A few months ago, Rajiv Malhotra published his groundbreaking book, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. “Being Different” elucidates certain fundamental differences that distinguish Dharmic traditions from Western civilization (including Judeo-Christianity as well as secular humanism). These differences must be understood, acknowledged and emphasized in order to (1) properly formulate a sociopolitical identity that Dharmic traditions can unify behind, (2) prevent “digestion” by the West wherein Dharmic practices are appropriated, mutilated and ultimately destroyed in the process of digestion in order to maintain the supremacy of Western norms and values, and (3) provide a framework for meaningful interfaith / intercultural dialogue on equal terms and on a level playing field.
As part of promoting and furthering the ideas developed in Being Different, Malhotra has been engaging in a number of dialogues with prominent Western intellectual figures such as Mark Tully, a prominent English journalist with the BBC based in India, and Francis Clooney, Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at the Harvard Divinity School. Most of us have been applauding these events for their impact in mainstreaming the worldview and ethos encapsulated in Being Different and challenging prominent Western leaders to question their thinking from a Dharmic perspective. Unfortunately, however, a small brigade of vocal Internet activists has suddenly started attacking Malhotra’s dialogues with these figures. The chief attacker has been Dr. Vijaya Rajiva, in articles posted online at Haindava Keralam.
For those who know the back story, it is obvious that these attacks have been triggered because of petty rivalries and personal issues rather than any principled critique. Nevertheless, it is important to refute the substance of these attacks so that others are not misled by these false accusations.
The argument, such as it were, by Dr. Vijaya Rajiva in her two articles at Haindava Keralam boils down to the following: (1) Hinduism has survived in India for so long so there is no need to do anything new in order to safeguard Hinduism’s place in India, (2) any gesture the West makes towards engagement with Indians has the ulterior motive of conversion and so any such engagement will only harm Hindus, and (3) Malhotra’s exercise in purva paksha is nothing more than “self-advancement” at the cost of compromising dharma.
Let’s examine each of these arguments in turn. First, Vijaya Rajiva states, “India alone remains unconverted. The present writer believes that this will remain so thanks to the devotion of the aam admi Hindus to their ancestral religion and thanks to the spiritual strength of the traditional acharyas, gurus, maths and so on.” Such fatalistic complacency has no place in Dharma. Our Dharma emphasizes the importance of purushartha, of performing our duties and making all proper efforts—fate is nothing more than the bearing of fruit of our past actions and choices. To think that because Hinduism has survived for some thousands of years, its continued existence is guaranteed is foolhardiness and wishful thinking. Every new age, every new place Dharma spreads requires a new reformulation of Dharma appropriate for that time and place. We need to seriously address how Dharma is to be interpreted and acted upon in the 21st century. Malhotra’s work is an important part of this project.
Moreover, just as Krishna exhorted Arjuna to fight the righteous war against the Kauravas in the Gita, our Dharma commands us to fight in whichever battlefields we may find ourselves for the sake of Dharma—Dharmo Rakshati Rakshita. War with certain forces in the West is happening whether or not we show up to fight at the battle, so it is incumbent upon us to train and arm ourselves and fight for Dharma in the various kshetras where we are being attacked. To abdicate the kshetra of the intellectual battlefield where anti-Dharmic forces are already waging war against us (whether or not we show up) would be adharma and utter cowardice. This argument against engagement with the West cannot be taken seriously.
Second, Vijaya Rajiva makes the valid point that, too often, interfaith dialogue ends up hurting Hindus because our representatives get co-opted by the other side who are focused on inculturation and “dialogue” as a means of facilitating conversion. Of course, it has been Malhotra who has exhaustively studied, documented and fought against this phenomenon in both Being Different and Breaking India, but let’s leave that aside for now. Where Vijaya Rajiva goes off the deep end is in jumping to the conclusion that just because Hindus have in the past been naïve and made mistakes in interfaith dialogues, it is not possible for any Hindu leader to engage in an interfaith dialogue that could actually work to the advantage of Hindus (or at least neutralize the aggression of the other side).
It is wrong to lump in Malhotra with the category of Hindu representatives / organizations who have been ineffective and incompetent in representing Hindu interests in interfaith / intercultural exchanges. It is doubly ironic for Malhotra to face this charge since he is the one who has been talking himself hoarse over the past many years about how, without a serious understanding of how the other side thinks and operates, Hindus participating in these talks have been falling into the other side’s traps and selling out Dharma in the process. Malhotra has been one of the few community leaders who has had the courage to call out those Hindus who have been co-opted by the West in this process. That is why he has painstakingly built up a framework for engaging with the West in a way that is to the advantage of Dharmic groups so that we can engage them on our own terms, on a level playing field and without falling into the same traps--that is what Being Different is all about!
Malhotra is taking advantage of these dialogues with Clooney, Tully, et. al, in order to highlight timportant and irreducible differences between the West and Dharmic traditions—by challenging these Western leaders to confront these differences and forcing them to admit that there are certain irreconcilable differences, Malhotra is effectively making it harder for them to use inculturation as a pretext for conversion. These encounters thus serve a myriad of purposes for the benefit of Dharma. Dialogue does not mean capitulation. The point of debate is not to come to an agreement or even to win over the other side, after all, but rather, to clarify and focus one’s own positions and to win over the undecided audience. These prominent figures provide a good foil to demonstrate the veracity of Malhotra’s thesis and also help shore up the base of support for the Dharma communities by appealing to the undecided middle ground of Indians who do not necessarily identify themselves as Hindu but would empathize and agree with the Dharmic identifiers Malhotra has presented in Being Different.
To accuse Malhotra of falling victim to the wiles of Clooney, etc., is absurd. Malhotra has spent decades seriously studying the institutions and ideologies that comprise Western power and is one of hardly a handful of Indian leaders who has the savvy and reasoned principled stances necessary in order to properly represent Dharma in mainstream modern society. This is a space we followers of Dharma desperately need to capture.
Vijaya Rajiva’s stance essentially is that of an ostrich wanting to bury its head in the sand. Hinduism has been losing its “market share” in India, both through outright conversion and also through the more insidious vehicles of “secularization” and Westernization. In order to reach these audiences and bring them back into the fold of Dharma, we need leaders who can speak to them in a language that they understand and to engage the cultural forces and memes which are familiar and appealing to them. Simply replicating what traditional acharyas and mathas are doing will not be sufficiently and would only be redundant.
It would be another matter if Vijaya Rajiva actually had substantive critiques of what Malhotra has said or done as part of these dialogues. Such comments could be used constructively. But her actual points of criticism are laughably weak and strained. She has only offered three specific points of criticism: (1) she took umbrage that Malhotra apparently did not demur when Clooney compared him to Swami Dayananda Sarasvati and Swami Vivekandanda (by noting that Malhotra has updated their works in a sophisticated manner), (2) she objected to Malhotra’s stance that he is not interested in the politicization of religion, which she took as an unwarranted “hit at Hindu nationalism”, and (3) an even more befuddled claim that Malhotra’s methodology of purva paksha is only a means of self-advancement because he is capitulating to rather than working to defeat the other side.
All these accusations are baseless and false, and smack of sheer jealousy rather than addressing any of the content of Malhotra's positions. The first one is difficult to even address with a straight face—it would have been awkward to interrupt Clooney to make such an unnecessary point. Malhotra has never held himself out as any kind of spiritual figurehead; the point was that Swami Vivekananda and others had found novel ways of engaging with the West in ways that highlighted differences between Dharma and the West and that Malhotra’s work is part of this history of Easterners reversing the gaze on the West. This has nothing to do with equating Malhotra with anybody else.
As to the second point, regarding Malhotra’s purported distancing himself from Hindutva, it would be a shame indeed if the litmus test for being an effective advocate for Hinduism is whether or not one supports a certain political organization in India or not. What Vijaya Rajiva and others need to understand is that there are a large number of people in India and outside who may not want to affiliate themselves with the Sangh Parivar but may be persuaded into affiliating themselves with Dharma or Hinduism in general. Accessing that large middle ground of Indians and Hindus is imperative in order to safeguard the viability of Hindu society in India. If Hindu leaders are only to cater to a narrow band of Hindus who are already self-identified proud Hindus, that would be nothing more than preaching to the choir. There is a vacuum which needs to be filled for leaders and thinkers who can appeal to the secularized / Westernized base of Indians and NRIs who need to be engaged in a different way with a modern idiom and outlook. Malhotra is one of the very few leading this effort and needs to be supported in this endeavor.
The third point, that Malhotra’s dialogues are nothing more than self-advancement, is nothing more than a vicious and unwarranted personal attack that does not bear being taken seriously, except to point out that Malhotra is one of a handful of leaders with a consistent track record of being principled and never backing down from his convictions and his loyalty to Dharma. His work has focused on pointing out the dangers of accommodating rather than defeating the opponent. Being Different is a timely warning about the dangers of digestion and destruction in the guise of assimilation and inculturation.
What is confusing is how Vijaya Rajiva intends for the opponents to be defeated if she wants all Hindus to abscond from any potential interaction with the opponents! It is like saying one should run away from the battlefield because there is a risk we may lose the battle. She herself has nothing to offer by way of effective encounters with opponents. That is not the solution. The solution is to arm and train ourselves as best we can, to don our armor, and to face the war with courage and steadfastness. That is what Malhotra has been doing for decades, and now that finally the opportunity has come for meaningful interactions and progress in this battle, it is sad that personal jealousies and petty rivalries are detracting from this great momentum. There is room for constructive criticism, but that does not excuse illogical and irrational attacks that are baseless, without substance and, ultimately, nothing but petty.