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Author Archives Koenraad Elst

Interreligious dialogue: smokescreen or real utility?

Posted by Koenraad Elst  /   January 20, 2014  /   Posted in All, Commentary, Headline  /   2 Comments

Interreligious dialogue is very fashionable these days. But what achievements does it have to show?

Interreligious meetings are ten a penny nowadays. It is obviously better for people to spend their time talking to each other than to smash each other’s heads in. But apart from this elementary use, do they have any merits? A few years ago, I attended a conference on Religion in Asia after 9/11 at Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi. There, Swami Agnivesh, the Hindu equivalent of a liberation theologian (“Vedic socialism”), was asked to evaluate his long experience with interreligious dialogue. His conclusion: “No, it has no use. Have we achieved anything with it? No, we have not. It is time we tried something else.”

Yet, some people keep on trying. In the weekend of 12-13 September 2009, Antwerp witnessed a modest conference of all religions, or nearly all. Every religion had its own little stall for self-presentation and a spokesman from each gave a speech. The major religions were present, though they mistrust such meetings as (1) conveying the theologically unacceptable impression that their own message is on a par with that of other, “false” religions; (2) giving undue importance to small religions, since each one sends one delegation regardless of the size of its flock.

One knows how all this pans out: neo-Druids, neo-Templars, non-Muslim “Sufis”, would-be-Amerindian sweatlodgers and other Wiccas will stake their claim to an equal seat at the table with the billion-plus religions of Catholicism and Islam. Biblical and Quranic orthodoxies dismiss such syncretism and “equal respect for all religions” as Pagan par excellence, an insult to the sole revealed truth. The initiative for the conference lies with these small religions, though they found a Catholic priest willing (and others unwilling) to open his church for the ecumenical celebration. Some Catholics have gone soft under the impact of the Zeitgeist, represented by the political authorities of the city, who are always eager to patronize such chummy interreligious affairs.

This highlight of a truly ecumenical celebration is theologically very risky. For example, many traditions impose specific purity requirements for a ritual to be effective, requirements which outsiders don’t observe and generally don’t even know about. Therefore, the usual scenario is that at such gatherings the delegates pat each other on the shoulder a lot in the plenary session, intone the predictable mantras about “mutual understanding” and “respect”, but insist on celebrating the intimate moments of religious worship separately (e.g. at the Assisi gathering hosted by Pope John-Paul II). Let us just see how it works out.

Meanwhile, my own experience with such gatherings is that they may have their uses at the personal level. On 3 May 2009, I participated in an interreligious dialogue session organized by the Belgian Ahmadiya community in the Basilica of Koekelberg (Brussels). It worked out very nicely, at least for me.

The Ahmadiyas are a Muslim-yet-non-Muslim tradition. Founded in the late 19th century in British India by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad from Qadian, they claim to be Muslim and even excel in their zeal for Islam, yet they are considered non-Muslim by other Muslims including the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The reason is that the Ahmadiyas consider their own founder as another prophet, completing and reaffirming the message of Mohammed. But Islamic orthodoxy holds that Mohammed was “the Seal of the Prophets”, the final prophet whose word is definitively authoritative until Judgment Day. The Prophet’s status is belittled by the claim that he could have any use for a self-styled helper. Because of this alleged disrespect for the Prophet of Islam, Ahmadiyas are actively persecuted in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, hence their massive presence among our bonafide asylum-seekers.

One of their tactics to wriggle out of their persecuted condition is an emphatic veneration for Mohammed, the very prophet in whose name they are persecuted. An Ahmadiya spokesman and religious teacher explained at the Koekelberg meeting that the name “Ahmad” does not so much refer to founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, but to the name’s literal meaning, “praiser (of God)”, of the same root as Mohammed, “praised one”.

He mentioned only in passing the belief dear to the Ahmadiyas that Jesus had migrated east after the crucifixion and resurrection, then lived most of his life in Kashmir, there to die at the high age of 115 of natural causes. A Catholic priest was pressed for his view on this matter, and upheld the Christian belief that Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, in a grave identified three centuries later by Emperor Constantine’s mother. It was a friendly meeting, so this dissonance caused no unpleasant reactions. However, the priest could have been even more diplomatic by avoiding this negative answer yet sticking to the Gospel truth, the way Jef Ulburghs did at the Islamist mass meeting in Genk (Limburg, Belgium) of 6 April 1992. Ulburghs, a Catholic priest and then socialist MP, dismissed the Crusades as a sad mistake: the Crusaders had gone to Palestine to liberate the Holy Grave, but that was a perfectly unimportant place as “Jesus was no longer in that grave, he was resurrected!”

Each of the Ahmadiya speakers denounced the Jihad-mongers in the Muslim community, at least those who justified terror as Jihad: “Other Muslims reproach us for not waging jihad. But this is jihad, this interreligious get-together here!” If such convivial meetings are really jihad, I wouldn’t mind jihad too much.

They were very strict about the peace-loving and tolerant reinterpretation of Islamic scripture. Thus, they highlighted Quranic verses seemingly implying that Hell is not eternal, that even those condemned to hell (which includes all unbelievers) will get a chance to enter heaven eventually. They accepted the Quranic doctrine that God alone decides who becomes Muslim and who non-Muslim, and that it is only up to Him to punish wrong human “choices”. The orthodox reading is a fatalistic one, viz. that man has no real choice and that God is the only real agent in the universe, the rest of us being mere pawns in His game. But these Ahmadiyas said it means that God has willed the existence of different religions, and that this is a Quranic basis for religious pluralism.

Even more surprisingly, they effectively nullified the notion of “false gods”, since other gods but Allah are in reality merely other names for the same Allah: “There is no god but Allah, He is the god worshipped by Zarathustra, Krishna, Buddha and all other prophets. Mohammed accepted that messengers had been sent to all nations. Even though not mentioned by name, Zarathustra, Krishna, Buddha and others are acknowledged as valid by the Prophet.”

This comes close to the notion of the “common truth underlying all religions”, preached by Baha’ullah, Mahatma Gandhi and other moderns. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad lived and worked in the same colonial, proto-globalist context, the time when Ludwig Zamenhof a.k.a. “Dr. Esperanto” launched his “international language” as an instrument for world peace. The Baha’is and Ahmadiyas are two sects of Islam that came under the influence of the internationalist spirit of the age and increasingly started taking the “common truth underlying all religions” seriously. This is the philosophy underlying most contemporary interreligious initiatives. It sounds nice but is abhorred by religious orthodoxies, and I’m afraid it only convinces those who already take a liberal view of religious truth claims.

The liberal interpretations of Islamic scripture by the Belgium-based Ahmadiya community are theologically questionable, indeed they are sharply rejected by the orthodox. But there is no question that the people I met were entirely serious about them. Maybe the Quran does not truly support religious pluralism, but these people clearly do.

This, then, is my personal reason for supporting interreligious dialogue in principle. It doesn’t get the participants doctrinally closer, they are in no mood to change their minds about their cherished beliefs, not even by their dialogue partners; but it brings them humanly closer. Perhaps my speaking some Urdu had something to do with it, but I found the Ahmadiya hosts a very friendly group, in the sense that I felt like being among friends. The use of personal encounters with people representing other religions, even gravely distrusted ones like Islam, is to remind us that they are not abstract quantities in a discourse on “jihadist infiltration” and “demographic aggression”, but real people.

I get a lot of criticism these days for allegedly going soft on “the threat of Islam”. I remain perfectly aware of the problem that Islam poses. But I insist that any solution must start from the realization that Muslims are human beings who, like the rest of us, have merely developed an identification with the religion they happened to be born into. It is possible to outgrow one’s early conditioning, as I have done to quite an extent. We should not deny them the opportunity to go through a similar growth process, but we should respect their human freedom and capacity to discover the truth for themselves. Underneath the crust of religious doctrine, there is in them the same lava of longing for truth, pushing to break free.

The Ayodhya movement: a trip down memory lane

Posted by Koenraad Elst  /   December 06, 2013  /   Posted in Academia, Distortion Watch, Headline, Intelligentsia, Media, Politics  /   4 Comments

Romila Thapar, most eminent among India’s eminent historians, protested against the Court verdict acknowledging the historical evidence that the Babar mosque in Ayodhya had been built in forcible replacement of a Rama temple. After two decades of living on top of the world, the eminent historians are brought down to earth.

In 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France. Before long, Lourdes became the most important pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics and other Mary worshippers. France prided itself on being a secular state, in some phases (especially 1905-40) even aggressively secular, yet it acknowledged and protected Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage. Not many French officials actually believe in the apparition, but that is not the point. The believers are human beings, fellow citizens, and out of respect for them does the state respect and protect their pilgrimage centre.

For essentially the same reason, the mere fact that the Rama Janmabhumi (Rama’s birthplace) site in Ayodhya is well-established as a sacred site for Hindu pilgrimage, is reason enough to protect its functioning as a Hindu sacred site, complete with proper Hindu temple architecture.

Ayodhya doesn’t have this status in any other religion, though ancient Buddhism accepted Rama as an earlier incarnation of the Buddha. The site most certainly doesn’t have such a status in Islam, which imposed a mosque on it, the Babri Masjid (ostensibly built in 1528, closed by court order after riots in 1935, surreptitiously turned into a Hindu temple accessible only to a priest in 1949, opened for unrestricted Hindu use in 1986, and demolished by Kar Sevaks in 1992). So, the sensible and secular thing to do, even for those sceptical of every religious belief involved, is to leave the site to the Hindus. The well-attested fact that Hindus kept going there even when a mosque was standing, even under Muslim rule, is helpful to know in order to gauge its religious importance; but is not strictly of any importance in the present. For respecting its Hindu character, it is sufficient that the site has this sacred status today.

Secular Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had understood this, and from the court-ordered opening of the locks on the mosque-used-as-temple in 1986, he was manoeuvring towards an arrangement leaving the contentious site to the Hindus in exchange for some other goodies (starting with the Shah Bano amendment and the Satanic Verses ban) for the Muslim leadership. Call it Congress culture or horse-trading, but it would have been practical and saved everyone a lot of trouble.

That is when a group of “eminent historians” started raising the stakes and turning this local communal deal into a clash of civilizations, a life-and-death matter on which the survival of the greatest treasure in the universe depended, namely, secularism. Secure in (or drunk with) their hegemonic position, they didn’t limit themselves to denying to the Hindus the right of rebuilding their demolished temple, say: “A medieval demolition doesn’t justify a counter-demolition today.” Instead, they went so far as to deny the well-established fact that the mosque had been built in forcible replacement of a Rama temple.

Note, incidentally, that the temple demolition, a very ordinary event in Islamic history, was not even the worst of it: as a stab to the heart of Hindu sensibilities, the Babri mosque stood imposed on a particularly sacred site. Just as for Hindus, the site itself was far more important than the building on it, for Islamic iconoclasts the imposition of a mosque on such an exceptional site was a greater victory over infidelism than yet another forcible replacement of a heathen temple with a mosque. Though the historians’ and archaeologists’ ensuing research into the Ayodhya temple demolition has been most interesting, it was strictly speaking superfluous, for the sacred status venerated by most Hindus and purposely violated by some Muslims accrues to the site itself rather than to the architecture on it. The implication for the present situation is that even if Muslims refuse to believe that the mosque had been built in forcible replacement of a temple, they nonetheless know of the site’s unique status for Hindus even without a temple. So, they should be able to understand that any Muslim claim to the site, even by non-violent means such as litigation, amounts to an act of anti-Hindu aggression. Muslims often complain of being stereotyped as fanatical and aggressive, but here they have an excellent opportunity to earn everyone’s goodwill by abandoning their inappropriate claim to a site that is sacred to others but not to themselves.

After the eminent historian’s media offensive against the historical evidence, the political class, though intimidated, didn’t give in altogether but subtly pursued its own idea of a reasonable solution. In late 1990, Chandra Shekhar’s minority government, supported and largely teleguided by opposition leader Rajiv Gandhi, invited the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) to mandate some selected scholars for a discussion of the historical evidence. The politicians had clearly expected that the debate would bring out the evidence and silence the deniers for good. And that is what happened, or at least the first half. Decisive evidence was indeed presented, but it failed to discourage the deniers.

The VHP-employed team presented the already known documentary and archaeological evidence and dug up quite a few new documents confirming the temple demolition (including four that Muslim institutions had tried to conceal or tamper with). The BMAC-employed team quit the discussions but brought out a booklet later, trumpeted as the final deathblow of the temple demolition “myth”. In fact, it turned out to be limited to an attempt at whittling down the evidentiary impact of a selected few of the pro-temple documents and holding forth on generalities of politicized history without proving how any of that could neutralize this particular evidence. It contained not a single (even attempted) reference to a piece of actual evidence proving an alternative scenario or positively refuting the established scenario. I have given a full account earlier in my book Ayodhya, the Case against the Temple (2002). http://koenraadelst.bharatvani.org/books/acat/index.htm

Unfortunately, no amount of evidence could make the deniers mend their ways. Though defeated on contents, the “eminent historians” became only more insistent in denying the evidence. They especially excelled in blackening and slandering those few scholars who publicly stood by the evidence, not even sparing the towering archaeologist B B Lal. Overnight, what had been the consensus in Muslim, Hindu and European sources, was turned into a “claim” by “Hindu extremists”. Thus, the eminent historians managed to intimate a Dutch scholar who had earlier contributed even more elements to the already large pile of evidence for the temple demolition into backtracking. Most spectacularly, they managed to get the entire international media and the vast majority of India-related academics who ever voiced an opinion on the matter, into toeing their line. These dimly-informed India-watchers too started intoning the no-temple mantra and slandering the dissidents, to their faces or behind their backs, as “liars”, “BJP prostitutes”, and what not. In Western academe, dozens chose to toe this party-line of disregarding the evidence and denying the obvious, viz. that the Babri Masjid (along with the Kaaba in Mecca, the Mezquita in Cordoba, the Ummayad mosque in Damascus, the Aya Sophia in Istambul, the Quwwatu’l-Islam in Delhi, etc.) was one of the numerous ancient mosques built on, or with materials from, purposely desecrated or demolished non-Muslim places of worship.

Until the Babri Masjid demolition by Hindu activists on 6 December 1992, Congress PM Narasimha Rao was clearly pursuing the same plan of a bloodless handover of the site to the Hindus in exchange for some concessions to the Muslims. The Hindu activists who performed the demolition were angry with the leaders of their own Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) for seemingly abandoning the Ayodhya campaign after winning the 1991 elections with it, but perhaps the leaders had genuinely been clever in adjusting their Ayodhya strategy to their insiders’ perception of a deal planned by the PM. After the demolition, Rao milked it for its anti-BJP nuisance value and gave out some pro-mosque signals; but a closer look at his actual policies shows that he stayed on course. His Government requested the Supreme Court to offer an opinion on the historical background of the Ayodhya dispute, knowing fully well from the outcome of the scholars’ debate that an informed opinion could only favour the old consensus (now known as the “Hindu claim”). In normal circumstances, it is not a court’s business to pronounce on matters of history, but then whom else could you trust to give a fair opinion when the professional historians were being so brazenly partisan?

The Supreme Court sent the matter on, or back, to the Allahabad High Court, which, after sitting on the Ayodhya case since 1950, at long last got serious about finding out the true story. It ordered a ground-penetrating radar search and the most thorough excavations. In this effort, carried out in 2003, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) employed a large number of Muslims in order to preempt the predictable allegation of acting as a Hindu nationalist front. The findings confirmed those of the excavations in the 1950s, 1970s and 1992: a very large Hindu religious building stood at the site before the Babri Masjid. The Allahabad High Court has now accepted these findings by India’s apex archaeological body. But not everyone is willing to abide by the verdict.

In particular, the eminent historians are up in arms. In a guest column in The Hindu (2 Oct. 2010: “The verdict on Ayodhya, a historian’s opinion”), Prof. Romila Thapar claims that the ASI findings had been “disputed”. Oh well, it is true that some of her school had thought up the most hilariously contrived objections, which I held against the light in my booklet Ayodhya, the Finale: Science vs. Secularism in the Excavations Debate.  Thus, it was said that the presence of pillar-bases doesn’t imply that pillars were built on it; you see, some people plant pillar bases here and there once in a while, without any ulterior motive of putting them to some good use. And it was alleged that the finding of some animal bones in one layer precludes the existence of a temple (and somehow annuls the tangible testimony of the vast foundation complex and the numerous religious artefacts); and more such harebrained reasoning. The picture emerging from all this clutching at straws was clear enough: there is no such thing as a refutation of the overwhelming ASI evidence, just as there was no refutation of the archaeological and documentary evidence presented earlier.

Today, I feel sorry for the eminent historians. They have identified very publicly with the denial of the Ayodhya evidence. While politically expedient, and while going unchallenged in the academically most consequential forums for twenty years, that position has now been officially declared false. It suddenly dawns on them that they have tied their names to an enterprise unlikely to earn them glory in the long run. We may now expect frantic attempts to intimidate the Supreme Court into annulling the Allahabad verdict, starting with the ongoing signature campaign against the learned Judges’ finding; and possibly it will succeed. But it is unlikely that future generations, unburdened with the presently prevailing power equation that made this history denial profitable, will play along and keep on disregarding the massive body of historical evidence.

With the Ayodhya verdict, the eminent historians are catching a glimpse of what they will look like when they stand before Allah’s throne on Judgment Day.

Vijay Prashad: secular distortionist par excellence

Posted by Koenraad Elst  /   December 05, 2013  /   Posted in Academia, Distortion Watch, Headline, Intelligentsia  /   10 Comments

A Professor of South Asian History at Trinity College Hartford, Connecticut, Vijay Prashad, commented on the India-based French journalist François Gautier. He wrote “Hindu Holocaust?”, published on www.newsindia-times.com (25 September 2009), in reaction to Gautier’s opening of a “Hindu Holocaust” museum in Pune. Actually it got a more positive name, referring to the successful freedom struggle by Shivaji, which in turn drew a lot of flak from the Hindu nationalist side. Hindus unaware of the Jewish touchiness regarding the alleged misuse of the term “Holocaust” (in fact first used for the Armenian genocide by the Turks, which took the form of the destruction by fire of the Armenian-held town of Urfa), and of how the reference to the Holocaust would obviously put the Jewish suffering in the centre instead of the Hindu suffering that is the object of the museum, held it against Gautier that he seemingly went soft on what happened to the Hindus. At any rate, a museum was devoted to the Hindu-Muslim struggle, and Vijay Prashad didn’t like that.

Vijay Prashad is a familiar type: a Nehruvian secularist, i.e. an institutional winner but a loser on contents. He was one of the people who clamoured, after my Ayodhya lecture in Madison WI 1996, that “a scholarly rebuttal should be given”, but whose scholarly rebuttal is still awaited. For a while he took part in a debate with Rajiv Malhotra, for which a whole yahoo list was created, but he wimped out. On the Hindu Holocaust too, he takes comfortable conformistic positions but he has never written a serious rebuttal of the “Hindu nationalist” (actually purely historical) theory that Muslims killed millions of Hindus.

So, let’s see what he got worked up about. In the main, it is money:

A fundraiser in New Jersey on Aug. 16 raised $50,000 for a ‘Hindu Holocaust’ museum to be built in Pune. The museum is the brainchild of a Frenchman, Francois Gautier, and is under the auspices of the Viraat Hindu Sabha (VHS). They claim that over the past thousand years, millions of Hindus were killed, with the intention to wipe Hindus off the map.

The intention is mostly in the eye of the beholder, though I cannot exclude that there are genuinely some Hindus in America who believe that the Muslims had the intention to “wipe Hindus off the map”. Some of course had that intention, but by and large, Muslims are satisfied if Hindus convert. They can stay on the map, but as Musllims. However, no song need be made about Hindus dying, sometimes war is an Allah-ordained necessity, and so, Hindus have died by the millions. We need not even look very far: of the one to three victims of the Bangladesh war in 1971, most were Hindus, totally dwarfing those who were killed in religious riots in remainder-India since 1947. In 1947 too, the Hindu refugees from West Punjab killed by their Muslim neighbours far outnumbered the East Punjabi Muslims who didn’t make it to the Promised Land they themselves had created.

According to Vijay Prashad,

The numbers are vague, as one might expect, but the culprit is precisely defined: Islam. (…) It reduces the complexity of the subcontinent’s rich history into a simple morality play that has only two characters: the Hindu and the Muslim. The latter is the invader who has come and killed the former. Nothing else matters.

Many other things matter to the Hindu revivalists, as the array of Sangh Parivar and other Hindu organizations testify. The hyperfocus on the Hindu-Muslim conflict exists only in the eye of the Nehruvian beholder. But the focus of this one lone museum is indeed the Hindu-Muslim conflict. That is as it should be: a conflict spanning more than a millennium and a whole Subcontinent deserves a museum.

And there’s even more in the eye of the beholder: “The idea of the Hindu Holocaust casts the Hindu as history’s victim, who should now become history’s aggressor to avenge the past.” A leftist and revolutionary like Vijay Prashad cannot countenance a straight summary of facts, he has to imagine a violent “revenge”. Well, the museum’s object is just to show factual history, and the viewer is then free to decide on his own reaction.

Speaking of imagination, Viyay Prashad’s runs wild:

But the Hindu was not always the victim. If you read the historical records carefully, you will find that many Hindus participated in the slaughter of other Hindus, and that the Hindu-Buddhist battles of the ancient world were perhaps more bloody than anything that comes afterward.

Which battles were those? As Sita Ram Goel once said in this same context: I am asking for one example, not two.” But the battles in which Islam wiped out Buddhism, in the 10th century in Afghanistan and then in North India at the end of the 12th, are well-attested.

With reference to Romila Thapar’s book on Somnath, Vijay Prashad asserts: “There was killing, but that was as much for reasons of warfare and plunder as for reasons of God and tradition.” He hasn’t studied Islamic history at all, else he would know that Mohammed himself commanded ca. 82 raids on caravans, purely “for reasons of warfare and plunder”, and that these very raids were the occasion to launch the term jihâd. In Islam, there is no antagonism between plunder and God.

Of course, he lists cases of Hindu magnanimity as cases of Hindu-Muslim coexistence, for example: “In the 13th century, a local raja, Sri Chada, granted a merchant from Hormuz the right to build a mosque on temple land. He also provided the mosque with a disbursement for teachers and preachers, for the daily reading of the Quran and for the celebration of festivals. The Veraval-Somanatha inscription of 1264 shows us that even orthodox Shaivite priests cooperated in the building of the mosques.” He ought to have mentioned the Vijayanagar king who employed Muslim generals, only to be betrayed by them during the momentous Battle of Talikota, when they joined the Muslim Army and inflicted defeat and destruction on Vijayanagar.

Of course Vijay Prashad cannot stand it when foreigners who defy the description as “Hindu nationalists” agree with the “Hindu Holocaust” scenario:

Gautier’s (…) work reads like another European apologist for extreme Hindutva, Koenraad Elst. Both went to strict Catholic schools and now hold a deep animus against Christian missionaries, but seem to take their venom out mainly against Islam. Gautier and Elst want to make plain the ‘Muslim genocide against Hindus’. But neither is a serious student of history, with little idea of how to read historical texts. They draw more from a misplaced passion than from a real, sober scientific exploration of the facts. That they are taken seriously is a sign of the degradation of reason in the world of Hindutva.

Well well, the loser Vijay Prashad who negates history but has never been able to produce a single paper establishing his conformistic whitewash of Islam, is now berating the museum-opener and writer of factual Hindu-Muslim history as having ‘little idea of how to read historical texts’. Texts of which he himself leaves the reading to Romila Thapar. As long as the power equations remain as they are, he will have more success with his lies than we with the facts, that cannot be helped; but eternity will know Vijay Prashad as a liar.

Meanwhile, he is mistaken in alleging that Gautier and I “have a deep animus against Christian missionaries”. Both of us have gone out of our way to explicate that we have Catholic priests among our relatives and that we have fond memories of them. At the same time, we have perfectly rational reasons for having our doubts about the missionary enterprise among the Hindus. But for those reasons, Vijay Prashad has to substitute an emotional”animus”, because the eye of the beholder cannot face a rational critique of his favoured religions.

Bhagat Singh: an Impartial Assessment

Posted by Koenraad Elst  /   November 20, 2013  /   Posted in All, Commentary, Headline  /   1 Comments

The revolutionary movement was an epic of bravery and self-sacrifice, and this deserves to be celebrated. Indians proved that they were willing to fight and would no longer put up with the ignominy of foreign rule. In that context, young Bhagat Singh, who was sought for his killing policeman John Saunders, committed his attack on the Central Assembly in 1929. However, here we want to focus on the lessons to be drawn from this experience, and therefore we will pay attention to the mistakes made.

At the time, the Congress leadership incarnated in Mahatma Gandhi condemned these violent acts in pursuit of a cause which was also his own, viz. freedom from British colonial rule. Congress president Madan Mohan Malaviya approached the British authorities for clemency to Bhagat Singh, which was not granted, but the movement’s official judgment of Bhagat Singh’s act was still negative. It was merely influenced a bit by the freedom fighter’s great popularity. So, at age 23, he was hanged.

Was Mahatma Gandhi’s criticism of Bhagat Singh and of the revolutionaries in general correct? For him, it was first of all a moral issue: freedom should not be won at the cost of British or Indian lives. If the opponent could be violent, we should show our moral superiority by not being violent. This position should not be taken as lightly as the critics of Gandhi (those of the left a well as those of the right) tend to do. He who fires the first bullet generally doesn’t know what kind of conflict he is letting himself in for. World War 1, the conflict by which everything was measured in those days, started with young men singing and carrying flowers in their rifles on the way to the front, but ended up becoming four years of miserable trench warfare, poison gas, and futile offensives resulting in mass death. But even if the quantity of violence can be contained, that first bullet still remains morally reprehensible. That killed policeman is likely just following orders, he has a grieving family too, and even if he is guilty he is not so to the extent that you have a right to execute the death penalty.

But to Gandhi, non-violence was not just a moral stance, it was also a strategy. By being non-violent, his activists would appeal to the colonial rulers’ conscience and thus convince them to vacate India. The Indian republic formally still upholds the myth that this Gandhian strategy of non-violence won India’s freedom. In fact, in the crucial years of World War 2 and its aftermath, Gandhi was politically paralyzed and his only campaign, the Quit India movement of August 1942, was a failure and anything but non-violent. Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister during the transfer of power, testified later in an interview that Gandhi’s influence on the decision to decolonize had been “minimal”.

On the contrary, purely military factors had been decisive: the weakening of British power by the war and by its economic effects, and the creation of a large Indian army of which the loyalty had become doubtful. Whereas Gandhi had given a call for boycotting the incipient war effort, the business class massively made money out of the war production (after the US, India became the great economic victor of the war), and Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League as well as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s Hindu Mahasabha called on Indian young men to join the army. This they did in their millions, and Indian troops were crucial for the Allied victories in North Africa, Iraq and Southeast Asia. During the war, many Indian soldiers in Axis captivity defected to Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauz, and after the war, the Naval Mutiny had driven home to the British that their Indian troops would not obey their foreign masters in the event of a national revolution.

As a strategy, Gandhi’s non-violence was not much of a success. In South Africa, for instance, the African National Congress adopted it as their policy until the political position of the Blacks had deteriorated so much and the prospects for advancement so bleak that it founded an armed wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). In India it was discredited further when Gandhi refused to use his ultimate pressure instrument, the fast unto death, against his second major opponent, the Muslim League, when it forced the Partition and the creation of Pakistan on an unwilling India. It has become a habit among Indians of all political persuasions to blame the British for the Partition, but in fact the British wanted none of the idea when Jinnah presented it to them. Only in 1947 did they start considering it inevitable — but so did the Congress leaders, including, by June 1947, the Mahatma himself. At any rate, it was the Muslim League that had been working overtime to push its Pakistan plan, which it had officially adopted in 1940.

It is only as a moral stand that Gandhian non-violence proved durable. As a strategy, it moved some individual minds but it did not shake the colonial power structure. But does this mean that Bhagat Singh’s strategy was better?

In the short run, it was an obvious failure as well. First of all, the Central Assembly was a symbol of the colonial dispensation, no doubt, but it was also an embodiment of India’s incipient democracy. Surely, the revolutionaries could have chosen a less ambiguous symbol of British rule. Secondly, the revolutionaries threatened the lives of individual British administrators and security personnel (which is why they preferred to deal with Gandhi and his non-violence) but not the colonial establishment. All they achieved was that they themselves ended up in jail or on the gallows. But if the movement had caught on, if political leaders had supported it, if foreign powers had provided weapons and safe havens, it could have worked. The British in India were very few, and it is said that the British Empire was based on bluff. There is no way the British could have held on in India if the revolutionary movement had grown from stray acts of terrorism to a coordinated and purposeful effort on a larger scale.

In the 1970s, as I remember vividly, our neighbour Germany was rocked by the abductions and bomb attacks of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF, Red Army Faction). When the first-generation leadership was in prison, the second generation committed abductions to force the authorities into setting them free. One of them, Horst Mahler (who later converted to the right), refused this forcible release. He was allowed to explain his motive on TV. While in prison, he had joined the Maoist party Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD), and said his party preferred organized mass revolution at the right time to the stray acts of terror of the RAF. He concluded with an optimistic: “Onwards, with the KPD!” This analysis was historically correct: when an anarchist managed to kill the Czar in 1881, he found that it was easy to kill an indidual czar but very difficult to dislodge the czarist power structure. Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist philosopher who had inspired the RAF, commented that acts of terrorism can be useful in a revolutionary situation, when the masses only need a trigger to join the action; but that, alas, what prevailed in Germany at that time was a counterrevolutionary situation.

Applying this to Bhagat Singh’s situation, we can say that the situation in India was by no means ripe. Stray acts of violence were like seeds falling on the rock, because the masses were not ready for violence, and because the political leadership had opted for another strategy. Gandhian non-violence may or may not have been the right choice, but it resonated with the Indian masses. It also formed a continuum with the strategy of the so-called moderates, reformers who sought to achieve big changes by using to the fullest the little steps that were possible within the system. These forces had prepared the ground for a different form of activism than the armed struggle of the revolutionaries.

Another shortcoming of the revolutionary movement was the lack of a consistent ideology. The first revolutionaries in Bengal, including Sri Aurobindo, were animated by an unfettered nationalism. It was for them that Savarkar translated the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini’s writings. To dissuade them from anarchic terrorism against British individuals, the authorities gave them Marxist literature in prison, because orthodox Marxism believes in mass violence once the revolution arrives, but not in stray acts of violence. The British would take care that the great revolution never came, and meanwhile the terrorists-turned-Marxists would remain physically harmless. That is how Bengal as the hotbed of revolutionary nationalism became the centre of Indian Marxism.
However, it would be wrong to see that British calculation as the only factor of Marx’ popularity in India. After the Bolshevik Revolution, many naïve but action-oriented youngsters the world over waxed enthusiastic over this new socialist utopia. The Punjabi student Bhagat Singh was likewise touched, and called himself a socialist. He spread the slogan “Inqilab zindabad” (Persian-Urdu: “long live the revolution”), which the Soviets had used to garner support among the Central-Asian Muslims against the Czar, a common target of the Muslims and the Bolsheviks. Bhagat Singh was executed, but his ideological preference went on to become independent India’s official economic policy. With the benefit of hindsight, contemporary Indians judge socialism one of their country’s most tragic failures. While Indians abroad were impressively successful as businessmen, India itself became proverbially poor under Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors. We can forgive young Bhagat Singh, he hadn’t thought about those matters and died too young to get much real-life experience. He is remembered not for his ideological excursions, only for his nationalist acts.

We may conclude that Bhagat Singh cannot serve as an example to be emulated by today’s Indians. His political-economic vision, still inarticulate, was to prove wrong. His strategy was not the best for his country at that time, though it deserved a more nuanced judgment than Gandhiji’s condemnation. His love of his nation, however, was genuine and heartfelt. His acts were morally ambiguous but undoubtedly patriotic and heroic. It is in that sense that Bhagat Singh must be remembered.

The Buddha was every Inch a Hindu

Posted by Koenraad Elst  /   November 02, 2013  /   Posted in All, Commentary, Headline  /   4 Comments

Orientalists had started treating Buddhism as a separate religion because they discovered it outside India, without any conspicuous link with India, where Buddhism was not in evidence. At first, they didn’t even know that the Buddha had been an Indian. It had at any rate gone through centuries of development unrelated to anything happening in India at the same time. Therefore, it is understandable that Buddhism was already the object of a separate discipline even before any connection with Hinduism could be made.

Buddhism in modern India

In India, all kinds of invention, somewhat logically connected to this status of separate religion, were then added. Especially the Ambedkarite movement, springing from the conversion of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar in 1956, was very driven in retroactively producing an anti-Hindu programme for the Buddha. Conversion itself, not just the embracing of a new tradition (which any Hindu is free to do, all while staying a Hindu) but the renouncing of one’s previous religion, as the Hindu-born politician Ambedkar did, is a typically Christian concept. The model event was the conversion of the Frankish king Clovis, possibly in 496, who “burned what he had worshipped and worshipped what he had burnt”. (Let it pass for now that the Christian chroniclers slandered their victims by positing a false symmetry: the Heathens hadn’t been in the business of destroying Christian symbols.) So, in his understanding of the history of Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism), Ambedkar was less than reliable, in spite of his sterling contributions regarding the history of Islam and some parts of the history of caste. But where he was a bit right and a bit mistaken, his later followers have gone all the way and made nothing but a gross caricature of history, and especially about the place of Buddhism in Hindu history.

The Ambedkarite worldview has ultimately only radicalized the moderately anti-Hindu version of the reigning Nehruvians. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, Buddhism was turned into the unofficial state religion of India, adopting the “lion pillar” of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka as state symbol and putting the 24-spoked cakravarti wheel in the national flag. Essentially, Nehru’s knowledge of Indian history was limited to two spiritual figures, viz. the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, and three political leaders: Ashoka, Akbar and himself. The concept of cakravarti (“wheel-turner”, universal ruler) was in fact much older than Ashoka, and the 24-spoked wheel can also be read in other senses, e.g. the Sankhya philosophy’s world view  with the central Purusha/Subject and the 24 elements of Prakrti/Nature. The anglicized Nehru, “India’s last Viceroy”, prided himself on his illiteracy in Hindu culture, so he didn’t know any of this, but was satisfied that these symbols could glorify Ashoka and belittle Hinduism, deemed a separate religion from which Ashoka had broken away by accepting Buddhism. More broadly, he thought that everything of value in India was a gift of Buddhism (and Islam) to the undeserving Hindus. Thus, the fabled Hindu tolerance was according to him a value borrowed from Buddhism. In reality, the Buddha had been a beneficiary of an already established Hindu tradition of pluralism. In a Muslim country, he would never have preached his doctrine in peace and comfort for 45 years, but in Hindu society, this was a matter of course. There were some attempts on his life, but they emanated not from “Hindus” but from jealous disciples within his own monastic order.

So, both Nehru and Ambedkar, as well as their followers, believed by implication that at some point in his life, the Hindu-born renunciate Buddha had broken away from Hinduism and adopted a new religion, Buddhism. This notion is now omnipresent, and through school textbooks, most Indians have lapped this up and don’t know any better. However, numerous though they are none of the believers of this story have ever told us at what moment in his life the Buddha broke away from Hinduism. When did he revolt against it? Very many Indians repeat the Nehruvian account, but so far, never has any of them been able to pinpoint an event in the Buddha’s life which constituted a break with Hinduism.

Did the Buddha break away from Hinduism?

Their first line of defence, when put on the spot, is sure to be: “Actually, Hinduism did not yet exist at the time.” So, their position really is: Hinduism did not exist yet, but somehow the Buddha broke away from it. Yeah, the secular position is that he was a miracle-worker.

Let us correct that: the word “Hinduism” did not exist yet. When Darius of the Achaemenid Persians, a near-contemporary of the Buddha, used the word “Hindu”, it was purely in a geographical sense: anyone from inside or beyond the Indus region. When the medieval Muslim invaders brought the term into India, they used it to mean: any Indian except for the Indian Muslims, Christians or Jews. It did not have a specific doctrinal content except “non-Abrahamic”, a negative definition. It meant every Indian Pagan, including the Brahmins, Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins”), Jains, other ascetics, low-castes, intermediate castes, tribals, and by implication also the as yet unborn Lingayats, Sikhs, Hare Krishnas, Arya Samajis, Ramakrishnaites, secularists and others who nowadays reject the label “Hindu.” This definition was essentially also adopted by V.D. Savarkar in his book Hindutva (1923) and by the Hindu Marriage Act (1955). By this historical definition, which also has the advantages of primacy and of not being thought up by the wily Brahmins, the Buddha and all his Indian followers are unquestionably Hindus. In that sense, Savarkar was right when he called Ambedkar’s taking refuge in Buddhism “a sure jump into the Hindu fold”.

But the word “Hindu” is a favourite object of manipulation. Thus, secularists say that all kinds of groups (Dravidians, low-castes, Sikhs etc.) are “not Hindu,” yet when Hindus complain of the self-righteousness and aggression of the minorities, secularists laugh at this concern: “How can the Hindus feel threatened? They are more than 80%!” The missionaries call the tribals “not Hindus”, but when the tribals riot against the Christians who have murdered their Swami, we read about “Hindu rioters”. In the Buddha’s case, “Hindu” is often narrowed down to “Vedic” when convenient, and then restored to its wider meaning when expedient.

One meaning which the word “Hindu” definitely does not have, and did not have when it was introduced, is “Vedic.” Shankara holds it against Patanjali and the Sankhya school (just like the Buddha) that they don’t bother to cite the Vedas, yet they have a place in every history of Hindu thought. Hinduism includes a lot of elements which have only a thin Vedic veneer, and numerous ones which are not Vedic at all. Scholars say that it consists of a “Great Tradition” and many “Little Traditions,” local cults allowed to subsist under the aegis of the prestigious Vedic line. However, if we want to classify the Buddha in these terms, he should rather be included in the Great Tradition.

Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha was a Kshatriya, a scion of the Solar or Ikshvaku dynasty, a descendant of Manu, a self-described reincarnation of Rama, the son of the Raja (president-for-life) of the Shakya tribe, a member of its Senate, and belonging to the Gautama gotra (roughly “clan”). Though monks are often known by their monastic name, Buddhists prefer to name the Buddha after his descent group, viz. the Shakyamuni, “renunciate of the Shakya tribe.” This tribe was as Hindu as could be, consisting according to its own belief of the progeny of the eldest children of patriarch Manu, who were repudiated at the insistence of his later, younger wife. The Buddha is not known to have rejected this name, not even at the end of his life when the Shakyas had earned the wrath of King Vidudabha of Kosala and were massacred. The doctrine that he was one in a line of incarnations which also included Rama is not a deceitful Brahmin Puranic invention but was launched by the Buddha himself, who claimed Rama as an earlier incarnation of his. The numerous scholars who like to explain every Hindu idea or custom as “borrowed from Buddhism” could well counter Ambedkar’s rejection of this “Hindu” doctrine by pointing out very aptly that it was “borrowed from Buddhism.”

What did the Buddha renounce?

At 29, he renounced society, but not Hinduism. Indeed, it is a typical thing among Hindus to exit from society, laying off your caste marks including your civil name. The Rigveda already describes the munis as having matted hair and going about sky-clad: such are what we now know as Naga Sadhus. Asceticism was a recognized practice in Vedic society long before the Buddha. Yajnavalkya, the Upanishadic originator of the notion of Self, renounced life in society after a successful career as court priest and an equally happy family life with two wives.

By leaving his family and renouncing his future in politics, the Buddha followed an existing tradition within Hindu society. He didn’t practice Vedic rituals anymore, which is normal for a Vedic renunciate (though Zen Buddhists still recite the Heart Sutra in the Vedic fashion, ending with “sowaka”, i.e. svaha). He was a late follower of a movement very much in evidence in the Upanishads, viz. of spurning rituals (karmakanda) in favour of knowledge (jnanakanda). After he had done the Hindu thing by going to the forest, he tried several methods, including the techniques he learned from two masters and which did not fully satisfy him—but nonetheless enough to include them in his own and the Buddhist curriculum. Among other techniques, he practised anapanasati, “attention to the breathing process,” the archetypal yoga practice popular in practically all yoga schools till today. For a while he also practised an extreme form of asceticism, still existing in the Hindu sect of Jainism. He exercised his Hindu freedom to join a sect devoted to certain techniques, and later the freedom to leave it, remaining a Hindu at every stage.

He then added a technique of his own, or at least that is what the Buddhist sources tell us, for in the paucity of reliable information, we don’t know for sure that he hadn’t learned the Vipassana (“mindfulness”) technique elsewhere. Unless evidence of the contrary comes to the surface, we assume that he invented this technique all by himself, as a Hindu is free to do. He then achieved bodhi, the “awakening”. By his own admission, he was by no means the first to do so. Instead, he had only walked the same path of other awakened beings before him.

At the bidding of the Vedic gods Brahma and Indra, he left his self-contained state of Awakening and started teaching his way to others. When he “set in motion the wheel of the Law” (dharma-cakra-pravartana, Chinese falun gong), he gave no indication whatsoever of breaking with an existing system. On the contrary, by his use of existing Vedic and Upanishadic terminology (Arya, “Vedically civilized”, Dharma), he confirmed his Vedic roots and implied that his system was a restoration of the Vedic ideal which had become degenerate. He taught his techniques and his analysis of the human condition to his disciples, promising them to achieve the same awakening if they practised these diligently.

Caste of the Buddha & Bhikkus

On caste, we find him in full cooperation with existing caste society. Being an elitist, he mainly recruited among the upper castes, with over 40% Brahmins. These would later furnish all the great philosophers who made Buddhism synonymous with conceptual sophistication. Conversely, the Buddhist universities trained well-known non-Buddhist scientists such as the astronomer Aryabhata. Lest the impression be created that universities are a gift of Buddhism to India, it may be pointed out that the Buddha’s friends Bandhula and Prasenadi (and, according to a speculation, maybe the young Siddhartha himself) had studied at the university of Takshashila, clearly established before there were any Buddhists around to do so. Instead, the Buddhists greatly developed an institution which they had inherited from Hindu society.

The kings and magnates of the eastern Ganga plain treated the Buddha as one of their own (because that is what he was) and gladly patronized his fast-growing monastic order, commanding their servants and subjects to build a network of monasteries for it. He predicted the coming of a future awakened leader like himself, the Maitreya (“the one practising friendship/charity”), and specified that he would be born in a Brahmin family. When King Prasenadi discovered that his wife was not a Shakya princess but the daughter of the Shakya ruler by a maid-servant, he repudiated her and their son; but his friend the Buddha made him take them back.

Did he achieve this by saying that birth is unimportant, that “caste is bad” or that “caste doesn’t matter”, as the Ambedkarites claim? No, he reminded the king of the old view (then apparently in the process of being replaced with a stricter view) that caste was passed on exclusively in the paternal line. Among hybrids of horses and donkeys, the progeny of a horse stallion and a donkey mare whinnies, like its father, while the progeny of a donkey stallion and a horse mare brays, also like its father. So, in the oldest Upanishad, Satyakama Jabala is accepted by his Brahmin-only teacher because his father is deduced to be a Brahmin, regardless of his mother being a maid-servant. And similarly, King Prasenadi should accept his son as a Kshatriya, even though his mother was not a full-blooded Shakya Kshatriya.

When he died, the elites of eight cities made a successful bid for his ashes on the plea: “We are Kshatriyas, he was a Kshatriya therefore we have a right to his ashes.” After almost half a century, his disciples didn’t mind being seen in public as still observing caste in a context which was par excellence Buddhist. The reason is that the Buddha in his many teachings never had told them to give up caste, e.g. to give their daughters in marriage to men of other castes. This was perfectly logical: as a man with a spiritual message, the Buddha wanted to lose as little time as possible on social matters. If satisfying your own miserable desires is difficult enough, satisfying the desire for an egalitarian society provides an endless distraction from your spiritual practice.

Was there a separate Buddhist society?

There never was a separate non-Hindu Buddhist society. Most Hindus worship various gods and teachers, adding and sometimes removing one or more pictures or statues to their house altar. This way, there were some lay worshippers of the Buddha, but they were not a society separate from the worshippers of other gods or awakened masters. This box-type division of society in different sects is another Christian prejudice infused into modern Hindu society by Nehruvian secularism. There were only Hindus, members of Hindu castes, some of whom had veneration for the Buddha among others.

Buddhist buildings in India often follow the designs of Vedic habitat ecology or Vastu Shastra. Buddhist temple conventions follow an established Hindu pattern. Buddhist mantras, also outside India, follow the pattern of Vedic mantras. When Buddhism spread to China and Japan, Buddhist monks took the Vedic gods (e.g. the twelve Adityas) with them and built temples for them. In Japan, every town has a temple for the river-goddess Benzaiten, i.e. “Saraswati Devi”, the goddess Saraswati. She was not introduced there by wily Brahmins, but by Buddhists.

At the fag-end of his long life, the Buddha described the seven principles by which a society does not perish (which Sita Ram Goel has given more body in his historical novel Sapta Shila, in Hindi), and among them are included: respecting and maintaining the existing festivals, pilgrimages and rituals; and revering the holy men. These festivals, etc. were mainly “Vedic”, of course, like the pilgrimage to the Saraswati which Balarama made in the Mahabharata, or the pilgrimage to the Ganga which the elderly Pandava brothers made. Far from being a revolutionary, the Buddha emphatically outed himself as a conservative, both in social and in religious matters. He was not a rebel or a revolutionary, but wanted the existing customs to continue.

The Buddha was every inch a Hindu.

Negationism of Vijayanagar History

Posted by Koenraad Elst  /   October 22, 2013  /   Posted in Academia, Distortion Watch, Headline, Intelligentsia, Politics  /   2 Comments

In several articles and speeches since at least 2004 (“Trapped in the ruins”, The Guardian, 20 March 2004), and especially in the commotion provoked by Girish Karnad’s speech in Mumbai (autumn 2012), William Dalrymple has condemned Nobel prize winner V.S. Naipaul for writing that the Vijayanagar empire was a Hindu bastion besieged by Muslim states. The famous writer has taken the ruins of vast Vijayanagar as illustration of how Hinduism is a “wounded civilization”, viz. wounded by Islam. Dalrymple’s counter-arguments against this conflictual view of Indian history consist in bits of Islamic influence in the Vijayanagar kings’ court life, such as Hindu courtiers wearing Muslim dress, Hindu armies adopting techniques borrowed from the Muslims, styles of palace architecture and the Persian nomenclature of political functions; and conversely, elements of Hinduism in Muslims courts and households, e.g. the Muslim festival of Muharram looking like the Kumbha Mela of the Hindus.

Secularism and Vijayanagar

As is all too common in Nehruvian-secularist discourse, Dalrymple’s analysis of the role of Islam in India stands out by its superficiality. Whenever a Hindu temple or a Muslim festival is found to employ personnel belonging to the opposite religion, secular journalists go gaga and report on this victory of syncretism over religious orthodoxy. Secular historians including Dalrymple do likewise about religious cross-pollination in the past.

It is true that Hindus are eager to integrate foreign elements from their surroundings, from Hellenistic astrology (now mis-termed “Vedic astrology”) in the past to the English language and American consumerism today. So Hindu courts adopted styles and terminology from their Muslim counterparts. They even enlisted Muslim mercenaries in their armies, so “secular” were they. We could say that Hindus are multicultural at heart, or open-minded. But that quality didn’t get rewarded, except with a betrayal by their Muslim regiments during the battle of Talikota (1565): they defected to the enemy, in which they recognized fellow-Muslims. When the chips were down, Hindu open-mindedness and syncretism were powerless against their heartfelt belief in Islamic solidarity. In September 2012, Dalrymple went to Hyderabad to praise the city and its erstwhile Muslim dynasty as a centre of Hindu-Muslim syncretism; but fact is that after Partition, the ruler of Hyderabad opted for Pakistan, against multicultural India. When the chips are down, secular superficiality is no match for hard-headed orthodoxy.

Muslims too sometimes adopted Hindu elements. However, it would be unhistorical to assume a symmetry with what the Hindus did. Hindus really adopted foreign elements, but most Muslims largely just retained Hindu elements which had always been part of their culture and which lingered on after conversion. Thus, the Pakistanis held it against the Bengalis in their artificial Muslim state (1947-71) that their language was very Sanskritic, not using the Arabic script, and that their womenfolk “still” wore saris and no veils. The Bengali Muslims did this not because they had “adopted” elements from Hinduism, but because they had retained many elements from the Hindu culture of their forefathers. “Pakistan” means the “land of the pure”, i.e. those who have overcome the taints of Paganism, the very syncretism which Dalrymple celebrates. Maybe it is in the fitness of things that a historian should sing paeans to this religious syncretism for, as far as Islam is concerned, it is a thing of the past.

A second difference between Hindus and Muslims practicing syncretism is that in the case of Muslims, this practice was in spite of their religion, due to a hasty (and therefore incomplete) conversion under duress and a lack of sufficient policing by proper Islamic authorities. If, as claimed by Dalrymple, a Sultan of Bijapur venerated both goddess Saraswati and prophet Mohammed, it only proves that he hadn’t interiorized Mohammed’s strictures against idolatry yet. In more recent times, though, this condition has largely been remedied. Secular journalists now have to search hard for cases of Muslims caught doing Hindu things, for such Muslims become rare. Modern methods of education and social control have wiped out most traces of Hinduism. Thus, since their independence, the Bengali Muslims have made great strides in de-hinduizing themselves, as by widely adopting proper Islamic dress codes. The Tabligh (“propaganda”) movement as well as informal efforts by clerics everywhere have gone a long way to “islamize the Muslims”, i.e. to destroy all remnants of Hinduism still lingering among them.

Hindu iconoclasm?

Another unhistorical item in the secular view of Islam in India is the total absence of an Islamic prehistory outside India. Yet, all Muslims know about this history to some extent and base their laws and actions upon it. In particular, they know about Mohammed’s career in Arabia and seek to replicate it, from wearing “the beard of the Prophet” to emulating his campaigns against Paganism.

Dalrymple, like all Nehruvians, makes much of the work of the American Marxist historian Richard Eaton. This man is famous for saying that the Muslims have indeed destroyed many Hindu temples (thousands, according to his very incomplete list, though grouped as the oft-quoted “eighty”), but that they based themselves for this conduct on Hindu precedent. Indeed, he has found a handful of cases of Hindu conquerors “looting” temples belonging to the defeated kings, typically abducting the main idol to install it in their own capital. This implies a very superficial equating between stealing an idol (but leaving the worship of the god concerned intact, and even continuing it in another temple) and destroying temples as a way of humiliating and ultimately destroying their religion itself. But we already said that secularists are superficial. However, he forgets to tell his readers that he has found no case at all of a Muslim temple-destroyer citing these alleged Hindu precedents. If they try to justify their conduct, it is by citing Mohammed’s Arab precedents. The most famous case is the Kaaba in Mecca, where the Prophet and his nephew Ali destroyed 360 idols with their own hands. What the Muslims did to Vijayanagar was only an imitation of what the Prophet had done so many times in Arabia, only on a much larger scale.

From historians like Eaton and Dalrymple, we expect a more international view of history than what they offer in their account of Islamic destructions in India. They try to confine their explanations to one country, whereas Islam is globalist par excellence. By contrast, Naipaul does reckon with international cultural processes, in particular the impact of Islam among the converted peoples, not only in South but also in West and Southeast Asia. He observes that they have been estranged from themselves, alienated from their roots, and therefore suffering from a neurosis.

So, Naipaul is right and Dalrymple wrong in their respective assessments of the role of Islam in India. Yet, in one respect, Naipaul is indeed mistaken. In his books Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, he analyses the impact of Islam among the non-Arab converts, but assumes that for Arabs, Islam is more natural. True, the Arabs did not have to adopt a foreign language for religious purposes, they did not have to sacrifice their own national traditions in name-giving; but otherwise they too had to adopt a religion that wasn’t theirs. The Arabs were Pagans who worshipped many gods and tolerated many religions (Jews, Zoroastrians, various Christian Churches) in their midst. Mohammed made it his life’s work to destroy their multicultural society and replace it with a homogeneous Islamic one. Not exactly the syncretism which Dalrymple waxes so eloquent about.

Colonial “Orientalism?”

Did Muslims “contribute” to Indian culture, as Dalrymple claims? Here too, we should distinguish between what Islam enjoins and what people who happen to be Muslims do. Thus, he says that Muslims contributed to Indian music. I am quite illiterate on art history, but I’ll take his word for it. However, if they did, they did it is spite of Islam, and not because of it. Mohammed closed his ears not to hear the music, and orthodox rulers like Aurangzeb and Ayatollah Khomeini issued measures against it. Likewise, the Moghul school of painting shows that human beings are inexorably fond of visual art, but does not disprove that Islam frowns on it.

Also, while some tourists fall for the Taj Mahal, which Naipaul so dislikes, the Indo-Saracenic architecture extant does not nullify the destruction of many more beautiful buildings which could have attracted far more tourists. In what sense is it a “contribution” anyway? Rather than filling a void, it is at best a replacement of existing Hindu architecture with new Muslim architecture. Similarly, if no Muslim music (or rather, music by Muslims) had entered India, then native Hindu music would have flourished more, and who is Dalrymple to say that Hindu music is inferior?

Another discursive strategy of the secularists, applied here by Dalrymple, is to blame the colonial view of history. Naipaul is said to be inspired by colonial Orientalists and to merely repeat their findings. This plays on the strong anti-Westernism among Indians. But it is factually incorrect: Naipaul cites earlier sources (e.g. Dalrymple omits Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveler who only described witnessed Sultanate cruelty to the Hindus with his own eyes) as well as the findings of contemporaneous archaeologists. Moreover, even the colonial historians only repeat what older native sources tell them. The destruction of Vijayanagar is a historical fact and an event that took place with no colonizers around. Unless you mean the Muslim rulers.


In the West, we are familiar with the phenomenon of Holocaust negationism. While most people firmly disbelieve the negationists, some will at least appreciate their character: they are making a lot of financial, social and professional sacrifices for their beliefs. The ostracism they suffer is fierce. Even those who are skeptical of their position agree that negationists at least have the courage of their conviction.

In India, and increasingly also in the West and in international institutions, we are faced with a similar phenomenon, viz. Jihad negationism. This is the denial of aggression and atrocities motivated by Islam. Among the differences, we note those in social position of the deniers and those in the contents of the denial. Jihad deniers are not marginals who have sacrificed a career to their convictions, on the contrary; they serve their careers greatly by uttering the politically palatable “truth”. In India, any zero can become a celebrity overnight by publishing a condemnation of the “communalists” and taking a stand for Jihad denial and history distortion. The universities are full of them, while people who stand by genuine history are kept out. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, most of these negationists hold forth on the higher humbug (as historian Paul Johnson observed) and declare themselves “secular”.

Whereas the Holocaust lasted only four years and took place in war circumstances and largely in secret (historians are still troubled over the absence of an order by Adolf Hitler for the Holocaust, a fact which gives a handle to the deniers), Jihad started during the life of Mohammed and continues till today, entirely openly, proudly testified by the perpetrators themselves. From the biography and the biographical collections of the Prophet (Sira, Ahadith) through medieval chronicles and travel diaries down to the farewell letters or videos left by hundreds of suicide terrorists today, there are literally thousands of sources by Muslims attesting that Islam made them do it. But whereas I take Muslims seriously and believe them at their word when they explain their motivation, some people overrule this manifold testimony and decide that the Muslims concerned meant something else.

The most favoured explanation is that British colonialism and now American imperialism inflicted poverty on them and this made them do it, though they clothed it in Islamic discourse. You see, the billionaire Osama bin Laden, whose family has a long-standing friendship with the Bush family, was so poor that he saw no option but to hijack some airplanes and fly them into the World Trade Center. What else was he to do? And Mohammed, way back in the 7th century, already the ruler of Medina and much of the Arabian peninsula, just had to have his critics murdered or, as soon as he could afford it, formally executed. He had to take hostages and permit his men to rape them; nay, he just had to force the Jewish woman Rayhana into concubinage after murdering her relatives. If you don’t like what he did, blame Britain and America. Their colonialism and imperialism made him do it! Under the colonial dispensation which didn’t exist yet, he Muslim troops who were paid by the Vijayanagar emperor had no other option but to betray their employer and side with his opponents who, just by coincidence, happened to be Muslim as well. And if you don’t believe this, the secularists will come up with another story.


India is experiencing a regime of history denial. In this sense, the West is more and more becoming like India. There are some old professors of Islam or religion (and I know a few) who hold the historical view, viz. that Mohammed (if he existed at all) was mentally afflicted, that Islam consists of a manifold folie à deux (“madness with two”, where a wife supports and increasingly shares her husband’s self-delusion), and that it always was a political religion which spread by destroying other religions. But among the younger professors, it is hard to find any who are so forthright. There is a demand for reassurance about Islam, and universities only recruit personnel who provide that. Indeed, many teach false history in good faith, thinking that untruth about the past in this case is defensible because it fosters better interreligious relations in the present. Some even believe their own stories, just like the layman who is meant to lap them up. Such is also my impression of William Dalrymple.

The difference between Dharma Yuddha and Jihad

Posted by Koenraad Elst  /   October 15, 2013  /   Posted in Academia, Distortion Watch, Intelligentsia, Media, Politics  /   15 Comments


Many people from very diverse quarters say that all religions have a concept of “holy war”. In this, at least, they are all equal. Thus, the recent cases of self-defence against Muslim attacks by Buddhists in Thailand and Myanmar are taken to prove that even the ostensibly non-violent Buddhists have their notion of “holy war”, now on display. Similarly Hinduism has its own dharma yuddha, literally (they say) “religious war”.

Some add that the one exception to this rule, hence the most peaceful religion of all, is Islam. We have all heard about jihad, thinking this is the “holy war” par excellence, but now we are told that we have been mistaken all along. Even Osama bin Laden didn’t know true Islam, he was wholly wrong about the meaning of jihad. They assure us that jihad is merely an inner struggle against the evil in ourselves, not a war against unbelievers. At the very most, it can be a struggle in self-defence when the unbelievers attack us. Let us see what the truth of this can be.

Dharma Yuddha

The proverbial war in the Hindu worldview is the great war of the Bharata clan, on which the mega-epic Mahabharata elaborates. This epic philosophizes profusely on the principles of dharma yuddha even as it describes the successive episodes of a real-life war. Yuddha means “struggle, war”. Dharma, “sustenance, that which sustains”, effectively means “maintaining the correct relation between the part and the whole”, “playing your specific role in the whole that you are part of”. It approximately means both “religion” in the sense of “relating to the cosmos” and “ethics” in the sense of “correctly relating to the beings around you”. Dharma yuddha means “struggle in accordance with ethics/Dharma”, “chivalrous war”. But does the epic describe a dharma yuddha at all?

First off, there is no religious conflict on the horizon. The Bharata war pits two branches of the same family against each other. They practise the same religious tradition, just as they have the same teachers, live in the same area, speak the same language and share the same ethnicity. Clearly, dharma yuddha does not mean “war against the unbelievers”. No command is given anywhere to take up hostilities with a religious out-group, nor with any linguistic or ethnic or any other group either. Coincidence has it that two groups of cousins are in a position to compete for the same throne, and attempts at finding a peaceful compromise fail.

But secondly, the actual war is only partly a dharma yuddha. The rules for a dharma yuddha are articulated, but fall into disuse the longer the battle rages. The reader is treated to a complete contemplation of the principles of dharma yuddha, but the epic’s characters are shown as practising them less and less. During the build-up to the war, the Pandava brothers with their friend and adviser Krishna make several attempts to solve the conflict peacefully, and are rebuked by their Kaurava cousins even when they express willingness to make great concessions. They only resolve to make war once they have no other option. And even when the war starts, Arjuna finds all kinds of reasons to forfeit his claim and withdraw from the battle, until Krishna convinces him that it has become necessary.

During the war, however, they let the rules of “justice in war” relax gradually, commensurate with the other party’s breaches of the code of chivalry. Thus, when the enemies’ leader Karna has fallen from his chariot, the rule that someone in an incapacitated state should not be attacked, would normally apply. Yet, Krishna orders to strike him while he is down. Karna had been a party to the forced disrobing of princess Draupadi, an un-ethical act, so Krishna is not impressed when he now invokes the well-known rules of ethical warfare: “Where was your Dharma then?” So, the other side’s breaches of Dharma are increasingly used as a justification for breaking Dharma too.

The battle rages for eighteen days. The change it has wrought, is best realized by Krishna’s brother Balarama, who has missed the battle. He has gone on pilgrimage along the Saraswati river and returns just at the end of the hostilities. He is amazed and indignant at the size of the destruction and the decline into non-Dharmic behaviour. But that is how war goes: at the start, as in 1914, you march off with a flower in your gun, singing songs of victory, you even play football with the enemy soldiers during breaks; but as soon as you have seen some of your comrades die, you get angry and eager for revenge by any means, so war becomes more cruel the longer it lasts.

The epic is by no means a children’s story in black and white, or a hagiography for a saintly Krishna. The bad guys always have a decent motive or a legitimate excuse for their conduct (for instance, Duryodhana has welcomed the illegitimate son Karna after the latter was spurned by the Pandavas), and the good guys have their own past to blame for the misfortunes that befall them. They are all far from perfect, and the dharma yuddha is an ideal which they try to uphold as long as the going is good, but which they betray more and more as the battle gets grimmer.

The concept of Dharma Yuddha is akin to the later European concept of Just War. The Just War theory is linked with names like Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius. It lays down that war should only be started in self-defence, after attempts at a peaceful solution, and with a real chance of victory. During the war, the means used should be commensurate with the aim, non-combatants should be spared, and peace overtures from the other side should be answered. The same principles are already articulated briefly in the Dhanurveda and the Mahabharata.


In Islam, the first blood that flows is that of an unbeliever who laughs at the Muslims praying with their bottoms up in the air: he is hit by the Muslims with an animal’s bone. There is no trace of self-defence: an unbeliever exercises his freedom of expression and the Muslims decide to become violent. Later, Mohammed would have a handful of critics assassinated and another handful formally executed. This is the model and justification for the murders or attempted murders of writers, cartoonists, film-makers and other critics of Islam during the modern age.

When Mohammed and his followers migrate to Medina, they are welcomed but soon realize that unlike the natives, they have no source of income. So, they start attacking caravans. Mohammed is credited with organising 82 raids (ghazwa, hence also razzia) and with leading 26 of them in person. The passengers were held in captivity until their families paid the ransom. Mohammed gave permission to his men to rape their hostages. At first he instructed them to practise coitus interruptus (often cited in pro-Islamic arguments as proof of how progressive Mohammed was, even condoning birth control!), later he decided that it didn’t matter.

These raids set the pattern for “holy war” against the unbelievers. They were called jihad fi sabil Allah, “exertion on the path of Allah”. Mohammed used the money gained to buy weapons and horses to equip his growing army. Nothing “internal” there, no character struggle against the evil tendencies within oneself, only an external military endeavour. Given the repeated Muslim initiative to strike first, it is also not required that the other side commits aggression; self-defence is no requirement. All Mohammed’s subsequent struggles against various categories of unbelievers are called jihad. So we have it on Mohammed’s own testimony that jihad means a military struggle against the unbelievers.

When Islamic or pro-Islamic apologists (such as David Cameron in May 2013, after a British soldier was murdered by two Muslims in Woolwich) say that an act of violence against unbelievers is a “betrayal of Islam”, they imply that an Islamic court would punish the murderers. But in fact, before an Islamic judge, the culprits could easily invoke the precedent behaviour of Mohammed himself. The words and acts of the Prophet are the basis of Islamic law. All fatwas (juridical advice) ultimately answer the question in this form: what has Mohammed done in a similar situation? The only reason for doubt in some judges’ mind could be that in a particular case, an act of violence would yield such negative publicity as to do Islam more harm than good. But the mere fact that the Islamic cause was furthered by violence against the unbelievers would be a sound emulation of the Prophet’s precedent. Whether it was strategically wise to kill soldier Lee Rigby (and thus mobilize British public opinion against Islam) is questionable, which is why the British Muslim Council tried to limit the damage by falsely swearing that the act was un-Islamic; but it was at any rate fully in accordance with Mohammed’s precedent and hence with Islamic law (shari’a).

There are hundreds of farewell letters, farewell video and suicide notes in which Islamic fighters and terrorists explicitly say that they are going to pay the ultimate price for the sake of Islam. For instance, Mohammed Atta of 9/11 fame and Mohammed Bouyeri, who killed Theo van Gogh, said that Islam made them do it. Not “Islamism” or “fundamentalism” but Islam. I take them seriously and believe them at their word. By contrast, the “experts” overrule these men’s first-hand testimony and assure us that it may have been any reason but not Islam.

Where from then the claim that this jihad is merely the “little jihad,” while the real jihad or “great jihad” is an internal struggle?

Firstly, note that all the above is not really being denied by this claim. Jihad is relabeled as “little jihad,” but is acknowledged nonetheless. Preachers who have to motivate their flock to overcome the evil tendencies in themselves like to picture this as a heroic enterprise, so they compare it to a war. But of course, the metaphor of a figurative holy war is only possible because the physical holy war exists.

The comparison happens to be particularly popular in Sufism, a movement originating in the grey zone around Islam. Mostly, Sufism drew from East-Persian Buddhism and from Turkic Shamanism. The ecstatic trance pursued by the “whirling dervishes” is nothing but the shamanic trance witnessed in, for example, Genghis Khan. The fana’ (annihilation) described by the Sufi poets is an adaptation of the Buddhist nirvana. This preservation of non-Islamic influences was aptly recognized by wary Islamic theologians. Mansur al-Hallaj was beheaded for saying: Ana’l Haqq (“I am the True One”/Allah), an adaptation of the Upanishadic saying, Aham Brahmasmi, “I am Brahma.” Only after Sufism was sufficiently assimilated did orthodox Muslims judge it useful for propaganda purposes among the masses.

With success, for Sufi music, though only superficially Islamic, is very popular in Pakistan and Bollywood. Sufi phrases have hoodwinked many would-be “experts” into exclaiming that here is the “real, peaceful Islam”. In reality, Sufis mostly became sweet-talking Muslims who were just as hard-headed when it came to fighting the infidels. The Sufi master Muinuddin Chishti, venerated even by silly Hindus, acted as a motivator and spy in the conquest of North India by Mohammed Ghori. At any rate, if you think that “peace” and “inner struggle” are the real Islam, take the test and try to convince a shari’a court that war against the unbelievers is un-Islamic.

Khalistani Dharma Yuddh

The Sikhs are a Hindu sect particularly devoted to Vishnu in his incarnations as Rama and Krishna. Most of the Sikh Gurus are named after them, for example, Guru Govind Singh was named after Krishna, the “cowherd” (govind). He founded a military order, the Khalsa, in order to defend Hindu dharma. But in the 19th century, the Sikhs, with their history of resistance against the Moghul empire, saved many British colonizers during the Mutiny, perceived as an attempt to restore the Moghul empire. Out of gratitude, the British decided to upgrade Sikhism, not just by reserving many army jobs for Sikhs, but by turning Sikhism into a separate religion.

This Sikh separatism caught on, and by the 1920s Sikhism was led by a faction pushing for a distinct religious identity. Since they could not start altering their holy Granth, a collection of hymns with Hindu themes, and standing proof of Sikhism’s Hindu character, they altered or reinterpreted everything else. Thus, for their holiest shrine, the Sanskrit name Hari Mandir (“Vishnu temple”) was replaced with the Urdu name Darbar Sahib (“revered court-session”). Hindu icons such as the Vishnu statue in the Hari Mandir were removed, along with the Brahmins serving them. To take distance from Hinduism, Islamic concepts were borrowed or Hindu terms were reinterpreted in an Islamic sense. Thus, an Islamic fatwa became the Sikh hukumnama (“command-letter”).

In this climate, it was inevitable that among separatist Sikhs, dharma yuddha (in its Punjabi pronunciation: dharam yuddh) would be emptied of its Hindu content and take on the meaning of jihad: war against the unbelievers. In India this means in effect: war against the Hindus. In the 1980s, this term was used for the wave of terrorism against the Indian state and for the creation of a Sikh state called Khalistan (“land of the pure”). This struggle was supported by the global hub of terrorism, Pakistan (also “land of the pure”), even though there is a historical hostility between the Sikh community and Pakistan, the successor state of the Moghul empire. It also had the sympathy of many Sikhs in the West as well as from poorly informed Westerners. Though the Khalistani struggle in India died out in the early 1990s, there still are some centres of Khalistani ideology in the West.

The Khalistanis’ sense of religion is proverbially crude. This recrudescence resonates well with the cluelessness about the fine points of religion among the “secularist” class, which holds the reins of power in India. Every hazy prejudice by a Western tourist can also be heard from the mouth of Indian journalists and cabinet ministers. Government-sanctioned schoolbooks teach that all religions are basically the same. They are all assumed to preach government-sanctioned ethics and, except for casteist Hinduism, they are all presented as egalitarian. Since the existence of jihad cannot be entirely denied to any Indian who follows the news, the next line of defence is to shield Islam from criticism by alleging that all religions are the same. One way to do this is to spread the false notion of “Hindu terrorism”, another is to blur the terminology and equate Hindu “chivalrous war” with Islamic “holy war.”

Thus, the use of dharma yuddha as a synonym of jihad, “war against the unbelievers,” is unhistorical and incorrect.