Ram Swarup and Hinduphobia – Koenraad Elst


Dr Koenraad ElstAs Socrates taught: evil is, upon closer analysis, a case of ignorance. Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence. – Dr Koenraad Elst   

On Ram Swarup’s 22nd death anniversary, in the centenary year of his birth (12 Oct. 1920 — 26 Dec. 1998), let us consider what he said about Hindu-bashing, or what is nowadays called “Hinduphobia”. The word, though in existence since more than a century, was not yet in vogue as Hinduism’s ad hoc counterweight against the omnipresent propaganda term “Islamophobia”. But the phenomenon was already dominant in India and increasingly present abroad.

In fact, it was quite old. Several tribes of Muslims with a doctrinally motivated hatred for the Hindus, followed by the Portuguese Christians with a similar aversion, had actively persecuted Hinduism for centuries. They represent a permanent source of anti-Hindu violence that now takes the form of occupation of parts of the Hindu homeland by the Islamic states of Pakistan and Bangladesh; of Pakistani incursions; of terrorism and of rioting. But while they bludgeoned Hindu society and inflicted huge human and material losses on it, they did not penetrate it or take control of its institutions.

Tribes of haters

The British, by contrast, could rule India with more limited violence largely outsourced to native sepoys, but their influence penetrated far more deeply. Firstly, they managed to pit several Hindu sub-groups against the mainstream: most obviously the Sikhs, for whom the status of separate religion was made of whole cloth, promoted as a social reality and underpinned at the scholarly level. In several booklets, Ram Swarup went against this colonial-engineered separatism by documenting how, as per their own scriptures and history, Sikhism was a self-identified sect of Vedic Hinduism.

The creation of bad blood between Buddhism and mainstream Hinduism only took the institutional form of keeping Sri Lanka and later Burma outside of British India, but was far more influential at the scholarly level. There, the underlying paradigm of all Buddhist studies and of Indian histories as instilled through the schools became: “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good.”  Even before 1947, “Christian missionaries (…) were presenting Buddhism (as they have been doing with Sikhism) as (…) a revolt against ‘Brahmanism’ and the ‘Hindu’ caste system.” (Hinduism and Monotheistic Religions, p.519, originally 1991) They had no use for the Buddha, except for making him into a stick to beat Hindu society with. The Macaulayites and Marxists followed this example: “they tried to use their learning and position to undermine Hinduism (…) and show that there was little difference between Marxism and Buddhism. Now Communist historians are telling us that Hindus demolished Hindu temples.” (p.519) 

Likewise with the Dalits and tribals, who came to benefit from an incipient reservation system, and with the non-Brahmin Tamils. The then-popular Aryan Invasion Theory was used to pit them against the upper castes and the North Indians. The thrust of the exercise was invariably to put Hindus into the dock and make them feel guilty for their very existence. Needless to say, this caste-based discrimination with a good social conscience has only become more encompassing over the years, and the Invasionist paradigm still is the official one.

But the second effect was even more detrimental to Hindu assertiveness: “The British took over our education and taught us to look at ourselves through their eyes. They created a class Indian in blood and colour, but anti-Hindu in its intellectual and emotional orientation. This is the biggest problem rising India faces—the problem of self-alienated Hindus, of anti-Hindu Hindu intellectuals.” (p.45) 

Then again, in numerical terms, this impact on Hindu society was still quite small even by 1947. Many millions in the countryside had never seen a Briton, less than 1% of the population spoke good English. If the Indian leadership had wanted, it could have undone this influence in a matter of decades.

Ram SwarupA crucial factor here was the choice of language. Ram Swarup himself was quite at home with British culture and thought, being most influenced by British liberalism: Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell. In his case, this didn’t stop him from fighting for freedom from British rule, with active participation in the Quit India Movement. But for less independent minds, gulping down English influence would only end up estranging them from their Hindu roots, as it had done in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru. The vote in the Constituent Assembly’s Language Committee should have been crucial: 50% voted for Sanskrit, 50% for Hindi (which was given victory by the deciding vote of the chairman), and 0% for English. For the generation that had achieved independence, it was completely obvious that decolonisation implied abolishing the coloniser’s language. Yet by 1965, when this abolition was due to become effective, the English-speaking elite had gathered enough power to overrule this solemn commitment. Ever since, the influence of English and of the thought systems conveyed by it has only gone on increasing, and at some levels, India is becoming a part of the Anglosphere—hardly what the freedom fighter envisioned. Today, most Anglophone secularists are nearly as knowledgeable about Hindu culture as first-time foreign tourists who have crammed up the Lonely Planet’s few pages summarising India’s religious landscape.

Marx and Mao

Compare with China, not formally colonised but having been repeatedly humiliated by colonial incursion, yet now again proud and assertive. Of course it has retained its language, and adopting a foreign language as medium for education or the judiciary is simply unthinkable. Ram Swarup, who wrote several books criticising the record of Maoism, wouldn’t emphasise this, but it is one thing the Communists undoubtedly achieved: a clean break with the colonial age. Under the nationalist regime (1912-49), China was increasingly under Anglo-American influence, and the Christian missions could operate on a large scale. Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi (who later was to give an award to Ram Swarup’s and Sita Ram Goel’s anti-Communist think tank Society for the Defence of Freedom in Asia) was a Christian along with much of his family. By contrast, when Mao Zedong came to power, all missionaries were imprisoned, killed, or at best banished.    

On the other hand, by importing Marxism, China was opening itself up to another Western doctrine, and actively imposing it on its population. The same counted for those circles in India that came to espouse Marxism. Under Nehru, it started influencing the power-wielding circles, and from Indira Gandhi onwards, it achieved control over education policy and much of cultural policy. This ideology was “more Eurocentric than regular imperialism. It used radical slogans but its aims were reactionary. … Marx fully shared the contempt of the British imperialists for India. He fully subscribed to the theses of colonial scholarship that India was not a nation, had no history and was meant for subjugation. Marxism was Macaulayism at its most hostile. It blackened Indian history systematically. It gave to [the] Indian social and political system its own format, the one it had learnt from its European teachers. It saw in Hinduism not … a great spiritual civilisation but only communalism.” (p.45-46) 

Newer forms of Marxist or soft-Marxist thought (critics speak of “cultural Marxism”) remain entrenched in the Indian institutions, and are more powerful than ever in the relevant departments of Western universities. Their construction of Indian reality remains dominant and is more than ever spread to the new Hindu generations, leading to more culpabilisation c.q. sense of shame for Hinduism. 

Race to the exit

The trends unambiguously traced to colonial policies have not been reversed by the Nehruvian regime, but have instead been continued and magnified. Thus, the British policy of separating Hindu subsets from general Hinduism has continued with an affirmation at different times of minority status for Buddhism, Sikhism, the Arya Samaj, Jainism, Virashaivism and Sarna “animism”. In every case, the administrative separation was fortified with a change in discourse: the need for a non-Hindu identity was in each case buttressed by an increased blackening of Hinduism. This anti-Hindu attitude has even crept into Hindu organisations without the institutional ambition of minority status, e.g. the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) calls itself non-Hindu, except when it is canvassing for donations by Hindu communities.

When Ram Swarup wrote against separatism among the Sikhs, it was an interesting intellectual entertainment for his (mere hundreds of) readers, but had no impact at all on policy-making. The Narasimha Rao government managed to neutralise armed Sikh separatism, but did nothing to change Sikh separatist thought, so that there remains a constant threat of its political revival. In a healthy society, we might expect power-wielders to listen to sages like Ram Swarup, but this was not the case; just as it is still not the case today.

As described in Ram Swarup’s booklet The Ramakrishna Mission in Search of a New Identity, the Ramakrishna Mission, besieged by the Communist-supported Teachers’ Union in its school network, felt compelled as a matter of survival to relieve this pressure. In India, by virtue of Article 30 of the Constitution, minority schools (and similarly, places of worship) are autonomous and immune from government take-over, whereas classification as Hindu makes them vulnerable to nationalisation. But the RK Mission did not try to have the discrimination against Hindu schools abolished, did not appeal to Hindu society, but did the dishonourable thing of trying to escape by seeking minority status, like a rat leaving a sinking ship. The Bengal High Court gave it the coveted minority status, then finally (or so it seemed) the Supreme Court denied it, entirely in accordance with RK Mission founder Swami Vivekananda’s assertion of Hindu pride. 

Superficial Hindus might jubilate that this was a victory for Hindu unity, but Ram Swarup warned that the Mission would now have to live down the anti-Hindu attitudes which it had come to espouse. Here again, some of its swamis make all the right noises for the respective audiences they address, sometimes calling themselves Hindu, but the “we are not Hindus” animus has not disappeared: when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress won the state elections ending decades of Communist rule, the Mission asked her for minority status. And promptly it received her assurance that it would henceforth be treated as a minority, thus de facto overruling the “final” Supreme Court verdict. Ram Swarup always emphasised that institutional arrangements are unimportant in themselves, merely the materialisation of convictions and mentalities. If you want to stop the race to the exit, it is imperative to change people’s unfavourable impression of Hinduism. 

Down with conspiracy thinking

A final point for the attention of the rather hot-headed Hindu activists and polemicists. They always see conspiracies against Hinduism, e.g. the Aryan Invasion Theory was a “British concoction”, the Partition of India was “imposed by machinations by the British” who had “brainwashed” the Muslim League leadership. In this case, “Hinduphobia” is deemed to be an expression of an intractable “hatred” that for some reason (in the case of Westerners, “racism”) animates Hinduism’s numerous enemies. This fuming hot air in Hindu discourse puts off many neutral observers and produces Hinduphobes. But in all of Ram Swarup’s works, there is not a single example of this approach. 

For a single example, he describes a novel about the Buddha’s wife Yashodhara, Lady of the Lotus, by a well-meaning American, William E. Barrett. It has totally fictitious episodes about the couple’s visits to the quarters of the Untouchables: “They were revolted by the sight. They saw that ‘the traffic in the streets was, in the main, animal.’” And about the sight of hungry people: “Next day when they were in bed, light dawned on Siddharta that ‘No one has to be hungry … and no one should live as these people live.’” (p.527) In reality, the Buddha was not particularly interested in the difference between rich and poor, high and low; he taught that suffering was basic to the human condition in general. He did not propagate liberation from poverty, but liberation from the human condition. The socialist reinterpretation of the Buddha as a social rebel conflicts with the Buddha’s teachings. It is typical for the post-religious worldview to reduce religion to socio-economic considerations, i.e. to cultivate ignorance about the existential passions that have generated religions.   

The most interesting part of Ram Swarup’s account is: “The author was not hostile to India but he was doing his best to depict Hindus and their history as he knew it.” (p.528) This is crucial to understanding “Hinduphobia”: while some classes of people, say mullahs and missionaries, have an interest in blackening Hinduism, most people don’t. They just go by the information they have been fed. This American novelist has been fed the fable that the Buddha was a rebel against Hindu societal reality, so that is what he puts into his story: Buddhism social, Hinduism oppressive. As Socrates (translated into Hindi as Satyakām Sokratez by Ram Swarup’s friend Sita Ram Goel) taught: evil is, upon closer analysis, a case of ignorance. Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.   

Dr Koenraad Elst is an historian. linguist and orientalist from Belgium who often visits India to study and lecture.