Thursday, September 29, 2016

In favour of freedom of expression


(Dialogue, Vol. 18, No. 1, July-Sept. 2016 issue)

In the lifetime of the older ones among us, freedom of expression in India first became a hot item with the Salman Rushdie affair, when in 1988, his novel The Satanic Verses was banned. This was done by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government at the request of Muslim leader Syed Shahabuddin, in exchange for the latter’s calling off a Muslim march on Ayodhya (then a hotspot because of the temple/mosque controversy) expected to cause bloodshed.

For the younger generation, the main events were the withdrawal of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay 300 Ramayanas from Delhi University’s syllabus in 2011 under Hindu pressure; and Penguin Delhi publisher’s withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in 2014, likewise under Hindu pressure.

Neither document was judicially banned, but the Hindu plaintiffs wielded an article of law as threatening argument, and this could not be ignored: Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. Why is this article there, and what role does it play in India’s public life?


Looking in from outside: the Doniger affair

In November 2014, at its annual conference, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) held a panel discussion on censorship in India under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, itself occasioned by the Penguin publisher’s withdrawal under Hindu pressure of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: an Alternative History. This translated into a section of the latest issue of the Journal of the AAR (JAAR) with four contributors and a response by Wendy Doniger. It addresses “the true source of the conflict, section 295A of the Indian Penal Code”. (Pennington 2016:323 )


This article 295A criminalizes “outraging the religious feelings of any class of Indian citizens”. Dina Nath Batra, former national director of the Hindu Nationalist organization Vidya Bharati, had entered a lawsuit against the publisher under Section 295A. The latter recognized that the case had a solid legal footing and decided to avoid defeat by settling out of court. He agreed to withdraw the book from circulation and pulp all remaining copies. Not that any book actually got pulped: before they could be physically withdrawn, “all extant copies were quickly bought up from the bookstores” (Doniger 2016:364) because of the sudden free publicity.


While many academics accused Penguin of cowardice, Wendy Doniger understood that they had acted under threat of the law, and empatically denounced Section 295A: “The true villain was the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than a civil offence to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.” (Doniger 2014, quoted by Pennington 2016:330)


This statement is entirely correct, except for one word. Doniger is being brazenly partisan and incorrect where she claims that the law prohibits every book that “offends any Hindu”. Formally, it does not discriminate and applies to all Indians regardless of religion. Historically, as we shall see, the law was enacted to prohibit books that offended Muslims, and to silence Hindus. Her insinuation that this law has a pro-Hindu bias, giving Hindus a privileged protection that it withholds from others, is simply false in both respects. It fits in with the common narrative that India is a crypto-“Hindu Rashtra” oppressing the minorities, when in fact the minorities are often privileged by law vis-à-vis the Hindus.


Likewise, in Pennington’s paraphrase (2016:329), Martha Nussbaum claims that in India, such defamation laws “are used primarily by majority groups to bludgeon minorities”. This is wildly untrue (though it is true in the other successor-state of British India, viz. Pakistan), as will become clear when we see how Section 295A came into being.



Reactions against book withdrawals and censorship


But first a word about the significant reactions to this famous case of book-burning. The recent changes in syllabi and the objections to books by pro-Hindu activists, both phenomena being summed up in the single name of Dina Nath Batra (who is also editor of some schoolbooks), have met with plenty of vocal reprimands and petitions in protest, signed by leading scholars in India and abroad.

Thus, at the European Conference for South Asia Studies in Zürich, July 2014, we were all given a petition to sign in support of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: an Alternative History against the publisher’s withdrawal under Batra’s judicial challenge. (Full disclosure: I signed, with heartfelt conviction.) The general opinion among educated people, widely expressed, was to condemn all attempts at book-banning. Unlike other petitions, this one did focus on the negative role of Section 295.

To be sure, most intellectuals’ indignation was selective. There have indeed been cases where they have failed to come out in defence of besieged authors. No such storms of protest were raised when Muslims or Christians had books banned, or even when they assaulted the writers. Thus, several such assaults happened on the authors and publisher of the Danish Mohammed cartoons of 2006, yet at its subsequent annual conference, the prestigious and agenda-setting AAR hosted a panel about the cartoons where every single participant supported the Muslim objections to the cartoons, though to different degrees, and none of them fully defended freedom of expression. (Another panel there was devoted to lambasting the website by Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, both targets of death threats and at least one effective but failed attempt on their lives, but not defended at the AAR panel by anyone.)

In their own internal functioning too, the AAR scholars and Indologists don’t put a premium on the freedom to express dissident opinions. Here I speak from experience, having been banned from several forums where Wendy Doniger and some of her prominent supporters were present and gave their tacit consent. (Elst 2012:350-385) The most high-profile target of this policy has probably been Rajiv Malhotra, a sharp critic of Indologist mores and anti-Hindu bias, some of whose experiences in this regard have been fully documented. (Malhotra 2016)

It is entirely reasonable for India-watchers, like for freedom-loving Indians, to deplore this law and the cases of book-banning it has justified; but less so for people who chose not to speak out on the occasion of earlier conspicuous incidents of book-banning. Where was Wendy Doniger when Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses was banned? At any rate, many Indian secularists, who mostly enjoy the support and sympathy of those American academics, upheld the ban, which was decreed by a self-declared secularist Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi) and ruling party (Congress). Where were they when demands were made to ban Ram Swarup’s Hindu View of Christanity and Islam, or when the Church had Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code banned?  

American Indologists including Wendy Doniger have always condoned religious discrimination on condition that Hindus are at the receiving end; they only protest when Hindus show initiative. And much as I deplore Dina Nath Batra’s initiative, it meant at least that Hindus were not taking Doniger’s insults lying down. Briefly: while everything pleads against this act of book-burning, the American India-watchers are not very entitled to their much-publicized indignation.


The point is that the intellectuals’ selective indignation shows very well where real authority lies. Threats of violence are, of course, highly respected by them. The day Hindus start assaulting writers they don’t like, you will see eminent historians turning silent about Hindu censorship, or even taking up its defence -- for that is what actually happens in the case of Islamic threats and censorship. Even more pervasive is the effect of threats to their careers. You will be in trouble if you utter any “Islamophobic” criticism of Islamic censorship, but you will earn praise if you challenge even proper judicial action against any anti-Hindu publications. This, then, safely predicts the differential behaviour of most intellectuals vis-à-vis free speech.



The Doniger affair: what is in it for the Hindus?


For the Hindus, the book withdrawal was a Pyrrhic victory. The publicity they gained worldwide was entirely negative, and it corroborated their recently-manufactured image as authoritarian and intolerant. The decision was also ineffectual, for in the days of the internet, it remained easy to access a soft copy of the book. The Hindus concerned also kind of admitted that they were unable to fight back with arguments.


Yet, they did have the arguments. A list of the numerous factual errors in Doniger's book has been compiled by Vishal Agarwal, an Indo-American medical engineer and Sanskritist (2014, but already on-line since 2010). Most of all, he has shown how her book's treatment of Hinduism is unconscientious and flippant to a degree that would never be accepted from a professor of her rank (Mircea Eliade Professor at Chicago University, top of the world) for more established religions. In the reprint of her book through another publisher (Speaking Tiger, Delhi 2015), she didn’t deign to acknowledge this work nor to make any correction. 


This is a serious aspect of the case that Western academics and their Indian cheerleaders have strictly kept the lid on. On the contrary, Pennington (2016:330) claims that the book was lambasted “even when a scholar is demonstrating what is manifestly true based on her research”.


We can vaguely get an idea of Hindu opinion in India about Doniger’s book through the sparse comments by the Hindi-language press. S. Shankar in Dainik Jagran “charged Doniger with a familiar set of shortcomings: overlooking standard classical works, exoticizing the Hindu tradition, writing history in league with India’s Marxist historians, and relying largely on foreign rather than Indian scholarship”. (Pennington 2016:331) In Shankar’s own words, she shows a “negligent and arrogant mindset… born of colonial and racist thinking”. Vivek Gumaste at asserts that “this is not a pure battle for free speech”, but “a parochial ideological ambush masquerading as one” (Pennington 2016:331). He calls it “subtle authoritarianism” out to “suppress the Hindu viewpoint”. (quoted by Pennington 2016:331)


To an extent this is simply true, there is no level playing field, and the American academics including Wendy Doniger herself have done their best never to give the Hindus a fair hearing. On the other hand, this power equation is the Hindus' own doing. They have never invested in scholarship, and so they had to take umbrage behind a threatened judicial verdict now that they had the chance. Here, Hindus only pay the price for their self-proclaimed vanguard's non-performance during the last decades.

Building a scholarly challenge to the present academic consensus is a long-term project that admits of no shortcuts. By going to court and twisting Penguin's arm, Hindus think they have scored a clever victory, but in fact, they have only demeaned Hinduism. Prominent Hindus from the past would not be proud of Hinduism suppressing freedom of expression: great debaters
like Yajñavalkya, the Buddha, Badarayana, Shankara and Kumarila Bhatta.

Ancient Indian thought was never divided in box-type orthodoxies on the pattern of Christians vs. Muslims or Catholics vs. Protestants. This is only a Western projection, borrowed as somehow more prestigious by the Indian “secularists”, who impose this categorization on the Indian landscape of ideas. At any rate, the vibrant interaction of ancient India’s intellectual landscape, where free debate flourished, was nothing like the modern situation where Doniger’s own school has locked out the Hindu voice and the latter has reactively demonized her and thrown up hurdles against expressions of her viewpoint.

But the taste of victory had become so unusual for Hindus that even many people who should have known better, have cheered the book’s withdrawal. (see Elst 2015:74-87) It was not the best response, but at least it was a response. And of course, Art. 295A may be a bad thing, but as long as it is on the statute books, it should count for Hindus as much as for Muslims and Christians.



History of Section 295A


Section 295A was not instituted by Hindu society, but against it. It was imposed by the British on the Hindus in order to shield Islam from criticism. Thus, it is truthfully said on the website, consulted on 5 August 2016, under the entry Rangila Rasul (see below): “In 1927, under pressure from the Muslim community, the administration of the British Raj enacted Hate Speech Law Section 295(A)”.

The reason for its enactment was a string of murders of Arya Samaj leaders who polemicized against Islam. This started with the murder of Pandit Lekhram in 1897 by a Muslim because Lekhram had written a book criticizing Islam. A particularly well-publicized murder took place in December 1926, eliminating an important leader, Swami Shraddhananda, writer of Hindu Sangathan, Saviour of the Dying Race (1926), next to VD Savarkar’s Hindutva (1924) the principal ideological statement of Hindu Revivalism. (However, the trigger to the murder lay elsewhere, viz. the protection he gave to a family of converts from Islam to Hinduism.) Moreover, there was commotion at the time concerning a very provocative subject: Mohammed’s sex life, discussed by Mahashay Rajpal in his (ghost-written) book Rangila Rasul, more or less “Playboy Mohammed”, a response to a Muslim pamphlet disparaging Sita as a prostitute. Rajpal would be murdered in 1929.

Wendy Doniger and the four authors who wrote about the origin and meaning of Section 295A for the Journal of the AAR strictly keep the lid on this crucial fact. None of the contributors has let on that the trigger for this legislation was repeated unidirectional communal murder, viz. of Arya Samaj leaders by Muslims, nor that it was meant to appease the Muslim community. None of them so much as hints at this. Anantanand Rambachan (2016:367) even alleges that “the aggressive party was the Arya Samaj”. No, the Arya Samaj took the initiative of criticizing Islam, an attitude which psychologists might call “aggression” in a metaphorical sense. But aggression in the sense of inflicting violence on the other party was one-sidedly Muslim.

And even verbally, the Arya Samaj was not really the “aggressive” party. In Shraddhananda’s authoritative biography, not by a Hindu, we read that “some of his writings about the Muslims expressed harsh and provocative judgments. But (….) they were invariably written in response to writings or pronouncements of Muslims which either vehemently attacked Hinduism, the Arya Samaj, and the Swami himself, or which supported methods such as (…) the killing of apostates, and the use of devious and unfair means of propaganda.” He himself “never advocated unfair, underhand or violent methods”. (Jordens 1981: 174-175) 

C.S. Adcock (2016:341) comes closest to the truth by writing that “polemics continued to cause resentment and increasingly, it seemed, serious violence”. For an academic writer on the origins of Section 295A, it is bizarre that he has so little grasp of the basic data and doesn’t know the nature of the “seeming” violence. And even he falsely insinuates that this violence was symmetrical, avoids mentioning the deliberate murders (as opposed to emotional riots), and hides the Muslim identity of the culprits. When Hindus allege that Indology today is systematically anti-Hindu, they can cite this as an example.  

The British finally resolved to curb this form of unrest. While their justice system duly sentenced the murderers, they also decided to make an end to the religious polemics that had “provoked” them. After the Mutiny of 1857, Queen Victoria had solemnly committed the British administration to avoiding and weeding out insults to the native religions. However, the right to religious criticism had been taken for granted, on a par with the right of Western missionaries to criticize native religions in a bid to convince their adherents that they would be better off joining Christianity.

For example, in 1862, the magistrate sitting in jugdment upon a case against a reformist who had criticized the caste-conscious Vallabhacharya Vaishnava community, upheld this right: “It is the function and the duty of the press to intervene, honestly endeavouring by all the powers of argument, denunciation and ridicule, to change and purify the public opinion.” (quoted by Adcock 2016:345) He “upheld the importance of religious critique, and held public opinion in religious matters to be susceptible to reasoned argument.” (Adcock 2016:345)

In Britain, reasoned debates between worldviews flourished, for public opinion was held to be “susceptible to reasoned argument”. Initially, the colonial authorities treated Indians the same way. But this assessment was reversed by Section 295A, and quite deliberately.

This process had started a bit earlier, in a case against Arya Samaj preacher Dharm Bir in 1915. Ten Muslims were sentenced for rioting, but Dharm Bir was also charged and “a judge was brought in who could assure conviction”. (Adcock 2016:346) He was duly found guilty, then under section 298 for “using offensive phrases and gestures (…) with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings” of another community; and under Section 153, for “wantonly provoking the riot which subsequently occurred”. (Adcock 2016:345)  

As described by Adcock (2016:346), the British twisted the existing laws into prohibiting any religious polemic: “Because religion is ‘rooted in the sentiments’, the judge concluded, religion is likely to provoke a riot, and that is all it can do. Religious debate is pointless and therefore unjustifiable; the right publicly to controvert arguments therefore does not properly extend to religion. To enter into religious debate is nothing but a provocation, an act calculated to arouse hatred. Therefore, it is intolerable.”

Note that the British public would never have stood for such a reasoning. But what was unacceptable to them, and not even countenanced for the Indian subjects fifty years earlier, was imposed on the colonial underlings during the last phase of the British Raj. And has remained with us since.

The murder of Shraddhanada finally made the British rulers turn this attitude into law: “In 1927, section 295A was enacted to extend the ease with which ‘wounding religious feelings’ by verbal acts could be prosecuted.” (Adcock 2016:345) Apart from punishing the murderer, they sought to punish Shraddhanada as well, retro-actively and postumously.




The British were not so much interested in justice, they merely wanted peace and quiet so the economy could flourish. The Arya Samaj was not doing anything that the Christian missionaries had not been doing (and are still doing today) to the populations they wanted to convert, viz. trying to convince them that their native religion was unwholesome and wrong. This implied saying negative things about that religion, or as the emotion-centric phrase now goes: “insulting” it.

But if the Arya Samaj’s words provoked unwanted Muslims deeds, they were part of the problem and had to be remedied. However, in spite of this intention to prevent riots, the new law did not end the recurring Muslim murders of Arya Samaj leaders until WW2 nor the concomitant riots, as discussed by Dr. Ambedkar (1940:156). It was the Partition that broke the Arya Samaj’s back, driving it from its power-centre in West Panjab with the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College in Lahore. After Independence, anti-Islamic polemics were blackened as “communal” by an increasingly powerful “secularism”, and thus abandoned. But Section 295A had little to do with this.

More fundamentally, this law put a premium on violence by making it the best proof that the statements prosecuted had indeed “provoked” violence. It “extended the strategic value of demonstrating that passions had been aroused that threatened the public peace, in order to induce the government to take legal action against one’s opponents. Section 295A thus gave a fillip to the politics of religious sentiment.” (Adcock 2016:345)

And so: “When coordinated acts of violence are justified as the inevitable result of hurt feelings, legal precautions against violent displays of religious passion may be said to have backfired.” (Adcock 2016:347) This present-day effect of Section 295A could easily convince the scholars to sign a petition against this undeniably despotic and un-secular laws. Still, it is odd that with their widespread anti-Hindu and pro-minority bias, they object to a law originally enacted to shield a minority from criticism and to punish Hindu words for Muslim murders.

Though originally and for a long time serving to shield Islam, Hindus gradually discovered that they too could use the religiously neutral language of this Section to their seeming advantage. Christians as well have invoked it, e.g. to ban Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. This creates a sickening atmosphere of a pervasive touch-me-not-ism, with every community outdoing the other in being more susceptible to having its sentiments hurt. 



Rationale for Section 295A


When Batra and other Hindus put publishers under pressure to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book, or earlier, A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas, the publishers buckled under the fear of having to face trial under Art. 295A, as well as under their regard for the Hindu public’s purchasing power. Apart from ideological factors, entrepreneurs also take into account the purely commercial aspect of a controversy. In this case, they reckoned with the only power that Hindus have: their numbers.

But the Hindu instigators did not inspire “fear”, and definitely did not have the backing of political authority. This all happened when the Congress Party was in power. It is not entirely unheard of that Indian judges are on the take, but in most cases, the Indian Judiciary is independent, so a Government sometimes has to suffer verdicts not to its liking. Thus, Narendra Modi was repeatedly cleared by the Courts from alleged guilt in the post-Godhra riots of 2002 while Congress, which invested heavily in anti-Modi propaganda, was in power.

It is strange how fast people can forget. Modi’s BJP has only very recently come to power: in May 2014, after ten years in the opposition. At the time of the Ramanujan and Doniger controversies, Congress was safely at the helm. If the publishers were in awe of any powers-that-be, it must have been of the Congress “secularists”. So, regardless of the prevailing regime, Section 295A by itself exercises a pro-censorship influence.

Now that the BJP is safely in power, we find it is not making any move to abolish Section 295A. This is partly because it has apparently resolved not to touch any communally sensitive issue with a barge-pole, committing itself instead to safely secular “development”, but partly for a deeper reason.


The colonial view, ultimately crystallized in Section 295A, came to the fore after the Mutiny of 1857, which had formally erupted over seemingly irrational religious sensitivities: objections to the use of cows’ fat or pigs’ fat, taboo to Hindus c.q. Muslims. India was reorganized as an Empire ruled by the Queen of Britain, henceforth also the Empress of India. She made a solemn declaration to win over the Indians: “Queen Victoria’s declaration of religious neutrality (…) explicitly promised to refrain from interference in the religious beliefs and practices of Indian natives. (…) What provoked Victoria’s declaration was the assumption that religion in India was the source of volatile passions that were a threat to the peace.” (Vishwanath 2016:353)


This position was colonial par excellence, contrasting Britons capable of reasoned debate with natives who were prisoners of emotions and superstitions. Yet, it had a kernel of truth: not that Indians were more emotional or superstitious than Britons, but they seemed to have an aversion to religious debate. 19th-century Europeans were keen to know the world, and everywhere the conquerors of foreign lands were followed by students of the newfound languages and cultures. They prided themselves on this curiosity and thought it typical for the indolent natives that they did not have it. Thus, the early Indian pioneers of linguistics were greatly admired and accepted as inspiration for the budding science of linguistics, yet it was also noticed that they had not shown any interest in foreign languages. Thus, though Panini lived close to the Iranian- and Burushaski-speaking peoples, he is not known to have used their languages in his linguistic theories.


So, it was only a logical extension to apply this to religion. Consider the native welcome given to the Syrian Christians in Kerala, the Zoroastrians in Gujarat, and other refugees: no questions were asked about the contents of their faith. They were perfectly allowed to practise their traditions (within the bounds of “morality”, as the Constitution still says, e.g. the prevailing taboo on cow-slaughter, which they had not known in Syria or Iran), to honour any Prophets or Gurus or Scriptures they wanted, to build any churches or temples they chose, yet no interest was paid to what exactly their religion was about. This was simply not the business of the natives, who were satisfied with practising their own traditions. Not even purely for scholarly sake did Hindus or Muslims show any interest in other religions; al-Biruni and Dara Shikoh being the exceptions that prove the rule.    


Colonial prejudices are not always incorrect, but this one really does injustice to the average Hindu, who is more interested in other religions than was the case among Christians until recently. But perhaps they show less of a tendency to criticize. From experience, I tend to think that their natural tolerance as shown towards the refugees is not due to indifference and smugness but to open-mindedness. 

For Western religious converts like Saint Paul (Judaism to Christianity), Saint Augustine (Manicheism to Catholicism) or John Newman (Anglicanism to Catholicism), it would be an insult to deny the role of reason in their religious development, or to say that “to enter into religious debate is nothing but a provocation, an act calculated to arouse hatred”, as the British judge had told the Arya Samaj in 1915. But the colonial view crystallized in Section 295A did hold the Indians to be a different race, less rational and not to be trusted with debate, but fortunately also disinclined to such debate. So, it would only be a slight exaggeration of a tendency already present in Indian culture to outlaw religious debate.

That, indeed, is how many Indian secularists and their allies in Western academe now justify this continued muzzling of debate: “In India, the notion that to be truly tolerant in religion is to refrain from criticism of religion is a widespread secularist ideal.” (Pennington 2016:346)



To assert that refraining from religious criticism is a “secularist ideal”, brings in the S-word. This would trigger a far longer discussion than we are prepared for here. But because it now serves as the new justification for the colonial Section 295A, at least this.

For a scholar, it is very poor to use this word as if it hadn’t acquired a meaning in India (since Jawaharlal Nehru, ca. 1951) totally at variance with its original Western meaning. This should be obvious to whomever studies the types of Indians calling themselves secularist, and those lambasted as anti-secular: “The concept of Secularism as known to the modern West is dreaded, derided and denounced in the strongest terms by the foundational doctrines of Christianity and Islam. (…) It is, therefore, intriguing that the most fanatical and fundamentalist adherents of Christianity and Islam in India – Christian missionaries and Muslim mullahs – cry themselves hoarse in defence of Indian Secularism, the same way as the votaries of Communist totalitarianism coming out vociferously in defence of Democracy.” (Goel 1998:vii)

Thus, in the West, secularism means that all citizens are equal before the law, regardless of their religion; or what Indians call a Common Civil Code. In India, by contrast, all secularists swear by the preservation of the present system of separate religion-based Personal Laws, though they prefer to avoid the subject, hopefully from embarassment at the contradiction. And all Indian secularists swear by the preservation of constitutional, legal and factual discriminations against the Hindu majority. (In case you have recently lived on another planet and don’t believe that there are such discriminations, one example: the Right to Education Act 2006, which imposes some costly duties on schools except minority schools, has led to the closure of hundreds of Hindu schools.)

Likewise, in the West, the enactment of secularism went hand in hand with deepening criticism of religion, which was pushed from its pedestal and recognized as just another fallible human construct, open to questioning and criticism. In India, by contrast, secularists cheer for the application, formally or in spirit, of Section 295A to outlaw religious criticism – except when it is Hinduism that gets criticized. And that is why the AAR scholars, in solidarity with their Indian secularist friends, have never moved a finger about minority-enforced censorship but made a mountain out of the Doniger molehill. Here, they vehemently denounced the clumsy Hindu attempt at banning an otherwise poor book that, to them, has the cardinal virtue of riding roughshod over Hindu self-perception.




All the Hindu justifications of the "withdrawal" of Wendy Doniger’s book amount to: "Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to insult." This just shows the speakers' thoughtlessness and illiteracy. All debates about book-banning, or at least one of the contending parties in them, will at some point come up with George Orwell's famous observation: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Freedom of speech doesn't mean much if it doesn't imply the freedom to offend. If the freedom to insult were forbidden, than anything meaningful would be found to displease at least someone somewhere and thus be forbidden.

Moreover, many lambasters (including Wendy Doniger) honestly feel that they have done a fair job and not "insulted" anyone. So, even the term "insult" is merely subjective: "Insulting is everything that anyone feels insulted by." This would make the worst touch-me-not the arbiter of whether books are allowed to be published.

So, down with censorship or any procedure amounting to the same, including forcing publishers to withdraw their publications with the threat of Section 295A. Down with censorship laws. Freedom of expression is a fundamental element of democracy, a precondition for making it possible at all. Equal participation in decision-making implies equal access to information and opinions, rather than one group deciding what another group is allowed to read and write.

As for the stated fear that if “insults” are not curbed by law, soon the atmosphere will be filled with unbearable swearing in the guise of “criticism”: India has done without such censorship laws for thousands of years, and the amount of insults in the religious field was not appreciably worse than in the colonial period or today. Such exaggerated fears can be laid to rest by civil society without state interference. People will give each other feedback, and they themselves will keep criticism and “insults” within reasonable bounds.

Finally, the possibility has to be faced that the fanaticism potentially emanating from certain worldviews has something to do with the contents of these worldviews themselves. Not every religion is equally prone to get provoked to violence by criticism. I make bold to say that, through a felicitous coincidence, the religions originating in India are quite capable of solving ideological differences of opinion peacefully.





Adcock, C.S., 2016: “Violence, passion, and the law: a brief history of section 295A and its antecedents”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2016, vol 84, 337-351.

Agarwal, Vishal, 2014: The New Stereotypes of Hindus in Western Indology, Hinduworld Publ., Wilmington DE.

Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji, 1940: Thoughts on Pakistan, republished as vol.8 of Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches, published by the Government of Maharashtra, 1986-90.

Doniger, Wendy, 2009: The Hindus: an Alternative History, Penguin, Delhi.

--, 2014: “Public Statement from Wendy Doniger following withdrawal of her book by the publisher”, 11 February, South-Asian Citizens’ Web.

--, 2016: “Roundtable on outrage, scholarship, and the law in India: A reponse”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2016, vol.84, pp.364-366.

Elst, Koenraad, 2012: The Argumentative Hindu, Voice of India, Delhi.

--, 2015: On Modi Time, Voice of India, Delhi.

Goel, Sita Ram, ed., 1998: Freedom of expression, Voice of India, Delhi.

Jordens, J.T.F., 1981: Swami Shraddhananda: His Life and Causes, OUP, Oxford/Delhi.

Malhotra, Rajiv, 2016: Academic Hinduphobia, Voice of India, Delhi.

Pennington, Brian K., 2016: “The unseen hand of an underappreciated law: the Doniger affair and its aftermath”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2016, vol.84, pp.323-336.

Ramachan, Anantanand, 2016: “Academy and community: overcoming suspicion and building trust”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2016, vol.84, pp.367-372.

Swarup, Ram, 1993: Hindu View of Christanity and Islam, Voice of India, Delhi.

Viswanath, Rupa, 2016: “Economies of offense: hatred, speech, and violence in India”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2016, vol.84, pp.352-363.

Read more!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Max Weber’s afterglow


(Pragyata, 11 September 2016)




The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), together with the neighbouring British Museum, is a centre of Orientalism in its proper sense, viz. the study of “Oriental” civilizations. Exactly one hundred years ago, it came about as the headquarters of what Edward Said notoriously called “Orientalism”, meaning the colonial Empire’s project of pigeon-holing every Oriental culture in order better to dominate it.

At that same time, on the enemy side in the ongoing First World War, the German scholar Max Weber published one of the most influential studies of the Orient, focusing on the question of the economic views and implications of the world religions, and especially the part about Hinduism and Buddhism. It sought to understand why not they but Protestantism had presided over the techno-scientific and economic breakthrough to industrial capitalism and modernity.

Some fifty people gathered in the SOAS’s Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre for the centenary of both SOAS and Max Weber’s work. As for SOAS’s anniversary, chairman Peter Flügel quoted viceroy Lord Curzon calling SOAS at its time of conception the “necessary furniture of empire”, for “Oriental studies are an imperial obligation”. This is a key citation in Edward Said’s “Orientalism” thesis, viz. that Orientalist scholarship was essentially a strategic investment by the colonial establishment.

As for Weber, his view is fairly representative of general Western opinion (partly by having created it) regarding the Hindu-Buddhist counterpart to the role of the Protestant work ethic in the genesis of capitalism. He had concluded that the Orientals certainly succeeded in launching a mercantile capitalism but, partly because of their otherworldly religion, failed in creating modern industrial capitalism. However, he also had testified in 1916 how, in the middle of WW1, he had found his study of the Hindu-Buddhist worldviews invigorating. We were going to recreate some of that spirit.


Romila Thapar

The keynote lecture was given by the octogenarian historian Prof. Romila Thapar. She looked quite good for her age, elegant and dignified in her sari. She thus exemplified Sita Ram Goel’s observation that secularists often display a sincere affection for traditional Hindu culture, all the more striking when supposed Hindutva militants go all out for Westernization, from the British-style RSS uniform and brass bands to the present-day BJP-facilitated guzzling down of American economic mores and cultural mannerisms. The secularists of the older generation are culturally still very Indian, and have a traditional pride presenting an unassuming alternative identity to the present idealization of Western examples. (I am reminded of her colleague Prof. Irfan Habib’s proud old-Marxist rejection of US patronage, contrasting to the complete conceptual as well as outwardly Americanization of the younger generation of secularists and Ambedkarites.)

It transpired that she had a vivid interest in Weber’s work regarding India, whom she read some forty years ago. As no Indian scholar of the younger generation showed a similar interest, she had graciously accepted the invitation from SOAS. The institution was familiar ground to her. She earned her PhD degree at SOAS with a dissertation on Ashoka’s inscriptions, published as an authoritative book in 1961. (Also present here was retired Oxford Buddhologist Prof. Richard Gombrich, who strongly disagrees with her on those inscriptions, which he doesn’t consider “secular” at all, but instead outspokenly promoting the specific Buddhist worldview.) She immediately established a good rapport with the audience, speaking slowly with a clear and authoritative diction, as an experienced professor should.

She started with noticing the obvious: that Max Weber’s research on Indian history and society relied heavily on colonial writings available then, and necessarily differed from the present-day theories. Being a prisoner of the colonial view, he did not thematize the implications  of colonialism itself (unlike Karl Marx, who wrote about colonialism in Ireland and India). Weber reproduced and refined the colonial theory of “Oriental despotism”, which militated against the individual freedom and social mobility needed for the genesis of modern capitalism.


Religions and their work ethic

Weber remains most famous for his thesis that the Protestant work ethic in the UK, the US and Germany was responsible for the rise of industrial capitalism. Weber argued that capitalism could not have originated in the India because of its lack of fraternization between different groups (esp. during apprenticeship, where Indian pupils were confined to their caste environment)), its lack of social mobility, its cultural depreciation of commerce and its otherworldly religious orientation. He did not give sufficient consideration to the Jains, whose trading activity, money-lending and renunciation of enjoying their profits come closest to the Protestant work ethic, though in passing he admits they had potential. In precolonial times, China and India were the main economies in Eurasia and practised mercantile capitalism. But they missed the shift to industrial capitalism, which took place in Europe.

But then, Weber neglected the specific 18th-19th century history of India and the role of both native and colonial capitalism therein. More generally, he treated Hindu culture as a monolithic whole, insufficiently considering the differences between classes and regions, and not taking the changes between the different periods into account. In a borrowed distortion typical for the Orientalists of the colonial period, he based his understanding of Hinduism only on texts, esp. the Vedic corpus to whom different groups across  regions and centuries paid due lip-service all while exhibiting variations and going through changes. Thus, that is why the scripture-based fourfold Varna (“caste”) system figured far more prominently in the Western image of Hindu society than the real-life thousandfold Jati (“caste”) system.

The corrective that Hindu society was too readily seen as changeless may have been the most important message in her lecture, seemingly trivial but full of consequences for both Hindus and practising Orientalists. In this case, the colonial-age Orientalists, with Weber in their wake, may have borrowed their extremely static view of Hindu culture from the Hindus themselves. Allow me to improvise an example.


The “Hindu caste system”

When the Ambedkarites and their Western cheerleaders anchor the caste system, complete with untouchability, in the Rg-Veda’s Purusha Sukta, they are wrong; yet, they are only following a traditionalist Hindu view that prevailed during the past few centuries. The box-type caste Apartheid with caste endogamy of the Puranic and early modern era was nowhere to be seen in the Rg-Veda: the earlier family books don’t report any trace of it, and the Purusha Sukta in the late Book 10 only reports the existence of four distinct functions in a complex society. After that, the caste system gradually hardened with a stage of hereditary caste only in the paternal line (as with the Brahmin Vyasa, son of the Brahmin Parashara and the fisher-girl Matsyagandha; and as with the sons of Dasis who were recruited into the Brahmin caste, mentioned here by Prof. Thapar), and finally endogamy. Equating Hinduism with the classical caste system, as is the wont of the Christian missionaries, the Ambedkarites and many an Orientalist, makes the mistake of disregarding change in Hindu history, but this mistake is based on Hindus having made the same mistake. For some two thousand years, any trespass against or doubt regarding the fully grown caste system was condemned with an invocation of the Rg-Veda’s authority, as if the Purusha Sukta had described the kind of caste system with which later Hindus were familiar.

(It deserves mention here that Prof. Thapar has personally contributed to our awareness of change within Hindu social structure. She has edited the book India. Historical Beginnings and the Concepts of the Aryan, 2006, in which Marxist historian Shereen Ratnagar asserts, p.166: “if, as in the case of the early Vedic society, land was neither privately owned nor inherited by successive generations, then land rights would have been irrelevant to the formation of kin groups, and there would be nothing preventing younger generations from leaving the parental fold. In such societies the constituent patrilineages or tribal sections were not strongly corporate. So together with geographic expansion there would be social flexibility.” It has become fashionable to moralize about the caste system, with evil Brahmins inventing caste and then imposing it on others; but hard-headed Marxists don’t fall for this conspiracy theory and see the need for socio-economic conditions to explain the reigning system of hierarchy or equality. The pastoral early-Vedic society did have the conditions for a more equal relation between individuals than the more complex later Hindu society.)

Other factual inaccuracies in Weber’s work include the total disregard for the presence of Islam in India, like for that of Buddhism in China, because their foreignness jeopardizes Weber’s explanation of India’s economic performance as stemming from the Indian religions. The different religions were treated as self-contained, not porous. The Indian state was described as agricultural, while recent studies corrected this: there was much commerce, including maritime, and this had only increased with urbanization after the year 1000. Weber also exaggerated the power of karma beliefs to reconcile people to social misfortune. The peasantry often responded to crises by migration, and sometimes even by that supposedly un-Indian behaviour: rebellion. They didn’t wait for the next birth to better their circumstances.

Trade was not despised, and even Brahmins and ascetics involved themselves in it, e.g. in the horse trade. Labour division between castes was more flexible than used to be thought. In the century before Weber, the static view of caste was conspicuously challenged by the anti-Brahmin movements and by the upper-caste reform movements. Even a non-specialist could have been more aware of these developments.



So, let us sum up. Max Weber’s world exists no more, and even the terms of the debate have been altered. Are the categories of religion used by Weber (and likewise by Marx) still valid? They strike us now as context-free and innocent of the changes that took place. Today, this non-change view is regarded as ahistorical. Weber would have been better if he had compared the same period in East and West, rather than comparing apples with pears: timeless societies in the distance with the familiar recent stage of Western society.

We remain stuck with the large question: what prevented Asia from taking the lead in knowledge? Why was the lead grabbed by Europe, after having lagged behind for so long? More was required for this than the Protestant work ethic. And another question, rather trivial but appropriate on this occasion: how would Max Weber have seen the religion of India a hundred years later?



So much for the Weber lecture. People who know something of the Ayodhya controversy may be surprised to learn that afterwards, I had a few friendly interactions with Prof. Thapar. Remembering the flak I drew in India when I took my erstwhile Aryan Origins adversary Michael Witzel’s side in the controversy that followed the publication of his book on Global Mythology, I will take the trouble to explain.

Firstly, it is all rather long ago, about a quarter century. Back then, she took a leadership role in the secularist plea that there was no basis for historans to accept the belief that a Hindu temple had stood at the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. In the dominant political and academic circles, that position suddenly became a consensus, and I stood out by challenging it. But that debate has been settled, definitively with the Court-ordered excavations in 2003, which laid bare plenty of remainders of the temple. When the war is over, soldiers go home, and let the war psychology which had animated them on the battlefield, subside. 

I will not mention the names of some Hindu and some anti-Hindu scholars who are still repeating quite exactly what they said decades ago, especially in the Aryan Origins debate. They foam at the mouth when they argue their point, and keep on doing so. But for better or for worse, I am not like that. So, the second reason is that I really don’t believe in personalizing debates on specific issues. Admittedly, I was not quite immune to that tendency when I was younger. But gradually, you not only know in theory, but also realize in practice, that human relations should not, or as little as possible, be affected by controversies. Even in controversies that I find myself in today, I endeavour to stay on friendly terms with my adversaries.

Number three is the reason of principle, that I want henceforth to guide all my dealings with adversaries. As Socrates said, the root of everything deemed evil is ignorance. People who objectively do evil, subjectively believe they are doing the right thing, because somewhere they have picked up a mistaken idea of what constitutes right, or of what exactly it is that they are doing. There is no need to intensify the impression that they are evil, it is more helpful to make them see reason, and automatically they will correct their position; for it is not in eagerness to do the right thing that they are lacking.  It also helps to remain aware that you yourself with all your good intentions seem likewise to be on the wrong side from your adversaries’ viewpoint. That is no reason to assume all positions are equal, or to drop your own convictions, but it will help you to better understand how anyone could have taken the opposite position to your own.

Meanwhile, on the lawn outside the SOAS gate, there is a statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. It carries a translated quotation of his, which I would like to reproduce as my parting shot:

“Meet with joy, with pleasant thoughts part,/ Such is the learned scholar’s art.”

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Monday, September 5, 2016

The idea of God

(published on the WAVES blogsite, 3 September 2016)


All known civilizations have a thing called “god”, plural or singular. They are a category of beings deemed endowed with far more power and a vastly larger longevity than us human beings. For the rest, their characters and functions may vary.

In writing, the idea of “a god” is first attested in the Sumerian ideogram Dingir, which has the physical form of a radiant star. It certainly has the meaning “god”, for it is used as the common determinative for a whole class of names signifying gods. That, indeed, was anciently how a divine being was conceived: as a radiant heaven-dweller. In Babylon and in Harran, each planet was worshipped in a temple of its own.

The pre-Islamic religion was also largely star worship (next to ancestor worship and the worship of special stones like the Black Stone in Mecca’s Ka’ba). Thus, the three Meccan goddesses of Satanic Verses fame, al-Lāt, al-Uzza and al-Manāt, are roughly the Sun, Venus and the Moon. The Ka’ba was dedicated to the moon-god Hubal, and housed a stone fallen from heaven.

Stars were explicitly recognized as gods by prominent philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Some dissident freethinkers however, like the philosopher Anaxagoras and the playwright Aristophanes, thought stars were only burning rocks. After Christianization, when all divinity was invested in an extra-cosmic Supreme Being, the planets were desacralized and reduced to cogwheels in a cosmic machinery set in motion by the Creator and operated by his angels. Though numerically, a large part of humanity now espouses this desacralizing view, it is rather exceptional in the history of religions. The association of gods with stars was pretty universal.


Other properties of a god

Because a star is radiant and stands in heaven, near-permanently visible to all, it is a part of our collective consciousness, our shared frame of reference. This, then, is the operative meaning of “a god” in human life: the personification of an important collective factor difficult to negotiate, and which you have to take into account in the things you plan to do. Thus, Dyaus = heaven, Agni = fire, Indra (“the rainer”) = storm; Vayu = wind, Pṛthivī (“the broad one”) = earth. This principle is then generalized, and gods can be personifications of any category of beings. Thus, Śiva is the personification of the renunciants, unkempt and living in the mountains.

A god is powerful in that he can impact your life. But he is not all-powerful, because he has to share his power with other gods. Rarely if ever is he seen as “the Creator” who stood outside the universe and fashioned it from nothing. Rather, he himself is a part of the universe. Creation is normally seen as only a transformation from formless matter to the present world of form, and in that process, gods may play their part. In that limited sense, the Vedas and Puranas have plenty of “creation” stories. Yet they also assume that the universe as a whole has always been there, though it cyclically becomes unmanifest, only to reappear again. It is an exclusively Biblical-Quranic belief, further propagated by thinkers who elaborate the Biblical or Quranic assumptions, that a single Supreme Being, in a single moment never to be repeated, created the whole universe from nothing. 

Gods are imagined to be endowed with personalities befitting the element of which they are the personification. As such, they are also sensitive to gifts and flattery, and may thus be influenced into exercising their power in a partisan, friendly way. That is why people who would never think of appeasing the stormy sea, do devise rituals to appease the sea god, hoping that he will guarantee smooth sailing.

Finally, a star or god is also, as far as a mortal can tell, eternal: it existed before we were born and goes on existing after we have died. As suggested by the extreme longevity of the physical stars, gods are proverbially deemed immortal. Hence the binary: us mortal earthlings versus the immortal heaven-dwellers.



The same meaning of “star”, “radiant heaven-dweller”, is present in Vedic Sanskrit Deva, “the shining one”, hence “a god”. It is also etymologically present in cognate words like Latin Deus, “a god”. One of the Sanskrit terms for “astrologer”, at least since its mention in a 4th-century dictionary, is Daiva-jña, “knower of the gods”, or in practice, “knower of destiny”. Another is Daiva-lekhaka, “gods-writer”, “destiny-writer”, i.e. horoscope-maker. Obviously, the stars here were seen as gods regulating man’s destiny.

A parallel development, but omitting (or only implying) the original link with the stars, is found in Slavic Bog, “the share-giver”, “the apportioner”, “the destiny-decider”, related to Sankrit Bhaga, and hence to the derivative Bhagavān. Other god-names are more derived from the practice of worshipping, such as the Germanic counterpart God, “the worshipped one”, Sanskrit Huta; or the Greek counterpart Theos, “god”, related to Latin festus, “festive”; feriae, “holiday”, i.e, “religious feast”; and to Sanskrit dhiṣā, “daring, enthusiastic”, dhiṣaṇā, “goddess”, dhiṣṇya, “devout”. But even here, a stellar connection reappears, for the latter word is also a name of Śukra/”Venus”.

More examples of the personification of heavenly phenomena as gods are found throughout the Vedas. The deities Mitra and Varuṇa represent the day sky (hence the sun, here remarkably called “the friend”) c.q. the night sky, with its stable sphere of the fixed stars, with its regular cycles representative of the world order. The Nāsatyas or Aśvins (“horse-riders”) are thought to represent the two morning- and evening stars, Mercury and Venus, who “ride” the sun, often likened to a horse. Uśa (related elsewhere to Eōs, Aurora, Ostara, and hence to “east” and “Easter”) represents the sunrise.

The Vedic gods were personifications of natural forces, with whom you could do business: do ut des, “I give to you” through sacrifice, “so that you give to me” the desire-fulfilment I want. That type of relation between man and god is pretty universal. That was the ancient worldwide conception of gods. But in auspicious circumstances, religion was to graduate from this stage, and the gods would go beyond the stars.


Transcending the stars

Hindus often react to the above-mentioned view as insufficiently respectful to Hinduism. They insist that it is a Western “Orientalist” fabrication to see the gods as mere personifications of natural forces. In foreign countries, perhaps, but not in India. They think it treats religion as essentially childish, for in children’s talk, or in that by mothers towards children, there is a lot of personification. Yet, we insist that in the Vedic stage of civilization, this conception of gods still prevailed; perhaps already as a rhetorical device built on top of an earlier more primitive stage, but still sufficiently present to leave numerous traces. It shows a deficient sense of history to project the newest insights of Hinduism back onto its past, and to deny the amount of change that has taken place in the conceptual history of Hinduism.

But then two things happened. The first is that from the Upanishads onwards, in a distinctively Indian development, the notion of Self-Realization or Liberation arose. The way to this goal, the Sādhana or what is nowadays called “the spiritual path”, is not about the fulfilment of desires; instead, the point is to decrease your desires, to renounce, to abandon. This was initially conceived as a process in which no god or other being played any role (whether they were deemed to exist or not), making way for a focus on the Self (ātman), equal to the Absolute of pure consciousness (brahman). This Absolute was conceived as being above the pairs of opposites, as devoid of characteristics (nirguṇa). Gods were relegated to the background, to the world of desire-fulfilment through rituals. Self-Realization implied renunciation from desire-fulfilment, and hence a distance from the gods and their favours.

The second development is that the gods persisted or were revived, but in a transformed role. Stellar references are explicit in the case of Sūrya, the sun, and of Soma/Candra, the moon; but less so in the case of Viṣṇu, “the all-pervader” (like the sun’s rays), though he has a solar quality; and Śiva (“the auspicious one”, an apotropaeic flattery of the terrible Vedic god Rudra, “the screamer”), the Candradhāra or “moon-bearer”, the Somanātha or “lord of the moon”, has a lunar, nightly quality. The classical Hindu gods Viṣṇu and Śiva represent a revolution vis-à-vis the Vedic worldview. You don’t bring sacrifices “for Liberation” to the Vedic gods, a notion presupposing renunciation from those desires. By contrast, the later “Puranic” gods of classical Hinduism take some distance from the naturalist meaning in which they originate, and do integrate Liberation. Very soon, devotional-theistic movements adapted this new notion to their cult of Viṣṇu, Śiva or Śakti (or elsewhere, Amitābha Buddha or Avalokiteśvara), gods with a distinct personality (saguṇa) but more spiritual. In Kashmiri Shaivism, Śiva gets abstracted as pure consciousness, Śakti as pure energy. With these gods, you could “unite” so as to terminate your susceptibility to worldly suffering, to delusion, to the karmic cycle. They would grant you Liberation, just like the Vedic gods would grant you wish-fulfilment.

But that doesn’t mean Hindus have given up on wish-fulfilment. They still perform rituals to help them get what they want, and often this involves explicitly stellar gods, but conceived as lower gods or “demi-gods”. Astrologers instruct their clients to say prayers before the planet that disturbs their horoscope. The client will get advice on what ritual to practise, when and how and for which god, to ward off the negative influences of the stellar configurations indicated in his horoscope. This will remove the obstacles to his well-being and the fulfilment of his desires. The navagraha or “nine planets” (sun, moon, their two eclipse nodes, and the five visible planets) as a whole are a normal object of worship.



Mono- versus polytheism

The Sumerian ideogram Dingir was read as El In neighbouring Akkadian, a Mesopotamian dialect of Semitic. We know this word very well through Hebrew, a northwestern (Levantine) dialect of Semitic. Thus the names Uriel, “my light is God”; Gabriel, “my strength is God”; Michael, “who is like God?” But as we shall presently see, these names now carry a meaning of “God” that has resulted from a revolution, viz. from poly- to monotheism.

A derivative of El is Eloha, “a deity”, “a god”. We know it mainly through the plural form Elohim, “gods”, “pantheon”. Strangely, this form has survived the theological revolution described in the Bible book Exodus under the leadership of Moses, ca. 1250 BCE. Here, the many gods were replaced with a single jealous god, yet the plural form Elohim remained but with a singular meaning: God. Thus, the Bible, which received its definitive form only under the Persian empire ca. 500 BCE, when this usage was well-established, starts with the sentence: “Berešit bara Elohim et ha-šamaim ve-et ha-aretz”, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The connection with the stars was severed, at least for the Israelites, not all the other nations: “Pay attention lest ye lift your eyes up to the sky for seeing sun, moon and stars, that ye be led astray and adore and serve them, those whom the Lord your God hath assigned to all the nations under heaven." (Deut. 4:19)

A synonym of Elohim, referring to the same jealous God, is Yahweh. Moses himself introduced this god-name into Biblical tradition. Though new to the Israelites after centuries in Egypt, it must have existed earlier among the Arab (South-Semitic) Beduins as well as among the Northwest-Semitic people of Mari. Moses, when a fugitive from Egyptian law after he was found out to have committed murder, stayed with a Beduin tribe. They had a storm-god Yahweh, best translated as a causative participle of a verb meaning “to move in the sky”, whether “to blow” or “to stoop like a bird of prey”, from an Arab root HWY later attested in the Quran (22:32), but not in the Bible. This meaning is confirmed by the fixed expression Yahweh Sabaoth, “he who causes the motion of the heavenly hosts”, i.e. of the majestic procession of the stars across heaven. Here again we find a stellar meaning associated with a god-name.

Moses saw an apparition of this god in the burning bush. When Moses asks the god who he is, the god expresses his total sovereignty: “I am who I am”, ehyeh ašer ehyeh. Theologians and translators have contemplated this sentence profusely, until in ca. 1900, the German Orientalist Julius Wellhausen hit upon its probable original meaning: it elaborates a pun on the name Yahweh, which the Hebrews misinterpreted folk-etymologically as a causative participle of the verb HYY, “to be”, hence “the being one”, “he who is”, or more philosophically, “he whose essence is existence” “he who necessarily exists”, “he who causes existence to exist”. This edifice of profundities is entirely built on a folk-etymological pun, nothing more. Or to put it more positively: a new conception of the divine was grafted onto an old god.

The Arab form of the originally polytheistic term ha-eloha, “the deity”, is al-Ilāha, also “the deity”. A contracted form is Allāh, “thé deity”, “the god par excellence”, hence “God”. Originally it could refer to any earlier-mentioned god. Thus, Mohammed’s Pagan father was called Abdallāh, “servant of the deity”. Mohammed, in a bid to establish monotheism among the Arabs, reinterpreted Allāh as a synonym of Yahweh. He saw himself as the latest (and even last) one of the line of the prophets of Yahweh, renamed Allāh in Arabia. This way, the star-god El, the Semitic form of Sumerian Dingir, ended up shedding his connection with the stars and becoming the disembodied extra-cosmic Creator-god Yahweh/Allāh. The Quran (6:78, 22:18, 41:37) simply and strictly prohibits star worship.

In the footsteps of the reform movements Brahmo Samaj and Aryan Samaj, many anglicized Hindus claim that “Hinduism too is monotheistic”. This is a very defensive stand, and it is simply not correct. If the Hindu wealth of gods and of ways of worship were not polytheistic, what other religion would be? It seems to us that they are using a word they don’t understand. Monos does not mean “one”, it means “alone”, “one and no other”. Monotheism accepts only Yahweh or Allah, and considers all others as false gods, only good to be destroyed and discarded: Marduk, Ba’al, Osiris, Ahura Mazda, Śiva, Buddha. By contrast, Hinduism is inclusive. The Vedic verse: “The wise call the one essence by many names”, means that the different gods are not false but are essentially the same as your chosen god. There are no “false gods” in Hinduism. Reality is both one and manifold, and Hinduism is not bothered with the question whether the divine is single or many.

This also counts for other Pagan civilizations. When Protestant missionaries set up shop in China, they discovered that a native term roughly meaning “God” was Shangdi, so they appropriated this term as name of the Christian God. (Catholics preferred Tianzhu, the “Heavenly Boss”.) What they did not know, is that the Chinese language mostly does without the separate category of a plural, so the same word can be both plural and singular. Shangdi does not so much mean “the Sovereign on High”, as rather “the Powers on High”. In Chinese, even the grammar militates against the contrast between one and many. To monotheists this numerical matter is all-important, worthy of the iconoclastic destruction of all the “false gods”; but to regular people such as Hindus or Confucians and Daoists, it is just not an issue.



Heaven-worship is truly the universal religion, rivalled only by ancestor-worship. And even then, these two are intertwined. Deceased ancestors are deemed to be in heaven, often actually associated with a specific star. When your father has died, you take your child on an evening walk, and when the stars appear, you point out one of them and say: “There is grandpa, watching over us.” In a Vedic ritual, a zone in the sky, in the Scorpio-Sagittarius area, is designated as the destination of the dead.

For famous people, who had become part of the collective consciousness, the procedure could be to “elevate them to godhood” (Greek: Apotheōsis) by associating them with a specific star or constellation. A case in point from antiquity is Antinoös, the lover-boy of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who drowned himself and was given a star in Aquarius, still named after him. When in the 17th century the southern sky was mapped, one constellation was named after the protection given to Vienna by Jan Sobieski against the Ottoman siege: Scutum Sobieskii, “Sobieski’s shield”, now simply Scutum.

This practice was first attested in writing in Ugarit, Syria, where in ca. 2000 BC famous people upon their deaths were identified or “associated” with a star. In the native Semitic, this practice was named Širk, “association”. The term ought to be well-known today, but with an evolved meaning. When Islam imposed monotheism, it denounced polytheism and idolatry as Širk, i.e. the “association” of a mortal, a creature, with the Supreme Being, the Creator.

India too has known this practice. The stars of the Great Bear are named after the Seven Sages who composed most of the Ŗg-Veda. There are different variations of this list of seven, but one of the Sages who returns in all of them is Vasiṣṭha. He and his wife Arundhātī are associated with the twin stars Mizar and Alcor. In a moderate way, they did graduate to godhood, with a few temples in Himachal and Uttarakhand dedicated to them. Another sage who made it to heaven is Agastya, the Sage who went to the South, and therefore has the southern star Canopus named after him.



At the dawn of history, and practically since the birth of mankind, star worship, partly overlapping with ancestor worship, was the main religion worldwide. With the development of civilization, conceptions of the divine grew away from their referents in nature. India generated a spirituality implying renunciation, and the gods followed suit. The Upanishads signalled a break with the Vedic focus on the gods and reoriented mankind’s attention to the spiritual path. A kind of relation with a kind of gods was restored, but adopting the new focus on Liberation.

Star worship remained alive, as “nothing ever dies in India” (in the words of the late Girilal jain), but that old layer was overlaid with new levels of abstraction. The highest of these was the abstract concept of the Absolute (Brahmaṇ) that appeared in the Upaniṣads and remained, in various guises, in the mai sects of Hinduism. But the lower levels, including the naturalistic, star-related levels dd not disappear; it was an organic evolution.

A roughly similar evolution took place in the Greek world and then in the Roman empire. The elites outgrew the colourful pantheon and, mainly through Stoicism, accepted a more abstract and more unitary concept of the divine. In Neoplatonism, which may have been influenced by Indian developments, everything was thought to emanate from “the One”. In China too, “the One” was the name of a unifying abstract concept transcending the many natural gods of everyday religion. 

Unfortunately, in the Roman empire, this natural evolution was interrupted and forcibly driven in a particular direction by the imposition of Christianity. However, at the same time, to better insinuate itself in the Greco-Roman culture, Christianity also took over much from Stoicism and Neoplatonism, which appear mainly in Christian morals c.q. theology. The breakthrough of monotheism followed the same pattern as the conceptual development in Hinduism to a some extent, but was unnecessarily brutal and destructive regarding the earlier religion. The same scenario repeated itself even more abruptly with the advent of Islam.

The resulting concept of divine unity (in Islam: tawḥīd) was also much cruder than a what gradual development would have made possible. While superseding the colourful old gods, Yahweh or Allah were much like them in their negative aspects: all too human, too personal, not nirguṇa, “beyond qualities”. As India has shown, it was perfectly possible to move from a naturalistic to a more abstract conception of the divine without destroying the earlier conception.  


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