Thursday 22nd February 2024,
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American Academy of Religion in Chicago Conference 2012

American Academy of Religion in Chicago Conference 2012

Being different

The debate about Rajiv Malhotra’s book Being Different was very instructive. At the end, Malhotra ably put his critics in their place, but first they had their say. I was appalled by the bad manners of Brian Pennington against the invited responder, Rajiv Malhotra: he wondered aloud, after a long diatribe which I guess was his privilege, why the AAR and organizer Francis Clooney s.j. had cared to pay any attention to Malhotra at all, let alone invite him. It was typical for these academics: they fight by exclusion, they shamelessly  exploit the fact that they are in and Rajiv is out, eventhough his book will prove more influential (and far more factual) than anything they will ever produce, or than the wrongly famous Orientalism by Edward Said.

Rajiv’s central notion of historicity as distinguishing the monotheist faiths from the dharmic traditions, was misunderstood or not addressed, though Jonathan Edelmann had a point in alleging that the Krishna Bhakti doctrine of Krishna’s historicity, as God’s descent on earth, gets dangerously close to the Christian doctrine about Jesus (but those who lived before Krishna are not consigned to hell, as those predating Jesus or Mohammed are). He and Anant Rambachan were a bit pedantic in their critique because the book was not what they had wanted, e.g. one of them went on about the absence of the notion of pramana (means of knowing) from Rajiv’s book. Well, that was not what the book was about, that’s why it wasn’t mentioned. They didn’t recognize a revolution even when it was presented to them on a platter.

And since we’re discussing what was not mentioned rather than what was, I said during question time that the Indologists in the panel ignored the book’s challenge to their guild, viz. that unlike specialists in any other field, they actively desired and worked for the demise of their subject, Hinduism. They have been flagrantly wrong about central issues, e.g. in the 1990s many of them predicted that if the BJP came to power, it would open gas chambers for the Muslims or throw them into the Indian Ocean. But the BJP did come to power and nothing of the sort happened.

This means that they were not just a bit wrong but totally wrong on one of the few things in their field that mattered to lay society. Yet none of them apologized for their gross but false accusation, and all of them kept their posts, which they visibly don’t deserve. Their collective wrongness on the Ayodhya affair is another example: all sources including the Muslim ones said until the 1980s that there had been a Hindu temple on the disputed site, this has again and again been confirmed by archaeologists and finally by the Allahabad High Court, so everybody could know the truth, but the Indologists insisted upon just the opposite scenario. So, it would be fitting for Indologists to acknowledge their mistakes and correct their ways, especially when faced with a book that details their own role in a process of Western-Christian imperialism that is unfolding before our very eyes.


I no longer get worked up about the endless Hindu-bashing by young as well as by established scholars. There was plenty of that in all Hindu-related forums, though in different doses: the more the study topic was sociological (as the modern Orientalists want) and the less it is textual (the focus of the old Orientalists), the more Hinduism and especially the Brahmin caste were put in a bad light. Thus, there was what a Hindu listener, citing Paul Krugman, called “zombie lies”: they have been disproven any number of times, yet there they are again. In particular, he meant the presentation claiming that relations between the Jains and the Sultanate rulers were quite friendly, and that the occasional destruction of idols had nothing to do with religion. We don’t need to repeat our arguments against these long-lasting Marxist lies.

In young scholars joining in the long-standing criminalization of Hinduism, optimist Hindus might see an opportunist stance to make a career, for the least show of sympathy to the wrong parties will be ruthlessly punished with exclusion from the institutions. But it is more likely that these doctorandi have lapped up what they have been taught, and really mean it with their Hindu-bashing, which they consider only natural. To them, Hinduism really is caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste; anything that may happen in India, past or present, is the result of a conspiracy by the wily Brahmins. In established scholars, of course, Hindu-bashing is the habit of a lifetime and is very hard to dislodge.

Pagan international

My own paper, in a session co-organized by the Paganism and the Indigenous Religions groups, was about the crucial role of Hindu nationalism in the creation of a Pagan international. The Hindu diaspora is well-placed to organize first bilateral meetings between Hindus and local “Pagan” or indigenous people, and then a global platform such as the triannual Gathering of the Elders, organized in India. This has taken shape in the “Gatherings of the Elders”

Near the end of the question-and-answer round, a conformistic Indologist objected to my relativizing the meaning of the Hindu nationalist participation in this forum. He alleged that the Hindu nationalists mistreated the “indigenous” people, “the Dravidians and the Adivasis” and that the latter were being “converted” by Hindu nationalists. In reality, the charity for tribals is one of the oldest and most successful fronts of the Hindu nationalists, countering the Christian missionaries with their own weapons: social welfare and schools. As testified precisely at this forum, the tribals are quite happy with this concern, and while a rare narrow-minded local officer may insist on imparting certain Hindu practices to the tribals, the over-all policy of the Hindu nationalist workers among the tribals is to fully respect the local traditions and integrate the tribal cultures wholesale into the wide bosom of Hindu society. “Conversion” is a Christian concept which does not apply to the relation between urban Hindus and forest-dwellers.

I pointed out that the Indologist used the term Adivasi, “Aboriginal”, a missionary neologism creating the false impression of native familiarity with the division of the population into aboriginals and invaders – which most non-tribals are not (and even if they were, it wouldn’t matter). Indians use descriptive terms like Vanavasi, “forest-dweller”, or Girijan, “hill people”, not the ideologically loaded and false term Adivasi. To repeat myself: the term Adivasi is the most successful one-word disinformation campaign in history.


Over-all, the striking thing about most papers and about the whole conference was the emphasis on the sociological angle and the concern for “identity”. Americans even more than other contemporaries are just obsessed with it. This conference was full of papers on this or that religion as a  tool for (black, Hispanic, gay, Asian-American, women’s, the handicapped’s) “identity formation”. But identity has little place in a conference on religion, which transcends identities.

A Hindu I met at the conference observed this American obsession (which, through sociology, is being imposed on all other nations) and commented: “Identity is simply there. It is what you start from when you proceed to something else.” So you forget about it and concentrate on something higher. As a Hindu master I interviewed long ago told me: “He who is enlightened, knows he is the same as everybody else.”

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About The Author

Dr. Koenraad Elst : Belgian Author and Orientalist :A Graduate in Philosophy, Chinese Studies and Indo-Iranian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He frequently returns to India to study various aspects of its ethno-religio-political configuration and interview Hindu and other leaders and thinkers. His research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism earned him his Ph.D. in Leuven in 1998. He has also published about multiculturalism, language policy issues, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and the Aryan invasion debate.

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