Ideas

Why The Toxic Narrative Against Hinduism Must Be Countered Aggressively

A Hindu priest performs the morning Ganga Arti Puja before sunrise on the banks of the Ganges river in Haridwar. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The false propaganda against Hinduism has a long history though its impact has been relatively minimal. But it is important to deal with it urgently through the right avenues.

Vamsee Juluri, a writer, novelist, and professor of media studies at University of San Francisco, sets out a dire situation for the Hindus of the world in his article, “Last Man with a Lightbulb and Not a Word to Speak to His Soul: Why Hindus are Losing the Story War”, published at Huffpost.com on October 7, 2017.

The essence of the article can be summed up in these three laments:

1. The media and the academe (that is, those occupying the intellectual space) have created a narrative that has made the Hindus ashamed of being a Hindu. He says that this has been going on for a long time, and accepts that this narrative is false.

2. This false and toxic narrative is robbing the masses of their dignity and happiness and is turning them rootless.

3. The present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is doing nothing to counter this toxic narrative.

The First Lament

With respect to the first lament, the real issue is not that a narrative has been created. This is at least a couple of centuries old, started by the British as colonisers, since it was in their interest that the Hindus became not just physical slaves, but also mental slaves. It would then be easy to rule a subjugated population who will be grateful to the British for ruling over them, and never even think of asking for independence. This dream had been articulated by Lord Macaulay, sometime in the 1830s as follows: We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, words and intellect.”

The post-Independence intellectual class carried this programme forward, because they had a hard core Marxist orientation. The real issue, therefore, is that the toxic narrative is false. Furthermore, this falsification is a deliberate project, one that is based on an ideology. Not dealing with this aspect, one could say that Juluri accepts that there is nothing wrong with the members of the media, and academicians who conduct themselves in what is clearly an unprofessional way to go about their task. If true, this acceptance is puzzling since Juluri teaches about the media, presumably training his students how to conduct themselves as journalists. Perhaps, I am being uncharitable to Juluri – but it still needs to be said so that there can be a discussion on the issue of whether the falsification is deliberate or not.

The people at large expect to be informed on various subjects from those who are considered as intellectuals. While an individual may be knowledgeable on the subject out of what he has made a career, he would like to be informed in a concise way about other subjects.

If the mainstream media is providing wrong information, some of the readers may be able to see through the falsehood, applying logic. Some others may have friends who could give a different perspective, and so would not get swayed by what he/she has read. Often, however, readers may not have the time to think the issue through on their own, and so base their views on wrong information. This agenda-driven journalism will do serious disservice to the society.

I would like to suggest that Juluri should castigate those colleagues in the intellectual community who are being unprofessional. Given his position in academics, and also having the space to write articles in various journals, he is an insider and has the means to ensure that his views are heard. He can write in publications (general and specialised), speak at programmes (again general and specialised), attend other programmes where he can question a speaker if there is falsehood being propagated, etc. Clearly, if the falsehood is stopped, the second lament will not only be dealt with, but the damage done so far can be reversed. This, I think, is a better way to go about dealing with the issue, than the third lament.

At the same time, I would be burying my head in the sand if I were to say that the adversary has completely failed. Even though Hinduism is the oldest surviving civilisation, significant tracts of land and people were lost, and who are today part of the hostile force to conduct their campaign against Hinduism. Despite the lack of success, the efforts to demonise Hindus and Hinduism have not lessened. In fact, they have only increased. And alliances are being formed on the basis of ‘an enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

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If Juluri follows my suggestion, there will be one more avenue to counter the deliberately designed false propaganda. I say ‘one more’ because there are many others who are already on the task. Some in the mainstream institutes are already hitting back as aggressively as the adversary. Some others are debunking the false propaganda unknowingly without realising that their effort is countering the anti-Hinduism agenda. Both have created angst amongst the ‘intellectuals’ since they have begun to realise that their programme of demonising Hinduism is not working.

There are also institutions outside the mainstream, which have kept the civilisational memory alive. These have been set up by the effort of either an individual (with the support of a few friends) or by dharmic organisations. Though it can be said that these efforts are not well coordinated, one should recognise that the effort is happening.

Today, the greatest institution is, of course, the internet. This is actually an avenue for the Hindus to express themselves to a wider audience than before. Often, many are pleasantly surprised that their thinking is actually mainstream as far as the community is concerned, and not fringe. And such is the power of this medium that those indulging in false propaganda often find themselves as having to respond. Since they follow the strategy of falsehood, every time they are exposed they have to create another falsehood to pretend to be relevant. They do not have the intellectual integrity to admit that they are wrong.

Intellectual Terrorism And Arrogance

One of the issues that Juluri, and others, can deal with is intellectual terrorism which often leads to arrogance. Take the example of the changes in California textbooks that Hindus had proposed the last time revisions were to be made. For two years, a group of sincere Hindus (both academics and activists with a serious approach to academia) methodically went through the procedure as prescribed by the state. The changes were vetted and were sent for final approval to the appropriate authorities. Right at the last minute (almost literally), Prof Michael Witzel of Harvard University, aided by Steve Farmer, intervened and sent a letter demanding that the changes not be approved. This letter was signed by some 140 people all over the world. It was clear from the letter that the so-called worthies did not know what were the changes proposed. They also did not know who the Hindus were, and hence their competence to comment on the subject, who had worked diligently for the last two years.

The letter made a serious allegation that the politics of India was being transported to the US, and that the children in the US would be wrongly informed about India. Given the timeline, I have serious doubt that the signatories knew the content of the letter, and I am convinced that most of the names were added without the concurrence of persons concerned. Their only claim to fame was not their knowledge (gyaan) of the subject in question, but the subject that they taught. Many of them were experts in fields other than either Hinduism or comparative religions. And the other claim to fame was that they were members of a cabal, led by Witzel, who often pitched in on anti-Hinduism issues, and also on anti-Hindutva politics in India.

This was pure and simple intellectual terrorism. Some of those who have empathy for Hinduism and criticised the changes proposed, refused to deal with this issue. Some quibbled about a particular change, some others said that the strategy was wrong without saying what the right strategy was. But none recognised that the California school authorities actually allowed an illegal act, and completely bypassed their standard procedure. These people too allowed the supposed authority of the signatories to terrorise themselves.

One Jakob de Roover criticised the suggestion of removing the label of polytheism being applied to Hinduism. I wrote to him saying that at a philosophical level I agreed with him. However, polytheism has become a loaded term conveying negativeness. Most of the non-Hindu students (aged around 13) who are learning that are doing it because they are required to do so. The very fact that such courses are non-credit, the students are going to devote as minimum time as possible. They are not going to remember what was taught by the time the term ended. However, the negativeness will persist, at least at the sub-conscious level. I suggested to De Roover, who is also in academia that it is for him to initiate a programme at universities to recover the true meaning of polytheism so that people at large understand it in its pristine form. I do not know if he has followed this up.

There are many other instances of intellectual terrorism that the Hindus at large are confronted with. Many are dealing with it – but it is happening outside the mainstream institutes, including social media. Juluri can mainstream it.

The Second Lament

The effect of a false narrative on some Hindus has been recognised by genuine Hindu thinkers in the past, as Anand Coomarswamy wrote in 1908:

Speak to the ordinary graduate of an India University of the ideals of Mahabharata - he will hasten to display his knowledge of Shakespeare: talk to him of religious philosophy - you find that he is an atheist of the crude type common in Europe a generation ago, and that not only has he no religion, but is lacking in philosophy as the average Englishman: talk to him of Indian music - he will produce a gramophone or a harmonium, and inflict upon you one or both: talk to him of Indian dress or jewellery - he will tell you that they are uncivilised and barbaric: talk to him of Indian art - it is news to him that such a thing exists: ask him to translate for you a letter written in his own mother tongue - he does not know it. He is indeed a stranger in his own land.

This would also apply to some Hindus all over the world even today. The question is whether this is the rule or the exception.

Then there is another issue. Is the second lament really valid, to the extent that a doomsday situation is not very far off? After all, the programme of falsehood has a very long history of more than 200 years. If there was any reasonable level of success, then those antagonistic to Hindus and Hinduism would not have to continue undertaking the programme of promoting falsehood, and use their resources in a more profitable way.

Perhaps, we should remember a letter Mark Twain wrote to an editor of a newspaper in America, where he informed that the news of his death was highly exaggerated. Or, what Ernset Wood, a former principal of Sind National College, Hyderabad (in what is now Pakistan), wrote with respect to the drain inspector’s report, called Mother India by Katherine Mayo:

If the people can decline so much in fifty years on account of child-marriage through three generations, what must they have deteriorated in the several hundreds of years during which it has been going on? They must have been a fine race when they began, or there would nothing left by now!
An Englishman defends Mother India, Ganesh & Co, Madras, 1929, p69.

The book advertises itself as a complete constructive reply to Mayo’s Mother India. It is also recognition of the fineness of the generations prior that has not been dented much.

There has been many other robust defence of India and Hinduism at the time. Sadly, many amongst the intellectuals in India today remember what Mayo wrote, but are clueless about the contemporary critique of the book. I would also like to propose to Juluri that he looks at the positives that are happening in the Hindu society. In many ways, he himself should have been the victim of the first lament, and should have become rootless. Not only the fact that he did think about writing about the laments, but also his various other writings, show that the campaign of demonising Hinduism has not succeeded. Looking at the positives means inquiring about why the programme failed. Looking at the positives means recognising that the large number of Hindus refused to become rootless, and that there is a movement of people away from the dark side, using the term in the Star Wars sense.

Looking at the positives does not mean that the negatives are ignored. What it means is that the Hindus can build up on these positives and not get unduly discouraged by some apparent setbacks. This will provide the energy to deal with the negatives.

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A Sort Of Ghar Wapsi

It is not only the movement of Ghar Wapsi (of those born as Hindus returning back to the roots) but also those who were born in other traditions are beginning to appreciate that there is something in Hinduism that they can relate to. People like Arnold Toynbee have gone many steps forward in this path of inquiry when he wrote in 1970:

Today we are still living in this transitional chapter of world’s history, but it is already becoming clear that the chapter which had a western beginning, will have an Indian ending, if it is not to end in self destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way - Emperor Asoka’s and Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence and Sri Ramkrishna’s testimony of religions.

In December 2014, Nirpal Dhaliwal wrote an article with the title “How movies embraced Hinduism (without you even noticing)”, which is a nice summary of what he wanted to say. In the first two paragraphs, he writes:

“Interstellar’s box office total is $622,932,412 and counting. It is the eighth highest-grossing film of the year and has spawned an endless raft of think pieces testing the validity of its science and applauding the innovation of its philosophy. But it is not so new. The idea that propels the plot – there is a universal super-consciousness that transcends time and space, and in which all human life is connected – has been around for about 3,000 years. It is Vedic.

“When the film’s astronaut hero (Matthew McConaughey), declares that the mysterious and all-knowing “they” who created a wormhole near Saturn through which he travels to save mankind – dissolving his sense of material reality in the process – are in fact “us”, he is simply repeating the central notion of the Upanishads, India’s oldest philosophical texts. These hold that individual human minds are merely brief reflections within a cosmic one.”

Serious thinkers in Hollywood have dismissed the projection of Hinduism as ‘cow, caste and curry’ (a phrased coined by Rajiv Malhotra), and have gone to the roots of what it actually is. The revival of yoga all over the world is yet another indication that the project of academia to demonise Hinduism has not succeeded.

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The Pilgrims Define The Land Of The Hindus

One of the false narrative that the ‘intellectuals’ like to project is that Bharat was never a nation. However, those who had a deep empathy for the ancient civilisation and culture of the country, had always disputed it. Mahatma Gandhi wrote:

“The English have taught us that we were not one nation before and that it will require centuries before we became one nation. This is without foundation. We were one nation before they came to India. One thought inspired us. Our mode of life was the same. It was because we were one nation that they were able to establish one kingdom. Subsequently they divided us.

I do not wish to suggest that because we were one nation we had no difference, but it is submitted that our leading men traveled India either on foot or in bullock-carts. They learned one another’s languages and there was no aloofness between them. What do you think could have been the intention of those far-seeing ancestors who established Setubandha (Rameshwar) in the South, Jaganath in the East and Hardwar in the North as places of pilgrimage? You will admit that they were not fools. They knew that worship of God could have been performed just as well at home. They taught us that those hearts were aglow with righteousness had the Ganga in their own homes. But they saw that India was one undivided land so made by nature. They, therefore, argued that it must be one nation. Arguing thus, they established holy places in various parts of India, and fired the people with an idea of nationality in a manner unknown in other parts of the world.

And it was for this unity that the masses rose as one to throw the British out.

In the post-Independent era, with freedom to travel without fear, and with rising income levels, there has been a significant increase in the number of Hindus going on pilgrimages. The phase of rootlessness is receding, and that people want to connect themselves to what Hinduism really is. In her book, India – A Sacred Geography, Diana Eck, professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University, writes:

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“Banaras does not stand alone as the great centre of pilgrimage for Hindus, but is part of an extensive network of pilgrimage places stretching throughout the length and breadth of India….

“In this wider network of pilgrimage, nothing, not even the great city of Banaras, stands alone, but rather everything is part of a living, storied, and intricately connected landscape. At first, I resisted the complexities of this peripheral vision, still interested as I was in establishing what makes this one place special, different from the rest. It became clear to me, however, that I could understand Banaras only in the context of a much wider system of meanings in which significance is marked not by uniqueness, but by multiplicity, even in the great city of Kashi…. I began to realise that Kashi was not THE centre, but one of multiple centres in a fascinating and polycentric landscape, linked with the tracks of pilgrimage….”

During these subsequent years, I have travelled many thousands of miles on the pilgrim tracks of this wider sacred geography, trying to understand from the ground up the ways in which India has been composed through the centuries as a sacred landscape…. It became increasingly clear to me that anywhere one goes in India, one finds a living landscape in which mountains, rivers, forest, and villages are elaborately linked to the stories of the gods and heroes.

“The pilgrim’s India is a vividly imagined landscape that has been created not by homing in on the singular importance of one place, but by the linking, duplication, and multiplication of places so as to constitute the entire world. The critical rule of thumb is this: Those that are deeply important are to be widely repeated…. More important, this ‘imagined landscape’ has been constituted not by priests and their literature, though there is plenty of literature to be sure, but by countless millions of pilgrims who have generated a powerful sense of land, location, and belonging through journeys to their hearts’ destinations….

“This is a book about India, the pilgrim’s India. For a time, I was discouraged about the writing of it, fearing that somehow the image of a sacred geography enlivened by the presence of the gods and interlinked through the circulation of pilgrims would further feed the fervour of an exclusive new Hindu nationalism. But the reality I describe and interpret here is clearly one not of religious exclusivity, but rather of complexity, mobility and plurality… The pilgrim’s India reaches back many hundreds of years and brings to us an astonishing picture of a land linked not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of the pilgrims….”

There is no question that the ‘pilgrim’s India’ provides an important perspective for understanding India, not simply in the past, but in the present. As arcane as lingas of light, shrines linked by the body of the Goddess, and sacred rivers falling from heaven may seem to those who wish to get on with the real politics of today’s world, these very patterns of sanctification continue to anchor millions of people in the imagined landscape of their country.

This book was written in 2012, reconfirming what the Mahatma wrote some hundred years before. However, the realisation of a sacred geography had occurred to Eck when she wrote the book Banaras – City of Light, which was published in 1982. It can thus be said that the cultural and civilisational unity of India had dawned on her sometime around 1980, and this realisation survived the political events surrounding the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that happened since then. The Mahatma wrote in context of demonising by the British. Eck’s research took place when the demonising campaign had intensified in vehemence, with an even much larger falsehood than the previous.

Yet, Eck, like so many others, has been able to sift the wheat from the chaff. Most of them are not even mild supporters of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement – Eck is actually one of the ardent opponents. However, all of them can be said to have not bought the false narrative on Hinduism.

Hence, understanding the positives that have happened, not only for what they are but also for how they happened, will provide clues to all those who are working hard for a resurgent Hinduism; how to counter the false narratives of those who are said to be intellectuals.

The Third Lament

With this build up, the last lament can only be answered in a one-word question – why? Why should the present NDA government do anything to counter this toxic narrative? It can be well said that this narrative adversely affects the task of the government to deliver good governance, and in this limited context the government is trying to deal with it. However, even where the issue relates to state-financed institutions, it is really the task of the whole intellectual community to point out that those indulging in the political programme of generating the toxic narrative are doing disservice to the people who are providing them with much more than mere sustenance. The people are seeking the truth, and not be fed with ideology-based opinions.

There is also the case of wealthy individuals who are providing funds to institutions (private and public) and individuals who are actively involved in building the toxic narrative. Others in the media and academics, who have recognised that the there is a falsehood being propagated, should express their views, so that these wealthy individuals are better informed. In effect, help them to give due diligence. Hence, I suggest Juluri initiates efforts with respect to the first lament.

There are many Hindu organisations who are active at the grass root levels, and have programmes which have ensured that the people they interact with do not get swayed by the toxic narrative. In fact, in most cases this narrative has not reached them, and hence the work of these Hindu organisations is a pro-active one in the sense that the people will not be swayed if at all the toxic narrative reaches them. They are prepared with a response and equipped to be not swayed by the falsehood.

Recently B Jeyamohan, a Tamil and Malayalam writer and literary critic, wrote an article titled: Nothing Wrong In Hindu Gurus Having Corporate Setups, We Need More Such Institutions.

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He said that over the last 20 years, with the work being done by Hindu gurus like Jaggi Vasudev and Sri Sri Ravishankar, the Hindu youth is able to counter the lies that Christian missionaries have been trying to spread in the rural areas. And he applauds these gurus for understanding the needs of today in putting forward the message in a form that the aspiring youth amongst Hindus are able to relate to.

The Synergy

There is a huge synergy in the work being done by many Hindu organisations. We can quibble about the form that such organisations are using to reach out to the people. What needs to be understood is that different people need different forms, and the most appropriate one is used by a guru based on his own target audience. At one time, Gita Press used to produce what could be called aesthetically shoddy books. But the objective then was to reach out to the people at the least cost possible, so that the knowledge became available to them. They succeeded. Today, Gita Press is investing in printing machinery to produce books that would attract the upwardly mobile Hindu.

Individuals like Juluri are also making important contributions to the goal of a larger Hindu resurgence. I do not dismiss his laments – that, as I said earlier, would be equal to burying my head in the sand. I would like him to consider the evidence and the perspectives that I have provided, with respect to my contention that the toxic narrative is no longer impacting even the few people that it had managed to influence in the past. I would like him to consider my suggestion that there is a need for him to do more of the positive work that he has been doing. I would like him to not worry whether others are doing it or not. And, importantly, I would like him to not minimise the work done by others. In fact, I would like him to study and highlight these works, and not to magnify the small mistakes that are made. These mistakes are correctable, and in no way affect the primary line of reasoning. He should understand that such works are very popular on the social media, not because they are emotional (which is a component, and has connected with most readers) but because they are quite well argued and also reasonably well presented. And the level of scholarship is nothing to be sneered at. Most importantly, they speak the truth.

The real objective of the programme of falsehood is to depress the energy of those Hindus who are what can be called thought-leaders or organisation-leaders. If they get disheartened, then their energy will be dissipated and they will not be able to fully concentrate on the work that they have allocated to themselves. By being defensive, the leaders will not be effective. The target of the adversary is not the masses, but the leaders who are working so hard for a resurgent Hinduism. If these leaders are defeated, victory over the masses will automatically follow.

I would therefore conclude by quoting from a lecture of Swami Vivekananda:

“We are Hindus. I do not use the word Hindu in any bad sense at all, nor do I agree with those that think there is any bad meaning in it. In old times, it simply meant people who lived on the other side of the Indus; today a good many among those who hate us may have put a bad interpretation upon it, but names are nothing. Upon us depends whether the name Hindu stands for everything that is glorious, everything that is spiritual, or whether it will remain a name of opprobrium, one designating the down-trodden, the worthless, the heathen. If at present the word Hindu means anything bad, never mind; by our action let us be ready to show that this is the highest word that any language can invent. It has been one of the principles of my life not to be ashamed of my own ancestors. I am proud to call myself a Hindu, I am proud that I am one of your unworthy servants. I am proud that I am a countryman of yours, you the descendants of the most glorious Rishis the world ever saw. Therefore have faith in yourselves, be proud of your ancestors, instead of being ashamed of them. I am one of the proudest men ever born, but let me tell you frankly, it is not for myself, but on account of my ancestry.”

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