Reflections on “Indra’s Net: Defending Hinduism’s philosophical unity” by Rajiv Malhotra


Mr. Rajiv Malhotra has done it again: Written a substantial book on a topic that should interest all those who care for the Hindu world, especially as it is (mis)understood and portrayed by Western scholars.
This work accomplishes several things. The first is to demolish the view that Hindu philosophy and religion did not have a unified framework before the arrival of the colonizing British in India. Though the word Hinduism (in English) was coined by a British scholar, Malhotra argues that it would be naive, wrong, and/or mischievous to contend that there was no unifying religious fabric in India prior to the arrival of the British. As I have often said, after all, before the term Romance languages was coined there was Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, let alone Vedic chants and shlokas sustained a religio-cultural quilt  for millennia before European intrusions into India.

Not all may subscribe to the thesis that there is no difference between the archeo-Hinduism with Vedic gods and sacrifices, classical Hinduism based on the grand epics, the bhakti mode, Shankara and Ramanuja, and modern Hinduism with no caste-hierarchy and no injunction against crossing the seas.

Malhotra’s thesis is that Hinduism has been as much a culturally unifying force in India B.B.C. (Before the British Came) as A.B.C. (After the British Came).

The book gives brief accounts of the writings of some major Indologists of the second half of the twentieth century, from Agehananda Bharati and Ursula King to Brian Pennington, Anant Rambachan, and more. These are among the culprits, he elaborates, who propagated the notion of Neo-Hinduism: a notion which, in Malhotra’s view, is not only ill-conceived but also sinister.

It seems to me that all religions which evolve with time have neo-versions from age to age. The Christianity of the twentieth century may well be described as Neo-Christianity, given that many features of that religion which were once very much part of it are no longer as dominant. However, resentment to the term Neo-Hinduism is provoked by the fact that it has a negative connotation; furthermore, the West often takes credit for the new unified modern version of Hinduism. This is what Malhotra attacks cogently and incisively .
A good part of the book is dedicated to refuting the thesis that Swami Vivekananda, in his eloquent and persuasive expositions of Hinduism, misled the world by covering up some of its inner contradictions. Nit-picking scholars may, in academic debates, dissect Vivekananda’s prolific writings and point to discrepancies here and there. But the Swamiji used to exhort his coreligionists to amend many of their traditional anachronistic ways. And it is unfair to complain that the orator did not wash the dirty linen of Hinduism to the full view of the Western public. What would that have served? His task when he spoke to Western audiences was to educate them on the positive aspects of Hinduism of which they had no idea. Malhotra also points out that Vivekananda’s introduction of Hindu thought into the West has been taken advantage of by the West which has appropriated its (Hinduism’s) deep insights without due acknowledgment. He discusses the relevance of yoga and meditation, of rishis and the spiritual quest to modern psychology and cognitive sciences.
Malhotra states that the purpose of his book is “to portray the ‘big picture’ of Hinduism, a picture which is necessary to develop its leadership, defend it externally and also convince many of its own skeptical member of its integrity and coherence.” Towards the end he offers some suggestions for the protection of Hinduism from alien religions and its penetration into others through what he calls Poison Pills – a powerful metaphor which he elaborates with reference to Shiva as Neelakanta.
He makes the spirited statement: “With all our hearts, we must preserve and nurture a grand conception of Hinduism, whose various aspects and components remain forever interwoven, each one of them reflecting all the others like jewels in Indra’s Net.”

Here I am reminded of Wagner’s Opera Die Meistersinger. In this musically magnificent work, Hans Sachs sings an aria in the end in which he extols German art and music and culture. In particular he says:
Verachtet mir die Meister nicht, und ehrt mir ihre Kunst!
Scorn not the Masters, I bid you, and honor their art! …
Das uns’re Meister sie gepflegt grad’ recht nach ihrer Art, nach ihrem Sinne treu gehegt, das hat sie echt bewahrt:
That our Masters have cared for it rightly in their own way, cherished it truly as they thought best, that has kept it genuine:
Blieb sie nicht adlig, wie zur Zeit, da Höf’ und Fürsten sie geweiht, im Drang der schlimmen Jahr’ blieb sie doch deutsch und wahr; ….
If it did not remain aristocratic as of old, when courts and princes blessed it, in the stress of evil years, it remained German and true.
Habt Acht! Uns dräuen üble Streich’: zerfällt erst deutsches Volk und Reich, in falscher wälscher Majestät
Beware! Evil tricks threaten us: if the German people and kingdom should one day decay, under a false, foreign rule ……
Wälschen Dunst mit wälschem Tand sie pflanzen uns in deutsches Land; was deutsch und echt, wüsst’ keiner mehr, lebt’s nicht in deutscher Meister Ehr’. Drum sag’ ich euch: ehrt eure deutschen Meister! Dann bannt ihr gute Geister; und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst, uns bliebe gleich die heil’ge deutsche Kunst!
Foreign mists with foreign vanities, they would plant in our German land; what is German and true none would know, if it did not live in the honor of German Masters. Therefore I say to you: Honor your German Masters, then you will conjure up good spirits! And if you favor their endeavors, for us there would yet remain holy German Art!
In this memorable aria if we replace German by Hindu, and the word art by tradition and culture, these lines would express in a nutshell the deepest feelings of many modern Hindus. This book gives those feelings powerful, eloquent, and ample expression.

Malhotra does for Hinduism what G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy and C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity did for their religion: presenting robust, positive, and enlightened visions of the religion.

There is no question but that this book will have considerable positive impact on intelligent and youthful Hindu readers.
What is not pointed out in the book, but deserves mention, is that in spite of more than a century of adverse propaganda, a great many educated people in the West have, by and large, positive images of India and Hinduism.
It is true the there are unsavory connotations to the term Neo-Hinduism. But one may give the term  totally different meanings:

People from the Judeo-Christian-Buddhist traditions who convert to Hinduism may be regarded as Neo-Hindus. Such Neo-Hindus are beyond the categorization of varnashrama: They are not part of  any of the four traditional castes.

Then again, there are millions of bona fide Hindus who question the historicity of the epics, and doubt the tenets of karma and reincarnation. No authority can ostracize them from the Hindu fold. They too may be regarded as Neo-Hindus in another sense.

Finally, Neo-Hinduism (or Anglo-Hinduism) may be regarded as the presentation of the framework, foundations, and insights of the Hindu world in a Non-Indian language (English for the most part), using the word Hinduism rather than Sanatana Dharma, addressed especially to English-speaking Hindus and Westerners who may be interested in Hinduism, and above all, not only to educate Westerners about the glories of Hinduism but also to disabuse them of their many misconceptions, whether mischievous or ignorant. Some Neo-Hindus also migrate beyond the sacred soil of India and make their homes elsewhere. As per this definition, Mr. Rajiv Malhotra’s writings may well be described as Neo-Hinduism par excellence.

Not every thoughtful Hindu and Indologist with respect and reverence for Hinduism may fully agree with all that Malhotra says in this significant book, or resonate with how he paints his dissatisfaction with Western scholars of India.

But no one can deny that this book explores the roots of, and offers highly original perspectives on, the image of Hinduism that has been implanted in the minds of many Westerners who have been drawn to Hinduism in one way or another. This book is worth reading because it comes from a thoughtful and well-informed scholar who loves Hindu culture and philosophy from the depths of his heart, and is among those who are acutely aware of the existential threats that the culture is facing.

March 29, 2014

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