Why This Book
Each of my books tries to provoke a new kind of conversation, the goal of which is to confront some specific prejudice against Indian civilization. Established biases covering a wide range of issues need to be exposed, especially when they are unsubstantiated. The objective of every book of mine is to pick a particular dominant narrative which is sustained by a nexus of scholars specializing in that theme, and then target it to effectively subvert it. The success of any such book may be measured in terms of how much challenge it generates against the incumbent positions. If my counter-discourse can become established in the minds of a sufficient number of serious thinkers, then it will assume a life of its own and its effects will continue to snowball without my direct involvement. This is the end result I seek. To be effective, a book must resist straying from its strategic priorities and must avoid arguing too broadly.
For example, I developed the strategy, overall thesis, and much of the content of Invading the Sacred so as to take aim at the Freudian psychoanalytical critiques of Hinduism. This hegemonic discourse was being propagated by a powerful nexus in the heart of the Western academia, and had spread as a fad among Indian intellectuals. Invading the Sacred gave birth to, and incubated, a solid opposition which cannot be ignored today. It spurred the Indian diaspora to recognize the syndrome and audaciously ‘talk back’ to the establishment of scholars.
My subsequent book, Breaking India, focused on demonstrating how external forces are trying to destabilize India by deliberately undermining its civilization. Such efforts are targeted at confusing and ultimately aborting any collective positive identity based on Indian civilization. The book exposed the foreign interests and their Indian sepoys who see Hinduism as a random juxtaposition of incoherent and fragmented traditions. Many watchdog movements have sprung into action because of that book. It has triggered a domino effect with other researchers now exposing more instances of the same syndrome.
My most recent book, Being Different, presents a coherent and original view of dharma as a family of traditions that challenges the West’s claim of universalism. Because Western universalism is unfortunately being used as the template for mapping and defining all cultures, it is important to become conscious of its distorted interpretation of Indian traditions. Being Different is prompting many Indians to question various simplistic views concerning their traditions, including some that are commonly espoused by their own gurus and political leaders. It is a handbook for serious intellectuals on how to ‘take back’ Hinduism by understanding it on its own terms.
The present book exposes the influential narrative that Hinduism was fabricated during British rule and became a dangerous new religion. The central thesis which I seek to topple asserts that Swami Vivekananda plagiarized Western secular and Christian ideas and then recast them in Sanskrit terminology to claim Indian origins for them. Besides critiquing this nexus and defending Vivekananda’s vision, this book also presents my own vision for the future of Hinduism and its place in the world.
Hence, the book has two purposes: to defend the unity of Hinduism as we practise it today, and to offer my own ideas about how to advance Vivekananda’s ‘revolution’ to the next stage.
This volume introduces some new vocabulary. Readers will learn the metaphor of ‘Indra’s Net’ as a poetic expression of deep Hindu insights which subsequently became incorporated as the most central principle of Buddhism. They will understand Vivekananda’s system of ‘tat tvam asi ethics’ as an innovative social theory premised on seva (service to others), but firmly grounded in Vedic thought. They will also become familiar with the ‘neo-Hinduism camp’, which is my name for the group of scholars who have developed the thesis aimed at undermining Vivekananda’s innovations and de-legitimizing contemporary Hinduism.
The book introduces and explains such ideas as ‘open architecture’ and ‘toolbox’, which are critical to my insights on Hinduism. While openness has always been characteristic of Hindus, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. I argue that this very quality of openness has made Hinduism susceptible to becoming ‘digested’. Digestion, a concept introduced in my earlier books, is further elaborated in these pages.
In the Conclusion, I stick my neck out and introduce a set of defensive strategies for safeguarding against digestion. I call these strategies the ‘poison pill’ (borrowing from corporate jargon) and the ‘porcupine defence’. I hope this provocative proposition will trigger debate and controversy.
Some of the new vocabulary that was introduced in Being Different—such as ‘history centrism’, ‘integral unity’ and ‘embodied knowing’—will be further sharpened in these pages. I will also ascribe new meanings to the old Sanskrit terms astika and nastika, and utilize them differently than in the tradition.
As an author, I am often asked who my target audience is. This is not an easy question to answer. Clearly, I wish to influence mainstream Hindus who are often seriously misinformed about their own traditions. But if I were simply dishing out what they want to hear, appealing to their ‘feel-good’ sensibility, I would be doing them a disservice; I would also be failing in my goal to radically change the discourse. Bombastic books that present Hinduism in a chauvinistic manner are counter-productive and a recipe for disaster. My hope is to spur the genesis of what I call a ‘home team’ of intellectual leaders who would research, reposition and articulate Hinduism in a responsible way on important issues today. Therefore, my writings must be rigorous to withstand the scrutiny of harsh critics.
This means I must also write for the secular establishment and the old guard of Hindu leaders, both of whom will be provoked by this book for different reasons. The secularists will attack it as a defence of Hinduism which to them is synonymous with ‘communalism’. The Hindus with tunnel vision will complain that it deviates from their narrow, fossilized lineage boundaries. While trying to educate the mainstream readers in the middle, I also wish to debate both these extremes.
Let me confess up-front that I have made some compromises for practical reasons. For instance, I use the term ‘philosophy’ to refer not only to Western philosophy but also, at times, to Indian thought, even though the latter would more accurately be called darshana. In every book I like to introduce a small number of non-translatable Sanskrit terms which I attempt to explain deeper than merely providing a reductive English equivalent. This book contains several such non-translatables, but ‘darshana’ is not one of them. I use the word ‘philosophy’ even where ‘darshana’ would perhaps be more appropriate. I apologize for this pragmatic simplification because I do not wish to overload my reader.
The difference between philosophy and darshana is significant. Philosophy resides in the analytic realm, is entirely dis-embodied, and is an intellectual tool driven by the ego. Darshana includes philosophy but goes much further because it also includes embodied experience. Traditionally, Indian thought has been characterized by the interplay of intellectual analysis and sadhana (spiritual practice), with no barriers between the two. Hindu practices cultivate certain states of mind as preparation for receiving advanced knowledge. In other words, darshana includes anubhava (embodied experience) in addition to the study of texts and reasoning. The ordinary mind is an instrument of knowing, and its enhancement through meditation and other sadhana is seen as essential to achieving levels of knowledge higher than reasoning alone can provide. Western philosophy emphasizes reason to the exclusion of anubhava and thus consists essentially of the dis-embodied analysis of ‘mental objects’. Such a philosophy can never cross the boundary of dualism.
Another discomforting choice I make is to use the term ‘contemporary Hinduism’ to refer to Hinduism as we know it today. Hinduism is an ancient tradition that has been adapted many times, most recently for the present era. In the context of this book, the term simply denotes a new variation of something that is not exactly the same as it was previously. The very existence of smritis—texts that are written and rewritten to fit the context of each specific period and place—indicates that our tradition has never been frozen in time. It has evolved in step with the needs and challenges of each era.
My choice of this term, then, is intended to make the mainstream ‘contemporary Hindu’ readers comfortable. By the end of the book, I hope to have convinced readers that Hinduism cannot be pigeon-holed into tradition, modern and post-modern straitjackets in the way the West sees itself, because Hinduism has always been all three of these simultaneously and without contradiction.
The book focuses on toppling a specific, well-entrenched line of discourse that tries to isolate tradition in order to create conflicts and contradictions. My challenge is to help general readers undergo some serious mental shifts. Accordingly, I prefer not to overburden them by introducing too many unfamiliar terms. My hope is that most of my readers will be comfortable with such terms as ‘philosophy’ and ‘contemporary Hinduism’, and not be bothered that some theoreticians might find them problematic.
Additionally, in the interest of reader friendliness, an editorial decision was made to avoid using diacritic marks for Sanskrit pronunciation. Most Sanskrit terms are being italicized when they appear for the first time, and this may be repeated in some situations. A Sanskrit term will often be accompanied by a brief phrase in parentheses, giving its approximate meaning in English. Many Sanskrit terms are spelled in more than one way depending on the source— for instance, ‘Shankara’ is also spelled as ‘Sankara’. Vivekananda is frequently mentioned without the ‘Swami’ title. I anticipate purists in Indian scholarship to raise issues with some of these compromises. But, as explained at the very beginning, I must pick my battles carefully and in a focused way, and this means making practical accommodations.
Summary of the major propositions and arguments in the book:
The following is a list of major propositions being explained and argued in this book. I furnish this list so the reader knows what to expect and can target his or her reading better:
- The openness of Hinduism: The metaphors of ‘Indra’s Net’, ‘open architecture’, and ‘toolbox’ are among the devices I use to explain that Hinduism is inherently an open system and that its unity and continuity are different from that which is found in the Abrahamic religions. The Introduction, Chapter 11 and Conclusion explain the concepts behind these metaphors. I also explain how the Vedic metaphor of Indra’s Net has travelled into the very heart of Buddhist philosophy, and from there into contemporary Western thought and culture. Hindu and Buddhist dharma is the art of surfing Indra’s Net.
- The ‘neo-Hinduism’ allegation against contemporary Hinduism: I strongly oppose the work of a prominent school of thought which claims that contemporary Hinduism, as we know it, is artificial and Western-generated, and that it was constructed and perpetrated by Swami Vivekananda for political motives. Chapters 1 through 7 explain the details of this subversive thesis (called the ‘neo-Hinduism’ thesis), the backgrounds of its main proponents, and the history of how it came about. All of this lays the groundwork for my rejoinder that follows.
- My defence of contemporary Hinduism: Not only are the charges against contemporary Hinduism refuted, point by point, in chapters 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11, but a countervailing view crystallizes, seeing contemporary Hinduism as unified, coherent and rooted in tradition. Chapter 6 explains the serious consequences of the ‘neo-Hinduism’ thesis in the form of popular literature and media biases in India.
- Digestion and fake liberalism: Many of the precious ideas and concepts in Hinduism have been systematically removed and placed in Western garb. Meanwhile, the original Hindu sources are allowed to atrophy and made to appear obsolete. Chapter 12 and the Conclusion articulate this syndrome with examples and discuss the existential danger this poses to Hinduism.
- The ‘porcupine defense’ and ‘poison pills’: With these I present my own strategy for safeguarding Hinduism from getting digested and thereby made to disappear. This defence entails the use of certain Hindu philosophical elements and practices which the predator cannot swallow without ceasing to exist in its current form. Such protective devices can help gurus free their Western followers from bondage to their religion of birth, such as claims to unique historical revelations, hyper-masculinized ideas of the divine, and institutionalized dogmatic beliefs. This is explained in the Conclusion.
- The future of astika and nastika: Using these age-old Sanskrit terms in a novel way, I propose how persons of different faiths can demonstrate mutual respect for one another. This will result in an open space in which adherents of all faiths can examine their tenets, and make whatever adjustments are needed to comply with the multi-civilizational ecosystem in which we live. Redefined for this new purpose, the astika-nastika categorisation can become a powerful weapon to defend Hinduism and reposition it as an important resource for humanity. This, too, is explained in the Conclusion.