Mother Teresa Debate – Of Saints, Priests and Seva

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[Avadhoot Bhagwan Ram Kustha Sewa Ashram reportedly treating the highest number of leprosy patients in the world]

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Avadhoot Bhagwan Ram Kustha Sewa Ashram reportedly treating the highest number of leprosy patients in the world



A few years ago I had visited Amravati near Nagpur. An NRI I knew had for some years funded scholarships for hundreds of school going children. This was their annual meet. A day earlier we had visited an ashram for lepers in Amravati, started by a Hindu saint whose name I don’t remember. And that is the crux of this story.

At the annual meet of these poor children receiving scholarships personally funded by their NRI benefactor, one of the invited guests was the city’s Catholic priest. He had been invited by the local contact of the NRI, an auntie who helped administer the programs. When the priest came up to speak, this “secular” local auntie, introduced him as “the most helpful, the one to turn in the hour of need.” The introduction was strangely misplaced since the one person who was really helping the children in this hour of need was the NRI, who funded their scholarships, and their travel to Amravati for the meet. He was himself a devout Hindu, who had spent several years translating Hindu sacred texts in a labour of love.

In that incongruous setting, with an incongruous introduction, the Catholic priest of Amravati began to speak. To these wide-eyed children, with palpable gratitude towards their benefactor, the priest starting speaking of M Teresa who had recently been beatified by the Catholic Church in the process to proclaiming her a saint. The priest’s address was laced with bile at some alleged Brahmins in Calcutta who opposed Teresa, and how she had taken care of lepers. His main was to have the local main road named after her. It was a focused and well-practiced diatribe, apparently one he had been delivering regularly around town. It had no reference to the occasion, or to the children who were present. It seemed quite clear that the priest was simply following orders from on high, perhaps given to all the diocese all over India, to make sure that roads and other monuments in all the cities got named after Teresa. No point canonising a saint if the Church can’t milk the name.

To my regret, I did not challenge the priest. Perhaps I did not want to add to the sheer incongruity of his presence by creating a conflict in what was to be an inspirational evening for the children. Nonetheless, it was clear that Teresa or her Missionaries had done little for the lepers in Amravati, which had multiple ashrams started by Hindu benefactors and saints for their care. If I had raised a question that day, I would have asked the priest why he did not campaign to have a road named for one of these local heroes of Amravati rather than Teresa of Calcutta. Wouldn’t that be more inspiring and more relevant for the people of Amravati?

It is the power of branding that the Church understands well. Even I couldn’t tell you the name of the local saint who started the Ashram at Amravati. There are thousands and thousands of Hindu organisations that work in India without name or fame or conversion agendas. But the branding and marketing by the Church sells us the tale of “Christian Charity” and the fable of Teresa. The difference between organic native culture and centralised institutional Christianity is precisely this. A local community can find a tree, a rock, a mountain sacred. They can have a gram devata, an ishta deva. They can consecrate a temple, employ a pujari. None of this needs approval from a centralised Church or from the jealous monotheistic God.

But when the evangelical army lands at their doorstep, they must discard the local, their own. They must give up control. Till it is a village temple, the community owns and controls it. The deity is their deity. The stories are their stories. But once this community is converted, by bait or crook, and a cross is planted on this temple, they no longer own it. It is now a property of the centralised multinational Church, controlled by those they will never see. The stories must come from one book. Their interpretation must also be authorised, for pain of heresy. They cannot even dub a local benefactor, the one they revere, a saint. Manufacturing saints is serious business. It only happens with the authority of Rome and it is a long-drawn multi-year process. It is a big investment by the Church, and it needs to make sure that it has appropriate returns. Thus it is with Teresa.

When I was travelling in Europe I was struck by how different Catholic saints were from those I was used to. For us a saint was an enlightened master; someone who transformed lives or brought great wisdom. Thus we had Sant Kabir and Sant Tukuram. The Ramcharitmanas has an entire section on “santan ke guna”, how to recognise a sant. It is for the people to do so, not a title conferred by an institution. What struck me particularly about the Catholic “Saints” was that the great contribution of many of them was that they were physically tortured. For my pagan sensibilities this is rather bizarre that someone becomes a saint not through any great quality or even service to the world but by the sole virtue of being tortured for one’s belief. But that would make sense for a religion whose primary symbol is a body nailed onto a cross in torture. As Nietzsche said “The meaning of the God on the Cross is that …everything that suffers, everything that hangs on the Cross, is divine…”

Not only the tortured, the torturers are also sainted. Thus it is that Francis Xavier, who called for the cruellest of Catholic inquisitions onto the people of Goa—Hindus, Muslims and Christians—was made a Saint onto the Church, for his service to spreading Christianity. In that line of illustrious saints Teresa is not all that bad despite Hitchen’s criticism. His main attack that she extolled suffering rather than focusing on removing it, is pretty much in line with other Christian saints. The Buddha too spoke of suffering but he neither loaded it with the guilt of sin nor extolled it. Indian traditions are life affirming. Suffering is there neither for voyeuristic pleasure nor for demonstrations of charity but for moving beyond it. Preying on people’s suffering for conversions, as Teresa’s missionaries were inclined to do, is decidedly bad karma.

Be that as it is, there is a dilemma for the numerous Hindu organisations that work with the seva bhava that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat mentioned. In the world of marketing, exemplified by the Catholic priest’s push to get a road in Amravati named after Teresa; it is common for Indians to buy into the idea that Christian organisations do great charity in India. In fact, as Sandeep Balakrishnan points it, the Missionaries of Charity were a profit centre for the church. The Catholic Church did not fund them. Rather, they made money, collected by marketing the poor, and deposited it into the Vatican bank. They funded the Church. But the average person on the street in India would readily extol their great charity, but be completely ignorant of the hundreds of Hindu organisations that work selflessly and silently. One that recently came to my notice was the Avadhoot Bhagwan Ram Kustha Sewa Ashram reportedly treating the highest number of leprosy patients in the world. These organisations will not toot their own horn. So S. Gurumurthy organised the Hindu Seva fair to highlight some of the work of these organisations. They will not be marketed by a multi-billion dollar MNC Church, so it is up to us to tell these stories.

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Call out Muslim Phobia, debunk Islamophobia

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The attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo bring to a fore fault lines in Europe. It has fuelled a European right that is calling for bans on Muslim immigrants. A major French TV anchor called for deportation of their existing Muslim population. For a while the hashtag #KillAllMuslims trended on Twitter. Germany saw anti-Muslim protests with thousands of people taking to the streets. In the US “Judge” Jeanine on Fox News said “We need to kill them. We need to kill them, the radical Muslim terrorists.” There is a danger of this fuelling a real phobia, aMuslim phobia. This is different from suppressing critique of Islam using the term Islamophobia. Here is why.

Compared to India, the European countries have miniscule Muslim populations both in absolute and relative terms. Yet, though there have been religious riots, usually based on local factors, it would be harder to find such sweeping protests regarding “Muslims” as a whole in India. Neither would enforced uniformity, such as the French ban on the burqa and the niqab get much traction in India where the plurality of ways is deeply ingrained in the culture. Here is a picture from UK I retweeted:

Let us be clear. Targeting Muslims as an imagined monolith is bigotry. It must be countered. Human beings are diverse. Just because someone has a Muslim name, or “looks Muslim” or comes from a Muslim country or observes Muslim rituals does not make them a radical. With over a billion people, there is a wide diversity of Muslim experiences. Even within Indian Muslims, customs vary by region, caste and affiliation. The instance I cite above such as the call in UK by right wing groups that “Muslims get out” is an example of what I call Muslim phobia.

This kind of phobia is starting to happen in India as well. Just as Muslims youngsters are being radicalised often via dis-contextualised textual messages, we find instances of young “Hindutva warriors” exhibiting increasing prejudice. Here is a simple example, more egregious ones are easily found.

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Millions of Muslims serve in the government, in the armed forces, in the security services of this country not as Muslims but as Indians. To view them simply on the basis of religious identity is another form of Muslim phobia. In Europe we find Muslim phobia increasingly acting as the outlet for racism, xenophobia, and presumed Christian or Western cultural superiority. Orientalist caricatures of Muslims underlie their stereotyping.

On the flip side, there is a term used most often by apologists, “Islamophobia.” This term has a history. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) specifically promoted the idea of Islamophobia. OIC funds and supports, conferences, reports, politicians, diplomats, academics, journalists and activists to combat this “Islamophobia.” When that term is bandied about, it is right to be suspicious about the funding and agenda of its proponents. As Asra Nomani writes in the Washington Post:

“In 2007, as part of this playbook, the OIC launched the Islamophobia Observatory, a watchdog group based in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, with the goal of documenting slights against the faith. Its first report, released the following year, complained that the artists and publishers of controversial Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad were defiling “sacred symbols of Islam . . . in an insulting, offensive and contemptuous manner.” The honor brigade began calling out academics, writers and others, including former New York police commissioner Ray Kelly and administrators at a Catholic school in Britain that turned away a mother who wouldn’t remove her face veil.”

Unlike Muslim Phobia, which is about real people, Islamophobia is a term used to protect an ideology from criticism. Islam is not a person, it is an idea much like capitalism or communism. Ideas must not be immune from criticism. When people in the UK say “Muslims get out” it can be, and often is, an expression of latent racism. We most oppose that. But ideas need to be up for criticism, just as people as a whole must not be stereotyped.

This played out in a famous American talk show confrontation in the Bill Mahler show, where Sam Harris guest called Islam a “motherload of bad ideas.” Now what Sam Harris says is, and should be, contestable. But to shut off the points he makes as Islamophobia is to shut off the debate altogether. There is a problem of religious radicalism, and Islam may be linked to the problem, at the very least since a number of people that are blowing themselves and others up explicitly self-proclaim that they are doing it for Islam. But to discover Islam is or isn’t the problem we cannot forestall the debate. To label criticism of Islam into a “phobia” does exactly that, by labelling criticism as an irrational psychological disorder. This is exactly the tack used in Islamic states where people criticising Islam have been branded mentally ill and terrorists. The term Islamophobia, funded by the deep pockets of the OIC, is used to subject the world to the same Islamic theological restrictions.

A final two points. First, Muslims rightly point out that, despite the highly publicised terror killings, the Christian West has killed far more people, even in recent times. The invasion of Iraq is a case in point, where the death toll has surpassed half a million. There is also evidence that Bush’s irrational foray into this war was guided by his Christian belief in end times and that the war was fulfilment of Biblical prophecy, and that US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s briefings for the war were framed by Biblical quotes. Just because the Iraq body count came from a formal army, covered by “embedded journalists” of a “sophisticated” West doesn’t make it any less brutal. Perhaps a thousand times more children died in Iraq as a result of the war, than in the recent Peshawar school attack. While Islam and Christianity both have a bloody history, there is little doubt that, in sheer body count, Christianity has no parallel.

Yet, despite the flaws, the Christian West has launched a serious critique of Christianity. Our accounts of the genocides and killings by Christians come from Western sources. The challenge to Christian theological presumptions has also emerged from there. This kind of challenge and critique is equally necessary for Islam and it should not be forestalled either by the financial clout of the OIC, and its own paid coterie yelling “Islamophobia” or by misguided moral relativism. The current climate in Islamic societies, particularly laws related to blasphemy and apostasy, make this critique difficult from within.

The values of free speech in the West have offered protection to dissident Muslim voices to begin this critique of Islam, though it only has marginal influence yet on Muslim societies. Charlie Hebdo may not be the best example of such a critique, but it bludgeons open the space for one. The challenge for the West will be to not let that space be filled by mindless xenophobia that leads to Muslim phobia. Europe has been there before. Those that call themselves liberals and intellectuals must take up that challenge of confronting Islam intellectually without the straightjacket of political correctness.

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RTE Act is destructive and communal

India needs a decentralised education model that does not impose city standards on schools in villages and tribal areas.

[India needs a decentralised education model that does not impose city standards on schools in villages and tribal areas.]


“India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came out with his programme. Every school must have so much paraphernalia, building, and so forth. Well, there were no such schools at all. There are statistics left by a British administrator which show that, in places where they have carried out a survey, ancient schools have gone by the board, because there was no recognition for these schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people, and therefore they could not possibly overtake the thing.”
Mahatma Gandhi at Chatham House, London, October 20, 1931, quoted in “The Beautiful Tree” by Dharampal.

The RTE act of 2009 continues where the British left off. Dharmpal painstakingly showed, based on British archival records that he copied long hand over decades in London, that India had a flourishing education system that catered to all castes.  He documented, from early British records, that there were areas in India with near hundred percent literacy before the British uprooted the tree of indigenous education.  To move again towards hundred percent literacy, scrapping the RTE  act must be a priority on the government’s legislative agenda.

The strategies that the British used are dutifully carried over in the RTE act.  Schools are being de-recognized by the (still) colonial state.  This is being based not on the quality of learning but by the quantity of “paraphernalia.” The act lists out a criteria for buildings, fences and a playground in an eerie echo of the British approach to India, completely disconnected from how rural India works. This has led to a closure of existing rural schools, increased the cost of education and, with the recent Supreme Court judgment exempting specified religions identified as “minorities” from its draconian provisions, further communalized the Indian state.  An act that closes schools in the cause of universal education can only be considered an act of monumental stupidity.

With all the fuss about fences and teacher counts, the RTE act has little emphasis on either pedagogy or learning outcomes. It not only doesn’t specify what a student is expected to learn after eight years of education but goes on to say that no standardized board exam will be given to measure if they have learnt anything at all. Further no student will be held back in a class, which means that class room standards would decline. A disruptive student cannot even be expelled, nor can a student be punished in case it leads to “mental harassment”. It looks like the framers of the RTE act envisioned the classroom as a free-for-all fenced zoo after which the students can be released into the wild, no better off, when they turn fourteen.

There are plenty of existing models for universal schooling that the act could have drawn on. The US has ahighly decentralized model where public (government) schools flourish and are directly funded by local taxpayers and local managed in school districts.  Rather than decentralizing education structurally and taking on the executive responsibility to provide education, the act tacks on another disease of the Sonia Raj,  un-elected centralized “Advisory Councils” with little or no accountability to the people.

While the executive disowns the responsibility for providing quality public education it impinges on private schools, firstly by requiring them to not have entrance examinations, and secondly by creating coercive quotas for a quarter of the school population and thirdly by limiting their compensation for such students.  Given the fact that students cannot be held back in a class even if they don’t learn anything or expelled from a school if they have no desire to learn, the RTE act will over time result in a drastic lowering of school standards and education.  It doesn’t fix public education, and then turns private education to the same low standards as public education in India.

If the aim is to use private schools for public education, the lack of admission tests would make sense if all the children were allotted based on local area and the criteria was applicable to all schools. With the May 2014Supreme Court judgment these coercive measures are only for those schools that have the misfortune of being labeled as “Hindu.”  The Indian constitution is communal in that it discriminates between people based on their religion. It creates a religious apartheid state where, as in this case, those labeled as “religious majority” can be subjected to coercive legislation while those labeled as a “religious minority” have a right not to be. In this land of diversity singling specific religious groupings for the privilege to run schools without interference is communally divisive. Interfering with admission criteria of some private schools will allow other to forge ahead. It privileges the already privileged—Catholic schools that had a leg up based on a colonial system, can continue to be run as a Christian-favoring meritocracy while Hindu-run schools struggle to compete under the new framework.

This religious minortyism is unique to India and would be illegal in the US and most Western countries and absurd in Islamic ones.  It keeps “minorities” in the control of religious authorities and identified primarily with religious identities.  It also creates a state-favored impetus to conversion out of the majority traditions by allowing “minority” schools, that discriminate on the basis of religion, to be run without state coercion while the “majority” is not allowed to do so. In the US, for instance, it would also be illegal for a Catholic College like St. Stephen’s to receive state funding while explicitly discriminating against Hindus and others in its admission criteria with a 50% Christian quota.

Finally, the RTE allows no room for non-traditional learning or alternate schools. India has a long tradition of children learning in skill-based jatis and kulas and from their parents. Even the highly regulated US system has provisions for home schooling. Forcing children into one size fits all education is destructive to traditional skills. It will also make it difficult to run Ekal Vidyalayas, single teacher, low cost schools that have helped serve distant communities with little infrastructure. The RTE acts requires at least two teachers and contains cultural absurdities like mandatory walls and fences, force-fitting a city-based security paradigm into village or tribal areas where it makes little sense.

Ideally the state should invest in a decentralized, locally governed and funded public education system, based on existing successful models in the world. Schools on public lands grants must be run by and for the public. Private schools should be allowed to charge whatever fees they want, but should not receive subsidized land.. It is the economy of scarcity caused by over-regulation that creates “capitation fees” (which the RTE makes illegal, fixing symptoms rather than the cause), just as the regulated industrial economy created black market “premiums” for simple things like scooters and phone lines.  The politicians, many of who have used their clout for land allotments to run private schools, have a vested interest in this education economy of scarcity. The RTE doesn’t fix it, it makes it worse.

If we truly cannot create a public delivery model, we would need to move a non-discriminatory voucher model, valid for any private school in the local area. To make it valid only for Hindu schools cannot be justified. Education regulation should focus on outcomes where children at certain age must show proficiency at an appropriate level in math and language skills in their mother tongue in any school or learning system that they are part of. The focus must shift from paraphernalia to learning outcomes as a primary measure. A school repeatedly failing in learning outcomes can be shut down rather than de-licensing it because it has too few rooms.  A good teacher can teach children sitting under a tree; and many rooms wont ensure the children have learnt anything.

The challenge for India is to prepare a workforce for modernity, at the same time preparing a modernity that works for India rather than being destructive to its strengths. The RTE fails on both these counts. By focusing on fences and buildings rather than learning outcomes it will leave a generation un-prepared. At the same time, it is completely disconnected from the realities of India, whether it be traditional vocational learning, jati-based knowledge systems or alternate school experiments. Finally, with the recent Supreme Court judgment applying the destructive provisions of this act only to Hindu schools, it is stuck in the politics of 1947 rather than preparing to move away from religion-based categories and discriminative laws. Continuing on this path is a recipe for disaster. The RTE act must be scrapped as a legislative priority.

This article was original published at

Communalism in Secular Constitution – Time for Reform

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India needs freedom from communalism of minority-majority politics.

It may be the law of unintended consequences or it may simply be the result of the climate of partition in which our Constitution was framed. Whatever the reason, the Indian Constitution has significant communal clauses that result in separatism and religious identity politics. Constitutional reform is necessary for these clauses to be fixed.

The first of these clauses is Article 30.

30. Right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions.—(1) All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.

(1A) In making any law providing for the compulsory acquisition of any property of an educational institution established and administered by a minority, referred to in clause (1), the State shall ensure that the amount fixed by or determined under such law for the acquisition of such property is such as would not restrict or abrogate the right guaranteed under that clause.

(2) The State shall not, in granting aid to educational institutions, discriminate against any educational institution on the ground that it is under the management of a minority, whether based on religion or language.

At the outset these clauses sound eminently reasonable, shouldn’t minority rights be protected? However the very idea of a “minority” communalises India in a way that it wasn’t before this. How is that?

Notions of majority and minority were extremely relevant in a Europe beset by religious warfare between Christian factions. Exclusive Christianity brooked no rivals. Since there was only one “true” way, other religions and even other “heresies” must come from the devil and needed to be eliminated. As a result, as soon as one religious group gained majority power, it would set out to eliminate the others. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church kept a stranglehold on Europe. After the internecine conflict between Protestants and Catholics, Europe started to discover the virtues of tolerance and the separation of Church and state. It is because of the inherent intolerance of Abrahmic monotheism that the concept of minority rights needed to be created.

Pluralistic India is a land of minorities. The Swaminarayana sect, without about 20 million adherents, is as much a minority as the Jains are. About 4 million Tamil Brahmins are a miniscule minority, as are the even smaller 200,000 Kashmiri Pandits. However, according to the Constitution, neither the 20 million Swaminarayanas nor the 4 millions Tamil Brahmins, nor even the 200,000 Kashmiri Pandits are minorities, while the nearly 200 millions Muslims are one monolithic “minority.” This communalises India along European lines.

Neither India’s Muslims nor the so-called Hindus are monolithic groupings. Indian Muslims followed a diversity of regional customs and laws, not one uniform “Muslim Personal Law.” In a land of minorities, Muslims as a whole can be called a super-minority. But even that is not correct. In calling out certain groups and treating them as monolithic and homogenous, the Constitution lays the basis for religious identity politics and polarisation.

When the Ramkrishna Mission was being hounded in Communist West Bengal, it filed a suit to be granted minority status arguing that it was not Hindu. In practically any other country, “status” accrues by being part of the mainstream. Ahmediyas in Pakistan or politically, Mormons in the US, would be quite happy to be considered part of the majority. However, India follows a unique system akin to apartheid, where being declared a minority creates a “status” and privileges that are not available to you if you are classified as part of the “majority.” While the Constitutional framers probably intended equal rights, these Constitutional provisions have been caricatures of equality, leading to communal polarisation, identity politics and the spectre of an “aggrieved majority.”

In fact, the majority identity itself is a creation of the Constitution. If you define certain groups as minority and give them specific rights, then one must also, by default, create the notion of a majority. This divides up India’s diverse, intermixed, syncretic traditions around communal lines. It is like using an 18th century European template on Indian society and starting to replicate the problems of 18th century Europe in India.

Strangely enough, even in Christian-dominated US, the US Constitution is able to safeguard individuals without any specific provisions for minority groups. Moreover, the Indian Constitution allows the state to fund religious institutions and “minority” schools which can blatantly discriminate on religious grounds, such as St Stephen’s does. The funding of a Muslim or a Mormon institute by the US Government, which could then discriminate in admissions, would be patently absurd and unconstitutional and would be thrown out immediately by the law courts. In India however, the Constitution specifically enables this religious apartheid where, if you call yourself a “Hindu”, the state can interfere completely in your educational institution but not if get yourself legally labelled a religious minority.

It has been rightly pointed out by many commentators that the despite the alleged “special privileges”, many Muslims remain mired in poverty. But that is only part of the issue. The Constitutional privileging of religious labels supports religious identity politics. This identity politics, in turn, creates special interest groups and leaders that thrive by these politics. None of this actually helps either those that are labelled as “minority” or “majority.” But it does help the Catholic Church and the Mullahs retain a hold on their community. Conversely, it fans anger in Hindu groups and creats an anti-Muslim and anti-Christian backlash. In the end, it does not help Indians or create sabka saath sabka vikas.

All political parties need to come together on the platform of equal rights for all. The Constitutional “provision” to privilege “minorities” over others should either be removed or a line added:

Notwithstanding Articles 29 or 30, any right given to any minority group shall equally be accorded to those that are classified as a majority, such as the freedom to run educational institutions without interference.

Better still, dropping all labels of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ and treating all citizens equally shall reduce the pull of religious identity politics and communalism in India.

This article was original published at

India as a dharma society and the rule of law

The way forward is not about going back to some hypothetical golden age or denying that we have real problems to solve today. But our problems appear unsolvable because we have failed to understand ourselves in our own language, on our own terms.

[The way forward is not about going back to some hypothetical golden age or denying that we have real problems to solve today. But our problems appear unsolvable because we have failed to understand ourselves in our own language, on our own terms.]

Some years ago I was out on a date with an American woman and she asked me why I came to the US. “For cultural anthropology of the natives,” I said. She started laughing but I was only half-joking. My reason to go to the US was to study American society. This was a country that dominated the world both economically and culturally in recent times. Much to learn there was, as Yoda would have said. It’s nice they gave me a scholarship.

So I loved and lived America. I participated in the American dream. Live-in relationship, shotgun Vegas wedding. Home in the suburbs with 2.5 children (apparently that’s the average) and American-style divorce. (Half of American marriages end in divorce) I volunteered for their folk festivals, skied, kayaked, became part of a conga-playing band, joined an esoteric Christian group, and ate steak. I was asked one time in my Christian group when I stopped being Hindu. I was surprised by the question. I told them I never did. I was there to learn.

One time, when working as a manager in a large software company, I was faced with an unconventional challenge. One of my employees, an engineer I will call Fred, stabbed another employee. Fred was a bright guy, a UC Berkeley grad, though quite introverted and shy. He had finally managed to get a girlfriend. He, his best friend John, and the girlfriend Sally would regularly hang out together. One day he went home a little early and found John and Sally in flagrante delicto. Fred lost it, at having been so betrayed, got a kitchen knife and stabbed John. Luckily it was a flesh wound, John was not hurt much, but Fred was in a pickle.

My manager Greg called me. I was told that Fred had to be fired because John had registered a complaint against him. Yes, of course, I thought. There is no law against sleeping with your best friend’s girlfriend and against causing the grievous hurt of betrayal. Fred could have killed himself and that would still not implicate John. But there is a law against Fred getting angry and stabbing John. I defended Fred but was overruled. Fred was fired.

What is legal and what is moral is different. In American society, the two are often conflated. There is a reason for this. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, (the Christian) God is the lawgiver. God gave the law to his people in His Book. Though this has been secularized, and the Book has been turned into the Constitution, this relationship with law still remains. Americans are law-abiding. They take the law very seriously. Law-breakers are criminal and evil.

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Fear of the Lord has now become fear of the law. Though this is not apparent in a superficial look, America is virtually a police state. It has the highest incarceration rate in the world. While the US is only 5 per cent of the world’s population it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Over 2 million Americans are in jail. Felons are dis-enfranchised even after their sentence is over. They can no longer vote, so lose the basic right of citizenship. The consequences of breaking the law are huge.

By contrast, India has the lowest rates of incarceration in the world (apart from few very small countries of population under 10 million). It also has one of the lowest numbers of police per capita. The police that is there is not very effective. It comes from a colonial setup that works on the behest of the powerful and treats ordinary citizens as lower life forms. India’s judicial system is also notoriously slow and inefficient. Cases drag on for years. Relatively speaking, it is a lawless land.

But, here lies the rub. Even with an incarceration rate that is nearly 20 times that of India, per capita police more than twice that of India, and an efficient judicial system, the US murder rate is higher than India’s. Homicides are usually not dramatically under-reported, as rapes or other crimes with social stigma, so are a good measure of crime. Why is it that India, with very little law enforcement, has a lower crime rate than the US with its formidable law enforcement system?

The short answer is that India is a society that does not work on the basis of law. We have no lawgiver in the sky. Indian society operates on dharma, on conscience. I am not making the case here, at least yet, that one is better than another. The American system is highly organized and well-run. It works well for many of its citizens. I am saying it is different from how India works.

How does the difference between orderliness due to fear of law and due to dharma show up in real life? Western society operates very well as long as the external organizing systems are in place. It is when that external system breaks down that the problems arise. Society goes into lawlessness. The book ‘Lord of the Flies’ tells the story of stranded English schoolboys who descend into barbarity, when removed from law. Man is a sinner. In the absence of the patriarchal Government (literally from the Father, in heaven), all bets are off. Civilization is a thin veneer.

To see this in practice, let us compare with Japan, another dharma-ordered society. When hurricane Katrina happened in New Orleans in US in 2005, the city quickly descended into chaos. Looting remained “rampant and out of control” even a year after the hurricane. By contrast, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, there was a marked absence of looting and society remained cooperative and orderly. This orderliness and mutual support was also seen in the response of village communities in India after the 2004 Tsunami.

Social theories from a Christian law-based society cannot easily be transposed to a dharma-based society. They yield nonsensical results. Unfortunately the bulk of social theory within India uses Western derived theories. Which is why Indian social problems appear permanently incorrigible and our social scientists ineffectual.

So how can we apply this understanding to societal problems like rape? Firstly, once we understand that Indian society is not law-based, promulgating more laws will generally not solve anything. Nor will increasing the number of policeman or blaming culture or patriarchy, another term we have recently copied from Western scholarship. The Pope, the same root as ‘father’ is the ultimate patriarch. Christianity is rooted in patriarchy, including the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (As erstwhile-Catholic Jeffrey Armstrong says humorously, they killed their mother so only the ghost is left). Eve, created as an appendage of Adam, is the cause of original sin. No wonder their feminists were up against the patriarchy.

This does not mean that men are not chauvinists in India or that women are not discriminated against in India. Even while we have celebrated Mother Divine we have treated women badly. There are historic reasons for this (Veena Oldenburg’s Dowry Murder is a great start to understand how the status of women in India decreased during British Times.) That historical study is useful in that it can help us craft better solutions to problems, not as an excuse for doing nothing. But when we DO something we must come up with and user our own models for understanding our society and how it works.

Some Western studies show, for instance, that pornography does not lead to increased sexual crimes. This may be true for a law-governed society where crime is largely managed by fear of law. However that may or may not hold for dharma society. We need to study it. In our own models sanskara and vichara are both very important. As we think, so we do. The development and training of good habits of the mind, sanskara, help in the cultivation of good conduct, vyavhara.

This is not about superficial ideas whether women should be ‘allowed’ to wear mini-skirts or Western clothes or not (allowed by whom?). They should be able to wear what they wish. We do not want to turn to burkha solutions. In fact, traditional Indian society was far freer with the human body and with sexuality. Heck, the sari with the waist showing is still more revealing than a T-shirt over jeans and, and many Indian men would happily attest, far more sexy. The Indian solution was neither to put women into burkhas or put ‘the fear of god’ into men but to culture the mind, to make it samskrit, so it could be disciplined. When the mind is disciplined, it does not need to put others into burkhas. That is the path to freedom, for ourselves, and for others. Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodah is the first line of the yoga sutras. Yoga is (self) control over the tendencies of the mind.

The highest forms of our civilisation were aimed at taking us to this higher mind. It was true of our dance, our music, our art, and our architecture. It was true of our food and our systems of medicine. It was true of our entertainment, of our kirtans, bhajans and epics. This had space for both artha, pursuit of material well-being and kama, the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure, sensuous and sexy, rich and poetic. It worked when done in accordance with dharma and never completely losing sight of the aim of moksha, or true freedom.

But when kama becomes a coarse and gross titillation; when it is manipulated in advertising towards the pursuit of artha, the mind is not moved towards the higher. We import a low-grade consumerism where sultry models sell cheap gadgets and expensive cars. We make it into some kind of ‘advanced’ high culture, while it is really the primitive culture of an unrefined mind. Porn is available at the click of a button but the cultivation of dharma has become an “unsecular” afterthought. At the same time we keep Victorian laws and are stuck to a Victorian morality that we call our traditions. We look up to a civilisation deeply conflicted about sin and sex and kept intact by the police force of law, without taking the time to study if it is an example worth emulating. Our media has turned into trash rags. Just pick up a recent issue of Times of India as an example. Here is a recent screenshot from Rediff, the top Indian news site.

India as a Dharma_1

“Sports” is about “Brazilian Prostitutes”, ironic when our Victorian morality makes prostitution illegal in India. And since when did it become sport? “Getting ahead” is about “Yummy Mummies”, sexualizing mothers. Then we have a photo of barely clad beach girl to “celebrate summer.”

The point is not the amount of flesh at display. Our temple dancers and sculptures had fewer coverings and greater voluptuousness. Remember, these figures were on and around our temples. The point is that we have lost the cultivation of the mind that made this openness possible in our culture.

These popular images—on billboards, in the media, in our item numbers, are no temple dance. They are simply the cheap thrills of a primitive mind. They do not help cultivate the mind but leave it agitated. Women are agitated with the unobtainable body image, all the better to sell artificial beauty aids to and men with the airbrushed unobtainable female. So instead of cultivating the mind, we have adopted cheap titillation of the mind with low quality impressions and think this is part of being “developed” and “advanced.”

Then we wonder why rapes are increasing. We are a society based on dharma, not law. Dharma rakshati rakshitaha. We repeat aped Western social science wisdom that rape has nothing to do with sex, but we have never scientifically verified this independently in an Indian setting. To top the hypocrisy, on the same few square inches of the Rediff website we have the pontification of the social scientist on how “women are being used to create ideas of Indian identity.” We do not see our contradictions.

The way forward is not about going back to some hypothetical golden age or denying that we have real problems to solve today. But our problems appear unsolvable because we have failed to understand ourselves in our own language, on our own terms. We can learn from the West. We can emulate aspects of their well-functioning systems of local government and law and marry it with dharma society to create a better world. Japan has dharma and well-functioning law, resulting in one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. But even to learn from others we must study them on our own terms. But how can we do that when our entire academic social disciplines exist on borrowed terms and borrowed theories?

We need to move forward using our own highest knowledge and combining it with the knowledge we choose to use from others. The first step of this research is in refining the chitta, our own mind, through the practices of sadhana and satsang. Without these our own tradition is incomprehensible to us, no matter how many texts we read. My own personal journey combined this sadhana with a study of the West since the shiny appearance of the success of Western civilisation had left us blinded. I travelled far and am learning every day. The more I travel the closer I find myself to home.

(Sankrant can be followed on twitter @sankrant)

This article is slightly edited from original published at

Dead Peoples Tell No Tales

Locating Doniger in the discourse of power

“I set out to grasp the mechanisms of the effective exercise of power; and I do this because those who are inserted in these relations of power, who are implicated therein, may, through their actions, their resistance, and their rebellion, escape them, transform them—in short, no longer submit to them.” Michel Foucault

Apparently Hindus are hurt at Doniger’s book and at American academia. They want the American academy to be fair and balanced in its portrayal of Hinduism. This is a naive aspiration. Once we understand the dynamics of power, we may even conclude it to be undesirable. We locate American academic writing about Hinduism as part of the dynamics of power and knowledge—when does the mass of opinion emanating from the Western academy shift to praising something and when is it disparaged? Without understanding the power relations that create the stage for Doniger penning this op-ed in the New York Times[1], when scholarly criticism of her work is all but absent from academia and mainstream American (and Westernized Indian) media, is to labor under the illusion of Hinduism and South Asian studies in American being a place for “fair play” rather than as an extension of the institutions of imperial power.

To see this we examine the case of another set of “Indians”, the Native Americans. For many centuries, when the lands of the Natives were being conquered and their destruction was part of Manifest Destiny, the overwhelming thrust in the depiction of Native Americans in Western media and academia was decidedly negative.

From the first images and descriptions available to Europeans in the early sixteenth century, the Natives were depicted as “savages.” The best of these created the image of the “noble savage.” One of the early works in “establishing the early conception of the Indian was an oft-reprinted tract of Amerigo Vespucci.”  In Vespucci’s Mundus Novus, Indians are graphically depicted as without religion (and therefore without morals) lecherous cannibals. These images became popular in European literature as in the Dutch pamphlet “And they ete also on[e] another[.] The man eteth his wife[,] his chylderene…”[2]

These quotes are “Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the present,” by Robert Berkhofer. The book shall itself became an artifact in our study.

Before we return to Doniger and the Hindus, we have to understand that both the “left” and the “right” of American scholarship created their separate demonization of the Natives. The “left” branch of Western academia moved on to ”Scientific” Racism in nineteenth century social sciences in its depiction of Native Americans, created theories of the “Idea of Progress and the State of Savagery in the History of Mankind” and extended the theories of Evolution to classifying “Primitive Peoples” in nineteenth century anthropology.

From the “right” the picture was obvious. God had given “true religion” to His people and everyone else was in the clutch of Satan. This imagery is still alive, though in a hidden form in Doniger’s narrative.

To understand the Indian context of this, we have to remember that the left and right are aligned in this demonization; just the vocabulary is slightly different. One flavor may cite the influence of Satan and the other the “natural inferiority” of the race. As those expressions become politically incorrect, alternatives terminology such as “third world” or “developing countries” and “restoring human rights” are now preferred. We will dig into these in a future work. The image creation serves a similar objective of primitive, backward savages.

Without diving too deeply in the modern image creation of the “savage Hindu”, the pertinent question for this thesis is—when does Western scholarship about Native Americans start to change? Western scholarship towards the Natives starts to shift once they are seeing as a dying race and the threat perception from them has decreased. The first shift is romanticizing the erstwhile “demon” as the “noble savage.”

“To pity truly the poor dying Indian, American authors and artists had to transform him from a bloodthirsty demon into a Noble Savage. That transformation occurred late in the United States compared to Europe. Except for a few examples among eighteenth-century accounts, the Noble Savage in the United States is really a nineteenth-century fashion. Just as it has been said that the Europeans could easily ennoble the Indian because of their remoteness from savage warfare, so commentators have argued that American authors and artists of the Eastern United States only conceived of the Indian as noble after that section of the country had eliminated its Indian problem. Even so, the number of truly Noble Savages in book or painting was relatively few and relegated to the far away or the long gone.”[3]

Spotty instances of the “noble savage” start to appear because even though the savage was dying, he still had the ability to put up a fight. The end of the nineteenth century see the death of “Sitting Bull” and the massacre at Wounded Knee where over three hundred Natives, including women and children were killed after they had surrendered their weapons. Wounded Knee was the last armed resistance by Native Americans against extermination. Soldiers responsible for the massacre were given the highest US Army award, the Medal of Honor; twenty were given out for this battle alone.

The dead Indian can be a good Indian

Western scholarship towards Native Americans starts to shift once they have, for all practical purposes, been exterminated and no longer pose a threat. Still as late as the 1960’s, official reports were being written about the “Indian problem.”  When it is clear that the “Indian problem” is largely solved through a combination of extermination and disenfranchisement, “liberal” scholarship can now resurrect the nostalgia.

“If Whites regarded the Indian as a threat to life and morals when alive, they regarded him with nostalgia upon his demise— or when that threat was safely past…”[4]

Of course, this book written by Berkhofer in the 1970s’s, despite its good intentions cannot emerge till the late twentieth century. I call it “oops we were mistaken” scholarship. The Western civilizational impetus would simply not allow it to become mainstream before its time.

The interesting point is when does “oops we were mistaken” scholarship emerge. It emerges when the civilizational genocide of Native Americans is complete. Christianized, confined to reservation and dis-armed the Native American poses no threat. There is no danger in extolling his civilization. In fact, praising him helps in reinforcing the self-image of the contemporary enlightened non-prejudiced liberal academic, no longer consigning the other as Satanic. Except for the next civilization that is not yet quite dead.

Why is the Hindu considered a threat?

What has all this to do with Doniger and Hinduism and “South Asian” scholarship in the academy? Well, as is apparent from Doniger’s book, the Hindu is not dead yet and is still perceived as a threat.

For Judeo-Christian monotheism, deeply buried in the Western psyche in both its religious and secular versions, Hinduism is the “other.” From the first injunction of the god of Moses “thou shalt have no other gods before me,” Hinduism with its myriad incomprehensible gods serve as the polytheistic other, the strange, the savage, the backward to support the self-image of the progressive, Judeo-Christian, enlightened West.

As Jan Assman states in “The Price of Monotheism,”

“Polytheism is a concept suitable only for describing monotheism as a counterreligion that polemically distances itself from other religions.” [5]

Hinduism is the “other” for Western Civilization in both its Judeo-Christian and secular variants.

Invoking Satan has gone of out fashion so the liberal academy has transcribed it to a new motif. Let us hear Doniger speak in her New York Times essay:

“My case has helped highlight the extent to which Hindu fundamentalists (Hindutva-vadis, those who champion “Hindutva,” or “Hindu-ness”) now dominate the political discourse in India.

Two objections to the book cited in the lawsuit reveal something about the Hindutva mentality. First, the suit objects “that the aforesaid book is written with Christian Missionary Zeal.” This caused great hilarity among my friends and family, since I grew up in a Jewish family in Great Neck, N.Y.

But when I foolishly decided to set the matter straight — “Hey,” I wrote to an accuser, “I’m Jewish” — I was hit with a barrage of poisonous anti-Semitism. One correspondent wrote: “Hi. I recently came across your book on hindus. Where you try to humiliate us. I don’t know much about jews. Based on your work, I jews are evil. So Hitler was probably correct in killing all jews in Germany. Bye.”

This narrative is both carefully and craftily done for the New York Times reader. Doniger, as she has done for years, avoided all mention of scholarly criticism from the Hindu community that have found her narratives, shoddy, prejudiced and ridden with flaws. [6] Since it is no longer politically correct to depict the savage by how he decorates the body or by using references to Satan, the contemporary motif of pure evil, Hitler, is invoked instead. Hitler is Satan secularized. Citing an anonymous conversation, she shadow boxes with her straw man Jew-hating Hindu, never mind that Hindus are one of the few peoples that have no record of persecuting Jews.

This is of course, standard fare in the American academy (and its Westward looking Indian counterpart). The interested reader can simply do a search for academic articles and books with “Hindutva” in the title to see how consistently Satanic it is. I attended a talk given by Paul Brass at the University of Washington some years ago, which I thought was a pretty one-sided understanding of religious conflict in India. I went up to him and asked him what he thought of Ashutosh Varshney’s work that I thought was a bit more even-handed in tracing parties in India beyond “Hindutva” that also played a part in fanning religious conflict. Brass’ voice dropped to a whisper—“didn’t you hear he (Varshney) is a BJP man.”  It helped me see the civilizational impulse that produced the inquisition and, much closer to home in America, McCarthyism. I almost found myself mumbling, “I am not, and never have been, a member of the Bharatiya Janta Party.”

Returning to Doniger, she knows exactly how to hit all the right notes. She also brings out the “good Hindu” and the bad Hindu motif.

“I have long been inured to the vilification of my books by a narrow band of narrow-minded Hindus.”

Ah yes, the narrow-minded Hindu. And who is the narrow-minded Hindu? Anyone who criticizes her scholarship, of course or who objects to her fantastic depictions of Hinduism is narrow-minded, not unlike any Native American resisting extermination, who was obviously “violent.” Here she invokes the imagery of the “savage other” vilifying her books rather than referencing the many scholarly criticisms of her work by practicing Hindus, including the compilation in the book “Invading the Sacred.” This is hardly new. Doniger has repeatedly refused to engage with scholarly critiques of her work coming from the Hindu community, preferring to shadow box with her caricatures of the savage other.

I had first encountered Doniger’s work when I read the article on Hinduism that my children would read in Microsoft’s Encarta. That time I did not know who Doniger was. But apparently she was the authority on Hinduism. What I read had practically no resemblance to the Hinduism I grew up with. It could only subject my children, growing up in the US, to further racial prejudice and unfounded stereotypes. This is what Doniger thought that US children reading Encarta should know about Hinduism.

“Shiva embodies the apparently contradictory aspects of a god of ascetics and a god of the phallus. He is the deity of renouncers, particularly of the many Shaiva sects that imitate him: Kapalikas, who carry skulls to reenact the myth in which Shiva beheaded his father, the incestuous Brahma, and was condemned to carry the skull until he found release in Benares; Pashupatas, worshipers of Shiva Pashupati, “Lord of Beasts”; and Aghoris, “to whom nothing is horrible,” yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their complete indifference to pleasure or pain. Shiva is also the deity whose phallus (linga) is the central shrine of all Shaiva temples and the personal shrine of all Shaiva householders; his priapism is said to have resulted in his castration and the subsequent worship of his severed member.

As Durga, the Unapproachable, she kills the buffalo demon Mahisha in a great battle; as Kali, the Black, she dances in a mad frenzy on the corpses of those she has slain and eaten, adorned with the still-dripping skulls and severed hands of her victims. The Goddess is also worshiped by the Shaktas, devotees of Shakti, the female power. This sect arose in the medieval period along with the Tantrists, whose esoteric ceremonies involved a black mass in which such forbidden substances as meat, fish, and wine were eaten and forbidden sexual acts were performed ritually.”[7]

This in an essay that had no references to puja, yoga or satsang, practices that are more commonplace practices of Hindus. The imagery of this account writing for children, while well aware of her audience, can be well be compared to the fantastic descriptions of the Native peoples as cannibals and sexual threats to White purity while preparing the grounds for slaughter. My criticism of Doniger’s piece at that time had resulted in Microsoft Encarta removing that article in subsequent editions. [8]

Of course, anyone pointing out that American children may benefit from a more contemporary and commonplace understanding of their Hindu neighbours must be a “narrow-minded” bad Hindu. And who is the good Hindu? Doniger continues:

“The dormant liberal conscience of India was awakened by the stunning blow to freedom of speech that had been dealt by my publisher in giving in to the demands of the claimants“

Here Doniger comes in as the White savior, her work resulting no less than in “waking the dormant liberal conscience of India.”

Doniger could have mentioned in her op-ed that the colonial era law, section 295A, which she mischaracterizes as a “blasphemy law”, which allows books to be banned for injuring religious sentiments came about because of Muslim protests, and has, more often than not used to ban books objectionable to Muslims including Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.  Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen’s work “Lajja” that documents the genocide of Hindus in Bangladesh was banned by the Communist (Left) government of West Bengal since it was objectionable to Muslims and the writer herself was hounded out. That many of the books banned in independent India were banned by the Congress Party either due to sensitivities of non-Hindus or of its own political sensitivities. That, if the equivalent of Doniger’s book on Hindus had been written about other religious communities in India, there would major agitations in the streets, such as the violent protests about an American film about Mohammad some years ago.  None of this would, of course, have helped Doniger make her point about “savage right-wing Hindus.” A violent action from Hindus regarding her book would have delighted Doniger and made her job easier for the “Hindu as savage” portrayal, but unfortunately the Hindus did not oblige.

As it turns out, her book was not even banned, and she had to make up for a bad situation. The book was withdrawn by the publisher due to a peaceful, legal, civil action by a mild-mannered Hindu school teacher. Nonetheless, what she lacks in facts she makes up in imagination, much like her other scholarly writing.

“I think the ugliness of the word “pulp” is what struck a nerve, conjuring up memories of “Fahrenheit 451” and Germany in the 1930s. The outrage had been pent up for many years, as other books, films, paintings and sculptures were forced out of circulation by a mounting wave of censorship.

My case was simply the last straw, in part because of its timing, just when many in India had begun to view with horror the likelihood that the elections in May will put into power Narendra Modi, a member of the ultra-right wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.”

To make the case for her Western liberal audience—she again, invokes Satan, in the figure of Hitler, that has been carefully grafted onto the popular Indian leader Modi and her self-important hubris makes the withdrawal of her book the “last straw” in a chain of Satanic acts. Of course Satan as Modi had absolutely nothing to do with her book or its withdrawal, but evidence was never really the strong suit of witch-hunts. A post on a white supremacist bulletin board from 2010 provides more evidence of Doniger being a soldier in that army than her anonymous citation of a Jew-hating Hindu in the New York Times op-ed. The following bulletin board thread is a query from a white nationalist on how to show “Asians” in a bad light.[9]

Posted by jorrdannn 

I go to a school which is heavily diverse and liberal, (dont worry im leaving for texas in 4 months). I expressed my beliefs particularly on asians and recieved many ‘dont hate’ speeches and was called a joke. How do I get my point across standing alone? 

Response by greatviking

Use references by Professors who have written about Asians. Not sure which group of Asian you are talking about (Middle Eastern, Indian, Far Eastern), but Prof. Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago has written a lot about Indians and Hindus that annoy them. She is a true White Nationalist soldier which is why Microsoft Encarta targeted her and once removed her article from their encyclopedia.

Check her out though —

I should also add that she is one of the WNs who is from the left (there is another thread which deals with the subject of whether one can be a White Nationalist and a Communist). Her method is primarily to point out the negative influence that Hindus have had on the world in general, but this does not mean that she does not highlight White pride. She does that too in her books when she gets the chance.

If you were talking of Middle Eastern Asians, you should be able to use he works of any number of scholars. If it is the far-eastern Asians you speak about, then it is a little more difficult to find scholarly stuff on them.

Using authoritative works by Professors always convinces most students. That is what you should do.

Still, that bulletin board post does not past scholarly muster as evidence and we can hardly hold Doniger guilty because of it. Nonetheless it is still more credible than Doniger’s New York Times anonymously quoted correspondence with the Hitler-esque Hindu that she uses to embellish her image of savagery, much like the embellishments in her academic work.

There is clearer evidence that Doniger’s vilification of Hinduism is not accidental; it has a long history and is quite deliberate.  In the op-ed she comes as the great White hope to rescue Hinduism, no doubt much like the Native American traditions were “rescued” by settlers over the ages:

“That’s the Hinduism that Hindutva-vadis are defending, while they deny the one that the Christian missionaries hated and that I love and write about — the pluralistic, open-ended, endlessly imaginative, often satirical Hinduism. The Hindutva-vadis are the ones who are attacking Hinduism; I am defending it against them.”

Doniger lies. If that lie is not evident from her deliberate Encarta article, it is even more evident from the introduction in “The Laws of Manu,” her translation of the Manusmriti. In that introduction her antagonist is Nietzsche, who she takes on for his favorable view of Hinduism. She contends that Nietzsche is using his reading of Manusmriti “as a stick to beat Christianity with.” [10] She then provides a long explanation with quotes to prove Nietzsche wrong, including a Manusmriti quote on how Hindus despise the human body. It is a funny introduction to a book by an author who claims to be in love with Hinduism, though it would be quite apt for a White nationalist soldier defending Western civilization from Nietzsche’s attack.

Then there are the “good Hindus” as opposed to the savages. Though she doesn’t go as far as to use that term, the good-Hindu bad-Hiindu dichotomy is clear. There is a long history in Western colonization of the “Uncle Tom’s”—the “good natives” that turned collaborators to conquest since they had mentally acquiesced to slavery.  Here the Doniger draws on the “more liberal” for her good Hindu.

“Their voices had drowned out those of the broader, more liberal parts of Indian society.”

Hindu society is liberal society. Book banning is a monotheistic sport—there is a long history of Christian book burning and banning. However, here Doniger counts as liberal Indians, those who do not challenge her scholarship. The good Hindus are the dead Hindus. Who is a dead Hindu? A dead Hindu is one who does not challenge, one who cannot speak for the Hindu tradition because of lack of grounding in it, or has been “secularized” into ignorance of it or will not speak because of the avuncular Uncle Tom myth of sameness [11]. Anyone who does speak up, who is alive, will be quickly conflated with “right-wing Hindutva”, a worshipped of Hitler, demonstrably Satanic.  In the Judeo-Christian myth the “other” is the worshipper of false gods, in the clutch of Satan. Doniger’s defense is a simple transposition. If this were not the case, Doniger should readily be able to supply us with a list of Hindus critical of her work that she does not club with Satan.

In effect, Doniger invokes a picture of the savage other to deflect criticism to what she writes. A whole lot of Indian scholars, sepoys in South Asian departments in the US academy and “secular” Indians, willingly fire on her behalf.  The only good Hindu is a dead Hindu. The Indian sepoy army comes very handy in this respect to certify the legitimacy of the white gaze as it did to perpetuate its hold in its Indian Empire.

In the end I do not blame the American academy for being agents of US imperialism, whether in “left liberal” or “Christian right” incarnations, but I do blame Indians for falling for the idea that the knowledge projection of the academy is not part and parcel of Western hegemony. The image of the liberal scholar is a necessary asset for American academia. And the Satanic Hitler motif of savage right-wing Hindutva Hindus is effectively used to muzzle any criticism.

We can end with another quote from “The White Man’s Indian.”

“Although many White liberals may think that the nation has entered a new era of cultural pluralism and tolerance of ethnic differences, most native leaders are far from sure that such professions of idealism are anything more than the passing fancy of a few alienated Whites who talk one way while their many fellow Whites think and act quite another way. ”[2]

The Western liberal scholar (and his Indian sepoy) is part of the empire and legitimizes it. This does not take away from the fact that there are plenty of decent, sincere, well-meaning Western and Indian scholars in the academy that are not Donigers. It is a question instead to the civilizational thrust and the balance of the work emanating from the Western academy and its historical context and relationship to power, rather than of individuals.

When the Western academic enterprise starts writing “fairly” about Hinduism is when the only Hindus left would be dead Hindus, fossilized artifacts in a museum.  Hinduism would be dead. All Hindus would be converted, killed or secularized in the Western model and a few specimens preserved as curious for tourism. Then they can be good Hindus since the power project would be accomplished and any perceived civilizational challenge eliminated.

p.s. Don’t expect this article to be in the New York Times any time soon. Look for Pankaj Mishra there.

P.p.s. For what it is worth, I do not support the banning of Doniger’s or most other books.  The colonial era law under which this book was banned should be rescinded and freedom of speech respected for this and other banned books without bias.

This article was originally published on Manushi.


  1. Doniger, Wendy, Banned in Bangalore, New York Times op-ed, March 6, 2014.
  1. Berkhofer, Robert F. (2011-08-03). The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (Vintage) Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  1. Ibid
  1. Ibid
  1. Jan Assmann. The Price of Monotheism, Kindle Edition.
  1. Ramaswamy, K et al, Invading the Sacred, Rupa Publications, 2007.
  1. Doniger, Microsoft Encarta, 2002.
  1. Sanu Sankrant, “Are Hinduism Studies Prejudiced, from “Invading the Sacred”, Rupa Publications, 2007.
  1. Doniger, Wendy. The Laws of Manu, Penguin Books, 1991.
  1. Malhotra Rajiv, Being Different, HarperCollins India, 2011.

Image: The ”peaceful” Pilgrims massacred the Pequots and destroyed their fort near Stonington, Connecticut, in 1637. A 19th-century wood engraving (above) depicts the slaughter. (The Granger Collection, NYC)



Encarta replaced its article on Hinduism after my critique of it was published. This is the replacement article from Encarta 2008 (now out of print) that was written by Prof. Arvind Sharma and edited by me. -Sankrant.



A – The Dharmic Tradition
B – Sanātana Dharma
C – A Comprehensive and Universal Tradition
A – Brahman: The Ultimate Reality
B – Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva: Aspects of Brahman
C – Brahmānda: The Universe
D – Ātman: The Innermost Self
E – Samsāra: The Chain of Lives
F – Karma: Action and Its Consequences
G – Purushārthas: Goals of Human Life
H – Jīva: The Individual
I – Yogas: Paths to Brahman
J – Varna: Social Organization
K – Āshrama: Stages of Life
A – Categories of Ritual
B – Household Worship

C – Communal Worship

A – The Vedas
B – Shruti and Smriti: Eternal Truth and Tradition
C – The Epics

D – Tantric Literature
E – Literature in Regional Languages
A – Vedic Hinduism
B – Classical Hinduism
C – Medieval Hinduism
D – Modern Hinduism



Hinduism, a religious tradition of Indian origin, comprising the beliefs and practices of Hindus. The word Hindu is derived from the river Sindhu, or Indus. Hindu was primarily a geographical term that referred to India or to a region of India (near the Sindhu) as long ago as the 6th century BC. The word Hinduism is an English word of more recent origin. Hinduism entered the English language in the early 19th century to describe the beliefs and practices of those residents of India who had not converted to Islam or Christianity and did not practice Judaism or Zoroastrianism.

In the case of most religions, beliefs and practices come first, and those who subscribe to them are acknowledged as followers. In the case of the Hindu tradition, however, the acknowledgment of Hindus came first, and their beliefs and practices constitute the contents of the religion. Hindus themselves prefer to use the Sanskrit term sanātana dharma for their religious tradition. Sanātana dharma is often translated into English as “eternal tradition” or “eternal religion” but the translation of dharma as “tradition” or “religion” gives an extremely limited, even mistaken, sense of the word. Dharma has many meanings in Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hindu scripture, including “moral order,” “duty,” and “right action.”

The Hindu tradition encourages Hindus to seek spiritual and moral truth wherever it might be found, while acknowledging that no creed can contain such truth in its fullness and that each individual must realize this truth through his or her own systematic effort. Our experience, our reason, and our dialogue with others—especially with enlightened individuals—provide various means of testing our understanding of spiritual and moral truth. And Hindu scripture, based on the insights of Hindu sages and seers, serves primarily as a guidebook. But ultimately truth comes to us through direct consciousness of the divine or the ultimate reality. In other religions this ultimate reality is known as God. Hindus refer to it by many names, but the most common name is Brahman.

In many religions truth is delivered or revealed from a divine source and enters the world through a single agent: for example, Abraham in Judaism, Jesus in Christianity, and Muhammad in Islam. These truths are then recorded in scriptures that serve as a source of knowledge of divine wisdom: the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. In the Hindu tradition, by contrast, there is no single revelation or orthodoxy (established doctrine) by which people may achieve knowledge of the divine or lead a life backed by religious law. The Hindu tradition acknowledges that there are many paths by which people may seek and experience religious understanding and direction. It also claims that every individual has the potential to achieve enlightenment.

The Hindu community today is found primarily in India and neighboring Nepal, and in Bali in the Indonesian archipelago. Substantial Hindu communities are present in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Mauritius, Fiji, the West Indies, East Africa, and South Africa. Scattered Hindu communities are found in most parts of the Western world. Hindus today number nearly 900 million, including about 20 million who live outside India, making them the third largest religious community in the world, after Christians and Muslims.

Since ancient times, Hindu thought has transcended geographical boundaries and influenced religious and philosophical ideas throughout the world. Persian, ancient Greek, and ancient Roman thought may well have been influenced by Hinduism. Three other religions that originated in India are closely related to Hinduism: Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer read both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and based much of his thinking on them. In the United States, 19th-century writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau drew on Hinduism and its scriptures in developing their philosophy of transcendentalism. More recently, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., studied the teachings of Hindu leader Mohandas Gandhi on nonviolent protest. In the sphere of popular culture, rock musician George Harrison embraced Hinduism during the 1960s, and some members of the United States counterculture explored Hinduism and Buddhism, as did the Beat poets (Beat Generation). Millions of Westerners today practice meditation or yoga to achieve relief from stress or physical fitness, indicating Western receptiveness to Hindu practices.


An encyclopedia article should have a definition at the outset, but this requirement presents unique difficulties in the case of Hinduism. This difficulty arises from Hinduism’s universal worldview and its willingness to accept and celebrate diverse philosophies, deities, symbols, and practices. A religion that emphasizes similarities and shared characteristics rather than differences has a difficult time setting itself apart—unless this very quality is considered its defining feature.

This is not to say that there are no beliefs and practices that may be identified as Hindu, but rather that the Hindu tradition has concerned itself largely with the human situation rather than
the Hindu situation. Instead of basing its identity on separating Hindu from non-Hindu or believer from nonbeliever, Hinduism has sought to recognize principles and practices that would lead any
individual to become a better human being and understand and live in harmony with dharma.

The distinction of dharma from the Western sense of religion is crucial to understanding Hindu religious identity. To the extent that Hinduism carries with it the Western meaning of being a religion the words distort Indian reality. In the West a religion is understood to be conclusive—that is, it is the one and only true religion. Second, a religion is generally exclusionary—that is, those who do not follow it are excluded from salvation. Finally, a religion is separative—that is, to belong to it, one must not belong to another. Dharma, however, does not necessarily imply any of these. Having made this point, this article will bow to convention and use the expression Hinduism.

A – The Dharmic Tradition

Dharma is an all-important concept for Hindus. In addition to tradition and moral order, it also signifies the path of knowledge and correct action. Because of Hinduism’s emphasis on living in accordance with dharma, anyone who is striving for spiritual knowledge and seeking the right course of ethical action is, in the broadest sense, a follower of sanātana dharma.

Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism share with Hinduism the concept of dharma along with other key concepts, and the four religions may be said to belong to the dharmic tradition. At one level Hinduism can refer to the beliefs or practices of followers of any of the dharmic traditions. The word Hinduism retains this sense in some usages in the Indian Constitution of 1950. In the field of religious studies, however, Hinduism is used in a narrower sense to distinguish it from the other religions of Indian origin.

A Hindu is thus identified by a dual exclusion. A Hindu is someone who does not subscribe to a religion of non-Indian origin, and who does not claim to belong exclusively to another religion of Indian origin—Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism. This effort at definition produces a rather artificial distinction between Hinduism and other dharmic traditions, which stems from an attempt to limit a system that sees itself as universal to an identity that is strictly religious. In many ways, labeling the other dharmic traditions as non-Hindu has a basis that derives more from politics than from philosophy. Indeed, greater differences of belief and practices lie within the broad family labeled as Hinduism than distinguish Hinduism from other dharmic systems.

Indian historian Irfan Habib makes this point when he quotes an early Persian source that Hindus are those who have been debating with each other within a common framework for centuries. If they recognize another as somebody whom they can either support or oppose intelligibly, then both are Hindus. Despite the fact that Jains reject many Hindu beliefs, Jains and Hindus can still debate and thus Jains are Hindus. But such discourse does not take place between Hindus and Muslims because they do not share any basic terms.

B – Sanātana Dharma

Evidence from inscriptions indicates that Hindus had begun to use the word dharma for their religion by the 7th century. After other religions of Indian origin also began to use this term, Hindus then adopted the expression sanātana dharma to distinguish their dharma from others. The word sanātana, meaning immemorial as well as eternal, emphasized the unbroken continuity of the Hindu tradition in contrast to the other dharmas. The Buddhist, Jaina, and Sikh dharmas possess distinct starting points, whereas Hinduism has no historical founder.

The Hindu tradition might be said to begin in the 4th century BC when the growth and separation of Buddhism and Jainism provided it with a distinctive sense of identity as sanātana dharma. Some scholars prefer to date its beginnings to about 1500 BC, the period when its earliest sacred texts originated, although recent evidence suggests these texts may be even older. Certain beliefs and practices that can clearly be identified as Hindu—such as the worship of sacred trees and the mother goddess—go back to a culture known as Harappan, which flourished around 3000 BC. Other Hindu practices are even older. For example, belief in the religious significance of the new and full moon can be traced to the distant proto-Australoid period, before 3000 BC. It is with good reason that Hinduism perceives itself as sanātana dharma or a cumulative tradition. Its origins are shrouded in the mist of antiquity, and it has continued without a break.

C – A Comprehensive and Universal Tradition


The Hindu tradition aims at comprehensiveness so far as religious beliefs and practices are concerned. First, it wishes to make the riches of Hinduism available to the Hindu and to any genuine seeker of truth and knowledge. But it does not limit Hindus to their tradition. Instead, it encourages them to explore all avenues that would lead to a realization of the divine, and it provides a system with many paths for such realization.

Second, in the manner of science, Hinduism is constantly experimenting with and assimilating new ideas. Also like science, it is far less concerned with the origin or history of ideas than with their truth as demonstrated through direct experience. Hinduism’s openness to new ideas, teachers, and practices, and its desire for universality rather than exclusivity, set it apart from religions that distinguish their followers by their belief in particular historical events, people, or revelations.

Two events in the life of Mohandas Gandhi exemplify aspects of the Hindu tradition. First, Gandhi entitled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1929). In doing so, he was practicing the Hindu willingness to experiment continually as a means of discovering truth and to record the results of such experiments. Although Gandhi was seeking spiritual truth, he approached it in the spirit of science. Second, when asked, “What is your religion?” in 1936, Gandhi answered, “My religion is Hinduism, which for me is the Religion of humanity and includes the best of all religions known to me.” Saintly figures such as Gandhi have periodically renewed Hinduism throughout its history and kept it abreast of the times. Because Hinduism has no central orthodoxy, and no belief in the need for one, renewal of its tradition has invariably come from sages in every age who base their knowledge on experience of the divine.


Because defining Hinduism is so difficult and because we have called it the sum of the belief and practices of Hindus, it is best to approach Hinduism through its teachings.

Within Hinduism there are various schools of thought, which Hindu scholars have systematized in different ways. All of these schools have enriched Hinduism with their individual emphases: Nyāya on rigorous logic, Vaiseshika on atoms and the structure of matter, Sānkhya on numbers and categories, Yoga on meditation techniques, Mīmāmsā on the analysis of sacred texts, and Vedānta on the nature and experience of spirituality. Their teachings are usually summarized in texts called sūtras or aphorisms. These sūtras can be memorized easily and recited as a means of gaining spiritual focus.

A – Brahman: The Ultimate Reality


Various schools have contributed to Hindu thought, each school with a different emphasis. The school known as Vedānta has been the standard form of intellectual Hinduism. According to Vedānta, the highest aim of existence is the realization of the identity or union of the individual’s innermost self (ātman) with the ultimate reality. Although Vedānta states that this ultimate reality is beyond name, the word Brahman is used to refer to it.

Whether this ultimate reality is itself ultimately without distinguishing attributes (nirguna) or with personal attributes (saguna) has been a subject of extensive debate among Hindu scholars. To be ultimate Brahman must transcend (exist above and beyond) all limiting attributes, such as name, gender, form, and features. But how can the human mind, with its limitations, conceive of this transcendent reality? Human comprehension requires a more personal reality, with attributes.

Saguna Brahman is also called Ishvara, a name best translated as “Lord.” A quotation attributed to 8th-century Hindu scholar Shankara illustrates the subtlety of these ideas: “Ishvara, forgive these three sins of mine: that although you are everywhere I have gone on a pilgrimage, although you are beyond the mind I have tried to think of you; and although you are ineffable [indescribable] I offer this hymn in praise of you.”

B – Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva: Aspects of Brahman



Saguna Brahman—that is, Brahman with attributes—generally takes the form of one of three main Hindu deities: Brahmā, Vishnu, or Shiva. These personified forms of Brahman correspond to three stages in the cycle of the universe. Brahmā corresponds to the creative spirit from which the universe arises. Vishnu corresponds to the force of order that sustains the universe. Shiva corresponds to the force that brings a cycle to an end—destruction acting as a prelude to transformation, leaving pure consciousness from which the universe is reborn after destruction. Other forms of Ishvara widely worshiped by Hindus are Shakti, the female aspect of divinity, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity associated with the removal of obstacles. Brahman also may choose to take birth in a knowable form, or avatar (incarnation), to uphold dharma and restore balance to the world. Krishna, a well-known avatar of Vishnu, appears at times to save the world. Rāma, another well-known avatar of Vishnu, is the subject of the Hindu epic Rāmāyana (Way of Rāma). Whether nirguna or saguna, Brahman represents the ultimate reality (sat), ultimate consciousness (sit), and ultimate bliss (ānanda).

Vishnu has ten major avatars, which are described in Hindu texts called the Purānas. These incarnations and their Hindu names are: fish (matsya), tortoise (kūrma), boar (varāha), man lion (narasimha), dwarf (vāmana), axe-wielding human (Parashurāma), ideal person (Rāma of the Rāmāyana), all-attractive perfect person (Krishna), the enlightened (Buddha), and a future incarnation (Kalkī). The majority of Hindus choose a personal deity, a saguna form of Brahman with whom they can feel a direct personal connection. Devotion to this deity can take a number of forms, including prayer, ceremonial worship, chanting of the deity’s name, and pilgrimage to sites sacred to the deity.

C – Brahmānda: The Universe


The relationship of the universe, which Hindus call brahmānda, to the ultimate reality poses a deep philosophical problem: Whereas Brahman represents a permanent reality, the universe is constantly changing. The universe is also eternal, but it is eternally changing, whereas Brahman is eternal in another sense in that it is beyond change. According to Vedānta, Brahman alone is real. Such reality as the universe possesses is derived from Brahman, just as the light of the Moon really belongs to the Sun.

All of creation arises from Brahman, according to Hindu teaching. Brahman is both the efficient cause of the universe (creator) as well as the material cause (substance of which the universe is created). For this reason, all of creation is divine and deserving of our respect.

Time in the Hindu universe moves in endlessly recurring cycles, much like the motion of a wheel. The duration of the various phases of the universe’s existence are calculated in units of mindboggling astronomical duration organized around such terms as yugas, mahāyugas, manvantaras, and kalpas.

D – Ātman: The Innermost Self


We as individuals are also a part of this changing universe. Our bodies are constantly undergoing change, while our minds, formed of thoughts and feelings, are also in a state of flux. According to Vedānta, however, our self consists of more than mind and body. At its core lies the unchanging ātman, our innermost, transcendental self, as opposed to the material self (our body, thoughts, and feelings) that is part of the universe. The ātman is our true self. But we lose sight of it because of our passionate involvement with our material self and its search for happiness in this universe. The universe can never provide perfect and permanent happiness, however, because it, like our material self, is in a state of constant flux. We attain true happiness only through an awareness of our ātman and the discovery of its true relationship with Brahman. By achieving awareness of our ātman and its unity with Brahman, we attain not only happiness, but also moksha, or liberation. But liberation from what? At one level, the liberation is from unhappiness, but the answer provided by Vedānta Hinduism goes deeper: Moksha is liberation from a chain of lives.

E – Samsāra: The Chain of Lives


We normally think of ourselves as coming into being when we are born of our parents and as perishing when we die. According to Hinduism, however, this current life is merely one link in a chain of lives that extends far into the past and projects far into the future. The point of origin of this chain cannot be determined. The process of our involvement in the universe—the chain of births and deaths—is called samsāra.

Samsāra is caused by a lack of knowledge of our true self and our resultant desire for fulfillment outside ourselves. We continue to embody ourselves, or be reborn, in this infinite and eternal universe as a result of these unfulfilled desires. The chain of births lets us resume the pursuit. The law that governs samsāra is called karma. Each birth and death we undergo is determined by the balance sheet of our karma—that is, in accordance with the actions performed and the dispositions acquired in the past.

F – Karma: Action and Its Consequences


Karma is a crucial Hindu concept. According to the doctrine of karma, our present condition in life is the consequence of the actions of our previous lives. The choices we have made in the past directly affect our condition in this life, and the choices we make today and thereafter will have consequences for our future lives in samsāra. An understanding of this interconnection, according to Hindu teachings, can lead an individual toward right choices, deeds, thoughts, and desires, without the need for an external set of commandments.

The principle of karma provides the basic framework for Hindu ethics. The word karma is sometimes translated into English as “destiny,” but karma does not imply the absence of free will or freedom of action that destiny does. Under the doctrine of karma, the ability to make choices remains with the individual.

We are subject to the “law” of karma just as our physical movements on earth are subject to the law of gravitation. But just as the law of gravitation does not take away our freedom to move about, the doctrine of karma does not leave us unfree to act. It merely describes the moral law under which we function, just as the law of gravitation is a physical law governing our being.

When we cause pain or injury, we add to the karmic debt we carry into our future lives. When we give to others in a genuine way, we lighten our karmic load. In the Bhagavad-Gītā, an important Hindu text, Krishna states that the best way to be free of debt is by selfless action, or by dedicating every action as an offering to Krishna himself. In addition, human beings can purify themselves of karmic debt through different yogas (disciplines), kriyās (purification processes), and bhakti (devotions).

G – Purushārthas: Goals of Human Life


Hinduism takes a comprehensive view of our human condition and has classified all the things we seek in the world and beyond into four broad categories: kāma, artha, dharma, and moksha. Kāma includes the pleasure of the senses, both aesthetic (refined artistic) pleasures and sensual and sexual pleasure. Artha includes the pursuit of material well-being, wealth, and power. Dharma includes our striving for righteousness and virtue. Moksha describes our desire for liberation from the chain of lives.

The first three goals pertain to the world we know, whereas moksha involves freedom from the world and from desires for kāma, artha, and dharma. Attaining moksha is an extraordinary goal, which only some people specifically seek. In preparing for it, the prior pursuit of dharma can be a great help. Dharma, in the sense of duty or desire to do right, occupies a central role in regulating artha and kāma and promoting moksha. On account of dharma’s centrality, the goals of human life are often listed in the following order: dharma, artha, kāma and moksha.

Hinduism accepts all four purushārthas as valid goals of human endeavor. It does not look down upon kāma or artha, as indicated by the Kāmasūtra, a work on sexuality from about the 4th century AD, and by the Arthashāstra. The latter text by Kautilya, a minister to a king of the 4th century BC, discusses how a king should wield political and economic power.

However, the ultimate aim of human life is moksha, liberation from sorrow and desire and realization of the union with the Ultimate Reality. In our future lives we may not always enter the world in human form. Thus, Hindus consider that birth as a human being is a unique and valuable opportunity for seeking moksha, an opportunity that should not be wasted. To guide us along the way, the system of Vedānta and the yogas provide a good road map for the journey.

H – Jīva: The Individual


Our personality has a strong influence on the goal we seek. According to one Hindu scheme a human being consists of not one but three bodies. There is the gross physical body; a subtle body of thought and feelings; and an even subtler body, known as the causal body, where our primal ignorance of our true nature is located, along with the knowledge of that ignorance. The physical body disintegrates after our death; only the subtle and causal bodies travel from one life to the next.

Another Hindu system envisions the human being as consisting of five layers or sheaths, called koshas, that cover up the true self or ātman. Beginning with the outermost, these layers are constituted by food or the physical body (annamaya), energy (prānamaya), mind (manomaya), consciousness (vijñānamaya), and bliss (ānandamaya). Identification with one or more of these koshas—for example, imagining, “I am my physical body”—limits people and prevents knowledge of their true nature.

Other Hindu concepts of personality employ other schemes. One popular concept visualizes a person’s dormant energy residing at the bottom of the spine like a coiled serpent (kundalinī). Upon awakening, it confers liberation when it reaches the head after piercing nodal points, called chakras, along the spine. Hinduism offers spiritual and physical exercises for awakening and liberating all these aspects of the personality.

I – Yogas: Paths to Brahman


Yogi in Kerala

How do we proceed if we wish to rise toward Brahman? Hindu thought takes the personality of the seeker as the starting point. It divides human personalities into types dominated by physicality, activity, emotionality, or intellectuality. The composition of our personality intuitively predisposes us to a type of yoga—that is, a path we might follow to achieve union with Brahman. Although many people associate the word yoga with a physical discipline, in its original Hindu meaning yoga refers to any technique that unites the seeker with the ultimate reality.

While physical fitness buffs may seek such a union by practicing hatha yoga, people with different personality traits have other choices. For the action-oriented person there is karma yoga, the yoga of action, which calls for a life of selfless deeds and actions appropriate to the person’s station in life. For the person of feeling, bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, calls for unconditional love for a personal divinity. For the person of thought, jñāna yoga, the yoga of knowledge, calls for spiritual and physical discipline intended to bring direct insight into ultimate reality. The yogas do not represent tightly sealed compartments, merely convenient classifications. A well-balanced personality might well employ all four. These yogas are sometimes called mārgas (paths), suggesting that the same destination can be approached by more than one route, and indeed by more than one mode of travel.

J – Varna: Social Organization


The individual stands in relationship not only to Brahman but also to the society in which he or she lives. Two Hindu concepts—varna and āshrama—address this social dimension of human existence. Every society distinguishes among occupations on the basis of power, wealth, education, or other factors. Hindu thought has long recognized four major occupational groupings. In the first group
are priests, teachers, scholars, and others who represent knowledge and spirituality. People in this group are called brāhmanas, or brahmans. Those in the second group, called ksatriyas, are represented by kings, warriors, government bureaucrats, and others who represent power. Those in the third group, called vaishyas, are represented by farmers, traders, merchants, and other skilled workers. Those in the fourth group, called shūdras, are represented by unskilled workers. A group sometimes known as untouchables has at times constituted a subcategory within the shūdra class, sometimes referred to as a fifth group.

Hindu thinkers visualized these groups as constituting the four limbs of society conceived as a body. This hierarchical system, with brahmans as the first category and shūdras as the last, is known as the varna system. The system also indicates the different roles and responsibilities of each group within society and the relationship of the groups within a harmonious whole. The varna system was never intended as a permanent assignment of hereditary roles, and it once possessed considerable flexibility even though people tended to inherit the family profession, as in many other traditional societies.

The process of establishing the varna system was completed by the 4th century BC. By that time Hindu social organization accommodated thousands of subgroups called jātis, which were based upon marriage and other associations as well as on occupational specialization in crafts. Hindu law books from the 4th century BC onward bear witness to the blending of the varna and jāti systems.

In this process each jāti became loosely linked with a varna. Yet the standing of jātis altered with changes in wealth, education, and political power. Over time, especially during the long period of Islamic rule, the groupings hardened into what became known as the caste system. The British census in the late 19th century helped formalize this system by mapping each jāti to a specific

K – Āshrama: Stages of Life


Much as the varna system provides the organizing principle of Hindu society, the āshrama system provides the organizing principle of an individual’s life. According to the āshrama system, human life is divided into four stages, each succeeding the other. Āshrama provides a road map for the journey through these stages and provides a clear sense of purpose for each stage, including old age. Hindus consider the last stage of life highly meaningful. Āshrama also addresses the four goals that constitute a fulfilling life: dharma, artha, kāma, and moksha.

The first stage is the life of a celibate student, a time when an individual acquires the values of dharma—that is, preparation and training for leading a proper life. It is followed by that of the
householder, during which the individual seeks artha and kāma by marrying, working, and raising a family as an active member of society. During this second stage, Hindu householders are expected to carry out their responsibilities in accordance with dharma and free themselves of debts owed to the gods, the sages, and their ancestors.

After the years of enjoyment and responsibility, the third stage of life begins. Around age 50, when the children are grown, the individual gradually begins to give up acquisitions and worldly ties and to take up spiritual contemplation in preparation for the next stage. The fourth and final stage involves renunciation of the world to seek liberation in sublime isolation. Renunciation allows the individual to be free of external responsibilities and to concentrate on an inner search. The life of the sannyāsi (renunciant) focuses on achieving realization of the innermost self (ātman) and union with the divine (moksha).

The āshrama system recognizes the division between active participation in life (pravrtti) and ascetic withdrawal from life (nivrtti). Although this division has applied to all Hindus, regardless of gender or caste, men of the three higher varnas (brahmans, ksatriyas, and vaishyas) have been more likely to enact it through the āshrama system. Some Hindus choose to devote their entire lives to the quest for moksha. They become renunciants and are free from the obligations of varna and āshrama. Such people are called sannyāsis. A sannyāsi who joins a monastic order takes the title swami.

In addition to the duties belonging to each stage of life, Hinduism also emphasizes duties belonging to all human beings, especially cultivation of truth and nonviolence. Many Hindus choose not to eat meat because of their cultivation of nonviolence.



Hindus consider all of creation worthy of worship, and thus religious activity in Hinduism takes many forms. Rituals may be performed by the individual, the family, the village, the community or region; at home or in a temple; and frequently or infrequently. The prevalence and persistence of Hindu ritual may well provide the stabilizing factor in a tradition that is so flexible in doctrine. Ritual might even be considered the glue that holds Hindus and Hinduism together.

Many rites and observances that Hindus practice daily have come down from ancient times. Others grew up around the lives and teachings of Hindu saints and sages. While details of rituals may differ from region to region and jāti to jāti, their meaning and central practices have remained consistent over vast distances of time and space.

Virtually all rituals in Hinduism possess multiple meanings, including symbolic interpretations. Even the way Hindus regularly greet each other may be regarded as symbolically bowing to the
divine. The Hindu greeting involves pressing the palms of the hands together, which symbolizes the meeting of two people; placing the hands over the heart where Brahman dwells, indicating that one meets the self in the other; bowing the head in recognition of this meeting; and saying namaste, a Sanskrit word that means “I bow to you” and signifies “I bow to the divine in you.”

Bindi, the red dot that many Hindu women wear on the forehead, is an auspicious mark and symbol of good fortune. Once worn only by married women, bindi can be seen today on girls and women of all ages. Its location, over a chakra (energy point), is intended to help focus concentration during meditation.

A – Categories of Ritual


The school of Hindu philosophy called Mimamsa, which is specially concerned with ritual, divides all religious activities in Hinduism into three types: (1) actions that are performed daily, called nitya; (2) actions performed on specific occasions, called naimittika; and (3) actions performed voluntarily according to personal desire, called kāmya.

Hindus fulfill all three religious activities—nitya, naimittika, and kāmya—through three types of ritual. These rituals are yajña, (involving a sacrificial fire); pūjā (devotional offerings, usually flowers); and dhyāna (meditation). Yajñas are performed on major occasions, such as marriage and housewarming, when sacred substances are offered into the sacrificial fire. Pūjā may be performed publicly or privately. Public pūjā, usually performed in a temple, consists of anointing a statue of a deity and offering flowers, incense, and carefully prepared food to the deity. Chanting and devotional singing follow, accompanied by the waving of a small, camphor-burning lamp that illuminates the image of the deity. Most ceremonies have clearly marked opportunities for dhyāna, or meditation.

B – Household Worship


Hindu religious activities also can be divided into those that take place at home and those that take place in public. Many rituals are performed at home, either by individual family members or by the head of the household. Some of these household rituals involve a deity or a sacred fire; other rituals commemorate important passages in life.

B1 – Pūjā: Devotion


Many Hindus worship daily the deity they have personally chosen. This personal deity is known as the ishta-devatā. Household pūjā usually consists of worshiping the ishta-devatā with prayer and offerings of food, accompanied by chanting and the waving of a lamp or light. The offering of food acknowledges that all food has a divine source. After the offering, the food is ready to be shared by the worshipers. Household pūjā generally takes place in front of an image or statue of the ishta-devatā, which may be set up as a domestic shrine. Hindus who are more deeply involved in ritual may also tend a domestic fire.

Pūjā possesses a markedly personal character and is more often performed privately by individuals and families than publicly at temples. The private nature of pūjā may arise from the extremely personal relationship that Hinduism nurtures with the divinity, as parent, friend, or other supportive person. It also could have evolved from Hindu historical experience under foreign occupation, during which expression of Hindu identity in public was frowned upon and even dangerous.

B2 – Samskāras: Sacraments to Mark Passages


Sacraments called samskāras punctuate the life cycle of the individual and have greater religious significance than pūjā. A standard list cites 16 samskāras, but in other sources samskāras range in number from a maximum of about 40 to a minimum of 2, marriage and death. The number varies with varna and gender.

The samskāras cluster in the early phases of life, including the prenatal phase. Four samskāras occur between birth and the beginning of studies at about age five. At birth a simple ceremony welcomes and blesses the newborn. The naming of the child, a significant event, occurs shortly after birth. Then come the taking of the first solid food and the first ritual shaving of the head. When the child is ready to study the Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures), the major samskāra of upanayana occurs. In the course of it, the child receives a sacred thread and chants a mantra whispered into the child’s ear: “Let us meditate on the glorious splendor of enlivening Sun-god. May he inspire our minds.” In early times, a Hindu boy traditionally moved to the home of a guru (teacher) to study the Vedas after the upanayana samskāra. After completing study of the Vedas, the student shaved the hair and was ready for marriage.

A Hindu wedding consists of ceremonies performed over several days, culminating in the joining of the bride and groom. As part of the marriage samskāra, a knot is tied to join the bride’s and the groom’s garments, after which they walk around a sacred fire seven times. The sacred fire servesas a witness to the vows exchanged between the bride and the bridegroom. They then take seven steps together, symbolizing friendship and emphasizing the idea of companionship in marriage. To strengthen the union, the bride and groom place their right hands on each other’s heart; the groom then recites a prayer from the Vedas, “I give you my heart. May our minds be as one.” At the end of this ritual the pair become man and wife. Additional rites before and after the main Hindu marriage ritual vary from region to region.

The sacrament of death calls for cremation (burning of the dead body), at the end of which the ashes are collected and deposited, usually by the side of or in a river. For ten days after cremation, family members offer rice balls to the person who has departed. This offering provides a good example of the persistence of ritual in Hindu tradition: The rice symbolizes growth and is meant to provide the person with a body in which to dwell in the world of the ancestors. The alternative, while waiting for the next birth, is the less pleasant prospect of wandering in the world of ghosts. These actions are required only of the Hindu householder and do not apply to the renunciate.

B3 – Other Domestic Rituals


Some Hindu rituals are performed to obtain a specific reward, according to instructions in the Vedas. Such rewards include securing a suitable life partner, conceiving a child, or attaining wealth, as well as warding off negative outcomes.

C – Communal Worship


Household religious activities involve the family or an individual member of the family. Other Hindu religious activities involve a larger community. A cluster of families may have a shrine where they worship periodically. Beyond the family and the cluster of families lies the village. At the village level, worship of the favored deity of the village dominates. From the village level, worship moves to public rituals, which may be performed at temples and other sacred sites or at sacred times.

C1 – Temple Worship


Rituals performed at temples, like household rituals, may be described as those that take place daily, nitya; those performed on specific occasions, naimitikka; and those performed voluntarily, kāmya. Hindu temples are dedicated to a deity or several deities who are believed to preside over the temple. Hindus visit temples to worship the temple deity or to worship another deity of their choosing by means of these three types of rituals. As at household shrines, they worship sculptures or painted images of the presiding deity and make offerings. Basic rituals performed daily at most Hindu temples include rousing the deity from sleep at dawn, making the deity available for worship and offerings by visitors at midday, and putting the deity to bed at dusk. At some temples, the additional rituals of bathing and feeding the deity take place between dawn and midday. These rituals express the personal nature of Hindu love of and devotion to their deities.

Naimittika at temples is an occasion for carrying about the image of the temple deity. For example, a festival at the temple of Jagannātha in the town of Puri celebrates the god Jagannātha’s annual visit to his birthplace, the temple site, in his chariot. More than 4,000 celebrants pull the god’s wooden chariot, which stands about 14 m (45 ft) high. The English word juggernaut comes from Jagannātha. Public processions and festivals at the temples of Rāma and Krishna mark the birthdays of these avatars of Vishnu.

Kāmya pūjā is typically performed at temples to gain a specific end. A visitor to a temple might request the performance of pūjā, or daily prayers, at the temple and make a donation for that purpose.

C2 – Sacred Sites


Hindus consider the entire Earth, as well as the Indian land mass known as mother India (Bhārata Mātā), to be sacred. This view once found expression in such practices as visiting the four corners
of India as represented by the pilgrimage sites of Badrinath to the north, Puri to the east, Rameshvaram to the south, and Dwarka to the west. Hindus make pilgrimages to sacred sites in the hope of cleansing themselves of sins and lessening their karmic debt. Certain parts of India are held in special veneration. For example, Hindu tradition regards seven cities as holy: Ayodhyā (the birthplace of Rāma); Mathurā (where Krishna grew up); Haridwār (where the Ganges River widens onto a plain); Kāsī (sacred to Shiva); Kāñcī (associated with the Hindu philosopher Shankara); Avanti or Ujjain (site of the temple of Mahākāla); and Puri (associated with the later life of Krishna).

Other sacred Hindu locations involve rivers and events in Hindu epics. Particular regions also have their own sacred locations. Certain sites in India are sacred because of their association with the Great Goddess, Devi, who takes many forms. In the form of Devi Satī, according to legend, her dismembered body parts fell on 51 locations that became sacred to worshipers of Shakti (the female aspect of the divine). The Jvālā Mukhī Temple near Jullundur, for example, is said to represent her tongue. Worshipers visit the Kāmākshya Temple in Assam to partake of her cosmic energy.

C3 – Sacred Times


Religious festivals dot the Hindu calendar. A number of them commemorate events in the great Sanskrit epic Rāmāyana (Way of Rāma) or in the life of Krishna. The timing of these festivals is related to the movements of the Sun and the Moon.

An important festival known as the Dassera marks the victory of Prince Rāma over the demon king Rāvana in a struggle between good and evil that is related in the Rāmāyana. Dassera takes place in September or October and is followed by Diwāli (also known as Deepvali), the festival of lights. Diwāli commemorates events that restored truth and light in early times: the victorious return of
Rāma with his bride Sītā to Ayodhyā in the north and the victory of Krishna over the monster Narakāsura in the south.

The festival of Holi celebrates the arrival of spring in February or March. During this festival people spray each other with colored powders and colored water, forget the cares of winter, and rejoice in the onset of spring. A popular family festival, Raksābandhana, occurs in July or August and renews the bonds of affection between brothers and sisters. Sisters tie lucky threads around the wrists of brothers and are rewarded with gifts. Other important festivals are Shiva-ratri, the night sacred to Shiva when worshipers recite prayers to be freed of sins, and Ganesha-Chaturthi, dedicated to the elephant god Ganesha, when worshipers recite prayers to remove obstacles in their lives. Shivaratri falls in the winter months, and Ganesha-Cahturthi in August or September. Among the major regional festivals are the Dolāyātrā, a spring festival in the eastern state of Orissa; Pongal, a winter festival in southern India; and Onam, a harvest festival in the southwestern state of Kerala.

C4 – Satsanga: Fellowship

A popular form of participation in religious life is the satsanga, which literally means keeping company with sat (truth and goodness). The satsanga may consist of Hindus who gather for discussions of Hindu scripture or of a circle of devotees who have formed around a saintly figure. A saint (“sant” in Sanskrit) in Hinduism in someone who has realized the truth and attained recognition from the community for doing so. Other forms of worship that occur at satsangas are chanting or singing, especially devotional songs called bhajans. On religious occasions the chanting the om sound is considered particularly holy.

C5 – Om: Sacred Symbol and Sacred Sound


The sacred syllable om or aum functions at many levels. Hindus chant it as a means of meditating on the ultimate reality and connecting with the innermost self (ātman) and Brahman. At one level, om possesses a vibrational aspect apart from its conceptual significance. If pronounced correctly, its vibrations resonate through the body and penetrate the ātman. At another level, the three sounds that constitute the syllable—a, u, and m—have been associated with the states of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, states to which all life can be reduced. Thus, by repeating the syllable the chanter passes through all three states. Other associations of the three sounds are with the three states of the cosmos—manifestation, maintenance, and dissolution—and with the three aspects of Ishvara who preside over these cosmic states: Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva. Om thus functions at a practical level as a mantra and at a cosmic level as signifying the trinity.

C6 – Guru: Teacher


Spiritual authority in Hinduism flows from enlightened sages called gurus. The guru is someone who has attained realization and acts as a guide for other human beings. He or she guides the individual seeker of truth and self-realization to the appropriate deity, practice, or yoga within Hinduism. The disciple’s goal is to transcend the need for a guru through direct experience of the divine and self-awareness. Having a guide is considered critical for traversing the complexities of spiritual practice and self-discovery. The guru thus constitutes an important center of spiritual activity in Hinduism. Numerous Hindu hymns express adoration for the guru.



Although Hindu tradition maintains that the ultimate reality lies beyond all scriptures, it is equally convinced that the scriptures help people orient their minds and lives towards Brahman. This attitude has given rise to a body of sacred literature so vast that by one calculation it would take 70 lifetimes of devoted study to read all of it.

A – The Vedas


The four Vedas constitute the most important body of sacred Hindu literature, at least in theory. Other sacred literature, especially the Hindu epics, may be more popular with readers, but the Vedas, written in the ancient Sanskrit language, are the oldest and most respected scriptures. They are separately titled the Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sāma-Veda, and Atharva-Veda, and collectively referred to as the Veda.

Each of the Vedas can be divided into four types of texts, which are roughly chronological in order: mantra or samhitā, brāhmana, āranyaka, and upanishad. The mantra or samhitā portion largely
consists of hymns addressed to the various deities. The brāhmana texts gather the authoritative utterances of brahmans (those with knowledge of Brahman, the ultimate reality) and describe the
rituals, chiefly sacrificial offerings, in which the hymns are employed. The third section consists of āranyakas, or forest texts, presumably composed by sages who sought seclusion in the forests. The last section consists of the Upanishads, philosophical texts that have an air of mystery and secrecy about them.

Scholars have suggested that the four types of texts represent four different stages in the spiritual evolution of the Aryans, the peoples of the Vedas. During the earliest stage in their religious life, the Aryans may have recited simple hymns of praise for the divinities they felt dwelt around them. In the next stage ritual evolved out of the early worship and became increasingly elaborate, until people were driven to ask what it was all about. Sages then retired to the forests to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice and the person who makes the sacrifice. This reflection opened the floodgates of philosophical speculation found in the Upanishads.

Hindus traditionally have viewed the four types of texts as dating from the same period but serving different purposes. The first three texts deal with the realm of action and are concerned with dharma, artha, and kāma, whereas the last text concerns knowledge of the self and moksha. In this view, following dharma while experiencing the ups and downs of life produces a devout and mature mind that is then able to fully grasp what the Upanishads have to say.

The Upanishads are also called Vedānta (meaning “end of the Vedas”) because they represent the final essence of the Vedas. The Vedānta marks the culmination as well as the conclusion of the Vedas, although the Vedic canon was never formally closed.

B – Shruti and Smriti: Eternal Truth and Tradition


Hindu scriptures can be classified into two types: shruti and smriti. Shruti, meaning “heard,” may be thought of as revelation or eternal truth, whereas smriti, meaning “remembered,” is comparable to tradition. By distinguishing that which is eternally true from that which holds true for a specific time and culture, the categories of shruti and smriti enable Hindus to reform outdated practices while remaining faithful to Hinduism’s essence. Where there is a conflict between the two, shruti takes precedence over smriti. The Vedas constitute shruti, whereas there are many different smriti texts.

The Vedas correspond, among the Hindus, to the Bible among Christians and the Qur’an among Muslims. However, unlike the revealed texts of Christianity and Islam, whose source is considered to be God speaking through the son or the prophet, the Vedas have no author. According to Vedānta, shruti is revelation without a revealer. Because in Hinduism the universe is without beginning or end, the Vedas appear along with creation at the beginning of each cycle of time. Then Brahmā, who presides over the remanifestation of the universe, recites the Vedas and sages hear them anew. These divinely heard scriptures are then transmitted orally from master to disciple.

The Vedas as also called shruti because they are divinely “heard” by the sages at the beginning of a cycle; and also because they are transmitted orally from master to disciple thus once again justifying the meaning of shruti as audition.

The word smriti is applied to a vast category of literature in Hinduism. Unlike shruti, Sanskrit scripture without an author, smriti is considered to have an author and may even be written in one of the regional languages of India.

One category of smriti consists of more than 20 law books that lay down in detail the rules to follow in life, especially the rules that pertain to varna (social order) and āshrama (stages of life). Another category includes texts called Purānas, which deal with the lives of the gods and celestial beings. There are 18 Purānas, and they can be classified according to which of the three gods of the Hindu trinity they focus on—Brahmā, Vishnu, or Shiva. The most famous of these is the Bhāgavata Purāna, which deals with the life of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, in the pastoral surroundings of Vrndāvana. A third category of smriti consists of two texts of legendary history: the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata. These are the two well-known epics of Hinduism. Scholars believe the Rāmāyana assumed its present form between 300 BC and AD 200, while the Mahābhārata evolved over a period extending from about 400 BC to about AD 400.

C – The Epics

C1 – Rāmāyana

The Rāmāyana of Vālmīki consists of about 24,000 verses and describes the life of Prince Rāma, an incarnation of Vishnu. The author, Vālmīki, according to later tradition, belonged to the shūdra varna and made his living by robbing travelers. After an encounter with the sage Narada, Vālmīki turned his life around and became a poet and scholar. Classical Hinduism recognizes him as a brahman and as India’s first poet. Rāma and his wife Sītā embody virtue and righteousness, and their lives demonstrate dharma in various spheres of activity. Their life stories contain lessons for Hindus on ideal behavior in various roles, such as son, brother, wife, king, and married couple. Rāma’s reign ushers in a golden age, and the expression Rāma-rajya (rule of Rāma) describes the best of times in which the divine presence rules on Earth.

C2 – Mahābhārata


The Mahābhārata, an epic story of 100,000 verses, is attributed to a sage named Vyāsa and considered to be the longest poem in the world. It traces the descendants of two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pāndavas, whose disputes eventually lead to the Mahābhārata war. Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, is central to the story. Like the Rāmāyana, the Mahābhārata addresses many questions related to dharma and the actions of individuals and society. These discourses have provided inspiration for Hindus in many areas of life.

C3 – Bhagavad-Gītā


One part of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad-Gītā, functions virtually as a text on its own in Hinduism. On the eve of the Mahābhārata war, the hero Arjuna suddenly develops a disinclination to fight. Arjuna’s decision leads to a prolonged dialogue with Krishna during which Krishna tries to resolve Arjuna’s moral and metaphysical dilemmas in 700 verses. The way in which Krishna seeks to guide Arjuna has endeared the text to the Hindus as a guide to their faith.

In the Bhagavad-Gītā Hinduism comes closest to possessing a universal scripture. Since the Gupta period (AD 320 to 550; see Gupta Dynasty) it has inspired a stream of commentaries, summaries, and translations, all of which attest to its wide popularity. The process shows no signs of letting up. The Bhagavad-Gītā’s doctrine of svadharma (understanding one’s own role and responsibility) implies a cosmic mirroring of the essential nature of reality (Brahman) in the reality of the individual’s essential nature (ātman). This implication has proved spiritually intriguing for practitioner, believer, and scholar alike.

The Mahābhārata and the Bhagavad-Gītā carry meaning on multiple levels. In one interpretation, the Pāndavas and Kauravas represent the forces of good and evil that exist within each person, and the contest between them represents the perpetual battle between these tendencies. The Bhagavad-Gītā describes the techniques and paths by which the individual can attain realization of the Ultimate Reality with Krishna as the guide. As part of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad-Gītā technically falls in the category of smriti rather than shruti. However, it virtual enjoys the status of shruti by representing the words of the divinity, incarnated as Krishna and addressed to human beings through Arjuna.

D – Tantric Literature

Tantra represents another vast body of Hindu literature. After centuries of neglect, it has gradually begun to receive fuller recognition. The word tantra has two meanings. In one sense it refers to sacred literature which appeared from the 5th century onward and focused not only on Vishnu and Shiva, but also on the cults of earlier deities: Ganapati (another name for the elephant-headed god, Ganesha), Kumāra (a son of Brahmā), Sūrya (sun) and Shakti (the goddess). The second sense restricts tantra to texts that deal with the worship of Shakti.

After the Gupta age ended in the 6th century the Tantric tradition heavily influenced Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. If elite or intellectual Hinduism is Vedic in nature, then mainstream
Hinduism is Tantric in orientation. Some accounts consider both traditions equally revelatory. Tantric literature largely eliminates caste distinctions in terms of religious practices. It also holds women in high regard. It thus provides a useful corrective to the negative stereotypes of Hinduism as patriarchal (male-controlled). Although smriti literature can be described as male oriented, Tantric literature is female oriented.

Consider these statements from Tantric literature. The Gautamīya Tantra clearly states that tantra is open to women and members of all castes. The Mahānirvāna Tantra requires a man to fast for a day for talking rudely to a woman. The Kubjikāmata Tantra states that all houses of women should be worshipped as holy shrines. In the Shakta model of Hinduism, which focuses worship on the Great Goddess, all women are regarded as gurus and may initiate others by reading out the mantra from an authoritative text. Men have no authority to do so. In addition, the Devi (goddess) is worshiped in her own right, rather than in relation to a male god.

Hindu gods are regularly displayed with their female counterparts. When they are invoked together, the female partner is named first, as in Sītā-Rma and Rādhā-Krishna. In the case of Shiva and Shakti the relationship gets so close that they are represented as inhabiting a single body in the Ardhanrīshvara (Lord-who-is-half-female) form. Tantra at times involves the balancing of these two aspects—Shiva (representing consciousness) and Shakti (representing energy)—in a manner reminiscent of yin and yang in Daoism.

E – Literature in Regional Languages

Most Hindus first encounter Hinduism through their regional languages, despite the special significance of Sanskrit. Almost every regional language in India has produced its own version of the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, sharing in the religious admiration given to the original versions. Deservedly famous translations of the Rāmāyana include one in the Tamil language by the 9th-century Hindu scholar Kamban and one in Hindi and by the 16th-century poet and saint Tulsīdās. A wave of literature in Tamil appeared in the 7th to 9th centuries as the result of a surge of devotion of Vishnu and Shiva. Most of the influential works of modern Hinduism were originally composed in English. Masters who have realized Brahman continually renew the Hindu tradition and express themselves in a language appropriate to their time and place.

The utilization of these various bodies of literature provides insight into how Hinduism tries to sanctify what it touches. Thus the title of Veda came to be conferred on any worthwhile body of knowledge, including writings on architecture, on music, and even on military science. Highly esteemed sacred texts that came after the Vedas have come to be described as the fifth Veda.



Hinduism does not attach the same religious significance to historical events that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do. Some have compared Hinduism’s indifference to the history of a religious idea or practice to a scientist’s indifference to the history of science. What is of value to both is the idea or practice as such.

The history of Hinduism thus becomes a history of its quest to incorporate the various developments it has encountered or generated, rather than a history of conquest of or triumph over these historical developments. The contrast is apparent in the Biblical injunction to believe in one God who is the only God and the Vedic perception that “Truth is one, sages call it variously.”

Considerable controversy remains over Hinduism’s historical origins. At one time scholars believed that the arrival of the Aryan people in India about 1500 BC represented a critical moment in the history of Hinduism. The Aryans replaced the earlier Harappan culture in the Indus valley, and they are the people described in the Vedas, the earliest sacred literature of Hinduism. Although linguistic evidence tends to support the notion of an Aryan migration, most scholars now believe this view awaits confirmation by archaeology, especially because it has been challenged by the discovery of extensive sites in northwestern and western India. So far there is no clear-cut answer to the key question: Did Hinduism as described in the Vedas originate in India or did it arise as a result of migrations from outside? What is clear is that the Hinduism of the Vedas goes back at least to 1200 BC in India and perhaps much earlier.

A – Vedic Hinduism


The beginnings of Vedic Hinduism, no later than 1200 BC, trace back to the Rig-Veda, which contains hymns of praise to various deities called devas. Agni (deva of fire) and Indra (king of devas and deva of the atmosphere, storms, rain, and battle) were prominent, judging by the number of hymns addressed to them. Fire was the deity of the domestic hearth as well as of public ritual. The Rig-Veda calls the deity “smoke-bannered” as it carries the offering made into it toward the gods. Indra was a martial leader in the Rig-Veda who carried his followers to victory in battle and also battled drought as a rain-god. An entire book of the Rig-Veda is devoted to soma, a plant whose juice produced ecstatic experiences. It is already clear in the Rig-Veda that all these devas were aspects of one underlying reality.

By the 4th century BC Vedic Hinduism had appeared in virtually all of India and had assimilated and absorbed various local religious beliefs and practices. The resulting mixture is what we refer to
comprehensively as Vedic Hinduism.

B – Classical Hinduism


The period from the 3rd century BC to the late 7th century AD is known as classical Hinduism. Even as Vedic Hinduism flourished throughout India, various aspects of its world-view had come under
challenge by the 6th century BC. This challenge came from Upanishadic thinkers and from the rise of new sects including the Jains and the Buddhists. The Upanishadic thinkers considered themselves in the line of descent from Vedic seers, while the followers of Buddhism and Jainism tended to question Vedic authority, although they retained many concepts from the Vedas. All were concerned about release from eternal rebirth and generally agreed that release was obtained
not by sacrifice but by meditation and contemplation.

Buddhism and Jainism gradually gained strength in India during the centuries just before and just after the beginning of the first millennium. Buddhism benefited in the 3rd century BC from the patronage extended to it by King Ashoka, who ruled almost all of India. Jainism similarly benefited from royal patrons. By the start of the Gupta period, which lasted from about AD 320 to 550, Hinduism resurged, having integrated a variety of Buddhist and Jain beliefs and practices. These included the doctrine of ahimsā (nonviolence) and an emphasis on vegetarianism. The Gupta period is celebrated as a glorious epoch of classical Hindu culture.

During this classical Gupta period, Hindu thought and its systematization flourished. By then many shāstras (classical works) of Hindu philosophy had been compiled. These shāstras include the Arthashāstra (principles of statecraft), Nayashāstra (aesthetics of performing arts), poetry and dramatic works by writers such as Kālidāsa and Bhavabhūti, grammars by Pānini and Patañjali, works on human sexuality such as the Kāmasūtra, and the medical compendia of Charak and Susruta. In addition, the major epics—the Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata—received their present form. Also during this period, rules were developed for representations of the deities and for building structures to house these statues and images.

C – Medieval Hinduism


As a vigorous and multifaceted Hinduism unfolded in India during the 7th century, a new religion made its appearance in Arabia: Islam. Within a century, Islam’s dominions extended from Spain to Sind (now part of Pakistan). By the 10th and 11th centuries the followers of Islam consolidated their hold on northwestern India. By 1200 Islamic rule was established in the city of Delhi in northern India, and it then spread in two waves over nearly the whole of India. The first wave of expansion occurred under the Delhi Sultanate, which ruled from 1206 to 1526. During the second wave, under the Mughal Empire (1526-1858), Islamic rule achieved its maximum extension.

This encounter between Hinduism and Islam lasted more than 800 years. During most of this time, Islam had the upper hand politically, a fact that had enormous consequences for Hinduism and that presented challenges for both Hinduism and Islam which continue to this day. Islam’s military victories outside India were followed by the conversion of the masses to Islam, with the possible exceptions of Spain and the Balkans. In India, however, Islam succeeded in converting barely a quarter of the population to Islam by 1900. Although Hinduism had successfully incorporated all previous invaders and political conquerors within the Hindu religious system—from the Persians in 6th century BC to the Huns in the 6th century AD—its powers of assimilation failed in the face of Islam.

One response of Hinduism to the presence of Islam was political. It included the emergence of the Hindu Vijayanagar kingdom, which held power in southern India from about 1336 to 1565, and the Hindu Marāthā state in western India during the 17th and 18th centuries. The rise of Sikhism and the Sikh Empire (1767-1846) in the Punjab can also be considered part of this response. Willing to use violence in self-defense, Sikhs took a militant stance toward the conquerors.

The Islamic presence evoked a paradoxical Hindu religious response that blended hostile rejection and active emulation. Mainstream Hinduism retreated into a defensive position under the protective cover of orthodoxy (conformity to rule), judging by the number of Hindu religious codes produced during this period. At the theological level, however, Hinduism witnessed the rise and flowering of the bhakti (devotion) movement. This movement of ecstatic devotion to Vishnu or Shiva had gained a firm foothold in the south by the 9th century, and it swept over the rest of the country by the 17th century. Devotion to the divine (bhakti), rather than knowledge of the divine (jñana), became the dominant form of Hinduism, perhaps reflecting the historical circumstances. Bhakti poetry expressed love for the divine, often in the forms of Krishna and Rāma. Among the mystical bhakti poets were Chaitanya, Tulsīdas, Mīrābāī, and Kabīr.

The bhakti movement also provided a point of contact with a mystical movement in Islam known as Sufism. Sufis were religious figures known for their piety and love of God. As they carried out their work in India, the two traditions of Hinduism and Islam came together in their love of God.This coming together, however, never crossed over from communion to union, but the rise ofSikhism points to a possible crossover. Sikhism rejects image worship and ritualism in keeping with Islam, while retaining many aspects of the Hindu world-view.

D – Modern Hinduism


Following the decline of the Mughal Empire during the late 17th century, the British gradually succeeded in establishing themselves as the paramount power in India during the next century.The process began with a British victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, followed by the defeat of the Marathas in 1818. British victory over the Sikhs in 1846 completed the process. By this time the British had made two decisions of far-reaching importance for the future of Hinduism: to allow Christian missionaries to operate within the British dominions, in 1813; and to introduce English as the language of public instruction, in 1835. These decisions forced Hinduism to confront Christianity and Western modernity. At the same time, the Western world was exposed to Hindu scriptures translated into European languages.

D1 – Movements for Reform

One response to the encounter with Europe was reform. The Bengali scholar Ram Mohan Roy set the tone for reform in the early 19th century. Roy campaigned against medieval or regional Hindu practices that were objectionable in the modern world. He advocated allowing widows to remarry and abolition of the relatively rare practice of sati (self-immolation of a wife after her husband’s death; see suttee). In 1828 Mohan Roy founded the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma) to spread his ideas.

Another movement kept India from moving too far toward imitation of the modern Christian West. The movement was named after Ramakrishna, a Hindu spiritual leader who served as a priest at the Dakshineshwar Temple in the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). His reputation as a mystic drew many to him, including Swami Vivekānanda, who founded the Ramakrishna movement after Ramakrishna’s death in 1886. Vivekānanda, a representative Hindu product of India’s new Englishlanguage education system, became a devotee of Ramakrishna and renounced the world after the priest’s death. His message was a return to the timeless wisdom of the Vedas. As an unknown swami, he turned up uninvited at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 to present Ramakrishna’s teachings. He won instant celebrity and was hailed as a hero in India for his vigorous advocacy of Hinduism. In 1895 he founded the Vedānta Society in New York City to promote Hindu ideas.

Vivekānanda primarily used English in his work of reforming Hinduism and stressing the inclusive aspects of Hindu spirituality over ritual and rules. Another reform-minded leader of the 19th century, Dayānanda Sarasvati, used Hindi in responding to the challenges of Christianity and modernity. Sarasvati founded the Arya Samaj, a movement also dedicated to modernizing Hindu practices and asserting the universality of the Hindu tradition. These movements helped revitalize Hinduism.

Another issue that engaged Hindu reformers was the plight of the lowest social class, the panchama jātis who are also known as untouchables. Local movements, such as one led by Sri Narayana Guru in Kerala, were most successful at reform. Narayana, who was born in 1856, believed that education and greater self-esteem, rather than confrontation and blame, would elevate the untouchables. He established temples where all castes could pray together.

D2 – India’s Struggle for Independence


The rise of Indian nationalism in the 20th century further contributed to Hindu self-awakening. In the work of Indian philosopher and statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the Hindu tradition found intellectual expression; in the work of Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, Hinduism found humanist expression; and in the life of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, Hinduism found political and social expression. Another important figure in the development of Hindu nationalism was Sri Aurobindo Ghose. Ghose promoted revolutionary activism early in his life but later withdrew to an ashram, practiced yoga, and influenced his followers through his writings.

Gandhi’s innovative use of nonviolence and civil disobedience on a massive scale under the name of satyagraha made traditional Hindu values relevant to India’s political struggle against British rule. By linking the elevation of the untouchables with the struggle, Gandhi added social justice to his campaign. By raising social awareness within the Hindu tradition and by lifting that tradition to a new level of political awareness, Gandhi provided modern Hinduism with its defining features. These features took firm root in a century of reformist effort and half a century of political struggle against the British. Although the movement led by Gandhi succeeded in winning independence for India in 1947, it failed to prevent the partition of the Indian subcontinent on a religious basis. The partition of the subcontinent between a primarily Hindu India and a primarily Muslim Pakistan was to have profound consequences for contemporary Hinduism.

Once the movement against British rule gained strength, the relationship between India’s Muslim minority and its Hindu majority became an issue. The movement led by Gandhi aimed at a state based on mutual accommodation, and it was able to subdue those elements within Hinduism that sought to assert Hindu political identity at the expense of Muslim political identity. The partition of India in 1947 weakened the forces of accommodation. After partition India created a secular state in keeping with Hindu principles, whereas Pakistan created a religious state in keeping with Islamic principles. Continuing political tension between Pakistan and India, especially over Kashmīr, further eroded hopes for peaceful accommodation.

D3 – Hindu Nationalism

A vision of Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva gained force before and after partition. Hindutva took its name from the title of a book published in 1923 by revolutionary theorist V. D. Savarkar, which advocated a militarily strong Hindu India. The Hindu majority was also alienated by a perception that Hindu political parties courted Muslim voters as the swing vote in tight elections.

A movement to reclaim the presumed birthplace of Rāma in the city of Ayodhyā in northern India became the lightning rod of Hindu grievances. Hindus alleged that Mughal rulers had constructed a mosque in 1528 over a Hindu temple that had once marked the site. The demolition of this mosque in 1992 by a Hindu mob contrasts strongly with the nonviolent struggle led by Gandhi against the British, and represents one aspect of Hinduism’s coming to terms with its past. Hindu political ideas served as a model for state formation in much of southeast Asia during ancient times. But the succeeding period of foreign rule over India, which lasted about 1,000 years, has made Hindus particularly sensitive to the charge of political failure in facing Islam and Christianity. How Hindu culture will overcome this sensitivity remains to be seen. Christian evangelization among Hindus and consequent conversions to Christianity have provoked controversy and promoted a need for Hindu self definition.

D4 – Contemporary Challenges

The modern age, like every age, poses challenges for humanity and for the various religions that engage humanity. The aim of Hinduism has always been to enlighten rather than to convert. The Hindu world-view of pluralism and respect for multiple paths points to one model for reconciliation of religious conflicts, without calling for conversion to any one creed and with each religion maintaining its unique identity and practices.

Contributed By:
Arvind Sharma


From Sulekha to Rupa: Invading the Sacred

About five years ago a New Jersey entrepreneur called Rajiv Malhotra wrote a column on Sulekha titled “RISA Lila 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome”—a provocative critique of prominent academics in Hinduism studies in the US. This sparked off a rather unique debate that spanned tens of articles and thousands of comments on Sulekha over the last many years. Many people found each other through this debate forming a very loose community interested in this topic. A new book “Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America” published by Rupa & Co chronicles this debate and raises serious questions about the state of Hinduism scholarship in the United States.


This publication of this book is a marker of change that has historical dimensions. Though this story has plenty of colorful characters from Rajiv Malhotra, the feisty entrepreneur who started Infinity Foundation, Balagangadhara (or Balu as he is called) the radical scholar and director of research group in Belgium that is developing a science of cultures, Wendy Doniger the reigning doyen of Hinduism studies occupying a prominent chair at the University of Chicago, Jeffrey Kripal, who traces a remote Indian ancestry and who wrote the book “Kali’s child” about Ramakrishna Paramahansa while allegedly struggling with his feelings and homosexuality and so on and so forth, that turn this academic quality book of scholarship into a must-read page turning thriller. Yet as in any historic story the characters and events are the nimitta, the vessels afloat on the ocean that allow us to see the movements of the enormous waves of change before they come crashing onto the shore. Let us gaze then at the waves themselves.

In Jawaharlal Nehru’s now-famous speech at India’s independence he said “a moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” Whether 1947 was the time and Nehru and his colleagues were the people able to express the “soul of the nation” is a different debate. It is not enough for a nation to simply be free of foreign rule if we are still in thrall of foreign modes of looking at the world and at ourselves. In his prescient book “Hind Swaraj”, published in 1908, Gandhi had suggested that his Indian interlocutor wanted “English rule without the Englishman.” This remark remained true of India’s first post-independent generations and, in many ways, remains true of India today. This is why this new book has special significance.

The first wave that Invading theSacred marks is the rising economic affluence of Indians and ofIndia. It is hard to do the kind of critique that the book has done if one is beholden to the Western academic establishment for one’s paycheck and career. While the story of India’s economic rise and impending development has already become over-told it is worth remembering that India is not developing, but re-developing. There is no economic “miracle.” In thousands of years of its history, the last 200 years is perhaps the only time that India was less affluent than Europe. As a civilization India hardly ever made a virtue of poverty. When we were producing ideas and practices of global impact—in the sciences, mathematics, astronomy and human existence, we were not a civilization struggling for survival amidst wrenching poverty—we had plenty of economic surplus so that matters beyond basic survival could be investigated. That time is again nigh and the Indian voices in this book exemplify that– and we need to go back to finding our own place, our own original thinking, on the world table. Even the last two hundred years or so, if you look at Indian thinkers that have had a global impact or following, it is inevitably those that have drawn deeply on their own civilizational wisdom—people such as Gandhi or Aurobindo, Raman Maharishi or, more recently, BKS Iyengar. All the other chattering voices, other than a few scientists of renown, have invariably had a parochial following and limited impact on the world stage. But we need to move from the rare bright light to a generation of scholars and thinkers able to move the world, as we have in the past. The time for that is now and economic affluence is an important condition for that to occur on a larger scale.

The second wave is the dynamics of the internet. About ten years ago I had likened the internet revolution to the invention of the printing press in the following way. Just as the printing press allowed for the idea that “the masses could read”—education in Europe prior to this had been largely confined to the aristocrats—the internet allows for the idea that “the masses can write.” It would be difficult to mount the kind of challenge the Sulekha columns, and now this book, have done for the establishment before the internet. The internet truly allows for the marketplace of ideas. Non-mainstream ideas can challenge established thinking and it is more difficult for the chowkidars of the establishment to keep challenging ideas at bay. The book is thus a true Sulekha success story where people and articles organically gathered around a compelling set of ideas such that their cumulative force could not be ignored. Microsoft felt compelled to change Encarta; the Washington Post, the New York Times and the University of Chicago magazine covered the story and Rupa and Co has finally comes out with a book, five years in the making, that includes many of the original articles and even blog comments from Sulekha plus a significant amount of new work done by the editors—Krishna Ramaswamy, Antonio Nicolas and Aditi Banerjee. Where the print publications were tightly controlled and the internet bloggers could be mere snipers and commentators of what goes on in print, the book completes that circle where the compelling blog gets republished, in toto, by a mainstream publishing house.

Finally, the internet can truly be regarded as a Hindu medium. This is only half in jest—the Indian traditions share many similarities with the internet. Whereas the large publishing houses represent centralized control the internet decentralizes power. There is no church. The Indian traditions have always allowed for this marketplace of ideas with no threat of heresy. There is no central authority to stamp ideas with official sanction or suppress others with the pain of death and torment. New teachers and teachings could thus always arise, and thrive, without persecution, mixing and commingling with the old. Invading the Sacred is in anthology of articles and voices of many individuals with their own points of view and style—who were not commissioned by any one organization or told to write what they did. Nor does the “defense” of Hinduism require a counter-church or centralized organization. The ideas, one seeded, were followed through by different individuals, on their own time and self-leadership just as TCP/IP packets get routed in different ways from origin to destination.

So for anyone who reads this book, or despairs about the current state of affairs of Hinduism or Hinduism studies or expects others to do something about it—the answer is simple. It is to ask “What can I do” because all change has happened as a result of individuals asking that question. The story and contents of Invading the Sacred can provide inspiration—as a reminder of how what you do can travel from Sulekha to Rupa and beyond, and become another part of this wave.

Book details

Invading the Sacred. Krishnan Ramaswamy; Antonio de Nicolas; Aditi Banerjee ed. 2007. Rupa and Co., Delhi.

To order or learn more about the book go to

Additional reading (including some Sulekha articles that find their way into the book)

RISA Lila – 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome, Rajiv Malhotra.

RISA Lila – 2 – Limp Scholarship and Demonology, Rajiv Malhotra

Are Hinduism Studies Prejudiced? A look at Microsoft Encarta, Sankrant Sanu

India and Her Traditions: A Reply to Jeffrey Kripal, S.N. Balagangadhara

The Uses (and Misuses) Of Psychoanalysis in South Asian Studies: Mysticism and Child Development , Alan Roland

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

Land of Equality, Part II

Read Part I

The Department of Social Division

I was now even more curious about this remarkable country of Ladnam. How did they come up with this system of victim ratings for all admissions and jobs? I figured the university would be the right place to find out – I asked a student for directions to the Social Sciences department.

“Head to the central square, you can’t miss it. All the red buildings are part of the department,” he said.

The Social Sciences department occupied the entire central square. As I walked towards it I found that it was the plushest part of the city that I had seen. There were dozens of multi-storied red buildings around the square, with some words etched in stone on the doorways. In the center was the large statue of a man dressed in a suit with the words below “Merit is a Myth.” The building entrances had other slogans emblazoned across the doorways – “Equal results, not equal opportunities”, “To treat unequals as equals only serves to perpetuate inequality”,  “Radical equality requires radical discrimination,” “Victims shall inherit the earth” and “Marching towards universal cellular equality.”

I entered the Department of Social Division and found it bustling with activity. I asked at the reception for the department head, introducing myself as a visiting journalist and was ushered into a plush office. Prof. PV Ghasin the department head, was a well-fed man with a distinct air of pompous self-importance.

“You are with The Times, The Foreign Times,” he said. “Very good, very good. Delighted. I have, of course, been often written about in the Ladnam Times and visited your country, sponsored by the Ladnam government. Our problems are very bad—it comes from being a very traditional society.”

“But now we have the most modern tools, big computers, imported social theories. We just need to fix all those people so that we can progress like the rest of the world. We are very backward you know.”

I asked him what his department does.

“We have been entrusted the most important job by the government,” Ghasin said. “We figure out new ways to divide society every day. Why, just the last week a student of mine came up with a new way to segment the data. We found that that women from the Drusba region, between the ages of 56-60, whose skin tone on Luschan’s Hautfarbental scale is between 11-12 and who were the youngest child in their family had an appearance rate that was 5.6% less than their victim-adjusted average on television soap operas broadcast in Nurja between 3-4pmon Sundays.”

“5.6 percent!” he repeated, his voice rising in excitement, “And here we thought we had already captured discrepancies of less than 2% in all 4th dimension segments.”

“Are you saying that every age-group, caste, skin-tone and gender must be equally represented in each soap opera?” I asked incredulously.

“Not each soap opera, of course. That would be silly. But on the average across all soap operas aired at any time, it stands to reason that without social discrimination and prejudice every segment must get equal coverage.”

“By the fundamental law of cellular equality,” Prof. Ghasin continued, with the tone of school-teacher restating the most obvious, “Every social segment must exhibit equal outcomes in all areas, however you slice the data. Any discrepancies are clearly due to some discrimination against that group. Ours is a traditional and backward society so we keep finding discrepancies as we slice the data. We think we have examined all possible segments, but a new discovery is always around the corner. This is what makes the field exciting.”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘cellular equality’” I asked, “Does that mean everyone must be exactly equal at the cellular level – i.e. every human being must be identical in every cell?”

“No – it doesn’t mean that all, though that would solve a lot of our problems, wouldn’t it? The fundamental obstacle to a just society is that human beings are unequal in their attributes – their intelligence, their looks, their upbringing, their social environment and so on. However, the only true egalitarian principle is equality of results, which may require unequal opportunity or treatment so they eventually wind up equal.”

“But the question comes how do we ensure equality of results for everyone in all areas? On the one hand, the reality in our backward society is that every human being is unequal to others. On the other hand we are committed to true egalitarianism which can only hold if there is complete equality of results.”

“So we are constantly researching the various discrepancies in results.  Unfortunately, with our current state of the art it is not possible to ensure equal results at the individual level—perhaps with advances in technology something can be done to genetically engineer each person to be equal, but we are far from that today in our backward culture. So, we strive for equality of results at the cell level.”

“And what is a cell?” I asked again.

“Oh yes, I keep forgetting you are not from here. Everyone in Ladnam is keenly aware of cells. Everyone is in a cell.”

“Like a prison?” I suggested, trying to be helpful.

“No, no. Think of society like a big grid,” he continued, “Every dimension of difference is an axis on the grid. We start with the basic ones–age, sex, gender.  We then add all the ones specific to our backward society—like caste, income, region of origin, parental education, family status and so on. The smallest unit of discrimination is called a cell.”

“How many people are there in each cell?” I asked.

“We are trying to make all the cells roughly equal sized. Currently we have an average of 20,000 people per cell.”

“So, given that the population of Ladnam is about a billion people you have about 50,000 different cells,” I calculated.

“Approximately,” he said, “We would like to make the cell size smaller but it all takes time. We started out with just one dimension–caste. But everytime we segmented society we found that there were inequalities within that segment. So we kept dividing the segment further to provide further unequal opportunities to make the results be equal. In the example I gave you—of women from Drusba, between the ages of 50-60, whose skin tone on the LH scale is between 11-12 and who were the youngest child, we have a mere 12,567 or so. Each of those attributes is a different dimension—we are pushing the limits of cell size in current research here.”

“So what happens when you have made a new discovery” I asked.

“Well, it goes to the Department of Social Problem Identification or SPI. Axiomatically every discrepancy can be traced to one of five fundamental problems – casteism, communalism, genderism, familyism and geneticism.  The SPI must figure out what combination of these variables result in the particular discrepancy. Between you and me I think those academics are full of hot air.  We all know the problem is our traditional backwardness, no matter what combination of factors they use. But they hold a lot of fancy conferences anyway.”

“Then we correlate the data with Department of Outcome Analysis. This department comes up with new areas where cell discrimination may exist. The new breakthrough I mentioned earlier, regarding the Drusba women, came about from collaboration between my student and some researchers from Outcomes. Media Research is a hot field these days and they narrowed down to the 3-4 pm Sunday soaps on shows broadcast in the Nujra areas, as a possible place for discrimination against the Drusba. And they hit pay dirt!”

“So does the government take any action when you find some segment is performing better or worse than the ratio of their population?” I asked.

“Sometimes nothing happens for years. It is up to the politicians and they are all scoundrels. You must find the right interest group to pitch it to so that you can benefit from giving a preferential quota to them. Though now we have become very good at evangelizing new interest groups, what with the work done in the Department of Polarization Theories.”

“We are very happy when we can succeed in our small way in creating conflict, heh heh” he carried on with a self-satisfied laugh. “The creation of conflict is essential to the egalitarian mission.  We started with class conflict. Then community conflict. Then regional conflict. Then inter-family conflict. This department has been a pioneer in the creation of intra-family conflict. Our original breakthrough research on unequal outcomes between siblings of the same family led to quotas that had the remarkable effect of having families fight with each other on the dinner table over this issue. We ran an analysis that ranked each sibling by the order of the birth and found that older one’s performed, on average 2.9% better than the youngest ones on certain standardized tests. I am simplifying, of course, it was a pretty complex model since we took the sibling ranks of the parents and grandparents into account as well. This led to an entire dimension that multiplied the cells and more than doubled the total quotas based on sibling rank. As I was saying, this was a breakthrough in intra-family conflict. There were even murders of brothers and sisters just to change one’s sibling rank or suicides to help your sibling by changing their rank – a very middle class bourgeois impulse.  It is really satisfying when your research can make so much impact.”

“So you think quotas are essential for creating an equal society,” I asked.

“Oh that’s a very old debate that was resolved years ago. Occasionally some maverick still comes up with an idea other than quotas but that’s like changing the law of gravity at this stage. To provide equal opportunity without accounting for social, educational and family disabilities simply perpetuates injustice. We are driven by the mission to achieve total equality of results in every possible slicing of data like every modern society.”

“Do any quotas ever get removed?” I asked.

He looked puzzled for a moment as if he couldn’t understand the question. “You mean actually remove a quota? That is impossible. Once implemented there is a strong interest group attached to it. In fact the demand is always there to increase the quotas and the field of Outcome Analysis is constantly looking at different places where the quotas can be expanded.  They started with government jobs, then university admissions, then expanded that to government schools, then private schools and jobs, then sports teams, then movie stars, then quotas in buying land, then buying ordinary goods so that the goods people can buy varies with their victim rankings. There is now much pioneering work in media studies where each segmented group must get media coverage according to their victim status, which was passed into law some years ago. There is a new proposal that was initially controversial, but was finally passed where quotas have been extended for walks in the neighborhood park for different segmented groups. If you are interested I can provide you with some good references to read about that subject.”

“This is fascinating. In all my travels I have not seen a society with this kind of approach to egalitarianism. How far do you think you have achieved your goals?” I asked.

“Not at all. We still have rampant inequality—‘We Ladnams are like this only’ we say. It is all due to out traditional society. The problem is as far away from being fixed as when we started. Some say it is even getting worse. That is why we need more quotas. Besides nothing works in this country. No one does any work. For some reason everyone is obsessed by their victim rankings and their segments. Why the other day my daughter refused to invite a class mate to her birthday party because she is the third child of a twice divorced mother while both her own parents are only once divorced. The children need to know all this, of course, because the quotas for the once divorced and the twice divorced are different. Our dream to have a classless society is far away, but then all these problems are because of our entrenched traditions that have not changed for 5000 years. But we are applying the best research and technology to solve these problems.”

I pondered this. “So you say the quotas can only be expanded. The segmentation is not going away. Is there any way that you have to measure that what you are doing is actually taking you towards your goals of radical equality.”

“We already know nothing can ever change in this society,  it is all due to our static traditions” he said with a tone of certainty. “What is the point of gathering any data for that? Besides, all the data that we use in our segmentation and our policy implementations is over 70 years old and it has never been updated. It would be politically suicidal to update it now—can you imagine the chaos that would result?”

(to be continued)

[Read Part I:  Land of Equality]



1. “… the only true egalitarian principle is equality of results, which may require unequal opportunity or treatment for the initially  disadvantaged so that they eventually wind up equal in resources or rights.” Report of the Backward Classes Commission, Government of India, 1980, (popularly known at the Mandal Commission), Volume I, Chapter V.
2. “… equality of treatment suffers from the same drawback as equality of opportunity for to treat the disadvantaged uniformly with the disadvantaged will only perpetuate their disadvantage.” Ibid.
3. “… a large number of observations were recorded including tints of skin, eye and hair colours. For this purpose von Luschan’s Hautfarbentafel, Martin’s Augenfarbental and  Fischer’s Haarfarbentafel were used. The following measurements were taken :—    (1) Stature… (4) Maximum Head breadth, …(11) Nasal length, (12) Nasal breadth , (13) Nasal height or depth, … and so on.” Census of India, 1931,  Vol I, Part III. This “scientific” quest of measuring skin tones and noses of the people of India to determine caste relations was undertaken in the 1931 census, also the last census that enumerated caste. The Mandal Commission uses data from the 1931 census to determine the number of “backward castes” and hence the appropriate quota ratios.

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

The Conversion War and Religious Freedom

The doctrine of religious freedom is enshrined in the UN charter under the declaration of Universal Human Rights and also in article 25 of the Indian constitution. Both these declarations state that the right to “change” one’s religion is a universal human right. The Indian constitution goes further by including the right to “propagate” one’s religion as a fundamental right.

Since the right to “change” and to “propagate” religion is given to all individuals it is assumed to be universal, fair and neutral. We argue in this essay that there are at least two distinct viewpoints that come from different types of religious traditions. Religious freedom, as currently defined, privileges one view of religion over others. This privileging, enshrined in law, has real-world implications. It is proposed that more balanced definitions of religious freedom would better promote religious harmony and religious diversity.

1. How the native traditions consider religion

“What is religion?” is a question that scholars still actively debate. For understanding religious freedom we need to examine the distinctions between two kinds of traditions that are classified as “religion.” In particular, there is a distinction between what African scholar Makau Mutua calls “proselytizing universalist faiths”[i] and other human traditions. Balgangadhara[ii] argues in detail that the concept of religion exemplified by the Abrahamic faiths is in an entirely different category than those of the other traditions. Differences in conceptions of religious freedom thus arise from the differences in category.

Here is what Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, the last of the pagan prefects of Rome, when faced with official Christian persecution of the ancient Roman traditions, had to say in the 4th century C.E.:

“Grant, I beg you, that what in our youth we took over from our fathers, we may in our old age hand to prosperity. The love of established practice is a powerful sentiment … Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians. …

And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. …  What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.”[iii]

Let us zoom forward a few thousand years, to another continent, the “New World” of the Americas. The chief of a Native American tribe offered this reply to a Christian missionary’s proselytizing sermon:

“The Almighty, for any thing we know, may have communicated himself to different races of people in a different manner. Some say they have the will of God in writing; be it so, their revelation has no advantage above ours, since both are equally sufficient to save, or the end of the revelation would be frustrated … the difference can only lay in the mode of communication.”[iv]

The remonstrances of the Native American tribes were, unfortunately, insufficient to save their traditions from assault by those that claimed theirs was the only true way. Regis Pecob, Member of the Pueblo Tribal Council presented the following testimony, included in the hearings on Religious Freedom before the US Congress in 1994.[v]

“For the Pueblo, this long road began with the efforts of the Spanish to forcibly impose Catholicism and destroy our traditional spiritual beliefs. We survived that campaign only at great human cost—in torture, in murder, in mutilation, in the destruction of whole communities.”

He quoted further a 1924 declaration of thePueblos:

“We have met because our most fundamental right of religious liberty is threatened. … the religious beliefs and ceremonies and forms of prayer of each of our pueblos are as old as the world and they are holy. … To pass this religion, with hidden sacred knowledge and its many forms of prayer, on to our children, is our supreme duty to our ancestors and to our own hearts and to the God whom we know.Our religion is a true religion, and it is our way of life. We must now tell how our religious freedom is threatened and denied to us.” [em. added]

Let us now consider a place far removed from the Americas.

“I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu. But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”[vi]

This is Gandhi writing in Young India in 1928.

Oddly enough, none of these peoples considered defining religious freedom as the freedom to change their religion. Quite the contrary.  For them religion constituted the traditions and practices handed down by their ancestors. In this view it is equally absurd for someone to discard these traditions to adopt someone else’s religion as it would be to change one’s ancestors for someone else’s. Similar ideas of “religion” are found in the many native communities in India and throughout the world. If all people have their traditions and each is valid for them, why would one want to cause someone else to change? Indeed the freedom they sought was precisely the opposite – the right to pass on their traditions onto their children without interference and without being subjected to organized campaigns to get them to change.

2. What religion is

Let us now examine some quotes with a different perspective on this issue.

The International Mission Board’s page on “Mobilization for Missions” opens with the following quote:

“Declare his (God’s) glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people.” Psalm 96:3 God wants Southern Baptists as a people to mobilize vast resources for reaching all people groups for Jesus Christ.” [vii][em in original]

The International Mission Board is very clear in its goals – its stated vision is to “to lead Southern Baptists to be on mission with God to bring all the peoples of the world (‘panta ta ethne’) to saving faith in Jesus Christ.”  This vision is apparently authorized by no less than God himself:

“We must realize that this is not our mission; however, it is God’s mission, and He has called us as His people to join Him in fulfilling that mission.”

Their aims are nothing short of the apocalyptic end of the world. As their documents proclaim:

“It is a vision that will be fulfilled, for Jesus said in Matthew 24:14, “The gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a witness to every nation and then the end will come.”

Is this some fringe missionary group? Hardly. The International Mission Board is an entity of the influential Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention in the United Stateswas formed in 1845 mainly to create mission boards. It boasts of over 16 million members and runs 48 Baptist Colleges and Universities. It counts several past United States’ Presidents among its members and its revenues from member contributions top $9 billion annually, in league with the largest corporations. President George W. Bush has addressed each of the Convention’s last four annual meetings.

The Baptists, however, do not view their missionary program as a program against religious liberty.  On the contrary, they claim that “Religious freedom was a distinctively Baptist contribution as formulated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”[viii]. The Baptist views on religious freedom include “the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power” [ix]precisely the kind of sentiment that finds expression in the Indian constitution.

3. A question of choice?

The secular idea of the freedom of religion, born of the European experience with religion, presumes that the right to belief and the change of belief without restriction or favor from the government is sufficient for religious liberty. In effect, it creates a competitive marketplace of religious belief.  This idea of a competitive marketplace of religion is, however, not a universal idea, but those of particular faiths. Thus these faiths are asymmetrically equipped to compete in this marketplace since others do not view religion as a competitive endeavor in a similar way. As a result the idea of “free choice” in this marketplace becomes highly asymmetrical in practice, favoring imperialistic proselytizing creeds over local traditions.

3.1 Competitive religion: The asymmetry of doctrine and motivation

The first asymmetry is the asymmetry of doctrines. For most of the native traditions the idea of preaching to others to get them to abandon their traditions and follow someone else’s is absurd. For the proselytizing creeds, to do so is a religious imperative, central to their faith.

The charter of World Evangelism is justified using Biblical quotes. “Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” reads the quote attributed to Jesus on the Joshua Project website.[x] This task is taken seriously and literally. The evangelical Joshua Project website’s charter is “Bringing Definition to the Unfinished task.” The Joshua Project was born out of the AD 2000[xi] movement with the goal to “plant a Church” amongst every people group by the year 2000. The co-chairman and godfather of the movement is the evangelist Billy Graham whom President George W Bush credits for his “born-again” conversion.  In 1995 the movement sponsored the Global Consultation on World Evangelization in Seoul, South Korea where “4,000 Christian leaders from 186 countries, including India, gathered to draw up secret and covert (world) evangelical plans.”[xii]

Hundreds of seminaries and missionary colleges exist to teach strategies for evangelization—what works, what doesn’t work, how to prepare, how to leverage social and economic problems and issues, how to create multi-media marketing campaigns complete with personal customer testimonials and how to influence the media. The evangelicals are, in their own words, “mobilized for mission”, to “make disciples of every nation.”

The “Sonar” community of India recently got prime billing in the “prayer” site of the International Mission Board.

“Did you know that the Sonar people of Maharashtra, India, are the primary crafters of gold and silver Hindu idols? These idols are the most powerful stronghold that Satan has upon the Hindu worshipers in India and around the world. When the Sonar people embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, the subsequent change in their livelihood could have a huge ripple effect in the world of Hinduism. As one international Christian worker said, “When we reach the Sonar with the gospel, we will see the collapse of Hinduism.” Pray that the gospel would flow through and permeate the Sonar culture like molten silver fills a mold.”[xiii]

The idea that people would pray for the collapse of other religious traditions, branded as Satanic, highlights the distinction of doctrine between the two kinds of traditions.

For one side, that holds the views “to each their own” religion is not seen as a competitive enterprise, far less a war for outright global monopoly. They have not asked for this war. Many are not even aware that they are at war till it comes to their doorstep.  Non-Abrahamic traditions are neither tolerant nor intolerant towards other traditions. They are simply indifferent – to each their own, they hold. While for the proselytizing religions, conversion of others –is considered an essential component of advancing “God’s work.” The other traditions are, at best, preparations for conversion into the “One True Religion” and, at worst, downright Satanic. For the evangelicals, conversion is a moral position. It is not seen as an act of aggression on other traditions, but merely the benevolent saving of the heathens who would otherwise be condemned to hell. They cannot thus be, doctrinally, indifferent to these others. When combined with institutional mobilization, this becomes a global war for religious affiliation — the target no less than the eradication of all other religions that are seen as competitors keeping humans in the sway of Satan.

Thus the campaign for conversion is fundamentally unsymmetrical. The native traditions are grossly unprepared to fight this war. Unlike the mission organizations, they have not collected the demographics of their “opponents”, their sources of funds, their social problems, competitive analyses of their creeds, their strengths and weaknesses, the flaws in their marketing literature. They haven’t prepared their own list of target groups among the “non-believers.” They haven’t, because unlike the evangelicals, they do not consider all the other traditions of the worlds as their opponents and competitors. There is no doctrine within these traditions that supports the idea that all other people on the planet must be converted to their particular way.

Ironically it is secular ideas of the human right of religious freedom that are used to protect evangelical expansion against native traditions. Makau Mutua, writing about the African traditions, points out that “the (human) rights regime incorrectly assumes a level playing field by requiring that African religions compete in the marketplace of ideas.  The rights corpus not only forcibly imposes on African religions the obligation to compete—a task for which as nonproselytizing, noncompetitive creeds they are not historically fashioned—but also protects the evangelizing religions in their march towards universalization … it seems inconceivable that the human rights regime would have intended to protect the right of certain religions to destroy others.[xiv]

Similarly, the Asian Tribune puts forth a Buddhist perspective on conversions in Sri Lanka:

“The stubborn refusal of Western religious rights groups to see the conversion issue in its proper Asian context has seriously complicated the matter. Buddhism in Sri Lanka as in Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos and Tibet is inextricably linked to the country’s cultural and national heritage …

Instead, Buddhists allege that the West wants to impose on Sri Lanka the Protestant concept of a gathered congregation of individual believers, a notion that has shaped the development of provisions protecting religious freedom under international law. But the problem is that this law was developed to protect individuals and religious groups from the State persecution and not to protect one religious community from being proselytized by another, according to Buddhist lawyers who are actively campaigning for the enactment of anti-conversion legislation. ”[xv] (em. added)

In other words, secular ideas of human rights to religious freedom protect religious groups from state interference – addressing the problems that Europe encountered, but not the issues faced in the Asian context. Thus these ideas do not account for conflict and repression caused by powerful well-funded global corporate entities seeking to eliminate the religious traditions of local communities.

Even if the native traditions were resourced and aware to respond to the evangelical activity, to be forced to respond to it is also a curtailment of their freedom. This is because a response to evangelical activity in kind will invariably turn the traditions into a mirror image of those religions and into a caricature of their own traditions i.e. they would have end up accepting the position of the proselytizing creeds that religion is a competitive endeavor and is a global war.  In a war, they would study how to bring the “fight” to the other side. So as the Baptists launched their mission to convert the Nagas, the Nagas would launch missions to convert the Baptists. The fact that they don’t is the fundamental difference between the two kinds of religious systems that leads to the asymmetry of motivation. As Swami Dayananda Saraswati writes in an open letter to the Pope:

“You cannot ask me to respond to conversion by converting others to my religion because it is not part of my tradition.  … Thus, conversion is not merely violence against people; it is violence against people who are committed to non-violence.”[xvi]

While the competitive view of religion is natural to the evangelical, to respond in kind makes native traditions into something that they are not. This is precisely why there is such conflict and ambivalence over the “re-conversion” activities of Hindutva in India. In responding to conversion by re-conversion, Hindutva forms itself into a mirror of the proselytizing religions. While ostensibly seeking to uphold the Indian traditions, it itself changes them into a competitive Abrahamic caricature in a way that makes most Indians deeply uncomfortable.

Thus evangelical activity takes away religious freedom from the native traditions on two accounts. To respond competitively would be to alter one’s traditions into competitive religions in the mirror image of the evangelizers—i.e. to treat the conversion game as a religious war for headcount. To passively fail to respond would mean the gradual erosion and destruction of one’s traditions.  This catch-22 occurs because the playing field of religious freedom itself has been defined based on the religious history and doctrines of one side.

3.2 No level-playing field: The Asymmetry of Power and Resources

The second asymmetry is the asymmetry of power and resources. When religious freedom gets defined simply as the non-interference of the state in religious activity it serves to privilege those private institutions that view religion as a competitive quest for monopoly and have mobilized enormous resources to this end. It thus favors organized institutional religions over those whose traditions don’t have a corporate charter. Evangelical Missions should best be considered local sales offices of large multi-national corporations. How large? The International Mission Board 2005 budget is $283.1 million (over Rs. 1200 crores). A similar amount in 2004 led to the “planting” of over 21,000 churches across the globe. The one-year revenue of institutionalized Christianity is estimated to be $260 billion dollars (2001) figures.[xvii] About a fifth of this, $47 billion, are allocated to global mission work every year, comparable to the entire annual net tax revenue of the government of India. Clearly we are dealing with a very well financed and well organized global enterprise. The business of conversion is big business. It demands results in terms of numbers converted. The well-publicized stories of “success amidst difficulty” sustain the fund-raising activities of evangelical groups.

The Joshua Project[xviii] tracks every “unreached people group” in the world, over 6 thousand at last count, providing detailed linguistic, demographic and targeting information. This project, started by a splinter group of American Evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, is “a large-scale intelligence operation that brought together American strategists, theologians, missionary specialists, demographers, technologists, sociologists, anthropologists and researchers to create the most comprehensive people group profiles in the 10/40 window…” The 10/40 window, denoting the latitudes on the globe considered the prime target for conversion, has India squarely in its sights. The information is so detailed that “the ethno-linguistic profiling … cannot even be matched by data with the government of India.”[xix] Its mission is “to identify and highlight the people groups of the world that have the least exposure to the Gospel and the least Christian presence in their midst. The Joshua Project shares this information “to encourage pioneer church-planting movements among every ethnic people group.”[xx] According to the Project overview “Mission agencies use the data to strategically determine where to send new church-planting teams.” Mission Frontiers magazine tracks the “progress” in reaching those people – between 1995 and 2000, 1200 additional people groups were subjected to a “Church Planting” movement in their midst.

Among the targets—the small “Akha” group in Vietnam consisting of a mere 3040 people following their ethnic traditions to the largest groups—the 13 million Sinhalese who follow Buddhism—only 4% of which have yet been converted according to the Joshua database. India contains the largest number of targeted groups. Sample targets – among the Buddhists – the 102,480 Bhotias in Sikkim, and the 47,030 Sherpas, the 162,210 Tibetan Buddhists and the 8,410,800 Marathi Nau Buddhists; the 3,165,200 Bania Jains; among the Muslims – the 9,796,100 Ansaris, the 6,938,600 Sayyids, the 894,690 Faqirs and the 112,420 Ganchis.  The tribal religionists are, of course, the easiest targets, many of them having already been “reached” – a remaining sample include the Mongpa, all of 850 people, following Tibetan Himalayan customs. The Sikhs are another major target – further divided into 58 groups, from the 11,581,200 Jat Sikhs to the 880 Assamese Sikhs.  Among the 1596 Hindu target groups – the 3.4 million Aroras, the 53.5 million Yadavs, the 6.9 million Nairs, the Sonar community of nearly 6.5 million people to the barely 14,000 Kashmiri Hindu Zargars.

To each of these thousands of target groups gets assigned church planting teams, missionaries, resources, funds, media support, Bibles in their language and dubbed versions of the “Jesus” film (with children’s versions), now available in a staggering 877 languages. No other global corporate multinational could come close to a marketing campaign of this breadth.

To imagine that the native traditions are “free” to compete in the well-resourced global onslaught is to ignore both the disparity of resources, and more importantly fundamental differences in the nature of the traditions. The idea of a “free market” of religions thus arises from and supports the competitive world view of evangelical religion.

Since the believers of evangelical religions consider missionary activity as part of their faith, such believers in high places can have a disproportionate impact over those of non-evangelical traditions. The report “George Bush Has a Conversion Agenda for India”[xxi] describes the US President as “probably the most resourceful and influential Christian Missionary ever.” While Bush Jr.’s evangelical beliefs get a lot of attention, this is certainly not a new phenomena in the US. Faith has always been a very important issue for American voters.  President Bush’s “Faith-based initiative” merely legitimizes direct monetary support from the US government to Christian groups. In 2004 alone, $2 billion (nearly Rs. 8,600 crore) dollars were paid by the US government[xxii], overwhelmingly to Christian groups, under this program.

The disproportionately Western influenced global media, working with secular ideas of religious liberty that support evangelism, is muted in its criticism and coverage of the plans and tactics of missionaries. On the other hand, rare instances of violent reaction to missionary activities get disproportionate worldwide coverage and attention.  The stories of alleged persecution reinforce the evangelical self-image of Christian martyrdom even when the resources at their disposal are far greater than the groups they target. While there is absolutely no justification for violence in a democratic society, current laws provide little recourse to the target groups to prevent missionary activities in their midst, even when it causes conflict and tensions within the communities.

For instance, Talom Rukbo, the father of the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachal Pradesh, remarked:

“The church–Christian missionaries–quickly capitalized on the innocence of our forefathers. They fraudulently convinced our people that we were barbarians and converted some into Christianity. … They declared that the converted persons must discard (1) the “animist” practices, (2) our festivals and that our Gods and Godesses were Saitan (evil spirits– Satan). …
Slowly this created frequent disturbances and social disharmony. The Christian missionaries were stooping to the lowest, most uncivilized means to tear social fabric of our society apart.”[xxiii]

Unfortunately the current human rights regime makes it very difficult for even democratically elected governments to restrict missionary activity.

3.3 Can one say “no” to missionary activity?

While there are laws to restrict intrusive commercial solicitation and deceptive marketing practices these do not apparently do not apply to the sales force[xxiv] of the religious multinationals.

Let us say a remote group in Arunachal Pradesh actually becomes aware of this conversion war in which they are a statistic on a plan. Perhaps they have heard of the consequences of this campaign for a neighboring village group and wish to preserve their traditions without interference. The panchayat or the democratically elected council votes to disallow missionary activity in their midst. What would happen?

Precisely the same language of “human rights” would then be used to target this tribe. Because the right to “change” and to “propagate’ religion has been made into a “human right” any law that seeks to curb missionary activity can then be ruled as a violation of human rights. This anomaly occurs precisely because of the fact that the definitions of religious freedom are not culture neutral. They arise from a culture in which religion has been viewed as a transferable “belief system” and a competitive evangelical enterprise. This definition affords little human rights protection from evangelical activity to those that do not hold these views of religion.

Just as a village may wish to pass such a law, can a state do it, can a country? The consequences can be readily seen in the debate on a bill for religious freedom that was recently approved by the Council of Ministers in Sri Lanka and is up for debate in the Sri Lankan parliament. While the bill prohibits conversions with the use of coercion or allurements, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has expressed “concern” urging the “Sri Lankan government to refrain from passing laws that are inconsistent with international standards.”[xxv] These international standards are precisely the human rights laws that are the subject of this discussion.

Numerous Christian organizations, including the World Evangelical Alliance are putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government to forestall the bill. Christina Rocca, the US Secretary of State, reportedly expressed “grave concern” over the proposed legislation to Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States. “Ms Rocca has explained that the Department of State was receiving numerous representations from Senators and Congressmen about the Government`s move. During a previous meeting, The Sunday Times learns, Ms Rocca had warned that pressure was building up and this could have adverse consequences on US aid and trade concessions to Sri Lanka.”[xxvi]

Once the right to change religion and to propagate is made a fundamental human right without a corresponding right to not be asked to change or be subject to proselytizing activity the situation becomes one-sided. The state is now obligated to protect the missionary’s activities while no protection is afforded to the non-proselytizing community’s tradition so that they are not made targets of highly-organized and well-funded conversion campaigns.

4. “Change” of religion assumes exclusivity of belief

The premise of evangelical activity is the belief that theirs is the only true way and everyone else is, at best, in error if not absolutely demonic. This belief inevitably sets those who believe thus into conflict with everyone else.  It is not surprising that the primary principle under attack by evangelicals is the principle of religious pluralism.

“Good News for India” defines itself as “an interdenominational Christian organization that is committed to training, sending out, and supporting national missionaries to preach the Gospel and plant churches among the unreached people groups of the Indian subcontinent.”[xxvii] Good News forIndia runs the Luther W. New Jr. Theological College in Dehradun with several small satellite training centers in five north Indian states, over 163 churches, and several primary schools. The college was dedicated by the President of Word Vision, a global NGO associated with Christian evangelical activity. The aim of the college – to churn out “national missionaries” that are more cost-effective than Westerners.  Good News for India finds their methods of training “very effective in producing laborers for the harvest in India.” They offer accredited Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in missionary activity leading to paid career missionaries and boast of having “planted” 350 churches under the name “Christian Evangelistic Assemblies.”

Clearly, this group of evangelicals knows India well. That is why they list that their major challenge inIndia is the pluralistic Indian thinking.

“Anyone who is familiar with India knows that Indiahas always been a challenge to the Gospel. Hinduism that teaches, “just as all rivers lead to the ocean, all religions lead to God”, dominates the thinking of the masses. … Many Hindus revere Jesus as another god. Yet their eyes are blinded to the uniqueness of Christ.”[xxviii]

The goal then of evangelical conversion is to lift the “blindness” of pluralism to convert into an exclusive belief system. Indeed without that no conversion can take place. If it was simply the question of learning from another way, or accepting another way as true, one need not actually be “converted” to do that. All conversion is a conversion into exclusivism. For all those concerned with retaining India’s pluralistic ethos evangelical activity should thus be of particular concern. It is not surprising then, that after decades of successful conversion activity in Nagaland, the separatist groups that routinely use terrorist methods against their opponents have the exclusive slogan of “Nagaland for Christ.” This switch happens when exclusivism reaches a dominant position in a region. The long-term implications of exclusivist conversion should concern all those that wish India to remain a pluralistic and diverse nation.

The idea of “change” of religion from article 18 universal human right again comes from a culture in which multiple religious participation does not make sense. In testimony before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom,  Prof. Sharma of McGill stated “(1) That the concept of religious freedom articulated in article 18 presupposes a certain concept of religion itself, a concept associated with Western religion and culture; (2) That a different concept of religion … leads to a different concept of religious freedom; and (3) That unless human rights discourse is able to harmonize these two concepts of religious freedom … the clash of the two concepts might ultimately result in the abridgement of religious freedom in actual practice…”[xxix]

According to the 1985 census in Japan, for instance, 95% of the population of Japan declared itself as followers of Shinto and 76% of the same population also declared itself as Buddhist. Clearly, a significant fraction considered themselves multiple religious participants. Even in India, early British census takers were flummoxed by people happy to subscribe to multiple religions till they were coerced by the colonial census to choose one or the other.  This pluralism, deeply ingrained in the Indian people, finds expression as far back as the Rig Veda and the Ashoka pillars. Sharma states “If the Indian census-takers did not insist that one can only belong to one religion -significantly a British and therefore Western legacy -I would not be at all surprised if the Indian religious statistical reality began to resemble the Japanese.”

However, Article 18 of the charter of human rights presupposes that one can only belong to one religion at a time. As Sharma continues, “If one believes that one can only belong to one religion at a time, then it stands to reason that religious freedom would essentially consist of one’s freedom to change such affiliation by the voluntary exercise of choice.”

However, in the context of multiple religious participation a different idea of religious freedom would emerge – one that the Indian constitution and the Indian census do not, ironically, support – the freedom to profess multiple religions without being asked to choose one or to change into another.

Sharma concludes, “(In the Eastern context) … freedom of religion means that the person is left free to explore his or her religious life without being challenged to change his or her religion. Such exploration need not be confined to any one religion, and may freely embrace the entire religious and philosophical heritage of humanity.”

This explains the difference between evangelical activity and, for instance, the spread of Indian traditions. Indian traditions can best be regarded as practical learning traditions. They rarely required disavowal of existing belief or tradition. Learning traditions like the teachings of the Buddha could thus be accretive – as they were in China and Japan. To accept the message of the Buddha did not mean to consign one’s ancestors to hell or to reject existing community practices. This is quite similar to the way Indian Swamis brought the practice of Yoga to Americans in contemporary times, without any requirements of “conversion.” One could learn and do the practices of yogaasanas and meditation as a Christian, Muslim or Jew without any requirement to disavow one’s religion.

5. Towards a balanced view of religious freedom

There is a cultural conflict between two very different ideas of religion and of religious freedom. For one the “right to change” is central. To the other the right to retain or continue without interference from the state or from powerful global institutions is paramount. Current rights language favors the former and insufficiently protects the latter.  How do we move towards a more balanced view?

We do not suggest that the “right to change” should itself be taken away.  For instance, some schools of Islamic jurisprudence hold that apostasy by a Muslim renouncing Islam is punishable by death. This certainly does not support the spirit of individual freedom or enquiry. Similarly, we do not hold that tradition is itself immune from criticism or change. There is plenty of scope for individuals within or outside a tradition to criticize, change and evolve particular practices.

Yet, exploration, individual critique or specific reform is different from a systematic institutional effort aimed at converting all others and annihilating their traditions resulting in the destruction of entire cultural ecosystems. As Mutua writes, “Imperial religions have necessarily violated individual conscience and the communal expressions of Africans and their communities by subverting African religions. In doing so they have robbed Africans of essential elements of their humanity … The result … is a culturally disconnected people neither African nor European or Arab.”[xxx]

What would a charter of religious freedom look like if it were being defined by the “unreached” people, with knowledge of consequences others have obtained at the hands of the proselytizing creeds, rather than by the evangelical cultures? Perhaps it would read something like this:

“All peoples have the right to pass on their traditions to their children without interference, without being subjected to organized institutional evangelical activity by others. All peoples find their traditions of value – if not they can always abandon them or make changes. However, no one shall form an association with the express purpose of getting others to convert people away from their religion or to teach others to do so. All peoples have the right to the preservation of their culture and traditions and the right to be free of religious evangelism.

Every human being has the right to be free from being subject to the preaching of exclusive religious doctrines. Every person is free to participate in and learn from none, one or more ways to happiness and fulfillment without being asked to specify a religious identity or to convert from one to another.

No religious, political, social, religious or educational institution or organization will enable or have as its aims the systematic conversion of other people. The marketing claims of institutional religions aiming at conversion will be subjected to the same legal test as those of other corporate entities. Every individual is free to explore the religions and practices of the world without being subjected to systematic marketing and conversion campaigns.”

To test the asymmetry of the current definition one can predict that this new definition of religious freedom would be most objected to by specific groups – prominent among these would be evangelical Christians and their power base. Most groups that follow ethnic traditions throughout the globe, other than those that act as proxies for evangelical interests, or those that are attached to the presumed neutrality of “secular” definitions of religious freedom, would welcome the change. If anything, that is the clearest indicator of how the current definition of religious freedom is seriously asymmetrical in its assumptions.

Nothing in this formulation should be construed as restricting the freedom of any community to practice their faith privately and in congregations of fellow believers. At the same time such freedom should not extend to constraining the freedom of others to practice without interference.

Augmenting the human right to practice as well as change one’s religion with the rights of communities to be free of organized campaigns that aim to destroy the practice of their traditions by conversion into exclusive religious systems would provide a necessary balance for maintaining religious harmony and protecting cultural and religious diversity.

[i] Makau Mutua in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief, A Deskbook. Published by the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, 2004. Chapter 28.

[ii] Balgangadhara, S N. The Heathen in His Blindness. Manohar Books.

[iii] Quoted from The Heathen in His Blindness.

[iv] An Indian speech in answer to a sermon, preached by a Swedish missionary at Conestogo in Pennsylvania. Early American imprints. Second series; no. 6535. American Antiquarian Society, 1966

[v] American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994. Hearing, Serial No. 103-92. Statement of Regis Pecob, Member Pueblo de Cochiti Tribal Council.

[vi] Young India: January 19, 1928



[ix] Notably, the Indian constituent assembly debates reveal that the right to “propagate” as a fundamental right was argued for vociferously by Anglo-Indian Christians.


[xi] See, for instance, and

[xii] Tehelka, “Preparing for the harvest…”, February 7, 2004.

[xiii] This was in the prayer section of the International Missionary Board website on June 3, 2005, but was later removed after publicity on a site that tracks Christian missionary activity on It is still available at the Southern Baptist Convention prayer site

[xiv] Makau Mutua, Chapter 28

[xv] Asian Tribune. May 3, 2005. Controversy over Freedom of Religion Bill: Buddhists to meet UN envoy today.


[xvii] Source: World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press. 2001.


[xix] Tehelka, “Preparing for the harvest…”, February 7, 2004.


[xxi] Tehelka, February 7, 2004


[xxiii] Talom Rukbo the Father of the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachal Pradesh from a talk he gave called “The Truth Every Bharatiya Should Know”: (quoted in

[xxiv] Many of the missionaries are paid “stipends.” Colleges in India graduate native missionaries by the thousands who are then given a paid job with conversion quotas. So yes, this is a sales force.

[xxv] Srilanka

[xxvi] Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), July 31, 2005. US Warns Lanka on religious bill.



[xxix] Sharma Test

[xxx] Makau Mutua, Chapter 28

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.