Book Review: God in India – Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad ElstDr. Joris Gielen studied History, Science of Religion and Theology at the Catholic University of Leuven and also obtained the MA in Indian Philosophy and Religion at Banaras Hindu University. So, when I saw his Dutch-language book God in India (Lannoo Campus 2013), I thought to myself: at last, this might be someone who knows what he’s talking about. The book is rather oblivious to unconventional forms of Hinduism, such as that of the chillum-smoking sadhus, but it gives a realistic account of scriptural Hinduism. – Dr. Koenraad Elst

Dr. Joris GielenCurrent ideas

Dr Gielen tries his hand at an “emic” approach, i.e. from the inside out, rendering the intentions of the insiders rather than an “objective” description from the outside. As a start, he acknowledges contemporary problems in this discipline, such as whether there even is such a thing as “religion” in India, and when the term “Hinduism” came into use. This is by no means a parlour book about Hinduism, full of nice pictures but with a bland content; it wants to come to grips with a number of contemporary problems. He mentions Edward Said’s notion of “Orientalism”, which he buys into to some extent, given its omnipresence. Here like on many contentious points, he remains moderate and polite where a certain harshness would have been entirely appropriate. “Orientalism”, originally the name of the discipline of Asian history and philology, is used here as the term for the ideological dimension of colonialism. Said’s influential book Orientalism, apart from ignoring the German-speaking world as the main wellspring of Oriental studies (and, alas for Said, with no Asian colonies), being very Islamocentric in its focus and containing numerous factual mistakes, essentially offers a grand conspiracy theory. Though we know that most Orientalists were adventurous individualists, often with eccentric and unpredictable opinions and sometimes “going native”, he makes them all into agents of one evil plan, viz. subjecting the natives. Gielen doesn’t want to go that far, but as a junior scholar, he has to go along somewhat with this much-applauded theory. The example given of Orientalists treating Asian cultures as static, with e.g. ancient texts on caste being used by British administrators to codify caste in modern society, makes the very mistake it accuses the Orientalists of, viz. ignoring the native contribution. Hindus themselves had been using ancient texts to justify present-day social relations.    

God in IndiaIn Gielen’s opinion, the main difference between the Abrahamic and the Dharmic religions is it “for every one of the Indic religions it is very difficult to arrive at a minimum definition because of the internal diversity”. (p. 40) He doesn’t mention Christianity’s or Islam’s ambition of world conquest nor their history-centricity (followers have to believe in certain historic events around Jesus c.q. Mohammed in order to be real members), which Hindu scholars would consider far for fundamental differences. I wouldn’t think that for sects like Jainism and Sikhism a doctrinal definition is all that difficult, especially because people on the periphery practice but don’t celebrate their “diversity”, and instead agree that certain core teachings are normative even if they don’t practice them. In their case, the confusion does not exist in the religion-minded communities concerned, but in the diversity-minded scholars. Buddhism, after having spread far and wide, knows a much larger diversity, but the person of the Buddha and the notion of Liberation (even if admittedly unattainable for many “in this birth”) do provide a  common ground that unites all Buddhists. As for “Hinduism”, this is indeed very diverse and difficult to define, but it was never meant to be the name of a specific religion. When the Muslim invaders introduced this Persian geographical term, it simply meant “every Indian who is not an Abrahamic”, i.e. an Indian Pagan. This term didn’t specify any defining doctrine. It obviously and uncontroversially included the Indian Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins”), the Jain and the then as yet unborn Sikhs. To take Sikhism as a separate religion, after summarizing its genesis as a sect within the Hindu movement of Nirguna Bhakti (“devotion to the one without qualities”), is another compromise with prevailing opinion. The scholarly but isolating view is that this is simply a Hindu sect.

The Vedas have a prominent place and unique prestige among Hindus, but can’t figure in a definition. Much in Hinduism is only given a Vedic veneer, or not even that, and is of non-Vedic origin. Hinduism is a synthesis between a Vedic backbone and local flesh, or roughly what scholars call the “great tradition” and the “little traditions”. Conversely, the fact that a sect does not refer to the Vedas, as is the case with Jainism and Buddhism (unlike Sikhism, and though some of their concepts originate in the Vedas), cannot be used to call them “non-Hindu”. Thus, the arch-Hindu philosopher Shankara holds it against Patañjali and the Sankhya school that they don’t cite the Vedas, yet they are counted among the “Vedic” or “orthodox” viewpoints and figure in every history of “Hinduism”.

Nazi Propaganda: The Aryan HeroThe Aryan debate

Very exceptionally, Gielen gives a fair-minded account of the Aryan invasion debate, with the conclusion: “In emulation of specialists such as Edwin Bryant, it seems preferable to take an agnostic position concerning the origin of Vedic culture and religion. On the basis of the present state of research, we cannot know for sure whence the rich Vedic culture and religion have their provenance and source” (p. 51). Very slowly, the insight is gaining ground that the Aryan invasion theory is not as sure as Westerners tend to think. A full account of the multifarious havoc that the AIT has wrought in Indian society is not given, only the use the British made of it to justify their colonization: in occupying India, they themselves would only be doing what their Aryan “cousins” had done thousands of years ago. But Gielen’s acknowledgement may now be used as proof that there is not some grand Western conspiracy to belittle India, as many Hindus claim. Given the proper facts, at least one Westerner proves to be sensitive to the arguments for an Indian homeland.  

A very detailed account is devoted to the Buddha and the different sects of Buddhism, as also to Jainism. The status of Buddhism as a separate religion is a historical accident, mainly to be explained by the circumstance that it was first discovered by Western scholars outside India, to the extent that it took some time before they even realized that the Buddha lived in India. Most Hindus now consider the Buddha one of theirs (as he considered himself one of theirs), admittedly encouraged in this by the prestige the Buddha has gained in the West. From a scholarly viewpoint, though, I would observe that this disproportionate attention for the Buddha only draws attention to the equally disproportionate non-attention to other great minds in India, such as Dirghatamas, Yajñavalkya and Abhinavagupta. They are passed over in silence. What, the readers have never heard these names? Well, that is precisely what I mean. Not just this book, but most introductory works on Indian religion disregard the most important Hindu thinkers. Dirghatamas was one the earliest and greatest Vedic seers, author of many well-known sayings and similes including “the wise call the true one by many names”; Yajnavalkya was the greatest Upanishadic thinker and originator of the notion of the Self (fundamental also to Buddhism, though adversatively); and Abhinavagupta was a polymath and greatest thinker of Kashmiri Shaiva Tantra. The task of a new book should be to fill the gaps in people’s knowledge, and these great names are great gaps indeed.  

The Niyogi Committee Report On Christian Missionary ActivitiesConversion

If Gielen does a good job on the whole, with an eye for the differences between scripture and practice, he does remain a child of his time and of his professional circles.  Long ago, when I looked in the Leuven Theology Library for the Niyogi Committee Report, which documents the misbehaviour of the Christian missionaries in Central India in the 1950s, I couldn’t get it (someone whispered that it was in their confidential collection), while the Christian reply to it was readily available. The dominant view of India in Catholic circles remains that Hindus and Muslims are barbarians killing people who don’t belong to their own religion, but that the few Christians among them are innocent sheep. Thus, our press has reported the riots against Christians in Orissa in 2008, but not the trigger of those riots: the murder of a Hindu monk and four of his assistants by Christians (whom spokesmen of the Church then tried to disown, blaming the Maoists). If you don’t go to the source of the information, you are a victim of the control of the information stream by various anti-Hindu forces, and so the European-Christian understanding of Indian religious affairs in completely warped.   

The writer has done his best to be nuanced in his brief account of Hindu nationalism, and yet, he suddenly asks the question “whether Muslims and Christians are ever able to pay enough respect to the Hindu culture postulated by the Hindutva ideology without converting to Hinduism.” Then he gives his answer: “The forced conversions of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism by backers of the Hindutva ideology feed the suspicion that in the eyes of many Hindu nationalists this is not the case and that conversion is therefore necessary.” (p.62)

I have studied Hindu nationalism for 24 years, reading its less-known literature and interviewing hundreds of activists including 3 presidents of its core organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and 3 presidents of the Bharatiya Janata Party (which no scholar on which Gielen bases himself, has ever done), and inevitably also getting to talk to its many enemies; and I have never encountered a single case of a “forced conversion to Hinduism”. Among Christians, this notion of their victim-hood at the hands of the ugly overbearing Hindus is very popular, but if you look more closely, little remains. Anyway, if there were a case of forced conversion, it would not prove the strength but the weakness and clumsiness of Hinduism. Forced conversions are not much practised any more  Today Islam and Christianity, which in the past had millions of forced conversions to their credit, operate more subtly. When a Hindu falls in love with a Muslim, he or she is almost invariably are pressured by the Muslim family to convert. Christians use untold billions of dollars to make it materially and socially profitable to convert, and use every trick in the book to lure the tribals and other poor Hindus. Strictly speaking, however, their conversions are not forced—but nonetheless ethically questionable.

M.K. Gandhi in 1929The very notion of conversion is un-Hindu, it is a projection of a Christian concern. Hindu, like Jew, is an identity you have by birth. Even most Westerners who practice yoga and other Hindu things, will refrain from calling themselves Hindu. They may be initiated by this or that guru, but they have not “converted to Hinduism”. To allow the “freedom to convert” in the freedom of religion betrays a Christian bias. And of course, any account of the religious situation is not complete without identifying the utterly anti-Hindu design of India’s state religion, viz. secularism. In Europe, this was an arrangement created in defence against the influence of Christianity against the state, but in India, it was introduced as a weapon to belittle Hinduism, and is therefore strongly supported by the (disproportionately powerful) Churches. Mahatma Gandhi was strongly against conversion because it divided families and villages, and because it implied a lack of confidence in God, who can work through different religions. But today, the “secularists” who invoke Gandhi’s name are scornful or worse if you dare to problematize conversion.

So, most readers won’t even notice that single lost sentence on forced conversions, but it detracts greatly from the scholarly objectivity of the book. Otherwise, this is an improvement and a welcome addition to the existing literature on religion in India.

2 Responses

  1. As usual Koenraad Elst has provided a nuanced cadence in reviewing another “outsider” view of Hindus and Hinduism. Elst, by reason of circumstance, is able to both peer through a scholarly microscope as well as squint into an academic telescope. The “microscope” provides detail which he analyses, studies and reports to the lay world with all the panache of an Internet guru. The “telescope” provides a view of the grand design which Elst captures with both sympathy and finesse and sometimes with a note of tired abandon.

    As the book is a closed property to those of us who do not know Dutch
    ( probably almost all those who read Elst’s review ) we are grateful to Elst for letting us know what is being said in one closed circle. I am doubtful, though, if an MA at Banaras Hindu University is sufficient qualification for an “emic” view of Hindus and Hinduism. This is particularly the case when such an “emic” view escapes even those born into the tradition – whether steeped in it or washed over by it. The sheer profusion of hyperlinks into music, drama, art, philosophy, itihaas, and what Rajiv Malhotra calls “untranslatables” reduces both “emic” and “etic” voyages into just semantic categories.


  2. How is it possible for a European scholar to write about Hinduism ‘from the inside out’ when he does not practice Hinduism himself?

    Hindus are notorious for not being able to communicate their religion in a systematic, sensible way to non-Hindus. How then does a European scholar find out about ‘the inside’ of Hinduism?


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