Elst’s latest book on the state of Hindu society and civilisation containing his diagnoses of its ills and prescriptions for their cure. Its theme will be familiar to his readers: It is meant to address the “illiteracy about Hinduism among Hindus” which he regards as “the most consequential weakness in the struggle for survival”. The book is written, we are assured, “to wake up Hindus to their mistakes as well as their potential.”
This may sound suspiciously similar to an evangelist heaping abuse on the heathen to save his soul, but there can be no doubting the author’s sincerity or good intentions. Some may not take kindly to his superior tone: He speaks of the Hindus’ “stunted ideological development and an anachronistic worldview….” — language that can lead some to infer he has a low opinion of the intellectual and moral capacity of his readers. In the circumstances, the author should not be surprised if his readers are equally unsparing in their reactions. It is called Newton’s Third Law.
The book has as subtitle “Essays by a non-affiliated Orientalist”, meaning the author is not affiliated with any organisation — political or educational. That is both his strength and weakness. It means he can take independent positions on issues; but when commenting on academic battles to which he devotes considerable attention, his ignorance of the inner workings of academia leads him to conclusions that are at best naïve, at worst totally wrong.
No one, especially an academic, admits a defeat in public. So one cannot take his public postures at face value, which is what he invariably does, as for example in the case of the Harvard linguist Michael Witzel and his political campaigns.It is worth looking at this case, especially Witzel’s involvement in the California textbook affair which the author sees an example of Hindu bungling (quite rightly) and as an unmixed triumph for Witzel in having his pet Aryan theory retained in school books, theories on which Witzel’s own career and reputation rest to a large degree. This is far from the case, though this was how it was portrayed on partisan websites. Both Witzel and the California Education Department paid a heavy price both financially and in credibility. Elst completely misses the financial angle- that it was pressure (and incentives) from the publishers that brought Witzel into the picture in the first place. And he soon found himself in disreputable company with fly by night evangelical outfits, communist groups and the like, hardly worthy of a senior professor at a prestigious university proud of its liberal credentials.
The author also seems to have an exaggerated idea of the enduring power of the Aryan invasion theory and of academics (like Witzel) who subscribe to it. The fact is both are headed into the dustbin of history. In 2005, when Witzel and his ilk were fighting to save it, the Journal of Indo-European Studies carried the article, “Collapse of the Aryan invasion theory”, by the respected Greek Vedic scholar Nicolas Kazanas.
By then it was already old hat. Where are its advocates? In the wilderness, fighting to save themselves and their departments which are being eliminated by universities from Berlin to Cambridge (England) to Cambridge (Massachusetts) where Witzel teaches and beyond. His own department no longer exists and he has hardly any students. His tour of India where he tried to drum up support for his programme was an embarrassment. He was ridiculed even by schoolchildren questioning his Sanskrit while at the prestigious India International Centre in Delhi, eminent scholar Kapila Vatsayan politely but firmly put him in place. He is now an anachronism but Harvard is stuck with him because he is a tenured professor.
This episode merits attention as it illustrates the hazards of basing a narrative on personalities rather than issues. Personalities come and go — whatever happened to Angana Chatterji — but issues move much more slowly. The issue today is no longer the Aryan invasion but rebuilding a foundation for the study of ancient history on a scientific basis. Several publications treat the Aryan theories in the same light as Creation science and reject papers that use it. This needs to be mentioned because the author devotes a great deal of attention to personalities like Meera Nanda and their positions. Real issues tend to get subsumed, even sidelined by his preoccupation with personalities.
A regular theme in the author’s recent writings is the decline in Hindu activism. In this the author harks back to his mentors Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel, especially the latter who provided an intellectual foundation for nationalism. He laments their passing and also the fact that such vigour is absent among present day workers. This may be so, but as the author himself notes, their work is now common property and many of their ideas have been adopted by Hindus worldwide, especially by the diaspora. This is not to suggest there is no room for improvement. The author is very much on the mark when he accuses Hindu intellectuals of lethargy and obscurantism. Their leadership would do well to pay heed to author’s well thought out criticisms. Where the author goes wrong is when he ventures into unfamiliar territory like science (genetics) where he fails to distinguish between transient opinion and fact.
It is not easy to do full justice to a book that covers such a large territory. There are discussions of karma and rebirth, humour in Hinduism, Macaulay, historicity of the Vedas and the like in which he expresses opinions on these and other topics where the reader has to accept or reject them based on one’s own beliefs and prejudices. (This reviewer found most of them to be familiar and a few, like his interpretation of apauresheya, to be plain wrong. Philosophy, metaphysics in particular, is not the author’s strength.) All told, the patient reader will find the book provocative even if the author’s positions are not always sound.
An unusual feature of the book is the chapter, ‘Internet Discussions’. It is a rambling account of the author’s many exchanges with various individuals on topics ranging from Witzel’s California campaign (but not his fiasco in India or the Subramanian Swamy scandal) to Rama’s Bridge to Sati and Vedic Seers. In these the author liberally quotes himself — a practice he follows throughout the book. Obviously they are mostly opinions but the format raises a ticklish question for publishers: This being the Internet age, what are publishers and editors to do upon receiving a ‘manuscript’ made up of printouts of Internet exchanges? This is a challenge that will have to be faced.
In summary, Elst has produced a book of opinions covering a wide-ranging topics of interest to Hindus as well as non-Hindus.
The reviewer is the author of several books on Indian history and his current interest is history and philosophy of science