From Macaulay to Frawley, from Doniger to Elst: Why do many Indians need White saviours?

Would non-White Indologists evoke such passions as the likes of Sheldon Pollock and Wendy Doniger or David Frawley and Koenraad Elst do?

There is a wound that festers in the Hindutva heart. And it is attributed to Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Macaulay was a British politician who in the 19th century played a big role in introducing English education to India at the cost of indigenous Sanskrit and Persian knowledge systems, because he saw India as primitive and chaotic, in need of civilising.

But if the British in general and Macaulay in particular get blamed for colonising the Indian mind with English, the current problem seems to be more with the Americans.

For some years now, the non resident Indian supporters of Hindutva have been especially angry with American Indologists such as Wendy Doniger, whom they accuse of a perverse reading of Hinduism in sexual terms, and Sheldon Pollock for describing Sanskrit, the holy language of Hindus, as a dead language.

But who does Hindutva turn to for establishing the greatness of Hinduism, and Sanskrit, and Vedas? A European, Koenraad Elst. And an American, David Frawley.

So much for “decolonising” the Hindu/Indian mind. So much for swadeshi.

In 2010, when Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power, Sheldon Pollock was honoured with a Padma Shri award. It so annoyed the Hindutva lobby that once the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, David Frawley was awarded with a Padma Bhushan, a rung higher in the hierarchy of Indian civilian awards. The irony of Indians (resident and non-resident) fighting over two Americans was lost on all.

Does this reveal our deference to White scholarship? Does this reveal Indians are beyond racism? One wonders if African American Indologists or Chinese American Indologists would ever evoke similar passions.

Doniger and Frawley

On my shelf are books by Doniger (The Hindus: An Alternative History) and Frawley (Gods, Kings and Sages: Vedic Secrets of Ancient Civilisation). Each one attempts to organise Hindu thought and share insights about ancient India.

Doniger refers to a “good fight” against Hindutva in the dedication and the book with copious references to establish how Hinduism is diverse, has been constructed over history and geography, and has continuously privileged Brahmin men over other communities and over women. Frawley translates Vedic passages and seeks to present his version of the history of Hinduism as the original, oldest and still thriving spiritual civilisation that thrived on the banks of the now lost river Saraswati, that gave the world the most sophisticated systems of language (Sanskrti), medicine (Ayurveda) and astrology (Jyotisha).

Doniger’s essays on the Puranas make you see Hinduism as a violent authoritarian force challenged by non-violent egalitarian Buddhism. Frawley’s very personal translation turns Vedic hymns into a code that only “masters” (such as he) can decode after intense “sadhana”. Their views, according to him, are deeply insightful, intuitive, transcendental – and hence beyond academic challenge.

Doniger’s writings reveal the classic left tilt: looking at the world through the oppressor-oppressed framework, using methods such as inter-textuality and psychoanalysis that are deemed scientific by peer approval. Frawley’s writings reveals the classic right tilt: glorifying something authoritative, ancient and ahistorical, rejecting the scientific method as inadequate and inherently biased, tracing everything in Hinduism to his reading of the Vedas.

Not surprisingly, the liberal secular lobby sees Doniger as a hero and any attack on her – like the attempts to ban her book – as an attack on liberal secular values. Mirroring this is the undisguised admiration for Frawley, as he becomes the star speaker of most Hindutva conferences.

Doniger and Pollock

To appreciate the writings of Donger or Pollock, it is important to remind ourselves that they are highly successful American professors in American universities and this has as much to do with their ability as scholars as it has to do with their shrewd ability to negotiate successfully through the worldview of American education.

First, as part of religious studies departments, they need to be “non-confessional”, which means they must not be believers or evangelists of the subject they are studying. The assumption here is that an atheist will give a less prejudiced understanding of God. To establish secular credentials therefore, it is important that at no point are they seen as admiring the culture or religion they are researching and commenting about. Negative criticism is often the hallmark of objectivity in educational circles.

Second, they need to indulge the America’s saviour complex if they need a share of the shrinking funding. The objective of the research needs to alleviate the misery of some victim and challenge a villain. And so, Doniger will provide evidence of how Puranic tales reinforce Brahmin hegemony, while Pollock will begin his essays on Ramayana with reference to Babri Masjid demolition, reminding readers that his paper has a political, not merely a theoretical, purpose.

Third, ever since Edward Said revealed the Orientalist gaze of Western academia, European and American academicians have been on the defensive to ensure they do not “other” the East. So now, there is a need to universalise the “othering” process – and show that it happens even in the East, and is not just a Western disease. And so their writings are at pains to constantly point how privileged Hindus have been “othering” the Dalits, Muslims and women, using Sanskrit, Ramayana, Mimamsa, Dharmashastras, and Manusmriti. All this activism in the guise of academia causes the Hindutva lobby to bristle.

To be fair, non-Hindutva scholars also get upset at some deliberate misreading of Hindu/India in order to satisfy the Euro-American gaze, but they are fully aware that any open challenge will result in their classification as “right” which could lead to their ostracisation in academic circles. So they challenge the powerful Western White gaze more subtly, with rigorous academic papers.

Elst and Frawley

If we attribute strategy to the works of Doniger and Pollock, the same needs to be done to the works of Elst and Frawley. Both are catering to a vast latent need of privileged Hindus to feel good about themselves.

After having been at the receiving end of Orientalist and Marxist criticism since the 19th century, privileged Hindus have not developed requisite skills in the field of humanities to launch a worthwhile defence. They have been too busy studying in missionary schools and missionary colleges, earning medical and engineering degrees, finding jobs in Indian, European and American corporations, and even – in some cases – striving hard to replace their Indian passports with UK and US ones, for all the benefits that follow.

Outsourcing the job to White Men is an easy alternative. Particularly those who manage to establish credibility. Frawley does that brilliantly by declaring himself a Hindu, with an evocative title of Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, which makes him a “Brahmin” in Hindu eyes, justified on grounds of his vast knowledge of the Vedic scriptures, and his long practice of Ayurveda and Jyotisha. His wife is Indian, and has the title of Yogini.

Elst, by contrast, insists that he is not a Hindu, for he is well aware that no one can be “converted” to Hinduism, that it is linked to birth, and that Hinduism is deeply linked to geography. Frawley overcomes this bottleneck easily by insisting Vedic civilisation is universal and open to all humanity, and by defining what it means to be a true Brahmin.

It is significant, however, that no white convert to Hinduism ever identifies themselves as Vaishyas or Shudras. It is either Brahmin or Kshatriya, that is intellectual and combative – and always superior. So much for ‘division of labour’ thesis of varna.

Elst has done a lot of research on Ayodhya and endeavours to provide evidence to prove the Babri Masjid was indeed built on a site that once housed a Hindu temple. He has strongly challenged views of scholars like Richard Eaton who seek to secularise the iconoclasm of Muslim rulers. The standard trope in modern historical studies seems to be that Hindu temples were destroyed not only by Muslim rulers but also by Hindu rulers as part of establishing their authority. It disregards all Hindu memory and Islamic writing that shows motivation of Muslim rulers at its core was religious, designed to replace the Hindu faith with Islam. This is aligned with Western academic anxiety at being seen as Islamophobic – no points lost if one is Hinduphobic. Elst provides the fodder to challenge this view.

Both Elst and Frawley provide strong arguments to support the “Out of India” theory that seeks to establish India as the true homeland of the Aryan race or Sanskrit language, claiming it gave civilisation to the world. Frawley speaks of a proto-history, that predates the timelines recognised by regular historians. He is therefore widely quoted by alternative archaeologists such as Graham Hancock who speak of highly evolved pre-flood civilisations like Atlantis.

Frawley has also popularised Vedic astrology on grounds that it is an ancient, spiritual and “superior” astrology, much to the delight of the Hindutva lobby. Anyone who challenges Frawley faces the wrath of his American Hindu followers who declare everyone who disagrees with their guru to be anti-Hindu, or a “colonised” Indian with superficial knowledge that is not based on “sadhana”.

Western mythic patterns

Despite their deep knowledge of Hinduism, neither Elst nor Frawley, neither Doniger nor Pollock, believe in letting go and moving on, which is the hallmark of Hindu thought, often deemed as a feminine trait. Instead, Elst and Frawley keep drawing attention to injustice done by colonisers, goading Indians to rise up and fight, a violent tendency that is the hallmark of Western thought, often deemed as a masculine trait. Likewise, Doniger and Pollock keep reminding their readers that Hinduism’s seductive “spirituality” must at no point distract one from its communal and casteist truths.

So both parties keep the Hindu wound festering. Both also offer the balm of “justice”, a Western approach that is politically volatile for India, and commercially lucrative for them. Neither privileges the Indian idea of diversity, that rejects homogeneity, and allows for multiple paradoxical even hierarchical structures to co-exist.

Doniger and Pollock follow the Greek mythic pattern that establishes them as heroes who are in the “good fight” against “fascist” monsters. Elst and Frawley follow the Abrahamic mythic pattern that establishes them as “prophets” leading the enslaved – colonised – Indians back to the “Vedic Promised Land”.

Being placed on a high pedestal is central to both strategies. Criticism also evokes a similar reaction in both sides – they quickly declare themselves as misunderstood heroes and martyrs, and stir up their legion of followers. Doniger and Pollock have inspired an army of activist-academicians who sign petitions to keep “dangerous” Indian leaders and intellectuals out of American universities and even American soil, as in the case of Subramanian Swamy, who was not allowed to teach his economics course in Harvard for his personal beliefs and Narendra Modi who was not granted a visa to the USA when he was Gujarat Chief Minister on basis of an alleged crime. Likewise, Elst and Frawley have inspired an army of troll-followers to save Bharat Mata.

No dissent is tolerated. If you agree with either side, you become rational scientists for them. If you disagree with them, you become fascists – or racists.

Rather than engage, they both prefer to gag Indians into submission. If they listen, it is more to retort, than appreciate. Perhaps, both fear listening, for it may involve shifting their view, which is often viewed as submission, and defeat, and so loss of high status in the highly competitive world of intellectual combat.

Conversation or argument?

The Hindutva obsession (raga, in Sanskrit) for Elst and Frawley, and the revulsion (dwesha, in Sanskrit) for Doniger and Pollock, is mirrored by the liberal-secular obsession with Doniger and Pollock and their revulsion for Elst and Frawley. In doing so, these White Knights have transplanted Euro-American valorisation of intellectual combat into Indian soil, seeking one truth (scientific objectivity) over multiple truths (anekantavada of Jainism, for example). Thus we find in India the Euro-American Left’s war against religion, and the Euro-American Right’s Crusade against Muslims.

Like them, we find scholars focussing only on the negatives of the opposition in the quest to dehumanise them. We are embracing the culture of argument (vi-vaad) and rejecting the model of conversation (sam-vaad), where no one is right or wrong, and everyone has to ultimately find a way to live together with each other’s ideas.

We have bought into the fantasy that being an “argumentative Indian” in a spirit of rancour is a marker of scholarship. We have even convinced ourselves that in the absence of those who don’t argue, we only have the silent, submissive serfs. The long loving conversations (upanishad) of Shiva and Shakti in the Puranas, Agamas, and Tantras, designed to mutually explore the world and enrich the self is no longer part of popular or academic memory.

If we have to truly be decolonised, and truly swadeshi, be it the MK Gandhi or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh variety, we have to overcome our inferiority complexes, and without succumbing to chauvinism, realise that we Indians, with all our shortcomings, do not really need Europeans and Americans to tell us what Hinduism, Sanskrit or Vedas were, are, or should be.

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