Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Pankaj Mishra's essays on Communalism in India; Vivekananda and Religious Modernizers

Through SACW, I caught a link to a long Pankaj Mishra piece on the origins of "Hinduism" in Axess, a Swedish magazine of the "liberal arts and social sciences." Mishra's piece appeared in an issue a couple of months back called India Unleashed. The same issue has an essay by Subash Agarwal, who also has a more recent piece written in the wake of the Indian elections (results that disappointed him).

Mishra has written on the subject of the misuse of "Hinduism" several times before. You can find a Feb. 2002 article from the New York Times here. And then an April 2002 a two-part piece on the same topic, this time for the Guardian. He also wrote a piece for the Boston Globe in December 2002 on the same topic (no longer online). And then a Feb 2003 piece for the New York Times Magazine (via SACW), on the anniversary of the assasination of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

These various essays use some of the same material over and over again. Most have one or two immediate anecdotes and first-hand interviews, while relying heavily on accounts of the history of the RSS, V.D. Savarkar, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, Nathuram Godse, a small host of familiar suspects. Most essays also place the movement to take down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya at the center of the current history of the Hindu right. Ayodhya casts the longest shadow for Mishra: one finds explanations of Ayodhya even in the pieces written in the wake of the February-March 2002 riots in and around Ahmedabad, Gujurat.

Don't get me wrong -- this is all good work. Mishra is performing a valuable function in educating western readers about the history and current status of communalism. But it gets a little repetitive. I'd been longing to see him approach the communal question somewhat more deeply, or with a fresh perspective.

The most recent piece (in Axess) partially fills this demand; it has some surprises in it even as it also rehashes. Most importantly, perhaps, Mishra writes approvingly of people like the poet Mohammad Iqbal (one of the patron saints of Pakistan), Swami Vivekananda (one of the sources of inspiration for the Indian nationalist movement), and Angarika Dharampala (a major figure in the Buddhist-Sinhala nationalist movement in Sri Lanka). All were roughly contemporaneous -- they were active in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Both Vivekananda and Dharmapala made a big splash at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. Most importantly, however, all were reformers and modernizers. In Mishra's interpretation of Vivekananda in particular, the emphasis is on the inspiration taken from the west, not on the personal connection to Hindu spirituality. Mishra posits a divergence between Vivekananda's approach to worldly sprituality and his master's (Ramakrishna's) inward-looking mysticism. For Mishra, Vivekananda's desire to indigenize western civilization was secondary.

This contradicts what some other recent critics have said about Vivekananda (most notably Meera Nanda, who is directly hostile to both Vivekananda and Gandhi).

For me personally, it raises a 'half-empty/half-full' dilemma. Are religious reformers who develop a modernized theological language to be placed in the camp with the modernizers and secularizers, or are they in fact mainly motivated by strong, primoridal religious feeling, which they merely market with modern trappings? Mishra puts them in the former camp; critics like Nanda place them in the latter.

But this is a manichean question, which overlooks the possibility of situating reformers in between the religious and secular viewpoints. People like Vivekananda and Dharampala are secularizers, but specifically within their respective religious communities. By ignoring this middle-ground, I think Mishra oversimplifies the history of religious reform movements in South Asia. He makes this oversimplification for a good reason -- he wants to show that the stories told by the Hindutva advocates today about the history of the concept of "Hinduism" are on very thin ice. But the oversimplification leads to a somewhat patchy history.


Blogger M. Patil said...

Pankaj Mishra's thesis in The article in Axess is to convince readers that Hinduism is an artificial construct of the British imperialists along with a few Brahmins. I am surprised you did not emphasize that, although the heading of the article makes it amply clear. Even though his Hindu and India bashing is nothing new, this time along with Hindu bashing he comes with this new Eurocentric theory. Accordingly all progress is linear and it comes from The West, including Hinduism. However this entire essay is based on half truths, omissions and plain incorrect statements.

Just a few glaring errors:

"British scholars and their Brahman interpreters came up with a canon of sorts, mostly Brahmanical literature and ideology, which they began to identify with a single Hindu religion"

"Brahman interpreters" ? There is no such thing as a Brahman interpreter, Brahman is Pure Consciousness perhaps he means Brahmin, but rest of the article contains serveral instances of "Brahman collaborators", "These Brahmans" and so forth. Author seems completely ignorant, incapable of differentiating between Brahman and Brahmin. Left unsaid is what Brahmanical literature is and what is not.

"He [Vivekananda] set up a monastic order devoted to social service and to reforming Hinduism which he saw as a decadent religion. ... he died young, at thirty-nine.Nothing much could come out of what was mostly well-intentioned rhetoric"

Swami Vivekananda never considered Hinduism as a decadant religion. He had the highest regard for the Hindu spirituality and philosophy and remained a staunch Hindu observing Hindu traditions of fasting, worship of Goddess(Mother Kali) and so on, till he attained Samadhi. In his short life Vivekananda made Hinduism or Sanatana Dharam which was under vicious assault of the missionaries, intellectually respectable. He continued his Master Sri Ramakrishna's work of Hindu revival which influenced luminaries like Subhas Chandra Bose. His own Ramakrishna mission is still doing impeccable work. It is upto Mr Mishra to explain why nothing came out of Swami Vivekananda's endeavors.

"Vivekananda borrowed from both British-constructed Hinduism and European realpolitik"

Again no examples of what he borrowed from "British-constructed Hinduism and European realpolitik" which was not part of traditional Hindu philosophy, which encompasses six major philosophies(Sankhya, Nyaya, Yoga, Vaisheshika, Purva mimsa, Uttara mimansa). Just because William Jones is hailed as Justian of India by the colonizers does not make him one. Jones translated a small portion of sanskrit texts. And Vivekananda was a learned scholar of Sanskrit and Panini. He read the originals and not the translated versions. He was an original thinker and exhorted his disciples to make original reflections and commentaries on Shastras.

"but he moved very far away from his Guru's inward-looking spirituality"

Instead of super imposing his own jaundiced view Mr Mishra should look at a life well lived. All through his short life Sri Ramakrishna was tirelessly working, teaching his disciples inspiring a vast array of people including luminaries of Indian Independence movement like Eshwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bakim Chandra Chatopadhaya on one end of the spectrum to members of Brahma Samaj including Keshab Chandra Sen. Among his own disciples, Gauri Ma opened a women's school , Surendranath opened a college in Calcutta. Vivekananda started Ramakrishna missions in India, U.S and Europe. Vivekananda always had the highest regard for his Master and never distanced himself from his Guru. Vivekananda claimed that he is doing his Guru work and that he is the instrument of his Guru. There is no reason why one should disregard Vivekananda's own words regarding his Guru. Judging from the results Ramakrishna engaged the secular world quite vigorously.

This entire essay starts with unsubstantiated statements and then goes on to make outrageous conclusions like India is headed "for intellectually and spiritually oppressive times" as Vivekananda's prominence grows. Vivekananda was for plurality and against homogenizing of the world, full of compassion for the downtroden. So, If Indian middle class follows his ideals India would modernize at the same time maintain its spirituality, not westernize. It is Mr Mishra who is throughly confused and ignorant, Vivekananda never proposed an alliance between Indian Elite and modern west nor was he enarmored by the later. His interpretation of Vivekanada is certainly not based on facts.

When Mr Mishra comes up a radical new thesis about Hinduism, onus is on him to atleast get his facts correct.The Author is incapable of differentiating Brahman and Brahmin comes up with unsubstantiated facts and with some pretzel logic concorts grandiose theories about Hinduism. Being annointed columnist of NYT does not absovle him of the need to get his facts straight. His thesis has no basis nor did he make a case for it.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Mandeep said...

I recently read Pankaj Mishra's book on his travels and insights "How to be Modern: Travels in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan".
I found the book very interesting to read. His style of writing remids me an article by Bernard Henry Levy that appeared
in The Atlsmtic Monthly. Mishra intersperses his observation of everyday life with deeper insights
and puts them in a historical context. This requires a good knowledge of history and culture of his subject.
He draws on his background to give us an insight into the dynamics of the caste system
where he grew up and went to university, Allahabad.
There is a chapter on the rise of hindu fundamentalism. He traces its roots back to the British raj.
How the hindu intellectuals pressed for Western education while the muslim elite did not
push for it, in some cases, even opposed it. The use of communal politics by "secular" congress
politicians kind of laid the foundation for the fundamentilsts to rise.
At times he does come across as a cynic, as he does not spare anyone.
His expose of Indira Gandhi deconstructs the myth of Indira Gandhi as "mother India".
Instead, the picture he paints is of a vain insecure daughter of Nehru, always in his shadow.
How she misused her power and even let her son, Sanjay, misuse it.
Her resortiong to communal politics actually gave a big boost to the the eventual rise of the
sangh parivar.
His cynic's gaze does not fall hard on people he percieves as oppressed.
Lower caste, muslims, and even poor brahmins. In the end he correlates the hopelessness
of educated youth, the lack of opportunity leading to desperate measures.
This leads to them joining radical cuases. He underlines this common thread when he
analyses societies in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.
According to him, it is the insecurity and anxiety faced by the emerging middle class
that leads them to support draconian measures. Hence their support for militarisation
of kashmir, north east, punjab etc. How the BJP exploits this angst by propagating
the image of muslims as anti national and a threat to peace and security.
In his chapter on Ayodhya, he reveals that the earlier nawabs of awadh, as the area was known before the British,
had a policy of non interference in religious disputes between hindus and muslims.
That the actual feud had been between followers of Shiva vs those of Ram.

There is a chapter about the massacre of sikhs in Chattisinghpura in kashmir.
He reveals how the security forces, who enjoy almost total impunity, picked up
innocent mulsims and killed them, blaming the massacre on them. No inquiry has been
held on this incident, like many others. All justified under "national security".
Around this incident, he traces the historical roots of the kashmir conflict.
He reveals how the rulers under Ranjit Singh and Hari SIngh had been very
unjust to the muslims in kashmir. It was like a mirror image of Aurangzeb's reign,
something we would not find in history text books in India. And subsequent Indian regime's
interference with kashmiri politics and elections led to disillusionment with
India in general.

His travels take him to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He connects the common thread about
the disillusionment of youth with the system for resorting to radical causes.
Of course there are global forces that are ready to exploit the situation to their advantage.
He does make a distinction between the attitudes of muslim and hindu fundamentalists.
He points out the irony that the muslim fundamentalists had inherited the anti western
attitudes of the indian nationalists, while the hindu fundamentalists were happy to
find a niche in the western scheme of things.

I remember reading somewhere about the nature of nationalist and pseudo fascist movements
having a pyramidal hierarchy. Meaning a few people aggrandize power and wealth in the name
of some ideology. Mishra observes this in Pakistan and India with Muslim and hindu fundamentalists
respectively. How an ex ISI general, now discredited, lived in opulent splendour compared to
the common person.

In Nepal it is the maoists who are challanging the monarchists. Here again it was disillusionment
with a corrupt democratic system that lead the maoists to take up arms. Althoug he does not
seem to be forgiving to the maoists either.

It is the last chapter on tibet where his ambivalence comes thru about what form should resistance
take. He seems rather impressed by the non violent methods of the tibetans, lead by the Dalai Lama.
This in the face of brutal suppression of the chinese govt. He has kind words for Dalai Lama's
compromising attitude to his chinese oppressors, noting that it is better than the nihilistic
approach adopted in other societies. For, if matters are resolved
eventually, there is a blueprint for a better society.

5:23 PM  
Blogger punit said...

hi , i wud like to contact Pankaj..he is an old friend..we were in school at Lucknow together.wud like get in touch with him
col p k singh, 831, KIDWAI House, UPSS

1:41 AM  
Blogger tired said...

Pankaj Mishra is trying to do something difficult here. The issues he is addressing are extremely complex. Eac statement of his can be interpreted in different ways. He has been critisized unjustly by many Hindus of Hindu bashing. Another example - like Pankaj Mishra, Rupa Bajwa, a young Indian writer wrote against Sikh clergy after a controversial play by Bhatti came out. She was critisized and even threatened in Sikh journals in London and in the Punjab, her home state. Just because writers choose to criticize certain things in their own religions, does not make them anti- nationalist.

9:00 PM  

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