LEFTIST SCHOLARSHIP IN INDIA
How would you expect that Hinduism, the world’s oldest and most complex religion, would appear as seen through the eyes of Marxists? Naturally it would not look very good. After all Karl Marx himself declared that religion was the opiate of the masses. However now communism has fallen all over the world and religion, including Hinduism, is still going strong. We have learned that the real truth has been that Marxism was the opiate of the intellectuals, as it has been called, not that religion itself is an illusion.
Unfortunately, the universities of India have been strongly influenced by Marxists since independence and their view of Hinduism has often become entrenched in the educational system. A name which comes to mind readily is that of Romila Thapar, Emeritus Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which is itself well known in India as a center of Marxist activity. Thapar is neither the most important, nor the most prominent figure of Marxist circles, but she has been very much in the news lately and represents a wider phenomenon, and her name has been picked here for no other reason. She and her colleagues are responsible for a number of textbooks in India on the history of the country, which not surprisingly are negative about the majority religion of the land. Thapar is not unique in her thought, but she affords us a good example of leftist scholarship has worked in India.
If we understand that historians like Thapar are Marxists the logic behind her studies becomes obvious. Thapar’s historical criticisms of Hinduism are quite negative, and it is often easier to get more sympathetic accounts of Hinduism from professors in the West, particularly those who have practiced some professors in the West, particularly those who have particularly those who have practiced some Hindu-based yogic or meditational teachings. Thapar even doubts whether Hinduism as a religion really existed until recent times. She portrays Hinduism not as a comprehensive tradition going back to the Mahabharata or to the Vedas, but as a relatively modern appropriation, and therefore misinterpretation, of older practices and symbols, whose real meaning we can no longer know as we are not products of that cultural milieu which produced them in the first place. This view is called “deconstructionism” in the West and is the product of French Marxist thinkers.
By this view Thapar sees Hinduism, and religion in general, as reinterpreting cultural symbols for purpose of social and political exploitation. She tries to point out that Hinduism is mainly a vehicle of social oppression through the caste system and is not worthy of much respect for any modern rational or humanistic person. This is standard deconstructionist thinking about religion which is based on the assumption that there is nothing eternal in human beings and therefore there can be no continuous meaning in religion. In other words she interprets Hinduism and religion which are supposed to deal with the eternal, only in terms of time and history. Such people have failed to understand the correct development of reason (buddhi) according to Hindu sages, whose real purpose is to allow us to discern the transient from the eternal, not to deny the eternal in favor of the transient such as is the movement of the logic of thinkers like Thapar.
In particular, Thapar tries to show that the non-violence and tolerance generally ascribed to Hinduism are myths that Hindus or India never really followed. There are a few historical in stances of Hindus being violent or oppressive of Buddhists and Jains, which she emphasizes. There are also historical instances of Buddhists being oppressive of non-Buddhists. Such is the egoism inherent in human nature that is difficult to root out. But these are exceptions. There is no Hindu or Buddhists tradition of crusades or holy wars like that of Western religions of Christianity and Islam there is a tradition of non-violence (ahimsa), which however imperfectly followed, was honored in India more so than anywhere else in the world.
What is most interesting about Thapar’s studies of Hinduism is that they are devoid of any spiritual dimension. She ignores the great Hindu yogis and gurus and does not discuss the Hindu Philosophy of the universe or higher states of consciousness, which she does not give any validity to. She sees the institution of Sannyasa or monastic renunciation as another source of social authority (and therefore oppression of the masses), not a spiritual institution. Her interpretation of Hinduism follows purely social and political lines. Yet as an atheist and Marxist can we expect that she would understand or appreciate Hindu devotional or yogic practices? You will certainly never find her quoting the Upanishads or the Gita in a Favorable light. In this regard I am reminded of a communist poet of Maharashtra whom I once met, who described the Gita as “the greatest mystification the human mind has ever produced.” No doubt Thapar would be inclined to concur.
To put together Hinduism and Buddhism along with Christianity and Islam is itself not a very bright idea and can barely be sustained intellectually, but Indian Marxists’ view of Hinduism is on the same order as Karl Marx’s view of Christianity, or the Chinese communist view of Buddhism. Going to them to understand Hinduism is a lot like going to Marx to understand Christianity or Mao to understand Chinese Buddhism. Following their Marxist mentors, they accuse Hinduism of having a political agenda in the guise of religion (which since there is no God in their view, religion could never have any real spiritual agenda anyway). Yet there is no doubt that such Marxist thinkers, seeing the world only in political terms, have an entirely political agenda. For instance, Thapar’s recent historical accounts are clearly meant as attacks on the Hindu revivalist movement in India, which the communists have always regarded as their main enemy. As Hindu revivalists are emphasizing the continuity of the religion and the ongoing relevance of its traditions, Thapar and her associates are looking for ways to deny it.
Marxists like Thapar like to appear as social liberals and objective academicians and some intellectuals trained in the Western tradition may look at them in this light. Thapar does not parade her Marxism, particularly in recent years, and her criticism of Hinduism, though harsh, is presented in an indirect scholarly style, which makes it less obvious. But we should understand the background of such thinkers, which is hardly objective or free of political motives.
I am conscious of the fact that the subject is big and my treatment of it is sketchy. I am, for example, not discussing at all the tie-up of Marxists in Indian universities with Marxists in European and American universities, how the two stand together and by each other, how the Indian Marxists have found hospitality in Western universities, and so on. What I am pointing out is that simply because a don comes from India does not mean that he or she is providing an accurate or sensitive account of Hinduism or the history of India. In fact, India scholarship often tends to be very second-hand, and Indian scholars, in the absence of a perspective of their own, tend to be imitative. I must say that the most Westernized, anti-religious, materialistic intellectuals I have ever met were in India, not in the West, and they were often teachers in universities. The same inability to understand or even appreciate religion can be said of many professors in America, who as products of materialistic Western academia are similarly likely to analyze religion not as a spiritual phenomenon but as a purely social-political institution. Leftist scholars in India look to such Western thinkers for their inspiration and have little regard for the Hindu spiritual and philo-sophical tradition which they neither understand nor feel any kinship with. If they have any God or guru, it is Marx, and Hindu system like Vedanta are as foreign to them as they are to any non-Hindu.
Hindus who are religious-and the great majority are strongly religious-should not mistake such Marxist views for an objective pursuit of truth, whether they come from India or elsewhere. Fortunately with the downfall of communism in the world, the influence of communism in India is on the wane, but just as the old communists are holding on to their declining power in the political institutions of China (and Bengal), they are holding on in the educational institutions of India. It is unlikely that they will let go of their line of thought.
As a westerner writing on Hinduism in a positive light it is strange that the main opponents I have run into are Hindus them selves, that is the Marxist Hindus, who like many rebels are the most negative about their own cultural traditions which they have but recently abandoned. The views of these leftists are often on par with the anti-Hindu views of Christian fundamentalists while the latter see Hinduism as a religion of the devil, the former see it as a personification of social evil, the manifestation of caste division which is their devil (though curiously Marxism works to encourage class hatred, not to promote social harmony and peace between the classes).
Hindus today, like followers of other religions, should no longer accept the Marxist view of their religion and their history, but to do so they must first unmask it. This does not mean that Hindus have done no wrong or that they should not reform their social system or become more compassionate. The proper social changes that need to be done in India or anywhere else in the world do not require rejecting religion in the true sense, or adapting communist-socialist policies which are failing every-where. On the contrary, the appropriate changes follow from a better understanding of the spirit of universality in Hinduism, which is the essence of its religious view, its recognition of God as the self of all beings.
Observing such Marxist thinkers one is reminded of the Katha Upanishad: “Living in the midst of ignorance, considering themselves to be wise, the deluded wander confused, like the blind led by the blind. The way to truth does not appear to a confused immature mind, deluded by the illusion of wealth (materialism). Thinking that this world alone exists and there is nothing beyond, they ever return again and again to the net of death.” The Upanishads saw long ago that materialistic thinkers who regard that this world is the only reality only lead us to ignorance and sorrow. It is about time that people in India started to heed the words of their ancient sages, even if it means questioning modern professors.
By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri),
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