Saturday, December 06, 2014

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Review of Indra's Net


Indra's Net: Defending Hinduism's Philosophical UnityIndra's Net: Defending Hinduism's Philosophical Unity by Rajiv Malhotra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the first part of Indra’s Net, Rajiv Malhotra traces the lineage of scholars who posit a “neo-Hinduism” invented by Swami Vivekananda. The most recent of this lineage is Anantanand Rambachan of St. Olaf College, who claims that Swami Vivekananda’s reliance on direct experience is incompatible with Shankara’s reliance on sruti.

Malhotra then proceeds to show that Rambachan’s concept of Hinduism is too narrow: namely, that Shankara did not dismiss direct experience out of hand and that Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta is only one system of knowing within Hinduism. Malhotra discusses how Hinduism has evolved over time and places Swami Vivekananda squarely in the Hindu tradition.

Malhotra then discusses “digestion” of Hinduism. By digestion, he means the process by which people absorb the parts of Hinduism that they like and excrete (my word, not his) the parts they don’t like. A good example is the de-contextualization of yoga from Hinduism, whereas the rest of Hinduism is trashed.

He introduces the concept of “poison pills” to prevent the “digestion” of Hinduism into other frameworks. These poison pills include characteristics of Hinduism (karma, re-incarnation, embodied knowing, integral unity) that cannot be reconciled with the traditional tenets of Abrahamic religion and force the spiritual seeker to make a choice among religions.

Indra’s Net is more accessible than Malhotra's book An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism; however, Being Different and Indra’s Net re-enforce one another. I would have to read both books several times to fully understand the concepts that Rajiv Malhotra introduces. My 3-star rating is less about the merits of the book and more about the limits of my understanding.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review of Understanding Hinduism

Understanding HinduismUnderstanding Hinduism by Oxford Center for Hindu Studies
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book supplements the online continuing ed course Introduction to Hinduism–History, Text, Philosophy from the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies.

Virtues of this book:

It exercises caution in inferring what archaeological finds indicate about the Indus Valley Civilization.

Similarly, it is cautious about the Aryan Invasion Theory. All it says about the Aryans:
  • AIT is a colonial construct (drawing upon Kim Knott's book Hinduism A Very Short Introduction)
  • Vedic Sanskrit has linguistic similarities with other Indo-European languages
  • We may infer that the Vedic people were agriculturists or pastoralists from their hymns
Understanding Hinduism notes that South Indian priests instructed North Indian priests in Vedic ritual after Islamic suppression of Hinduism. This is evidence of the cultural affinity between North and South (see Breaking India to see how various forces are alienating the South from the North).

I like Understanding Hinduism even better than Klaus K. Klostermaier's book A Short Introduction to Hinduism. Understanding Hinduism is the best introduction to Hinduism that I've read: therefore, I'm rating it 5 stars.

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Review of Breaking India


Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit FaultlinesBreaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines by Rajiv Malhotra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book Breaking India by Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan is about the forces that are fragmenting India. While Islamic radicalism and Maoist insurgencies are two forces that are fragmenting India, Breaking India focuses on the North-South divide, as evidenced by its subtitle Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines.

Breaking India begins with a study of the construction of Aryan and Dravidian identities through the years and how this artificial divide was promulgated and led to setting different groups in opposition to each other. The book focuses on the construction of Dravidian identity, rather than on deconstruction of the AIT - perhaps because others have done that, the authors don't say.

The most eye-opening part of Breaking India is about the roles that academia, evangelical Christian organizations, NGOs, "think tanks," and governments play in undermining India's unity. Shared interests lead to unlikely pairings such as left-wing intellectuals with evangelical Christian interests. There are also unlikely alliances between Maoists and evangelical Christian entities in India's "Red Corridor."

I recommend Breaking India to anyone concerned about India's unity, and encourage readers to go beyond the main text to read the appendices and endnotes. Appendix B highlights references to the Vedas in Tamil religious literature and Tamil familiarity with smriti such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata - a testament to the unity in Indian civilization. Appendix C presents the extreme case of what can happen when separate identities are constructed and put in opposition to each other: the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that pitted Hutus and Tutsis against each other. Parallels are drawn with the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka that pitted Tamils and Sinhalese against each other.

Breaking India has a dedicated website,

Other examples of north/south interactions that I'd like to bring up (although they are not mentioned in the book):

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Engaging Vishakha Desai, past President, Asia Society on Wendy Doniger's The Hindus


Don't even ask why I'm spending so much time and effort on Wendy Doniger's The Hindus, but here is my missive to Vishakha Desai, formerly President of Asia Society:
Vishakha Desai
Dear Dr. Desai,

I am writing with respect to your opinion piece India's Move on 'Hindus' Shows Disturbing Fear of Free Expression that was published on the Asia Society web site,

The web page listed your Twitter handle @VishakhaDesai but I see that you have been inactive on Twitter since December 2012. Since I couldn’t share my thoughts with you via Twitter, I decided to write this email.

Some questions and comments:

  • How can you say that Wendy Doniger’s opponents are well-funded? Do you have a money trail that you can show? Asia Society lists donors who contribute more than $50,000, and you were probably instrumental in getting contributions of this magnitude when you were President of Asia Society. I doubt that Wendy Doniger’s critics have those resources.
  • Would you have the nerve to denounce Muslim groups that force censorship (often with the threat of violence or even violence itself) in the way that you have denounced the “right-wing” Hindus who sought recall of Doniger’s book? I suspect not, as “right-wing” Hindus (particularly an 88-year-old man) are a soft target.
  • You promoted debate instead of censorship. Here are some comments on your opinion piece: 
    • Wendy Doniger has refused to engage in debate: for example, “she did not participate in a discussion of her book at the annual conference of AAS (Association of Asian Studies) at Hawaii in 2011.” 
    • “What discussion can you have with obnoxious findings without any proof?” for example, claiming that Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda had a homosexual relationship. I would also like to point out that Wendy Doniger has stooped to name-calling: she told one of her critics that he was a “mouse turd.” 
    • “There is no debate possible with Wendy Doniger or her students - it was tried fruitlessly about a decade ago (Google for "RISA Lila"). But since Doniger is a Western academic, a colleague in the same power structure that Ms. Vishaka N. Desai belongs, Ms Desai will not point it out.” Indeed, you’ve closed ranks with the academic establishment. 
  • You wrote,”it's heartening to see that all major newspapers, especially those in English, are full of major stories and editorials by well-known writers and thinkers, all condemning the decision by Penguin … But where was the organized effort to ensure that the climate of fear and intimidation would not continue to allow the destruction of more books deemed to have a view of Indian culture different from the right-wing Hindu zealots?” Well, the English language media in India, academia, and your writers and thinkers are that organized effort. Once again, it is telling that you singled out “right-wing Hindu zealots,” not Christian zealots, not Muslim zealots.
  • Wendy Doniger’s critics do not have a level playing field to engage her. It is true that the Internet and social media have been great levelers, but access to traditional media is still important. Her critics do not have access to marquee publishers like Penguin with its marketing muscle (it could give away copies of “The Hindus” – I know, because Penguin sent me a free copy in advance of the release date) and mainstream media. Wendy Doniger and “The Hindus” controversy were featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and PRI’s The World radio programs. USA Today did interview Rajiv Malhotra, Wendy’s foremost critic, at length, but his comments were not included in the final article that was published.
  • Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus” is prescribed in various syllabi. What will be the effect on Hindu students? Will they be subject to mockery, taunts, and worse, on account of Ms. Doniger’s interpretation of the “sexualized nature of Hinduism,” as you call it? (I call her interpretation pornography) In this politically correct climate, other groups would protest if they receive similar treatment, and academia would give in to them. 
I have derived a lot of satisfaction from cultural events sponsored by Asia Society in DC. It pains me to see that Asia Society published your opinion piece, but I will not demand that it remove it. Given that, your viewpoint should not go unchallenged.

I was surprised to get a quick reply from Ms. Desai: go past the jump to read it: