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Questionable Perceptions of Hindu Traditions: Leftist Scholarship in India


 David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri), Director
 PO Box 8357, Santa Fe NM, 87504-8357          

     How  would  you expect that Hinduism, the world's  oldest  and
most  complex  religious system, would appear as seen  through  the
eyes of Marxists? Naturally it would not look very good. After  all
Karl Marx himself declared religion to be the opiate of the masses.
However  now communism has fallen all over the world and  religion,
including Hinduism, is still going strong. We have learned that the
truth   has   been  more  that  Marxism  is  the  opiate   of   the
intellectuals, as it has been called, than that religion itself  is
an illusion.

     Unfortunately,  the universities of India have  been  strongly
influenced  by  Marxists  since  independence  and  their  view  of
Hinduism  has become entrenched in the educational system.  Perhaps
the  most notable Marxist in India today is Romila Thapar, Emeritus
Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University (J.N.U.), which
is  itself  well  known in India as a center of  Marxist  activity.
Thapar is responsible for a number of the textbooks in India on the
history  of the country, which not surprisingly are rather negative
about  the  majority religion of the land. Thapar  has  offered  us
another   angle  of  her  views  in  her  recent  release  Cultural
Transaction in Early India, which is typical of her approach.

     If we understand that Thapar is a Marxist the logic behind her
studies becomes obvious. Thapar's historical criticisms of Hinduism
are  quite negative, and it is often easier to get more sympathetic
accounts  of  Hinduism  loom professors in  the  West.  She  doubts
whether  Hinduism as a religion really existed until recent  times.
She  portrays Hinduism not as a comprehensive tradition going  back
to  the  Mahabharata or earlier to the Vedas, but as  a  relatively
modern  appropriation,  and therefore misinterpretation,  of  older
practices and symbols mainly for social and political exploitation,
whose real meaning we can no longer know as we are not products  of
that  cultural  milieu. She tries to point  out  that  Hinduism  is
mainly a vehicle of social oppression through the caste system, and
is not worthy of much respect for any modern rational person.

     In  particular, Thapar tries to show that the non-violence and
tolerance  generally  ascribed to Hinduism are  really  myths  that
Hindus  or  India never really followed. There are a few historical
instances  of  Hindus being violent or oppressive of Buddhists  and
Jains, which she emphasizes. There are also historical instances of
Buddhists  being oppressive of non-Buddhists. Such is human  nature
that  is difficult to root out. But these are exceptions. There  is
no  Hindu or Buddhist tradition of crusades or holy wars like  that
of  Western  religions.  There  is  a  tradition  of  ahimsa  (non-
violence), which however imperfectly followed. was honored in India
more so than anywhere else in the world.

     What is most interesting about Thapar's studies of Hinduism is
that  they  are  totally  devoid of any  spiritual  dimension.  She
ignores  the  great Hindu yogis and gurus and does not discuss  the
Hindu philosophy of the universe or higher states of consciousness,
which  she  does  not  give any validity  to.  She  even  sees  the
institution of Sannyasa or monastic renunciation as another  source
of social authority (and therefore oppression of the masses), not a
spiritual  institution.  Her  interpretation  of  Hinduism  follows
purely  social and political lines. Yet as an atheist can we expect
that  she would understand or appreciate Hindu devotional or  yogic
practices? You will certainly never find her quoting the Upanishads
or the Gita in a favorable light. In this regard I am reminded of a
communist  poet of Maharashtra whom I once met, who  described  the
Gita  as  "the  greatest  mystification the  human  mind  has  ever
produced." No doubt Thapar would be inclined to concur.

     Thapar's view of Hinduism is on the same order as Karl  Marxs'
view  of  Christianity, or the Chinese communist view of  Buddhism.
Going to Thapar to understand Hinduism is a lot like going to  Marx
to  understand  Christianity. Following her  Marxist  mentors,  she
accuses  Hinduism  of having a political agenda  in  the  guise  of
religion (which since there is no God in their view, religion could
never  have any real higher spiritual agenda anyway). Yet there  is
no  doubt  that  such Marxist thinkers, seeing the  world  only  in
political terms, have an entirely political agenda. Thapar's recent
historical  accounts  are clearly meant as  attacks  on  the  Hindu
revivalist  movement  in  India, which the communists  have  always
regarded as their main enemy.

     Marxist atheists like Thapar like to appear as social liberals
and  objective academicians and some intellectuals trained  in  the
Western tradition may be taken in by this ploy. She does not parade
her  Marxism,  particularly in recent years, and her  criticism  of
Hinduism,  though  harsh,  is presented in  an  indirect  scholarly
style, which makes it appear less obvious. We should understand the
background of such thinkers.
     just  because a person is a famous professor from  India  does
not  mean that they are providing an accurate or sensitive  account
of  Hinduism or the history of India. India has a great variety  of
thinkers   and  intellectuals,  and  I  must  say  that  the   most
Westernized,  anti-religious, materialistic  intellectuals  I  have
ever  met  were  in  India, not in the West, and  they  were  often
teachers in universities. The same inability to understand or  even
appreciate religion can be said of many professors in America,  who
as  products of materialistic Western academia are also  likely  to
analyze  religion not as a spiritual phenomenon  but  as  a  purely
social-political  institution devoid  of  any  real  transcendence.
Thapar  looks to such Western thinkers for her inspiration and  has
little  regard for the Hindu spiritual and philosophical  tradition
which  she neither understands nor feels any kinship with.  If  she
has  any God or guru it is Marx, and Hindu systems like Vedanta are
as foreign to her as they are to any non-Hindu.

     Hindus who are religious - and the great majority are strongly
religious  should not mistake such Marxist views for  an  objective
pursuit  of  truth,  whether they come  from  India  or  elsewhere.
Fortunately  with  the  downfall of communism  in  the  world,  the
influence  of communism in India is also on the wane, but  just  as
the  old communists are holding on to their declining power in  the
political institutions of China (and Bengal), they are also holding
on in the educational institutions of India.

     As  a Westerner writing on Hinduism in a positive light it  is
strange  that  the  main  opponents I  have  run  into  are  Hindus
themselves,  that is the Marxist Hindus, who like many  rebels  are
the  most  negative about their own cultural traditions which  they
have  but recently abandoned. The views of these leftists are often
on  par  with the anti-Hindu views of Christian fundamentalists  on
the  right. While the latter see Hinduism a religion of the  devil,
the  former  see  it  as  a personification  of  social  evil,  the
manifestation  of  caste  division which  is  their  devil  (though
curiously  Marxism works to encourage class hatred, not to  promote
social harmony and peace between the classes).

     Hindus  today,  like followers of other religions,  should  no
longer accept the Marxist view of their religion and their history,
but  to  do  so they must first unmask it. This does not mean  that
Hindus  have  done  no wrong or that they should not  reform  their
social  system  or  become more compassionate.  The  proper  social
changes that need to be done in India or anywhere else in the world
d@  not  require rejecting religion in the true sense, or  adapting
communist-socialist policies which are failing everywhere.  On  the
contrary,   the   appropriate  changes   follow   from   a   better
understanding of the spirit of universality in Hinduism,  which  is
the  essence of its religious view, its recognition of God  as  the
Self of all being;.
     Observing  such Marxist thinkers one is reminded of the  Katha
Upanishad.   "Living   in  the  midst  of  ignorance,   considering
themselves to be wise, the deluded wander confused, like the  blind
led  by  the blind. The way to truth does not appear to a  confused
childish  mind,  deluded by the illusion of  wealth  (materialism).
Thinking that this world alone exists and there is nothing  beyond,
they  ever  return  again  and again to  the  net  of  Death."  The
Upanishads saw long ago that materialistic thinkers who regard that
this  world  is the only reality can only lead us to ignorance  and
sorrow.  It is about time that people in India started to heed  the
words  of their ancient sages, even if it means questioning  modern
     (A   review  of Romila  Thapar's  book
     Cultural Transaction and Early India)

* "This life is short, the vanities of the world are transient, but they      *
*  alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive"         *
*    	    	    	    	    	    	    	- Vishwa Vivek        *

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