In October 2021, I had an opportunity to moderate a panel discussion with two eminent scholars of Indian civilizational history, Prof. Kapil Kapoor and Dr. Madhu Kishwar. The panel was designed to assess the impact of India’s colonial past on the Hindu intellectuals and if there is a path to path to recovery of indigenous intellectual tradition. Following is a summary of the key points made by these well-known scholars. A full video recording of their talk is also included here.
Dr. Madhu Kishwar opened her talk with a blunt observation that no set of people is hungrier to be liked than Indians, citing a friend who was baffled at why Indians constantly asked visitors from other nations whether they liked India. No one else asks this question as they don’t require the outsider’s validation. This desperate desire for endorsement and recognition, she said, was indicative of low self-esteem.
While the root of this lies in colonialism, Kishwar said, that term itself had to be understood as not just the British period but stretching back further in time to the onslaught of the Muslim invasions. The latter, never considering themselves part of the people they had conquered, tried to impose an alien civilization, value system, and language. Their allegiance was not to the land but to Mecca and Medina; they adhered to an alien ideology that taught that non-Muslims deserve conversion or to die. Conversions became so routine that it has led to the whole DNA theory, where it is posited that the invaders and the invaded are all supposed to be of the same heritage and genetic strand. The Sangh family has also backed this. If the DNA were the same, it could only be because lakhs of Indian women were turned into sex slaves and sold in the markets of the Middle East. Nowhere else in the world have people who were suppressed, slaughtered, had their temples destroyed, and made into second-class citizens ever treated invaders as one of their own, noted Kishwar.
Turning her attention to the British, she said that period of colonialism had given India the Westminster model of democracy. Its legacy has been the creation of vote banks, the worst being those working along caste lines. Kishwar pointed out that ‘caste’ was a term coined by the Portuguese to replace the indigenous ‘Jati-Varna-Biradari’ or community. The traditional system was horizontally organized and fluid. Even as late as the 19th century, Hindu civilization was described as a land of self-governing village republics where there was a diversity of skills among the people and interdependence of the ‘Jatis.’ But now, the imposed Oriental idea of society being vertically organized, with Brahmins at the top, has come to dominate our thinking, Kishwar said.
The British created these divisions, and now electoral politics has adopted the model. Caste leaders are mushrooming, and their only interest is further fragmenting society. The Indian Constitution has legitimized these divisions with reservations and quotas, Kishwar said, based on faulty notions of what is backward and what’s not backward. These quotas have people vying with each other for crumbs of power and destroying all self-respect. Today people want to buy certificates declaring themselves as lower caste. The proud Jats and Marathas all want to be in this category. More civilized ways of governing must exist, or India will remain colonized and divided.
The caste interpretation has created other problems too. It degrades and lowers everyone other than those on top, destroying a well-meshed society. It has also caused the demonization of select groups, weakening the polity. Kishwar explained that when Brahmins are demonized, the keepers of knowledge systems are demonized, along with Sanskrit, where the largest body of traditional wisdom is. Knowledge refers to philosophy and the shastras for architecture, medicine, and dance. In effect, she said, the head is being cut off the head from the body. When Banias are demonized, it is those who led society in the world of enterprise. She was appalled that specialized skills were now being termed ‘backward.’ In this adopted British model, farmers who were considered ‘Annadatta’ have been impoverished and left with poor self-esteem; metal workers of India cast the famed Iron Pillar in Delhi, but that group has been termed backward; weavers who produced textiles that are the envy of the world, are also labeled as backward.
Kishwar said yet another gift of the British, the English language, had had devastating consequences, too, colonizing minds and hearts, and made a case for learning Indian languages instead. Waving off those who took no pride in speaking Hindi but were ready to sing Bollywood songs, she said music was one way of learning languages quickly. She said Bhakti Sangeet, no matter in which language, is linked to Vedic wisdom, a uniform knowledge base across India. Instead of learning ‘Ba ba black sheep,’ ‘Samskaras’ can be taught from an early age with Kabir’s Dohas, the Gurbani, Mira Bhajans, Akka Mahadevi, and others, she said. She recalled how people could recite the Ramayana and the Guru Granth by memory in the generations of just the recent past. Love for language, unity of thought, and cultural rootedness can be achieved by disposing of an English-bound colonized mind. Kishwar said.
Prof. Kapil Kapoor was equally blunt in his assessment of the Indian psyche today. In every sphere of life, Indians lack self-confidence, averred Kapil Kapoor. He gave examples of how the West had first adopted an Indian ideal before post-colonial Indians themselves embraced it. In his thinking, dismissing one’s tradition and robust intellectual heritage stems from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Education Act of 1835 with its mantra English, Education, and Employment. The attitudes instilled through it are still playing out, causing untold damage to Hindu civilization.
In this unfortunate period, a divisive English-knowing India and a non-English-knowing India emerged. The former, a small 10% of the population constituting the bureaucracy, political and social leaders, began and continue to run the country. Harboring a lurking admiration for the West, this set views modernity and tradition as opposing forces. Kapoor, incommunicable terms, explained that modernity was just an epistemological shift from “book” to reason. In this, India had moved from ritual to reason as early as the 6th century BCE with the teachings of the Gautama Buddha. India then has been perpetually modern and perpetually traditional, he said.
Delving further into history, he said, the scholar Al Beruni, who had come with Mahmud Ghazni, had observed Hindus to be different in three ways: there was no fear of death, always spoke the truth, and took great pride in their knowledge. With the imposition of the English education system, all this was wiped out. For empirical evidence that only English-educated India suffered from the colonization of the mind, not the masses, Kapoor suggested observing a Ramlila or a village Navaratri being celebrated and getting the whole Hindu essence.
Kapoor went on to explain that the very essence of being a Hindu is Hindutva. It is to a Hindu what Christianity is to a Christian. He offered some thoughts on the reasons for the term’s negative connotations in the West: It is different from the Abrahamic religions in that Hindus are an idolatrous people giving visual form to their principles; it is not God saying people are ‘Kafir’ but those who play agent between God and people in Islam and Christianity; there is comfort in the word ‘Hinduism’ because ‘ism’ is a familiar ending in English, whereas ‘Hindutva’ is not as easily understood with its Sanskritic ending. Lack of comprehension leads to suspicion, and in the extreme, to aversion, said Kapoor.
He then spoke on overcoming victimization and gaining freedom from modern, secular ideas. Kapoor made three suggestions: Locate people firmly in their own knowledge traditions. Academic instruction be shifted from English and imparted in the state language. Make a complete change in the education system instead of tinkering with it.
Addressing each point, Kapoor began by recalling when he would speak of Indian knowledge systems, and people would leave, but now, he said, everyone was talking about it.
History, too, provides hope: ‘Vyasa’ refers to a tradition of recovery, not a person. As an ancient civilization, India has known 28 cycles of loss and recovery of knowledge. The last was when Janamejaya conducted a Yajna in the Nigambodh ghat after the Mahabharata war. Using the parameter of the Vyasa Parampara, where the Rigveda gets reconstructed, and seeing the work and impact of scholars, India is currently in the 29th cycle.
Kapoor was upbeat about the future and noted that given the groundswell of support for rootedness and with a leader who listened to the masses, the recovery of knowledge, the polity, and the recovery of courage had already begun and would continue.
He suggested that political power was necessary to enable knowledge traditions to flower, with Hindus last having had control only in 1193 when Prithviraj Chauhan lost the battle with Mahmud Gauri. The current form of democracy has created several problems, including exacerbating caste issues. The Indian Constitution, in just 70 years, has had 115 amendments and resembles a tattered, patched-up shirt. It is time to change the shirt. He cited the Purusha Suktam to illustrate the degradation: Originally, the Cosmic Man was in a lying position; in the Middle Ages, he stood upright, raising Brahmins to a higher level and bringing Dalits to a lower position; today, he is in an upside-down posture, lowering Brahmins to the lowest spot.
Kapoor talked further about how knowledge systems taught in local mediums would encourage the correct understanding. Advocating state languages as the medium of instruction from grade one through college, Kapoor envisaged a resultant bureaucracy that is wholly Indian, having been raised on an Indian diet. English could be taught, but parallel running classes in an Indian language should be compulsory, just as in France.
Rejecting the idea of not having a ‘link’ lingua, he asked: weren’t people in India communicating before the advent of English and Persian? He provided examples in support of his rhetorical question. Abhinav Gupta taught the Natya Shastra in Srinagar, and the great teachers in Kannada went and learned from him. Namdeva was so disheartened when Gyaneshwar died that he left home in Maharashtra and went to Punjab, where he left behind compositions that were first found in the Guru Granth Saheb – in Gurumukhi, not Marathi.
On whether Sanskrit could ever be revived like Hebrew and become a national language, Kapoor thought it was not correct to compare Hebrew’s revival with Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a living tongue heard in most Indian languages. The lowest percentage of Sanskrit vocabulary is in Tamil, even in the range of 74%. Further, India has an Amazonian-like linguistic ecology, rich in history and literature, which means Sanskrit is not the only knowledge resource language. Pali is the source of the Buddhist canon, and Prakrit has an enormous Jain canon. Other than these three, Kapoor said Old Tamil and Avestan are also knowledge resource languages. Because the Zend Avesta is a sibling text of the Rigveda, knowing it is a must if classical Vedic Sanskrit literature must be fully understood.
The proposal for school education is that from class five to eight, every student study one of these five knowledge resource languages for four years. With this, students will have freedom and won’t feel they are being forced to learn a particular language.
Kapoor said while a new education policy had acknowledged the phrase ‘Indian knowledge system’ and accepted Indian languages should be the medium, there was still diffidence. He said Macaulay had launched his policy suddenly one day in April 1835, and everything had fallen into place in the space of two months. Similarly, a sudden change today would work itself out.
Dr. Kapil Kapoor is a former professor at JNU’s Centre for Linguistics and English, the only concurrent professor at the Centre for Sanskrit Studies and the university’s School of Language, Literature, and Culture Studies. He has guided 42 Ph.D. and 30 MPhil candidates. He has served as editor for an 11-volume encyclopedia on Hinduism and UNESCO’s ‘Encyclopedia of Hindu Politics.’ He is a governing body member of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla.
Dr. Madhu Kishwar was with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, but quit disagreeing with its “aggressive leftist” leanings. She is now a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. She is the founder-editor of ‘Manushi,’ in which she has published ‘Modinama,’ a series critiquing the media for what she sees as false propaganda against the then CM Narendra Modi’s role in the Gujarat violence of 2002. She has also written a book on the subject.