by Chicago University’s Prof. Wendy Doniger, continued by her erstwhile Ph.D. students and eagerly taken over by prominent media like the Washington Post. Here, Malhotra first of all amply documents the reality and seriousness of the problem. Imagine: a number of professors who are not at all qualified as psycho-analysts and would be punishable if they applied their diagnosis to a living human being, feel entitled to psycho-analyse a Guru like Ramakrishna or a God like Ganesha.

    Wendy Doniger
    Wendy Doniger

    Thus, Jeffrey Kripal’s thesis about Ramakrishna (Kali’s Child) is, according to a quoted Bengali critic, marred by “faulty translations”, “wilful distortion and manipulation of sources”, “remarkable ignorance of Bengali culture”, “misrepresentations” and a simply defective knowledge of both Sanskrit and Bengali. (p.101) He has, like too many academics, the tendency to “first suspect, then assume, then present as a fact” his own desired scenario, i.e. “that Ramakrishna was sexually abused as a child”. (p.105) A closer look at his errors could make the reader embarrassed in Kripal’s place, e.g. mistranslating “lap” as “genitals”, “head” as “phallus”, “touching softly” as “sodomy” etc. Kripal’s whole scenario of Ramakrishna as a defiler of boys is not only unsubstantiated, it provides not only a peep into Kripal’s own morbid mind; it is also, in this age of cultural hypersensitivity, a brutal violation of Hindu and Bengali feelings. If it were an unpleasant truth, it had a right to get said in spite of what the concerned communities would think, but even then, a more circumspect mode of expression and more interaction with the community directly affected, would have been called for. But when it comes to Hindus, riding roughshod over them is still the done thing.

    Similarly, Paul Courtright develops his thesis about Ganesha’s broken trunk being a limp phallus, and of Ganesha being the first god with an Oedipus complex, on the basis of what is clearly a defective knowledge about the elephant god. The lore surrounding Ganesha is vast, and does not always live up to Courtright’s stereotype of a sweets-addicted diabetic. He has some stories in Hindu literature to his credit where his phallus is not exactly limp. Indeed, I myself am the lucky owner of a Ganesha bronze where he is doing it with a Dakini.

    Wendy Doniger herself is now best known for the numerous errors in her book The Hindus, an Alternative History, diagnosed in detail by Vishal Agarwal. Known among laymen as a Sanskritist, her shoddy translations of Sanskrit classics have been criticized by colleagues like Michael Witzel, not exactly a friend of the Hindus. In a normal academic setting, with word and counter-word, where the peer review would have included first-hand practitioners of the tradition concerned, Doniger’s or Kripal’s or Courtright’s gross errors would never have passed muster. It is only because the dice have been loaded against Hinduism that these hilarious distortions are possible. It is, therefore, a very necessary and very reasonable struggle that Malhotra has taken up.

    The RISA list

    When I wrote my book The Argumentative Hindu (2012), I seriously wondered whether to include my exchanges with the RISA (Religion In South Asia) list about the dishonourable way listmaster Deepak Sarma and the rest of the gang overruled list rules in order to banish me, and how many prominent Indologists actively or passively supported their tricks. I didn’t consider my own story that important, but finally I decided to do it, just for the sake of history. Future as well as present students of the conflicting worldviews in India and among India-watchers in the West are or will be interested in a detailed illustration of how mean and how pompous the anti-Hindu crowd can be in defending their power position.

    Here we get a detailed report on a much more important RISA debate that took place in 2003, and as it turns out, it was indeed worth making this information available. A lot of anecdotal data become known here, useful one day for the occasional biographer, such as the interesting tidbit that Anant Rambachan, with whom Malhotra crossed swords in his book Indra’s Net, was an ally back then (p.210). More fundamentally, and affecting the whole Hindu-American community, we note Paul Coutright’s turn-around to a sudden willingness for dialogue with the Hindus about his erstwhile thesis (p.211). The reason that mattered most in the prevailing Zeitgeist, was that “American Hinduism is a minority religion in America (…) that deserves the same treatment that is already being given to other American minority religions – such as Native American, Buddhist or Islamic – by the Academy. The subaltern studies depiction of Hinduism as being the dominant religion of India must, therefore, be questioned in the American context.” (p.213)

    On the other hand, in all sobriety, I must also note how, in spite of that hopeful event, very little has changed. Recent incidents, some concerning Malhotra himself, confirm that the exclusion of people because of their opinion, the systematic haughtiness because of institutional rank (“Malhotra is not even an academic”, a sophomoric attitude unbecoming of anyone experienced with how progress in research is made, and by whom), the intellectually contemptible use of “guilt by association”, are all still in evidence in Western Indologist forums. He notes an improvement in the general mood as a result of the debate: “For the first time in RISA’s history, to the best of my knowledge, the diaspora voices are not being branded as saffronists, Hindutva fanatics, fascists, chauvinists, dowry extortionists, Muslim killers, nun rapists, Dalit abusers, etc. One has to wait and see whether this is temporary or permanent.” (p.215)

    So far, the impression prevails that the mood has not changed much. We saw this in 2015, when Malhotra was accused of plagiarism. A detailed look at the case exonerated him and actually made the whole controversy rather ludicrous, yet otherwise moderate voices on the Indology and the Indo-Eurasian Research lists (I can’t speak for the RISA list, but it contains the same people) all ganged up against him. They acted very indignant over something that, even if it were true, would only be a trifle, immaterial to the debate at hand. It is this persistence of the same anti-Hindu attitudes that makes this book more than a historical document: it teaches Hindus what to expect today if they challenge the Indological establishment.

    In 2003, one factor was perhaps that a BJP government ruled in Delhi and, in spite of its so-called “saffronization” of the history textbooks, refuted in practice all the apprehensions about “Hindu fascist” rule which the same Indologists had uttered in the 1990s. Remember, they had predicted a “Muslim Holocaust” if ever the BJP would come to power (and have never had to bear the consequences of their grossly wrong prediction in the field of their supposed expertise). Even ivory-tower academics had to be aware of that feedback from reality. Then again, this consideration ought to prevail even now, with Narendra Modi opening many doors internationally and not at all living up to the hate-image which many India-watchers had sworn by in the preceding years. Yet, “Hinduphobia” is still with us.


    The major flaw in this book is its title. I object to political terms ending in -phobia, normally a medical term meaning “irrational fear”, as in arachnophobia, the “irrational fear of spiders”. As far as I know, the first term in this category of political terms borrowed from the medical register, was homophobia, the “irrational fear of homosexuals”. First of all, the word was wrongly constructed. Literally, it means “fear of the same”, i.e. “fear of the same sex”, whereas men criticizing homosexuality are not usually afraid of men. In fact the words targets people who disapprove of homosexuality, no matter what their rational or emotional motive. The term or connotation “sexuality” is missing (you might try “homophilophobia”), and the targeted “disapproval” is not the same thing as the stated “fear”, nor as the intended “hate”. Still, the neologism won through thanks to the bourgeoisie’s sheepish acceptance of it.

    Next came Islamophobia, literally “irrational fear of Islam”, intended to mean “hatred of Islam”, and in effect targeting “disapproval of Islam”, “Islam criticism”. This term was first launched in the 1990s by the Runnymede Trust, a British Quango dedicated to fighting racism. It was taken over by many governments and media, and especially promoted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It is an intensely mendacious term trying to criminalize the normal exercise of the power of discrimination. The targeted critics of Islam need neither fear nor hate Islam, their attitude may rather be likened to that of a teacher using his red pencil to cross out a mistake in a pupil’s homework. But again, a mighty promotion by powerful actors made the word gain household status.

    On this model, the term Hinduphobia was coined. At bottom, we have to reject this term as much as we rejected the use of psychiatry against dissident  viewpoints in the Soviet Union.

    On the other hand, an irrational anti-Hinduism is a reality. It is precisely through comparison with Islam that this becomes glaring. Whenever a group of people gets killed in the name of Islam, immediately the politicians concerned and the media assure us that this terror “has nothing to do with Islam”. In the case of Hinduism, it is just the reverse. Of any merit of Hinduism, it is immediately assumed that “it has nothing to do with Hinduism”, whereas every problem in India is automatically blamed on Hinduism, from poverty (“the Hindu rate of growth”) to rape.

    Thus, it is verifiable that books may be written about “Jain mathematics”, but when Hindus do mathematics, it will be called “Indian mathematics” or “the Kerala school of mathematics”. Congress politician Mani Shankar Aiyar once praised India’s inherent pluralism, enumerated its well-attested hospitality to refugee groups, and then attributed all this not to Hinduism, but to “something in the air here”. In missionary propaganda and in the secularist media, it is always emphasized that “tribals are not Hindus”; except when they take revenge on Christians or Muslims, because then the media report on “Hindu rioters”. 

    This obsessive negativity towards Hinduism needs to be named and shamed. Now that the bourgeoisie has interiorized terms like Homophobia and Islamophobia, it is clear that the neologism Hinduphobia belongs to a language register they will understand. Once heightened scruples prevail and linguistic hygiene is restored, all three terms may be discarded together. But until then, the use of Hinduphobia in counter-attack mode is a wise compromise with the prevailing opinion climate.

    This piece was first published on Pragyata and has been republished here with permission.

    Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.