Eight Myths to be Challenged

For most Hindus today, the legacy of Swami Vivekananda is assured. It is an article of faith that he was a great leader who influenced many others and inspired the practice of Hinduism over the past century. He is remembered as a visionary who expanded our understanding of the Hindu tradition by putting it on the world stage and making it relevant to his time.

It would surprise many of us, then, to know that an opposite view of this legacy is entrenched in academic circles, and that it is fast becoming the default interpretation among public intellectuals. As mentioned in the Introduction, this thesis brands Vivekananda’s movement as ‘neo-Hinduism’ where ‘neo’ implies something phoney. It is troubling to see the acceptance, in many important circles, of the specious theory that his formulation of Hinduism was utterly decoupled from ‘traditional’ Hinduism. In fact, even many naïve and unsuspecting followers of Vivekananda believe a version of it. This is an epidemic of which most Hindus are unaware.

 The thesis blames the prominent leaders of contemporary Hinduism for duping the Indian public. The accused conspirators include: Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833); Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902); Balgangadhar Tilak (1856-1920); Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948); Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941); Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982); Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950); and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975).

This book will show that the branding of contemporary Hinduism as a faux ‘neo-Hinduism’ is a gross mischaracterization of both traditional and contemporary Hinduism. I will use the term ‘contemporary Hinduism’ in a positive sense, and distinct from the dismissive ‘neo-Hinduism’, and show that contemporary Hinduism is a continuation of a dynamic tradition. It is not in any way less authentic or less ‘Hindu’ than what may be dubbed traditional Hinduism. There are negative connotations to the term ‘neo’ which imply something artificial, untrue, or unfaithful to the original. Other world religions have undergone similar adaptations in modern times, though there are no such references to ‘neo-Christianity’, for instance. I resist the wide currency being gained for the term ‘neo-Hinduism’, because this fictional divide between ‘neo’ and ‘original’ Hinduism subverts Hinduism.

Chapter 8 will draw on ancient Sanskrit sources and historical documents to show a continuing tradition that was alive and well during the twelfth to seventeenth centuries CE. This shows that there are historic precedents within the framework of the tradition for the kind of change that contemporary Hinduism is bringing about.

I will now summarize the basic assumptions or myths underlying the theory of ‘neo-Hinduism’, with a brief response to each. These responses are elaborated in later chapters.

Myth 1: India’s optimum state is Balkanization

One of the most dangerous assertions being made is that India’s natural state is one of balkanization. In other words, before colonialism, it was never unified. Those who hold this view believe India should be returned to that pre-colonial state by disempowering Hinduism (because it is considered to be a unifying force that benefits only the elites), and by empowering the forces of fragmentation. Richard King illustrates this view, insisting explicitly that ‘it makes no sense to talk of an Indian nation’.

 Such a discourse on the fragmentation of India has been used to stir up internal divisiveness and conflict—ironically, in the name of human rights. (Breaking India shows how this has come about, along with its political ramifications.)

Theories of the coherence of India and its civilization are dismissed by alleging that such claims necessarily imply an imposition of homogeneity and hegemony. As a corollary, there is the conclusion that Indians ought to simply deny any unified positive identity based on their own past, and instead seek a common identity based on the further importation of modern Western principles of society and politics. Those few individuals who dare articulate Indian coherence are therefore characterized as dangerous and accused of fascism, identity politics, fundamentalism, and links to atrocities.

 This myth will be discussed in detail in Chapter 7, where we will see that it is based on a misconception about the nature of pre-colonial India. This misconception denies India’s cultural unity based on the dharmic traditions.

Myth 2: Colonial Indology’s biases were turned into Hinduism

It is generally true that prejudiced colonial Indologists constructed Hinduism in a way that fit their own agendas. These agendas included Christian missionary attempts to depict the heathens as so lowly and uncivilized that they required evangelization. There was also the imposition, by colonial governments, of a uniform method of rule that would make the population easy to control. I also accept that many Europeans laboured hard to recover Sanskrit texts, did important philological work, and struggled to understand Hindu traditions, even if only through their own lenses.

However, I disagree with the charge that Indian leaders took their cues exclusively from the West in reclaiming their textual traditions, and that they reinterpreted these texts in line with Western ideas. To assume Indians passively read their own texts under the tutelage of Europeans, without any sense of their traditional meanings, is tendentious and untrue.

 Being open to influence from others does not render a culture ‘inauthentic’. Hinduism has always insisted that the way its traditions are interpreted and practised are a product of place, time and custom. If the truths are expressed in a way that is Western in form for the sake of wider communication, it does not make the substance of it any less Hindu.

Myth 3: Hinduism was manufactured and did not grow organically

The overarching charge made by proponents of the neo-Hinduism thesis is that contemporary Hindu leaders, particularly Vivekananda, Gandhi and Aurobindo, invented wholesale a new religion which we call Hinduism, using purely Western ingredients in order to promote a particular political agenda and a ‘macho’ national identity. Since Vivekananda heralds the modern revival of India’s spirituality, many intellectuals target him as the creator of a synthetic and artificial new religion called Hinduism.

 This characterization reveals a serious misunderstanding of Indian culture. Since the earliest times, prominent Hindus have disagreed among themselves, and their ideas were not static or frozen; new ideas were constantly introduced to challenge old ones. This process of change and adaptation has not stopped, nor should it. Hence, Vivekananda ought to be seen as a new thinker updating the tradition for modern times, not as someone fabricating something insidious or inauthentic. He was continuing the ancient tradition of innovation, while profoundly immersed in his own tradition. Yet he was receptive to Western influence, demonstrating a broadmindedness that is intrinsic to Hinduism.

 Vivekananda and his heirs did articulate Hinduism in a new way, using the English language in a European idiom. They also emphasized (perhaps more than previously) action and social responsibility, and engaged explicitly with science. But these ideas were deeply rooted even in pre-colonial Hinduism. They were part of a natural and organic development through which Hinduism has stayed relevant, not unlike the changes that the traditional religions of Europe underwent on multiple occasions. Indeed, the modernization of Hinduism has occurred with less violence and distortion than similar movements in modern Christianity in Europe, as discussed in Being Different.

Vivekananda’s understanding of Vedanta amalgamated teachings from various Hindu traditions. His reinterpretation of four intertwined pathways of yoga to attain moksha—jnana yoga (knowledge), raja yoga (meditation), karma yoga (selfless service) and bhakti yoga (devotion) —has an antecedent in Vijnanabhikshu, a prominent Indian thinker who lived long before the colonial period. This contradicts the myth that he copied Western ideas and that these ideas were absent in pre-colonial Hinduism.

Since many Indian trains of thought have always co-existed, there is no reason for tradition and modernity to fight each other. The very notion that there are mutually conflicting stages of tradition, modern and post-modern, is a Eurocentric one. These ‘stages’ refer to the way things progressed in Western history, but this cannot be extrapolated as universal. Indeed, dharma includes within it the attitudes that are considered to belong to tradition, modern and post-modern, all in parallel, and not necessarily in mutual contradiction.

Myth 4: Yogic experience is not a valid path to enlightenment and tries to copy Western science

One of the controversies at the heart of the debate has to do with the status of yogic anubhava, the direct experience of higher states of consciousness attained in meditation. Such meditation practices are part of what is referred to as adhyatma-vidya, or ‘inner science’. Exalted experiences are at the foundation of classical Indian texts and are emphasized anew in contemporary Hinduism.

Many cutting-edge Western cognitive scientific research programmes today have evolved under the profound influence of dharmic traditions, and such practices are referred to as first-person empiricism by neuroscientists. To call into question the authenticity of such practices, or to set them aside as inferior to the authority of scripture, would deprive Hindus of one of their most valuable assets and eliminate a unique aspect of their tradition, i.e., its profound investment in adhyatma-vidya. Chapter 11 elaborates on this correlation between cognitive science and dharmic traditions.

Unfortunately, the importance of direct experience in Hinduism is vigorously contested by members of the neo-Hinduism camp. They claim that authentic tradition, especially Advaita Vedanta, considers only the sruti (Vedic text) as the path to moksha (enlightenment); therefore, anubhava, or direct experience, cannot lead to moksha. They cite Shankara’s works (of the eighth century CE) to support their position. Since Vivekananda emphasized anubhava, he is accused of having violated this core tenet of classical Hinduism.

The dangerous implication of this position is that it makes Vedanta and yoga appear mutually incompatible, thereby undermining Hinduism’s unity. This is the main philosophical attack denying the existence of Hinduism as a coherent, unified and continuous system.

Vivekananda and other proponents of contemporary Hinduism say that although the sruti text is important, the goal is to attain the higher states of consciousness to which they point, not to reify the text into dogma. Whether one is more suited to textual study or to yogic practice depends on one’s temperament. Furthermore, there are deep linkages between textual study and yogic practice; they are to be practised in combination, not in isolation. Hinduism has room both for textual authority and direct experience. This openness is also present in Shankara, who is often wrongly depicted as a sort of bookworm fixated on texts.

Vivekananda’s approach revolved around a unified Vedanta-Yoga as spiritual praxis (anubhava) that is informed by Vedic precepts, insights, and authority (sruti). This is consistent with many earlier thinkers (such as Vijnanabhikshu, to be discussed in Chapter 8) who insist that one must not rely solely on sruti but also attain a direct experience of the truth which the practice of yoga can bring. A classical concept in Hinduism has been that a true proposition has to be consistent with sruti, yukti (reason/logic) and anubhava.

There are, indeed, well-known philosophical differences between Shankara and Vivekananda, but one should not read their works too narrowly. Such differences are the products of different ages with different needs for the revival of dharma. Vivekananda operated in the context of distinguishing Hinduism vis-à-vis the West whereas Shankara was operating in an environment dominated by Buddhism. These differences become acute only when seen through the singular goal of attaining moksha, whereas the discourse on Hinduism should not be limited merely to any approach for moksha.

 Neo-Hinduism claims that the emphasis on yogic direct experience originated only as a result of appropriating Western science so as to make Hinduism seem scientific. Since science emphasizes empirical evidence, the closest thing to it which Hindus could claim was that mysticism was a form of empiricism. This incorrect interpretation of yoga’s long history of experiential exploration will be challenged in Chapter 11.

Myth 5: Western social ethics was incorporated as seva and karma yoga

The neo-Hinduism camp also insists that the emphasis on social responsibility and social action in the thought of Vivekananda, Gandhi and Aurobindo was imported from Christianity. While there has definitely been Western influence, this charge is overstated. Concepts such as seva and karma yoga were not absent from the prior tradition, even in the works of Shankara. Secondly, contemporary Hindus should not be discredited for rising to the challenge posed by social degradation under colonial rule.

Chapter 9 will show that, counter to the neo-Hinduism thesis, lokasangraha (service to others) and bhakti (devotional surrender) derive from ancient Hinduism, with roots going back to the Bhagavad-Gita and even earlier. Vivekananda translated ‘lokasangraha’ as ‘working for the good of others’ and called this ‘a very powerful idea’ in the modern context. The individual is encouraged to move away from selfish desires by using the notions of karma (action), bhakti (devotion) and jnana (knowledge). The application of these old ideas to new contexts does not amount to a discontinuity or contradiction.

 There have been numerous examples of warrior ascetics in traditional India long before the arrival of the British, which goes to show that social activism is not a recent response to colonialism. The kind of Indian rule Vivekananda envisaged was in line with an unbroken chain that goes back to the classical texts of Arthashastra and Panchatantra. Chapter 9 will also show how Sahajanand Swami, free from any colonial influence, had created a large, vibrant community of sadhus who devoted their lives serving the public rather than withdrawing from society and living as recluses.

Myth 6: Hinduism had no prior self-definition, unity or coherence

Another common charge in the campaign to de-legitimize Hinduism is that it had no self-defined and conscious understanding of its own distinctiveness from other religions. The foundation of neo-Hinduism is said to have been built by distorting prior traditions, which themselves had no unity and were a mishmash of irreconcilable texts and local customs.

 Since there is no central authority or ecclesiastical structure in Hinduism, no closed canon or ‘Bible’ of sacred texts, and since there are no ‘creeds’ to which members of the faith must subscribe, Westerners tend to denigrate it as random, fragmented, chaotic and without unity. Sociologists and anthropologists often focus on conflicts and oppression in modern Indian society, and project their findings onto ancient Hindu texts to show that incoherence has always been characteristic of India.

 This view ignores the fact that besides top-down structures and reified codes of orthodoxy, there can be other modes of unity that are decentralized. The phenomenon known as Kumbha Mela illustrates this decentralization beautifully. No one organizes this mass pilgrimage; there is no governing body or official charter by any founder; there is no ‘event manager’ who sends out a programme; and there are no official creeds. Yet it is both perceptually and philosophically a ‘Hindu event’.

In Being Different, I argue that the Western notion of unity and coherence is based on an obsession for control, expansion and hegemony. Generally, the Western style of working is exemplified in the way a large multi-national corporation functions. Various institutional mechanisms are in place to standardize labour policies, internal procedures, products, sales channels, and so on. It’s no surprise the Roman Catholic Church was the world’s first major corporate multinational (and is still arguably the largest). It developed the first commercial multinationals, such as the Knights Templar. The East India Company borrowed the structures for systematic control and order from these Christian sources, and modern historians of corporations regard that company as the template for modern multinational governance.

But this central control represents only one kind of coherence. It is not the model on which Indian coherence is built. Being Different summarizes various Western imaginings of a ‘chaotic India’, and offers an Indian response by reversing the gaze, as it were, so that it is directed at the West’s fixation on normative ‘order’.

There are several aspects to Hinduism that are distorted when seen through the Western lens. For example, through the assumption of Hinduism’s lack of internal consistency and unity, such scholars, in effect, undermine any claim made on its behalf. Any attempt to speak of such an entity in positive terms is frequently debunked by asking, ‘To which “Hinduism” are you referring?’ Often this charge of incoherence goes beyond Hinduism, and serves as the basis for Myth 1, i.e., that India itself lacks any unity in the positive sense.

The characterization of Hinduism as incoherent serves to protect Western hegemony. The intellectual sophistication of Hinduism offers a vantage point from which the West’s assumed universalism can be strongly challenged. Since acknowledging such a stance would pose a grave threat to Western universalism and its place on a pedestal, it becomes important to undermine the legitimacy of Hinduism as a coherent position from which to gaze.

Brian Smith understands the dangers of the ‘chaotic Hinduism’ thesis and has analysed this kind of scholarship in detail. He notes that Hinduism is considered too disorganized and ‘exotically other’ or else too complex and ‘recondite’; this makes it hard to apply standard methods of analysis used in Western religious studies. He says this view has become ‘standard received wisdom’ today. As a result, the term ‘Hinduism’ ends up meaning nothing at all. Smith recognizes the absurdity here, though he does not speak of the full ramifications.

It is even fashionable now to put Hinduism within scare quotes. Scholars who might otherwise appreciate it often portray it as an exotic and unintelligible collection of peculiar practices and strange problems, reminiscent of primitive societies that were superseded by the West.

Many architects of the myth of neo-Hinduism also dismiss the unity of any earlier dharma. Richard King, for instance, outright rejects the fluid concept of dharma as a basis for future development. These scholars seem determined to resurrect some state of pre-modern tribalism or balkanization.

Myth 7: Hinduism is founded on oppression and sustained by it

It is fashionable to vilify Hinduism openly as a construct invented to serve regressive nationalistic and proto-fascist identity politics; it is accused of violating the rights of minorities, women and others. This attack is often mounted in the name of defending human rights.

Contemporary Hinduism shapes India just as the Western religious traditions shape America. And just as civilizations shaped by the Western religions can support and sustain a responsible and pluralistic society, so too can Hinduism (in several respects, even more naturally). As per the description of open architecture given in Chapter 11, dharmic culture has a strong foundation for absorbing multiple communities, metaphysical points of view, and new scientific developments than do the Abrahamic religions. This is so because dharma is not burdened by the imperative to reconcile itself with an absolute history; nor was dharma formulated under any centralized governance or adjudicating authority.

The neo-Hinduism thesis also demonizes Sanskrit as oppressive and fossilized, thus discarding centuries of cultural and philosophical development. The equivalent idea applied to the West would be to dismiss the entire corpus of Greek and Latin literature and philosophy for being corrupted by its elitism. Not only does the dismissal of Sanskrit rob India of a crucial resource; it deprives it of a sense of unity that pre-dates colonialism.

Myth 8: Hinduism presumes the sameness of all religions

While defending contemporary Hinduism, I do not treat every one of its tenets as sacrosanct. One of the aspects of which I am especially critical (and where I actually agree with my opponents in the neo-Hinduism camp) is the assertion by Vivekananda and his heirs that all religions are paths to the same goal. I am troubled by the tendency to see all religions as offering equivalent things in the hope of reconciling them in a kind of perennial philosophy. Being Different was written precisely for the purpose of arguing against this position. The Conclusion has a section specifically to give my rejoinder to the ‘sameness’ thesis.

Summary of both sides of the debate

The neo-Hinduism thesis is well-defined and consistently applied amongst the academics. Other, competing views are often not articulated, or are not articulated as effectively. Thus, in order to highlight the key tenets of neo-Hinduism and my responses, I shall focus on these two opposing poles in debate. My goal is not to force readers into an ‘either/or’ position, but to encourage more participants to enter the debate.

The table below summarizes, as sharply as possible, the differences between the neo-Hinduism thesis and my own understanding of contemporary Hinduism.

Neo-Hinduism—Opposing Thesis Contemporary Hinduism—My Thesis
Swami Vivekananda manufactured a new religion popularly called Hinduism, and other Indian nationalists such as Gandhi, Radhakrishnan, Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo subsequently crystallized it. These thinkers evolved contemporary Hinduism using traditions as the base into which they assimilated new ideas, including Western ones. Similar changes occur in every religion.
Hinduism is discontinuous with past traditions, and hence is something ‘neo’ or inauthentic. Hinduism is continuous with past traditions, even though it changes and evolves just as it has done many times before.
The ‘inventors’ of this new religion of Hinduism allegedly suffered from a serious inferiority complex under British colonial rule. The neo-Hindus were concerned about the internal decay of Indian society and about the Christian missionary attacks against traditional Hinduism as otherworldly and elitist. This was true to some extent but the authenticity of Hinduism is not undermined regardless of the factors that modernized it.
Prior to colonialism, Indian traditions had no sense of unity. Intense conflict and mutual contradiction characterized the relationship between them. Indian nationalists, seeing the need for a united India to rise up against the British, fabricated the idea of unity. Despite the immense diversity across various Hindu groups, philosophies, paths, etc., there was already an overarching unity underneath. The terms ‘astika’ (insiders) and ‘nastika’ (outsiders) are old and dynamic, showing that notions of unity existed previously and were contested vibrantly.
Neo-Hinduism’s major ideas are imported from the West, and this influence is camouflaged by using Sanskrit words to express them. The major resources used for bringing about change come from within the tradition itself.
Shankara says the Vedas are required as pramana (means of knowing) because one cannot know Brahman like an object, making anubhava (personal experience) incapable of facilitating enlightenment. Direct experience can also be unreliable. Vivekananda’s jealousy of Western science led him to re-imagine yoga as a science. The new emphasis on anubhava also created an artificial harmony between Vedanta and yoga to overcome what had earlier been a conflict between them. Adhyatma-vidya has been an ancient science that utilizes each person’s own human potential beyond ordinary mental states. Hence Vivekananda’s emphasis on anubhava continues the tradition of the rishis’ direct experiences as empirical evidence. Vedas as pramanas are not sidelined but supplemented by direct experience.
Christian ideals of helping society and Western secular theories of social ethics inspired Indian nationalists to appropriate them; karma yoga was used merely as a garb to make this plagiarized idea look Hindu. Social activism and ethics have been enshrined in the tradition of karma yoga, and this has been modernized to keep up with the times. The Vedas offer a basis for ethical principles that transforms the psychology of the individual.
The Bhagavad-Gita was not a central text until Western Indologists made it important, leading neo-Hindus to adopt it as their focal text. The Bhagavad-Gita was a primary text long before European colonialism. Every major Hindu thinker (including Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhava) wrote extensive commentaries on it.
Hinduism is inherently oppressive of minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Dalits and women. It forces others into its own homogeneity for gaining political control. Hindutva is its latest incarnation and its goal has been to impose homogeneity. Contemporary Hinduism renews the coherence and unity of diverse Indian traditions. It does not harm their diversity, and has, in fact, the most open architecture among the main faiths of the world. Its lack of historical absolutes (in the sense of the Abrahamic religions) accounts for these extraordinary qualities.
Hinduism is a dangerous conspiracy that is being spread worldwide by duping naïve Westerners into thinking that it is a genuine tradition of peace and equality, which it is not. Contemporary Hinduism can be a great gift to humanity because of its practical and theoretical resources and its promotion of harmony among diverse views and practices.

It is clear from the above table that the two views of Hinduism are diametrically opposed. The clash is not trivial. The assumptions of neo-Hinduism dominate the academia and in large sections of Indian education, media, public policymaking, and popular discourse. Ironically, many Hindu gurus, in embracing a global audience, have adopted this posture as well. This book will show how the definition of neo-Hinduism has been contrived and how it has gained authenticity, in part because it suits certain academic and political agendas, and in part because it has been reiterated extensively without adequate critical response.

I do not wish to discourage criticisms of Hinduism or of any of its leaders. But I do object to the way Vivekananda has been made to look captive to Western models and to the denial of the internal coherence and agency in Hinduism. The attempt to discredit and delegitimize Hinduism and do away with any notion of unity pre-dating colonialism is mischievous. There is a deplorable tone of disparagement, denigration, and sometimes outright contempt toward the spiritual leadership of such figures as Vivekananda, Tagore, Aurobindo and Gandhi.

What, may I ask, is wrong with trying to modernize a traditional faith in light of contemporary and emerging understandings of the world? Why is such a project okay when undertaken in other parts of the world, for example by the Catholic Church in Vatican II, and not okay when undertaken by proponents of Hinduism? And why is it wrong to strive to establish and foster a spiritual basis for the Indian polity now? Why is it assumed that fragmentation of this polity is both an established fact and a good thing?

Far from starting any regressive discourse, Vivekananda was engaged in a natural process of renewal and expansion. He revised an existing tradition by fusing yogic practice, Vedanta, and the best of Western science and humanism. Historically such changes have been achieved organically from within Hinduism and its enduring repertoire of principles and practices.

The next few chapters will detail the individual arguments of the important academics—Paul Hacker, Agehananda Bharati, Ursula King and Anantanand Rambachan—and then discuss their influence on the discourse today.