From Our Archives: First Published in February 1996
Koenraad Elst is a Belgian writer academic who became interested in India and Hinduism as the result of a trip to India with his Indologist wife. He has written a number of books, among them treatises on Ayodhya, Hindu negationism, and on the role of caste in India. Elst an acknowledged—albeit controversial—scholar on the conservative Hindu movements in India, as well as an outspoken critic o the tendency to downplay legitimate Hindu religious and social aspirations. During his recent lecture tour of the U.S., he spoke to me by phone from Los Angeles.
What caused you, a Belgian Catholic With missionaries in his family, to become so interested in Hinduism?
I became interested in the whole issue of Hindu-Muslim relations after the Ayodhya incident. I came across an excellent work by Sita Ram Goel, and it aroused my intellectual curiosity to the extent that I made a fairly thorough study of why it happened and what it means for the future.
I found it extraordinary that Hindus do not recognize their underdog status. Like most people, I sympathize with the underdog, so I felt compelled to help open the eyes of Hindus to their own predicament.
As for my own personal background, I suppose I suffer from the general discontent that many Westerners feel with the church. I would not consider myself a Catholic.
Are you a practicing Hindu, or just an observer?
Not a practicing Hindu, although I have experimented with yoga and meditation, like many of my generation in Europe. I am more interested in social and cultural issues
What is the basis of your appeal to the Hindutva forces? You are here on the invitation of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sang”, right?
No, I am here on the invitation of Friends of India Society. Part of my appeal to the Sangh Parivar and others, I am sure, comes from the fact that I am a foreigner who supports some of their perspectives. Perhaps they feel that as a non-Indian and a European, I can ring a certain objectivity. Perhaps there is some residual colonial feeling as well.
Some equate Hindutva with fascism or Nazism. What is your definition of Hiudutva?
Hindutva may be defined as the nationalistic movement that insists that the geography of India is connected to Hinduism and Hindu culture in a fundamental way, and that every resident of India is a Hindu, regardless of what their actual religious practices may be.
In my opinion, the concept of “Mohammadi Hindu” has some intellectual problems: it is not the case that only foreigners were anti-Hindu. It is true that Babar, an Afghan was keen on massacring Hindus; but then so was Malik Kalur, a converted Indian Hindu. There is a clash, I think, between a secular, geographic definition and a religious definition.
It has become fashionable to equate anything you want to demonize with fascism or Nazism. In a strictly technical way, Hindutva could not be either, because [those movements were completely identified with Mussolini and Hitler. Indeed, during World War II, Savarkar called on Hindus to fight against the evils of fascism and Nazism.
In a broader sense, too, the two pillars of fascism are the absolute power of the state and lack of respect for democracy. Neither is true for the Hindutva forces. They certainly are neither totalitarian nor autocratic. There is some historic reason for this fundamental acceptance of democracy—going back to the village panchayat system—a deep-rooted acceptance of popular participation in government.
Hindutva is perceived by many as an exclusionary force: somethingdominated by North Indian caste Hindus.
Perhaps there is some truth to this, but on the other hand, the most celebrated—or perhaps I should say vilified—Hindutva-vadis are the Shiv Sena. They are certainly not northern, nor necessarily high caste. Their attitude is typical of Hindutva forces—“Maharashtra for Maharashtrians” —a secular identification with geography overlaid with a Hindu veneer.
It is true that the BJP is dominated by North Indian upper caste leaders, but then so is the Congress, and even the Communists. This is a historical accident arising out of the social situation of the last few decades. I believe there is a genuine attempt now on the part of the BJP to reach out to broader sections of the population.
Hindutva is portrayed as a· response to Islamic fundamentalism.However, it has in itself what might be called Islamic elements—for example, dogma. Is Hindutva “a disguised Islam”? Remember that Sankara was called a Prachhanna Bauddha—a “crypto-Buddhist”—by his critics.
Interesting question. There have been allegations, for example by Romila Thapar, that there is a deliberate cultus of Rama in the North, and that there is an attempt to elevate the Ramayana to the status of “The Book,” the one and only, and that no deviation will be tolerated. I disagree with this analysis. It is too naive. While it is an inevitable process that you learn from what I might loosely call “the opposition,” there is no real attempt to create a new, Semiticized, institutionalized Hinduism with congregations and so forth, or to change the fundamental, eclectic nature of Hinduism.
How do you see negationism, the idea that there were no atrocities perpetrated on Hindus by others, especially Muslims? Do you believeit has to do with a colonial mentality?
I am not sure I would ascribe the widely-held negationism solely to colonial hangovers. I think it is partly the result of a secular education and upbringing, and perhaps a naive hope that by ignoring the unpleasantness of the past, we can wish them away.
There are many in India who profess either secular or agnostic oratheistic lifestyles. They certainly do not identify themselves asHindus, although they are of Hindu origin. What is the reason for thisindifference?
It is actually a rather hypocritical stance that many of these self-proclaimed secularists have. In general, they claim they are not Hindu because they disavow the attitudes of the Hindutva-vadis. But then they also claim that they are Hindus and should therefore be consulted in how Hinduism is to be reformed. It’s hard to see how they can justify having their cake and eating it, too.
Hindu intellectuals have been forced to defend themselves under the rules of the secularists’ game, and therefore have largely been ineffective in putting forth their views strongly. Thus it becomes the norm for the young to adopt a secular perspective.
In response to the changes of Islamic atrocities, in medieval India, a number of secularists have raised the issue of the “bloody sword of Hinduism.” They allege that Hindus were equally brutal in suppressing Buddhism. In Kerala, there is circumstantial evidence that a fairly egalitarian Buddhist culture was replaced uith a brutally casteist Hindu culture after the time of Sankara. What is your view on this?
I think this is an absurd suggestion. For one, even if Hinduism were indeed bloody, that does not by any means justify the well-documented bloodiness of Islamic aggression. And, even more importantly, it is absolutely clear that it was Islam that decimated Buddhism in India, just as it had in Afghanistan and Central Asia. By destroying the monasteries and massacring the monks, Muslims eradicated Buddhism.
If you analyze the historical record carefully, you will see that it has almost never been the case that Hindus plunder places of worship, others’ or their own. A Kashmiri historian wrote, for example, that a Hindu ruler sacked a number of Hindu temples. On closer scrutiny, it turned out the king had been instigated by the Muslim Turkish mercenaries under him into this sort of vandalism. Of course, that is entirely normal in Islam.
Buddhism seems a more benign form of Hinduism, in effect, a“kinder, gentler” Hinduism, with the same philosophical breadth, but a more egalitarian bent. Why shouldn’t we revive Buddhism in the land of its birth? What is the reason for this indifference?
That is an interesting suggestion. However, Buddhism suffers, one might say, from its negation of the spiritual side of things, and its abstract atheism. It is, as you say, an incredibly attractive philosophical tradition. However, it has been content to overlay itself on an existing social structure, as it did in Japan or China or Thailand, whereas it is possible to change the system under Hinduism.
There is a raging debate in India about the justification for caste-based reservations. Your view?
I believe that there is and continues to be a lack of a level playing field in India—the lowest of the low, the Harijans and the Scheduled Tribes, are severely disadvantaged. I don’t think anybody is opposed to giving them preferential treatment.
It is in that case of the middle castes that there is controversy. Interestingly, the middle castes were themselves often the worst perpetrators of casteism against the lowest castes.
The Hindutva movement seems to concentrate on castigating Islam.In many ways however, isn’t Christianity more of a threat to Hinduism? It is well-funded, has excellent marketing skills, and is implacable—witness Pat Robertson in the U.S.
lslam is more visible, more visceral, more crude, perhaps. Christianity is much more subtle and better-packaged; but it is a major threat to Hinduism nevertheless. Hindu intellectuals, as I said, have utterly failed to respond to missionary misinformation. The missionaries, on the other hand, have several centuries of thought put into converting “the heathen, and are able to articulate themselves well.
Hindus need to go on the offensive, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. Christianity is a tremendous threat, and few have woken up to that fact. India has become perhaps the biggest focal point for Christians—you may be surprised to know that the largest number of Jesuit brothers entering the fold are from India now.
There are several reasons for this Christian interest in India. First, India is about the only major country where they can freely practice their evangelism. It is clearly out of the question in the Islamic countries around India, and of course, has been so in the Communist nations. The missionaries wish to use India as their foothold and home base to expand elsewhere in Asia.
Second, the relatively spiritual Hindu tradition makes it easy for a person to justify celibacy and monkhood, thus supplying the next generation of evangelist feet on the street for the missionaries.
The depredations of Christians against Native Americans was finally recognized a few years ago by the Pope himself. He apologized to them in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. Now we have another anniversary coming up: 1998, commemorating the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India, and the arrival of the Portuguese—not a very pleasant story, I am afraid. I am not holding my breath for a papal apology.
You wrote a paper on the myth of St. Thomas in India. What exactly did you have in mind?
The story that St. Thomas was murdered by Brahmins in India is accepted widely without question. However, the original story in Aramaic is merely that Thomas went to the Indies—which meant anything from Afghanistan to Japan those days. Furthermore, the actual words about his death are that he was killed with a spear. The missionaries took the word, and chose to state that he had been killed by a Brahmin.
The use of a myth like this for political purposes is widespread in Christianity. For instance, the location of the spot where Christ was supposedly crucified was not known in the early years of the Common Era. Then the Emperor Justinian’s mother had a dream in which she saw the site of the crucifixion. Interestingly, this was on the site of a temple of Athena, which was of course torn down.
What is your message to U.S. Hindus?
You should forget your fractured animosities back in India, and try to recognize each others’ best qualities. Try to present to your fellow Americans the good that your religion has. Hinduism has global relevance, and it should not be confined to a geography-centric vision. We can all learn from it.