Interview with Dr. Koenraad Elst – Part (II)

The second part of my interview with Dr. Koenraad Elst (you can read part 1 here), focuses on how Hindu Dharma has been defined when compared to other religions, and highlights a crucial mistake made by its adherents/well-wishers when attempting to represent an accurate picture in the face of a hostile and well-funded academe.

An Accurate Depiction of Hindu Dharma

A.S.: Hindu Dharma is often viewed as being incoherent, disjointed and scattered. When Hindu Dharma (also called Hinduism by Western Indologists, a term which unfortunately has gained currency even with practicing Hindus) is explained, it is often portrayed as being so undefined that it is difficult to call it anything at all. Some have even said that it is not really a religion, but a way of life or a hodgepodge of different rituals and philosophies. In your opinion, can Hindu Dharma be defined in a way that it can be portrayed as diverse but still united?

K.E.: The historical definition of the term “Hindu”, brought by the Muslim invaders[1], does not define a specific worldview and practice, as the definitions of Christianity and Islam do. “Hindu” is a geographically defined slice of Paganism, viz. all Pagan (=non-Christian, non-Muslim) traditions coming from Bharat (India). This means every possible belief or practice that does not conform to either Christianity or Islam. It includes the Brahmins, the upper and lower castes, the ex-Untouchables, the Tribals, the Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins”), the Jains, and many sects that didn’t even exist yet but satisfy the definition: Lingayats, Sikhs, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, ISKCon. I am aware that many now refuse to be called “Hindu”, but since they satisfy the definition, they are Hindu, period. Elephants are not first asked whether they agree to being called elephants either.

Hindu Dharma is much discriminated against by the Indian laws, and the secularists and missionaries have worked overtime to give it a bad reputation. It is disadvantageous to be seen as belonging to it, and is perceived as a sinking ship. So, honourless rats hurry to abandon it. Whatever else you may be, Adity, by merely being a Hindu, you do at least prove that you are not a rat.

To outsiders, those traditions are especially Hindu which are typical for Bharat. Sun-worship or ancestor-worship are pretty universal and hence not that stereotypically identified as Hindu, though Hindu Dharma includes them too. But belief in reincarnation and karma (not the same thing), or Vedic fire rituals, or Vishnu and his Avatars, or Ganesh etc., and their temples, are. The Vedic tradition could be considered the backbone of Hindu Dharma, though this is a historically acquired position and not a necessity. Hindu Dharma existed before the Vedas. But it is one of the commonest manipulations to speak of “Hinduism” when specifically the Vedic tradition is meant, or vice-versa.

When you are looking for a tradition that can bring you the truth, no less, you have to go beyond the negatively defined category of Paganism or “Hinduism” and opt for a member of the Hindu commonwealth with a specific doctrinal content: Sankhya-Yoga, Vedanta, Kashmiri Shaivism etc. It is here that the investigation of ideas becomes
important. While between Sankhya dualism and Vedanta monism there is ample room for discussion, there can, among rational human beings, be no discussion about the founding myths of Christianity or Islam being true. Once you apply your mind to them, they are obviously false. No, Jesus was not resurrected and did not deliver mankind from sin; and no, Mohammed did not communicate God’s word.

What is more obvious to an outsider than to a Hindu (though best articulated by Shrikant Talageri) is that today’s mainstream Hindu Dharma is a mixture of several historical contributors. One is the Vedic tradition embodied in the Brahmin caste, to the extent that Bharat as a punyabhumi (“land of spiritual merit”) coincided for some two thousand years with all the regions where Brahmin communities had settled. It originated among the Paurava tribe in Haryana along the Saraswati banks, and gradually “conquered” all of Bharat, i.e. kings who wanted their part of the Vedic civilization’s prestige invited Brahmin communities to settle.

With the fratricidal Mahabharata war in the -2nd millennium (my guess is ca. -1400), the Paurava expansion as a kingdom came to an end, and the Yadava tribe became dominant in the West. The episode where Krishna tells the villagers in Vrndavan to stop their preparations for celebrating the Paurava god Indra’s festival and worship the mountains, trees and cows instead (and where he holds up the Govardhan mountain as an umbrella against Indra’s wrath), encapsulates an important evolution within Hindu Dharma, viz. the shift from the Vedic gods to the Hindu pantheon we now know. Or to be more precise, the entry of already-existing non-Vedic strands of Hindu Dharma into the Vedic tradition. It also emphasizes the importance of nature-worship among Hindus, with its circumambulation of the Narmada, or its the pilgrimage to the river Ganga, the Kailash mountain, or the ice lingam
in Kedarnath.

A third important contributor was the Bihari culture. I once knew a girl of the Dutch Hindu community (from Surinam but ultimately from eastern UP and western Bihar) who was a bit shy about her family name Bihari, because she had heard that Bihar was the most backward part of Bharat. So we went through Bihari history together. It turned out to be extremely glorious. Not only did the first great empires originate there, Kapila was from there – the founder of one of the two defining philosophies of Hindu Dharma, viz. Sankhya-Yoga, and venerated as the philosopher par excellence in the Gita. The first Upanishadic seers, starting with Yajñavalkya, ultimately the originators of the other great philosophy, Vedanta, developed their ideas at king Janaka’s court in Videha, i.e. northwestern Bihar.

Also from Bihar was Mahavira, leading light of Jain Dharma (Jainism). Finally, from the Sankhya tradition sprang Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism), with Shakyamuni himself growing up in Kapilavastu, which had been built next to Kapila’s hermitage. To a large extent, all these visionaries perfected and systematized ideas that had already been present in the local Bihari culture, such as the idea of reincarnation and the practice of renunciation and meditation. Today Bihar is undergoing a bit of a dip, but it is the cradle of what has been called “the greatest achievements of the human mind”.

There are more contributors, but you get the idea with these three. And to be sure, they had each its own emphasis but the characteristics overlapped, e.g. the Pandavas, who were Pauravas, equally went on pilgrimage to the Ganga, the Buddha ordered his followers to maintain the existing pilgrimages, etc. All of them were mixed in Hindu culture. And peacefully mixed, I dare to add. Non-violence is not this silly Gandhian fad of willingly offering oneself to one’s killer. No, it is a profound philosophy of allowing everything to be itself, of assuming that everything in existence has a reason for existing. So, Hindu Dharma is allowing each of these components to flourish.

A.S.: Would it indeed be more accurate to describe Hindu Dharma as a way of life rather than a religion? Does classification matter at all?

K.E.: Calling it a “way of life” is really mental laziness, or utter ignorance. “A” way of life it certainly is not, for it includes many ways of life. And ways of life automatically follow from believing in any given doctrine. Islam is a religion, but it is very much a way of life, recognizable from afar. If you see someone praying five times a day, holding a fast during the month of Ramadan, and going on pilgrimage to Mecca, you can safely bet that he is a Muslim.

But alright, what is meant by the phrase is that Hindu Dharma is not a belief system. There are a number of beliefs available, such as a more philosophical orientation towards the Colourless Absolute versus a more devotional attitude towards the Absolute with a specific face, i.e. the different gods. Yet, in practical life, there is a common ground between all these viewpoints. No Hindu is going to disrupt the Night of Shiva (Shivratri) only because he worships Krishna instead. By contrast, we frequently hear of Muslims disrupting Durga Puja in Bangladesh or even West Bengal.

Hindu Dharma is a commonwealth of beliefs and practices. The common ground for all of them is a respect for the sacred, an awe of the divine. Hindus know they can’t be followers of every deity under the sun, life is too short for that, but they pay their respects to every emanation of the sacred that they come across. Pious Hindus tend to greet every temple they come across, regardless of sect or deity. Muslims only greet mosques and Christians only greet churches, but Hindus greet all of them.

Naïve Hindus, silly New-Agers and “moron Swamis” assert that all religions say the same thing, which is brazenly untrue. But the core of truth in that statement is nonetheless that sacredness is present wherever human beings hold something in awe.

When Mahatma Gandhi said: “Ishwar Allah tere naam” (“Both Shiva and Allah are Your names”), he meant to sell the silly untruth that Islam and Hindu Dharma are equally valid; but nonetheless this much was true, that the worship of Shiva and of Allah stem from the same piety. If anything is wrong with Islam, it is due to Mohammed. As for Allah, He was this pre-Islamic deity, to the Meccans a moon-god comparable to Shiva, with three phases or “daughters”, the three goddesses Allat, Manaat and Uzzah.

Mohammed cannot be saved, at least not as a Prophet, but Allah is quite alright. I used to be a fan of the Grateful Dead song “Blues for Allah”, and I retained a soft corner for Allah even after dismissing Mohammed. Similarly, any Hindu who reads what Mohammed did to the Arab Pagans, or what his followers did in his name to fellow Hindus, will firmly reject him; but Allah is just another face of the divine.

A.S.: The California textbook controversy has been simmering for more than ten years now. This can be contrasted with success rates of other religious groups in being able to have school textbooks reflect their beliefs and history. Where in your assessment, are the Hindu organizations going wrong in history rectification?

K.E.: Recently, there was another review of the textbooks, where the Hindus scored a small success. The “South Asia scholars” wanted to systematically replace “ancient India” with “South Asia”. Yet, the name “India” itself is ancient, and was used by the Greeks. Moreover, names are freely projected into the past elsewhere, e.g. “China” did not exist prior to 230 BCE, and even later was only used by foreigners, yet we call the Xia dynasty of ca. 1800 BCE “ancient Chinese”. “Africa” historically referred only to its northern coastal zone, and was again not used by the Africans, yet we speak of the dawn of mankind hundreds of thousands of years ago in “East Africa” as the “African dawn”. So, this zeal to obliterate “India” (Bharat) clearly sprang from this special anti-Hindu animus. Fortunately, enough scholars saw reason, and this proposal was scrapped.

Note however that “Hinduism” has still been replaced with “ancient Indian religions”. They don’t want to give any quarter to Hindu Dharma (Hinduism), not even its very existence. So, that is the battlefield you have to deal with: a seething hatred of Hindu Dharma among an academic vanguard, partly seconded and partly passively accepted by the rest of academe.

But in 2005-6, we saw the lowest ebb of the Hindu self-defence against this aggression. Hindus suffered an ignominious and wholly unnecessary defeat because of their own confusion. The cause was this animus among the relevant academics, and the smug contempt for or ignorance of the (very consequential) outside world among the American Hindus. A single proposed edit mobilized all relevant academics against the Hindus: their claim that the Aryan Invasion Theory had been debunked and laid to rest. When I saw that, I predicted at once that this would be
defeated, and would prevent any meaningful progress on any other topic. And so it happened.

The common Hindu had been heavily misinformed by a few Hindu writers who had pioneered this counterfactual claim that the Aryan debate was all over and had been lost by the AIT. Though the anti-AIT evidence had indeed been accumulating, the dominant received opinion is still the same. Had the AIT been discarded, US Hindus would not even have needed to take a stand on this. Fact is that the battle remains to be won, and you really have to be a sleepwalker not to see this.

The Hindu parents then went to Court to challenge their defeat, and were defeated again. But Hindus are apparently so attached to their fantasy world, that my own reporting on this repeated defeat earned me angry mails from Hindus who actually claimed victory. Well, if the result had been victory, why did they go to court to challenge it? If
you don’t even recognize the difference between victory and defeat, you’d better stay away from the battlefield. Fortunately, this time around they put up a more realistic performance. And if they scout and prepare the terrain well, they will achieve a real breakthrough next time around.

To be Continued…

(Other parts of this interview: Part 1)

HinduPost Note

[1] We at Hindupost disagree with Shri Koenraad Elst’s view, which is a widespread belief shared by many Hindus too, that the term “Hindu” was brought by the Muslim invaders (8th century onwards). As Swami Vigyananand has explained and other Hindu scholars have argued, our ancestors from the pre-Islamic period have been using the word “Hindu” to express their identity and proudly identifying their Dharma as Hindu Dharma. There are many Sanskrit works which use the term ‘Hindu’ such as Meru Tantra, Kalika Puran, Adbhut Kosh, Medini Kosh etc – some of these predate the first Islamic invaders or were composed before Islamic rule was established in the North. Moreover, a vast body of ancient Sanskrit literature is now lost to us.

The derogatory connotation for “Hindu” was primarily introduced in dictionaries (Lughat) compiled by some Indian Muslim scholars in the 19th century, and this was gradually internalized by sections of Hindu society at that time who were facing sustained Muslim and Christian intellectual attack. “Sindhu” word of Vedic Sanskrit literature is the source of “Hindu” word. Panini Sanskrit grammar rules and regional Bharatiya languages (like Assamese of Assam, a region which remained unconquered by Muslims and thus had no influence of Persian or Arabic language) show how the letter/sound (स) सकार (S) interchanges with (ह) हकार (H) at times –  thus हिंस (Hins) becomes सिंह (Sinh) and सिंधु (Sindhu) becomes हिन्दू (Hindu).


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About the Author

Adity Sharma
Adity Sharma is a student at St. John's University School of Law in New York. She has previously written for India Facts, Vijayvaani, Chakranews and Beliefnet.
  • Koenraad Elst

    A single little correction: the Yadavas were not Pauravas but their southeastern neighbours. However, they were cousins, all descended from Yayati and part of the Lunar Dynasty, related but not identical. And that is the relation between all Hindu communities: related but not identical.