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INTERVIEW: Rajiv Malhotra on where his work fits within the Hindu tradition

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Shri Malhotra, what are your views on gurus, acharyas, swamis and other leaders of Sampradayic traditions?  How do you see their role in the modern world? When you represent Hinduism at various public fora, are you presuming to replace these individuals and institutions with a new mould of spokesperson?

RM: Can anyone presume to “replace” them, ever? I can’t imagine how.

The leaders of Sampradayic lineages and mathas are not merely an integral feature of Hindu Dharma. They are, in themselves, proof of the core competence of our Dharmic traditions. Each enlightened master transmits the distilled wisdom of generations of embodied practice in a particular technique, a specific tradition customized to the community he or she teaches. The very existence of such masters is a testament to the enduring vitality of Dharmic spiritual practice.  It is from their inspiration, their teachings, that others in turn are guided on their own paths of personal spiritual discovery.

In my  own life, and the task I’ve committed myself to, I continuously derive inspiration from such teachers. In the 1990s, it was the influence of my own guru that inspired me to give up all business activity at the peak of my material success, and devote all my energies to the work I have taken up.

My immersion and devout association with many Sampradayic traditions goes all the way back to my childhood… when I was raised in a prominent Arya Samaj family of Punjab. Early on, I became involved with the Ramakrishna Mission in Delhi, and studied Gita under Swami Chinmayanand.  In the 1970s, I was initiated into Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation movement, in which I was active. About 20 years ago, I became an adherent of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s  Art of Living as well.

I’ve also studied with Yogi Amrit Desai, the founder of Kripalu Yoga in the USA,  and was certified as a teacher of Yoga Nidra under this tradition.  I’ve attended workshops with Swami Nityananda as well.  My experience of all these sadhanas, has proved invaluable to me.

Besides having availed of treasured spiritual interactions with living masters,  I’ve made it my business to study and imbibe the works of the historical greats: Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharshi, Adi Shankara, and many more recent interpreters and thinkers of our tradition.  The systematic study of Madhyamika Buddhism has also added to my understanding of Dharma.

There’s no question of my “replacing” any of these exponents of our tradition. Indeed, without the millennia of cumulative wisdom they embody, I might not even have a Dharmic tradition to fight for today.

You appear to have benefited from these relationships a great deal, but have you given back to such spiritual masters in any form? How have you helped them?

RM: I’m continuously engaged with many of them, as part of the work I do. In the process, I try to be of service in whatever form is needed of me.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, head of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, is one of the individuals I’ve worked very closely with.  On many occasions, he’s asked for my participation in strategic planning and discussion of issues facing Hinduism across the global theater. In 2008, I had the privilege of being centrally involved in the Second Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit, which he convened.  The summit concluded with a historic resolution removing certain critical biases that had long endured about Hinduism… and much of the language that I proposed, as lead scholar, was included in that resolution.

[Interviewer’s Note: See the text of this declaration at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/2258129/2nd-Hindu-Jewish-SummitFinal-DeclarationP-1#archive ]

Building on the success of that, I was once again included at the Hindu-Buddhist Summit of 2010 in Cambodia,  which aimed to conclude strategic resolutions between our two Dharmic traditions.

I’ve also been blessed with opportunities to be of service to the Chinmaya Mission. When their temple project in New Jersey faced legal hurdles, I actively mobilized supporting voices that were successful in overturning the local biases. Recently, I was invited to speak before three large groups by the Chinmaya Mission at Washington, DC…  other centers have sent invitations as well.

I was privileged to have been hosted by Ramakrishna Mission mathas for days together, and to have participated in discussions at the highest level regarding issues of major concern for the future of Dharma.  Subsequently, I was honored by their invitation to write an article for a special volume they are producing to celebrate Swami Vivekanand’s 150th anniversary.

Additionally, I’ve shared the dais with leaders like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on many occasions, and availed of private sessions with them to discuss the kinds of issues I raise in my writings.  I’m active in the HMEC (Hindu Mandirs Executive Committee), which is doing great work in bringing together the Hindu temples of North America on issues of common concern.  I can’t even begin to estimate the number of times I’ve been invited by Hindu temples across the USA, to address their congregations.

I do not cite these instances to emphasize the degree of my personal achievement, but rather out of gratitude that I’ve been able to provide seva at so many levels.

Some have been critical of your statement that our Acharyas should have looked beyond their traditional roles and also studied philosophers such as  Hegel and Kant, to refute the West in its own terms.  How do you justify such a statement? Do you think that the Acharyas have failed in this role, and therefore are to blame for the intellectual bankruptcy of our Brown Saheb class today?

RM: You say “look beyond their traditional roles.”  In fact, purva-paksha is very much part of the traditional roles our Acharyas have performed for thousands of years!  How else do you explain the sublime intellectual vigor of Adi Shankara in studying the diverse theological positions that existed in his day, and traveling the length and breadth of the country to debate the adherents of them all?

What do the Vaisheshika teachings expounded by Kanada,  or the Nyaya Sutras of Akshapada Gautama represent?  They are the vibrant response of Hindu traditions after having conducted purva-paksha of contemporary Buddhist and Jaina philosophies. This sort of work has been the life-blood of relevance and vitality, pumping through the veins of Dharmic tradition since it began.

I do not “fault” our traditional Acharyas for the emergence of Brown Sahebs at all… far from it. In fact, it is thanks to their efforts that Dharmic traditions endure independently even today, despite the best efforts of Brown Sahebs to aid in their cultural digestion by the West.

It is not a “failure” I’m speaking of here… rather, it is a tragedy, and the result of 800 years of predatory colonialism by brutal foreign agencies.  The magnitude of trauma that our society and its institutions experienced from this, is hard to even imagine.  Continuous, relentless suppression and frequently realized threats of extermination will eventually drive a society to look inwards to the exclusion of all else… to “keep its head down” so as to appear less threatening to the dominant outsider.  But in keeping  one’s head down, one’s horizon becomes limited, and one is denied the opportunity for vigorous purva-paksha.

The Macaulayization of our educational system directly produced the Brown Sahebs as its offspring; but that was only one aspect of it. The other aspect was to systematically, viciously delegitimize Dharmic traditions of knowledge by all methods of cultural, economic and physical violence available to it.  So it is hardly a “fault” of our Acharyas that collectively, India’s philosophical perspective turned inwards; rather, it is  a credit to them that our traditions survived through such monstrously difficult times.

Yet, the fact remains that the perspective did turn inwards; had the same intellectual vigor of Adi Shankara been applied to a purva-paksha of the West, had we studied and understood the positions of Kant and Hegel and engaged in rigorous, logical refutation using our own traditional hermeneutics, who knows what might have happened!  Instead, the Brown Sahebs were given the “legitimacy” of Macaulayite education, and through them, the Western perspectives of Kant and Hegel became universalized.

I do not say all this to put the blame on any of our own people, especially not the enlightened masters who inspire me and whom I engage with regularly in my work.  I say it because it needs to be recognized as a tragedy of history… and corrected by us in the present.

So how are you helping present-day Hindu samaj to correct this tragedy? How have you contributed to arming modern exponents of Dharmic tradition, with the instruments to conduct such a “purva paksha” of the West?

RM: I continuously strive towards conducting, and equipping others to conduct, such a purva-paksha. In fact, that’s one of the primary goals of the Infinity Foundation I have established.

For instance, over a ten-year period, we provided grants to a department of the University of Hawaii that researches and teaches Indian philosophy. Among other things, our efforts produced a Sanskrit book that explains modern Western thought to Sanskrit scholars.

That book was written by Professor Arindam Chakrabarti, himself a highly regarded scholar of both Dharmic and Western thought.  Professor Chakrabarti used the text in conducting workshops with a number of Sanskrit scholars, at Tirupati University as well as at Varanasi.

The results were astoundingly clear in revealing the immense potential for our traditional scholars to study the Western “other”, and to respond to it with our own system of hermeneutics, our traditional siddhanta. The success of Professor Chakrabarti’s workshops was met with many requests for more such programs to be convened.

More recently, at the World Sanskrit Conference held at Delhi in 2012, I presented my thesis on this issue as addressed in “Being Different”. Again, the responses were very encouraging: multiple invitations from the heads of Sanskrit universities and traditional mathas, requesting further workshops on purva-paksha. Similarly, following a seminar on my work hosted by Banaras Hindu University early this year, the Dean of their Faculty of Arts asked for my help in creating a new center for intercultural studies, aimed specifically at initiating purva-paksha.

Most people would agree that all this indicates a widespread and resolute acceptance of my thesis, by many of today’s Dharmic scholars and spiritual leaders. Among modern Indian intellectuals rooted in Dharmic tradition, a consensus is already forming that it is desirable, indeed necessary, to study Western thought… and to respond using the refined and sophisticated techniques of siddhanta.

Given this, it’s rather curious that a handful of cynics… these “critics” you speak of… appear to be raising “concerns” about my thesis.

What, exactly, are their “concerns” based upon? Are they aware of what purva-paksha is… of its role as a scholarly technique, in our intellectual tradition spanning thousands of years? Do they even realize that India originated critical thinking and debate many centuries before the West conceived of such things?

For that matter, what depth of substantive research have they contributed on this issue… or any other… which qualifies them to make such sweeping pronouncements of dismissal?

Their attitude in this regard betrays a blind adherence to prejudice… something more characteristic of the dogma-based religions of the desert, than of any Dharmic practice.

Some of your critics also claim that you, yourself, are doing a “U-Turn” by engaging with Christians and others through the inter-faith dialogue process. In doing this, aren’t you simply providing Christians with another window to continue their conversion of Hindus, and digestion of Dharmic wisdom?

RM: Let me ask you something. If I were not to engage in the “inter-faith dialogue process”… would it mean that all “inter-faith” dialogue would stop?

No. It would go on. And it would continue on the Western universalist terms that have already privileged the Abrahamic faiths for too long!

I do not create windows for inculturation or contextualization by engaging in inter-faith dialogue. The missionary Abrahamic faiths are continuously engaged in a number of processes to create such windows and exploit them. Dialogue is only one such process… there are many more, including the appropriation of Dharmic traditions without attribution,  the denial of mutual respect to other religions, the maintenance of history-centric exclusivity, the adoption of native cultural forms of spiritual expression to disguise the ingress of missionary Christianity. So many things, and they all go on.

I am not contributing to any of these processes by joining in inter-faith dialogue… in fact, I endeavor to bring some honesty to the dialogue, and level the playing field, by pointing these things out!

If someone did not point these things out, we would go on slumbering, and dreaming dreams of “sameness”… thinking that Western universalism was harmless in privileging Judeo-Christian faiths, because in the end all religions are the “same”.

In fact, they are not. In fact, Dharmic faiths are irreconcilably different from Abrahamic faiths in some fundamental ways.  It is only when we remain ignorant of the differences, that inter-faith dialogue can become a source of threat to us. When we are informed about the differences,  and demand that dialogue must proceed from a position of mutual respect… then, what is the threat? It doesn’t exist, except in the reactionary minds of those who remain hopelessly and persistently colonized.

But doesn’t interfaith dialogue itself provide an opportunity for missionary Christianity to further its agenda by deceitful inculturation? How do you respond to the charge that you’re contributing to this agenda?

RM: I think the question has oversimplified and confused two entirely separate issues.

Inculturation and interfaith engagement exist independently of each other. Of course, we see both phenomena exert themselves in Indian society today.

Among the Hindu elite, the fluffy popularization of the “sameness” myth… the idea that all religions are ultimately the same… has the effect of inculturating Indians in educated circles. This isn’t a consequence of interfaith dialogue, but of a fad created by some of our own writers and thinkers.

Meanwhile, inculturation in villages… where missionaries put on the external trappings of hindu forms of worship, such as aarti, and apply these to Jesus… is entirely unlinked to interfaith discussions.

Conversely, much interfaith dialogue isn’t based on inculturation, and has separate dynamics of its own. So it’s important to recognize, and treat each of these things as an independent issue.

Firstly, let’s look at inculturation, and how I’ve confronted it.

To begin with, my critiques of the “sameness” myth have considerably impacted Indian intellectuals’ appreciation of the dangers inherent in inculturation… of the deceitful claims of “sameness” that are used to confuse and disorient our people.  My entire thesis about “difference” focuses on the need to retain awareness that we are NOT the same, so that external predators cannot stealthily digest our traditional wisdom.

Critics of my work don’t seem to have the background required to understand the nature of the “sameness” myth… which, ironically, is being propagated by many of our own teachers and self-appointed spokespersons.

Moreover,  I’ve made a deep study of the history, psychology and politics of Westerners who appropriate and digest critical elements of our Dharma, aiming to boost Western identity while depleting our own. This is what I refer to as my U-Turn Theory, and as far as I know it’s the only major study of its kind in existence.

Beyond this, I’ve sought to introduce a whole new vocabulary that deepens our understanding of inculturation.  You will find that many terms of this vocabulary, including “sameness”, “being different”, “digestion”, and “u-turn” are now gaining widespread usage, becoming part of the popular idiom among thinking Indians.

Has anyone else, in recent years, conducted this extent of research on the subject… combined with fact-finding at the ground level, with an analytical understanding of both Western and Indian identity?  I’m not aware that anyone else has done so, or articulated their findings as effectively.

Secondly, let’s address the subject of my involvement with interfaith dialogue.

Besides the events that are explicitly convened for the purpose of “interfaith dialogue”, there are many other instances of interfaith interaction that are not openly identified as such.

You have discussions on TV or radio involving representatives of various faiths; often, unfortunately, the Hindu participant, who is deeply knowledgeable of dharmic tradtions,  in these discussions comes across as ill-prepared to counter the arguments of the other representatives

You have the United States government making appointments to various bodies, where discussions occur that are very similar to what goes on at “interfaith” events… shouldn’t we aim  to better empower the representatives who speak for us there? Or are we better advised to boycott such discussions, so that our place is taken by mala-fide opponents who claim to speak on our behalf?

When I first began to expose the biases of the interfaith movement, I realized that such biases were frequently exercised by designating certain types of individuals for participation in discussions on Hinduism. These included anti-Hindu leftists, Indian or Western Christians, and token “Hindus” who were neither qualified nor confident enough to speak up assertively. I responded with an awareness campaign urging our temples, our community leaders and our youth to demand a seat at the table for authoritative, knowledgeable voices.

We must realize that interfaith events are not centered on Hinduism, but on religions in general… Muslims, Christians, Jews and others have many motives of their own to participate in such discussions. Our absence as Hindus will not be enough to kill any interfaith event. The events will simply go on without us, and we will be represented by proxies who are either inadequate or hostile to our purposes.

In any case, the earlier problem has been alleviated somewhat; it has now become more common for Hindus to be invited to such gatherings.

Today, by contrast, we have a new problem. There is a clamoring horde of Hindu spokespersons who present themselves as ambassadors of Dharma, but in fact, end up selling us out. Some of these individuals have genuine intentions. Others are in it for self-aggrandizement, ego-inflation, prestige, or to network for professional or business opportunities.

All too often, our would-be ambassadors are handicapped by lack of training in debate, insufficient expertise in Dharmic scholarship, and minimal familiarity with the issues we face. Most of all, they lack any education in conducting purva-paksha of the Western mindset. All these handicaps have proved very costly to us.

To reverse these handicaps, we must organize workshops and educational programs. We must rigorously train the aspiring ambassadors of Dharma, equip them with the knowledge they need, and arm them to face public forums with confidence, so that they’re unafraid even to go on the offensive when that’s necessary. This has been another major focus of my efforts, as they relate specifically to interfaith engagement.

From your explanations, it appears that the arguments being used by some of your critics… or should I say detractors… are quite spurious. However, they continue to insist that you are against our spiritual leaders, that some of them are against you… why is this?

RM: According to our Dharma, one must draw one’s own conclusions based on the evidence of one’s own experience. Hearsay is no substitute at all.

In this case, the appropriate thing to do is to find out which specific gurus or acharyas, allegedly, are purported to have expressed hostile opinions towards me.  Personally, I am unaware of any who have.

As I’ve mentioned before,  my collaboration has been requested… and continues to be requested… by so many groups affiliated with a number of different Sampradayic traditions, both in India and in North America.  I’m honored by the opportunity to serve them through writing, speaking engagements, discussions on strategy, and so much more. I hardly think that such  relationships could be predicated on a basis of hostility… do you?

I don’t claim to understand why some people persist in making these sorts of allegations about me. The allegations themselves are easily identifiable as unfounded, and that’s what matters.

One might examine the relationship of my detractors with the types of individuals and traditional institutions, that they’re trying to portray as being hostile towards me. Do they have a depth of engagement with these institutions, similar to mine?  Is their involvement as consistently sought after by these institutions, as mine?  If not, then what qualifies them to judge the nature of something that’s clearly outside their own realm of experience?  Of course, judgments borne of personal prejudice don’t need to be qualified in this way… but most people wouldn’t consider such judgments to be valid, either.

Do you think that you’re being attacked by some people out of simple jealousy? A few individuals seem particularly obsessive about making these sorts of personal attacks on you. Yet, they seem to lack any personal contributions or achievements in your field of scholarship, that might lend credibility or authority to their attacks. How do you view such attacks: do they reflect a personal grudge, or a psychological issue?

RM:  I’m really not interested in reversing the smear. Let such persons do what they will. I shall continue with my work.

Are you ever concerned that such nuisance attacks might adversely impact your work, or your standing with others?

RM: My sva-dharma does not demand that I must compete against anybody for electoral victories, public approval, high-profile appointments or other contests of popularity. I’m busy enough as a writer and public speaker…busier than ever these days, with all the invitations to various engagements coming in.

It’s hard enough to keep up with the legitimate demands on my time and energy…  so these sorts of silly insinuations are hardly worth bothering with!   I do not think that the energetic, involved collaborators that I’d welcome would turn away from my work because of such attacks. In fact the number of serious thinkers, groups and invitations to conduct briefings has kept growing rapidly.

Published: March 29, 2012