Response to Prof. Anant Rambachan's critique of Indra's Net

Readers of Rajiv Malhotra will know that Prof. Anant Rambachan has been named in Rajiv's latest book Indra's Net as being one of the leading proponents of the Neo-Hinduism thesis that has steadily gained ground in Western academia. Prof. Rambachan has recently been invited as a speaker representing Hindus at a forum for Hindu-Catholic dialogue. This set off a discussion within the forum. Forum members sent mails to the organizers of this dialogue asking them to clarify on what basis Prof. Rambachan is seen as representing all Hindus, especially when he espouses and propagates the deeply divisive and fragmenting theory of Neo-Hinduism. Those readers who do not understand the tern Neo-Hinduism are advised to read Indra's Net which is solely devoted to understanding this concept. A summary of the thesis can also be found here. For readers interested to know what Rajiv has to say about Prof. Rambachan in Indra's Net, the chapter on him from the book is uploaded here.

Prof. Rambachan decided finally to answer his critics and wrote an essay on Swarajya Mag to debunk Rajiv's "myths" about him as he calls them, that he claims Rajiv has concoted in the book Indra's Net. The essay can be found here. Following the publication of this essay, the forum has been alive with extremely meaningful and profound discussion points put forth by many learned forum members. This particular thread on the forum contains some extremely profound observations by various forum members.

Rajiv's response to Prof. Rambachan's essay is appearing in pieces on the forum as Rajiv is extremely busy and they are reproduced below in chronological order.

Response 1:

I am glad Rambachan has decided to respond to me. This is what we need. Not him and Vatican in interfaith propaganda, but INTERNAL resolution among Hindus as to our positions. 

So let me articulate specific issues/questions on which I request him to give clear, crisp responses as that would define his stance.
  1. Is he willing to criticize his academic peers who support the neo-Hinduism thesis? Specifically, his PhD adviser Ursula King, Brian Pennington, Peter van der Veer, Pankaj Mishra. Richard King. If he wants to be 'nuanced' and cannot say it openly and directly for everyone to understand, that would be more gobbledygook and only continue suspicions: Which side is he on? Is he saying one thing to Hindus but another to the Western academy?
  2. Is Hinduism as espoused by Swami Vivekananda any of the following: new and disconnected with Vedic origins, lacking unity across its various elements,  in conflict with Advaita Vedanta? If so, I have a problem. I would like to convince him to come out in a positive, concrete way and assert the following:
    1. Vivekananda's Hinduism is a continuation of an old tradition, merely repackaged for modern times.
    2. Its various elements comprise a unified system
    3. It is consistent with Advaita (which we must note has undergone many interpretations/evolutions).
  3. Did Vivekananda use Christian/Western influence for formulating any of the following: his notion of karma yoga, his notion of raja yoga as science, his notion of bhakti? If so, I have a problem. That is what Rambachan has maintained before. In his recent article, he hedges his position and does not come out clearly. I would like him to change to the following position, even though that would contradict his own prior works and create tension with his Western academic peers::
    1. Karma yoga, raja yoga as science, bhakti - each of these is indigenous in our tradition, are not an adaptation of Christian/Western ideas.
The above is a core set of issues where we should start and then we can go further.

Each time he privately went and complained to persons X or Y about my critiques of neo-Hinduism, I wrote back saying that he must have a direct discussion with me. I have expressed this also to Rita Sherma when she called from DCF; I suggested that in some academic setting Rambachan and I can discuss where we stand on these matters. I have not heard back on this. Its much important to debate these issues than all the nonsense that the academy is obsessed with.

The issue of neo-Hinduism has caused serious confusion about who we are - in the mainstream media as well as academics. Many of our own folks are going about parroting such things. If neo-Hinduism is a valid thesis, it is not just Vivekananda that gets compromised, but all that followed after him, including: Sri Aurobindo, Ramakrishna Mission, Chinmaya Mission, Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, Art of Living, etc. In fact, the entire modern yoga movement where yoga-vedanta are unified is undermined.

Given his claim that he speaks FOR Hinduism, how could he have never in the past have stuck his neck out and EXPLICITLY REJECT neo-Hinduism? I am glad if I am forcing his hand to come out one way or the other. This has created bheda within the ranks of the academy studying Hinduism their own way.

Why is unwilling to write positively on the UNITY OF HINDUISM ACROSS ALL THESE VARIED SYSTEMS? If I can get him to do this, it would make my effort worthwhile. The price he would have to pay would be with the western academic cabal. Thats a choice he has to make. If one top player breaks ranks with the academic establishment it could spiral out of control for them. Wouldn't that be a game changer for us?

The more we debate this, the more tricky it becomes for him to take both sides, using nuance.

Response 2:

Frankly, I am pleasantly surprised by the excellent quality of many of the comments under Rambachan's article. Shows these are well read persons who think for themselves and apply rigor.

Many comments have cited in some detail the anti-Hindu writings of Ursula King, under whom Rambachan studied in UK and got his advanced degrees and academic credentials. Many have caught him on some utterly false or at least misleading statements he makes in the article.

Right now my priority is to meet my deadlines for my next book, The next 2 chapters I am doing are very tough and challenging. After that will be smooth sailing. But to do these on time is excruciating. 

So you have to be patient for my response to Rambachan. Meanwhile, you should use this opportunity to get involved, learn the issues, etc.

In any case, he evades the key issues of neo-Hinduism and merely wants to cover himself - WITHOUT in any way wanting to upset his academic cabal.

He also ignores that I am not the first to raise these objections about him. My book's chapter on him cites a long debate between him and Arvind Sharma years back, in which Sharma made some of the same points as me and I am citing his extensively. I also cite T.S. Rukmani, Prof of Hindu Studies at Concordia U, who feels the same as me. Then there are some Western scholars who my book cites. I am in good company on my positions. What I do for the first time is to bring together the whole gang of neo-hinduism. Previously scholars have not put them together as a group with a consistent theory they all echo.

Strangely, he whines that I am doing ad hominem attacks against him in the book - yet he cannot cite a single such incident. I always make it a point to send my book drafts to as many as a dozen reviewers before it goes to the publisher, and the specific purpose is for scholars who are new to the issues to make sure the tone is respectful, the material is coherent, etc. So I challenge Rambachan to cite where exactly my book has any ad hominem against him.

Also, he is only one of a whole group of scholars in the neo Hinduism club that I take on. Why did that group ask him to shoulder the responsibility to evangelize on their behalf? While he is upset that I pointed out his affiliations with the Church and other western bodies, he does not say what was incorrect in my statement.

I am glad this happened as it will fan the flames and more Hindus will read to understand the issues that are at stake.

Response 3:

I authorize people to post scans or copies of chapter 6 of Indra's Net which is specifically on Rambachan. Also the end notes for that chapter. You may also post chapter 10 where I reconcile Vedanta and Yoga - the neo-Hinduism camp finds them in mutual tension.

Pls post this material here and elsewhere - right now I am bogged down and unable to do this but I request others to do so for me.

Please point out in various forums:

1) End note 11 of chapter 6 is where I refer to Swami Dayananda Saraswati, since Rambachan refers to him. What i write there is misrepresented in Rambachan's article. I do not say what he alleges. I say that swamiji teaches unity of various elements of Hinduism and champions this through the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha.

2) He accuses me of ad hominem attacks. I read through chapter 6 again and did not see anything like that whatsoever. Yesterday, I showed it to a scholar at Princeton Univ who is uninvolved in religious studies and works elsewhere in the humanities. She has no knowledge of Hinduism or this issue. She said it is very well written and by no means ad hominem. Is Rambachan whining and claiming 'victimhood' status to divert attention from the real issues of neo-Hinduism? This is a common Church technique.

3) Focus on Ursula King, please:Rambachan is a product of two strong influences. One side is the influence of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, from whom he learned Vedanta philosophy. He then took this knowledge to England where he spent many years under the tutelage of Prof. Ursula King, a rabid anti-Hindu scholar of considerable influence. (Indra’s Net has a chapter summarizing some of her writings. I also met her once at Oxford where she attended a lecture I delivered back in the 1990s.) He did his advanced work under her and she was his PhD advisor. Under her supervision, he got his academic credentials. He cannot try to hide all that influence under the rug, as he tries to do in his public posturing before Hindu groups. When he wants to establish his credentials amongst Hindus, he speaks only of Swamiji as his teacher. But in his academic writings, he is very much part and parcel of an entirely different world, where his membership started decades back under the mentorship of Ursula King. His is a tale of two worlds. He is remarkably silent on his history and involvement in this second world.

Thank you for so many excellent comments people have posted at his Swarajya article. See this as a chance to delve deeper into a major issue all Hindus must become informed of - neo-Hinduism is like a cancer eating us from within.

Response 4 from Rajiv is a set of research papers by people who have argued against Prof. Rambachan's position on Hinduism. Rajiv has made available to the forum members papers from T.S Rukmani, Arvind Sharma, Jonathan Bader, Comans, Kundan Singh. This is for serious readers to understand where Rajiv has drawn his references from which he has also cited in Indra's Net.

Response 5:

A common ploy by Christian critics of Hinduism has been to accuse it of being world negating. They cite advaita texts to claim that the pragmatic dimension is irrelevant to Hindus because life is an illusion, anyway. Hence, they argue, the Christian missionaries must provide human rights, food, shelter, education, scientific progress and so forth, because the Hindus are not interested or capable to look after their own suffering lot.
This view has caused considerable harm to Hindus. We need more teachers to argue back that this is a false premise. I have been doing this arguing back, but I shall show that Shri Rambachan is unhappy over it.
I see the vyavharika (worldly realm of life) as being important and connected to the parkarthika (transcendental realm). I never dismiss one or the other. (My forthcoming book criticizes the interpretations of Sanskrit texts by Sheldon Pollock, another powerful scholar who is undermining our tradition while appearing to be reviving it. He, too, disconnects parmarthika and vyavharika, and then he can attack them apart separately. I argue strongly that this separation is a distortion.)
I consider various Hindu paths as vyavharika approaches to start wherever a given individual happens to be, and then to lead him/her towards parmarthika. Even though moksha is the final goal, most of us in this life start at a lower level of consciousness. This is why Hinduism has vyavharika practices such as dance, music, yoga, Ayurveda, yajna, karma, and so forth. These are user-friendly starting points. They are very important.
In Indra’s Net I point out that it is a bad strategy for our teachers to limit themselves to teaching moksha, and sidelining the vyavharika aspects. After all, Hinduism is the art of living and all aspects must be understood and practiced. This is why it is important to also teach artha-shastra, dharma-shastra, niti-shastra, and so forth. We should not limit the teachings to moksha-shastra, by which I mean a certain interpretation of Upanishads that is in vogue today.
The point I make is that 99% of the Hindus today are not going to attain moksha in this life, and most of the Hindus don’t even want to, or care to know about it. What about them? What does Hinduism do for them? We cannot, as Christians accuse us often, ignore these non-moksha dimensions. We cannot accede this ground of daily living to the Christian missionaries to take over. Hinduism must be taught broadly and not moksha-centric.
In this context, I wrote the following passage in Indra’s Net:
“But most Hindus are not pursuing moksha per se in any lineage. Their relationship with Hinduism is much more mundane and concerns legitimate pursuits (purusharthas) that are more pragmatic than moksha. I find it problematic to represent Hinduism in international forums that aim to undermine its legitimacy on the grounds of disputes among lineages over technical issues of moksha; issues that do not affect the practice of Hinduism by its vast majority of followers today.” (Indra’s Net, page 55)
Shri Rambachan twists my notion of presenting Hinduism in a broad-based manner in modern discourse. He makes it sound as if I am anti-moksha. He is being manipulative when he writes the following:
“By sidelining the centrality of mokṣa, we run the risk of reducing the meaning of Hinduism to group identity and a political agenda. If contemporary Hindus are not interested in the meaning of mokṣa, as Malhotra claims, this is no matter for complacency. It reflects a failure on the part of Hindu teachers and interpreters to properly articulate its enduring meaning in our contemporary context.” (Swarajya, April 30, 2015)
But I have never tried to sideline moksha. He is not doing proper purva-paksha of my work, because he is not supposed to misrepresent my position. Nor is he right in saying that we either get moksha or we get “a political agenda”. This is so typical of the binary dichotomies he learned in the Western academy.
My point in Indra’s Net is that to evaluate Swami Vivekananda’s unity of Hinduism, one must appreciate that he is helping Hindus across a vast spectrum, and not only the 1% pursuing moksha. These vyavharika dimensions are where Swamiji’s teachings of yoga, karma, bhakti and other paths come nicely together. Whether a given practice by itself brings moksha cannot be the sole criteria for evaluating it.
Once Shri Rambachan accepts this point, he would have no choice but to criticize the neo-Hinduism doctrine forcefully. That doctrine essentializes the entire tradition as world negating, and hence they accuse Swami Vivekananda of fabricating/manufacturing Hinduism. This is why they call it neo-Hinduism, i.e. something newly made up during British times. Shri Rambachan is once again evasive of neo-Hinduism by framing the issue as a binary moksha versus politics choice.

Response 6:

Shri Rambachan seeks to confuse readers by over-emphasizing one aspect of his personal life – where he claims to have taken sannyasa and become qualified as an Acharya. But he wants to deflect attention away from his other side, which is what I have mentioned, and which is the one relevant here. That other side is his academic career and the way it has been intertwined with his links to Church groups and Western institutions engaged in religious matters. The mere fact that he evades these is itself troubling. What is he trying to hide? Upon examining this second side one realizes that his frequent and long drawn out references to his life as a Hindu in Trinidad and in Swamiji’s ashram serve as diversion tactics. It is important to bring out the other side as that is where his academic writings are located.
Had he done his PhD in a traditional Hindu institution, it would have been a different matter. But given that his PhD advisor for many years and the most influential mentor in setting up his academic career is a well-known Christian theologian, he cannot simply hide that under the rug as he tries to do. I am referring to Ursula King, in UK.
He says that he does not explicitly mention Prof. King’s work except in two places. But absence and silence does not mean lack of influence. How could a young man from a poor country, a former British colony, go to live in UK and work for many years for his Master’s Degree and then his doctorate under a powerful Christian voice against Hinduism, and not get any influence from her and her cohorts? And why does Shri Rambachan want to extensively discuss one aspect of his autobiography but not another?
Why am I considered to be making ad hominem attacks just because I point out such influences upon him? After all, it is a standard analytical approach in the academy to discuss the socio-political influences upon a thinker whose work is being discussed? Shri Rambachan extensively discuss Swami Vivekananda’s works in the context of the various influences acting upon him. He exaggerates the Christian and Western influences on him. But when I discuss the Christian and Western influences on Shri Rambachan’s own life and career, he calls it an ad hominem attack. What is he wanting to hide here?
I am convinced that he wants to hide the links with the neo-Hinduism camp. He avoids discussing the doctrine of neo-Hinduism and refers to it as something that “Mr. Malhotra claims”. Forget me, what does he think of it? As a Hindu voice, surely he cannot simply ignore it. But he does ignore it in his entire work and even now in his latest articles.
In fact, he ought to be discussing the neo-Hinduism doctrine if he wants to write about my book, because that is the sole target of my book. It says so clearly. Yet Shri Rambachan is completely silent on it.
Is he helping his neo-Hinduism cohorts by deflecting attention towards himself – that he is this humble Hindu who is being ‘victimized’ by the like of me? Is this a way to get readers’ attention away from neo-Hinduism and towards his personal life? Who is pulling his strings to encourage him to do this? If we take him at face value, he is a good Hindu wanting to promote its positive qualities. In that case, he ought to have written a scathing criticism against the loud champions of neo-Hinduism. Instead of doing this, he is in alliance with them. This became clear and explicit when in 2012 at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in Chicago, he teamed up with Brian Pennington to lambast my earlier book, Being Different.
Indra’s Net names the major voices of neo-Hinduism, quotes them extensively to explain what their doctrine is, and how it is linked to Shri Rambachan’s main work. Besides the originators of the doctrine such as his mentor, Ursula King, Indra’s Net cited extensive quotes from several academic voices that are powerful Hinduphobics today. These include: Brian Pennington, Brian Hatcher, Gerald Larson, Sheldon Pollock, Jack Hawley, Romilla Thapar and Meera Nanda, among others. At the very least I had hoped that Shri Rambachan would denounce all those scholars in no uncertain terms. But he has not done that. Suspicion is called for in such circumstances.

These so far have been Rajiv's responses. This post will be updated as further responses from Rajiv come in.