Questionable Perceptions of Hindu Traditions: Leftist Scholarship in India
QUESTIONABLE PERCEPTIONS OF HINDU TRADITIONS: LEFTIST SCHOLARSHIP IN INDIA
David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri), Director
AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF VEDIC STUDIES
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
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 *