Hindutva: When We let Others Define Us (H3 Conference, Day 5 Panel 2)

Prof. Subhash Kak and Dr. David Frawley: Western Indologists and their Indian followers have controlled the narrative on Hinduism for far too long; it’s time to challenge them

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Two eminent speakers, Dr. Subhash Kak and Dr. David Frawley, discussed how the Hindutva term has become so loaded with a negative charge and how we can frame or reframe the term to discharge this negativity. This article summarizes the key points they raised.


Dr. Subhash Kak

What is Hinduism? Who defines Hinduism? Posing these two questions, Dr. Subhash Kak set to answer them. Right off the bat, he said there were two broad interpretations. The first is the description drawn from the understanding of masters and scholars and has been inspirational for generations; the other is that which Western Indologists and their Indian followers have postulated.

He immediately debunked the second narrative, noting that such narratives lose credibility when they deliberately and willfully ignore entire areas of Hindu contributions, like the histories of philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. He pointed out that leading philosophers and scientists have said that there is no inconsistency between quantum mechanics and Vedanta. Erwin Schrodinger, the Nobel-winning Austrian physicist, is on record saying the central idea of quantum mechanics came to him from the Upanishadic Mahavakaya “I am Atma Brahma.”

But in the past 100 years or so, Western academics have presented Hinduism as being about caste, hierarchy, control, and emotional expression in various forms, said Kak. While it is true that old societies are complex, and there might be some truth to stratification, it is now a known fact that most did not know what Varna they belonged to. It is the Western sociologists and their Indian followers who hard-mapped and created the modern caste system. Kak said the time has come to challenge this false construct about Hindu society.

Hinduism, Kak said, is the path of knowledge. ‘Veda’ itself means knowledge. As Atma Vidya, it is knowledge related to consciousness, the very heart of science now. Science, in its journey, has now reached the point where it is asking such questions as the nature of the connection between physics and consciousness, the nature of the observer, why the observer has freedom, and where the observer resides. This is precisely Atma Vidya – the very heart of Hinduism.

He referred to the Mundaka Upanishad, where a distinction is made between Apara and Para Vidya. The former is knowledge of the outside, which we project through our consciousness, even though all knowledge and experiences reside within. They realized that beyond this and Vaikari, Madhyama, and Pashyanti lay the Para Vidya. Hinduism, he said, is all about Para Vidya.

It is a universal approach to reality because within each being, no matter its origin, is the same Purusha, and everybody has the same access to it. The rishis have said the journey to knowledge begins with the journey outside. When one reaches the limits of the external journey, the Apara Vidya,  that’s when a person is ready for Yoga and the deep dive within.

This knowledge belongs to all of humanity, and humanity has reached a point where they are thirsting for it. With artificial intelligence, machines will replace humans in almost everything. Therefore, using only the outer reality as a guide, which is what the Western paradigm is exclusively about, the Apara limit is already being reached with no other solution.

The time was ripe, he said, for Vedic ideas to get out of outdated academic thinking and claim center stage. It was time to reclaim the message of Hinduism.

He explained that after independence, India had decided not to have departments of Hinduism. The system was a handover from the British with their colonial view of India. Colonialism is about one group wanting to rule over another, and that system was left intact. The time has come, he said, for a real reform so that knowledge traditions are discussed, and narratives restated. Education in India has to be cast in new ways with technology and social media, making the old university system redundant.

Progressives have also posed a challenge to reclaiming the definition of Hinduism, with their tenet being that all history is irrelevant and tradition the enemy. Hinduism is also a puzzle to them, having been educated in a system where there’s nothing but the physical body. The Western paradigm doesn’t know how to deal with Hinduism because it makes all kinds of amazing claims that science today can validate. The Darshanas, for example, have sophisticated presentations of physics, like physical properties being a consequence of motion and that there are qualities associated with substances. French linguist Dr. Jean Filliozat has said he took ideas from Panini’s grammar and that there was a structure in it that described linguistic behavior. Then there is sage Bharata’s ‘Natya Shastra,’ with its evolved and nuanced guidance for music and dance.

Kak said there were two sets of people. There were those who thought it was all bizarre as they had not comprehended all the wealth of knowledge that was available. The other were people like Steve Jobs who went to India as they had found out that Indian knowledge is about self-knowledge. So, the fight is about who will represent India. The inheritors of the colonial racist view of India, or those who know that it is about emancipation.

Straying away from this encompassing idea of Hinduism are forces like the Left, which, observing Hindus organizing themselves, are trying to create a wedge. The most prominent of which is to demonize the term Hindutva. Hindutva, Kak said, meant Hinduism. There is no difference between the two.

David Frawley

Frawley began by setting things in a historical context. Until a few centuries ago, India was viewed as a land of prosperity. Its spiritual traditions were sought after by Greeks and Romans, mystics throughout the Middle Ages, and European philosophers. It was under colonial rule that things took a remarkable turn, and India was positioned as being composed of petty, warring groups, backward and superstitious, entirely in need of redemption. When the push for freedom came, it came with the revival of the Bharati tradition led by thinkers like Vivekananda, Ramtirtha, Aurobindo, Tagore, and others, shining a light on India as a great civilization. Post-independence, the Marxists, piggybacking on the colonial narrative, took over the history of India.

He bemoaned that while after World War ll, in Africa and Native American studies, there has been an academic re-examination of traditional cultures and rejection of the colonial model, India has not seen the same. While others have looked at their old cultures, seen the spirituality in it, and worked to shake off misrepresentation, academia related to India remains suspicious of the incredible popularity of Yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda, etc., and responds by either ignoring or undermining it. He cited the example of departments of Hindu studies focusing on Manu Smriti and the caste system, never mentioning contemporary gurus like Aurobindo, Yogananda, or Chinmayananda. He said it is crucial to note the impact of this distortion. Very few people in the West can define Hinduism beyond these stereotypes.

The resurgence of a proud Hindu India, rather than an apologetic India that doesn’t know its identity, has also challenged the tropes. The Marxist-Colonial stereotypes are weakening, with the Hindu diaspora emerging as one of the most affluent, educated, and peaceful communities. So, the discrediting now is of the Hindu diaspora being elitist, etc.

Frawley said the problem with the Hindu community and Hinduism in the West has been two-fold: the failure to define itself educationally and not asserting itself politically.

He said that Hindus are the least politically motivated and vote-oriented of any religious group in the world. Making money, paying taxes, and being a model community could only get that far. He said the recent trend in the UK where Hindus turned out in numbers and voted had garnered respect and a greater say in government. That model needed to be replicated in the US and elsewhere.

Frawley said that Hindus need their lobbyists and spokespersons and not have academics speaking for Hinduism. Moksha occurs through a higher knowledge that requires deep meditation and cannot be passed on by a belief, theorizing, and general semantics. Academia is not in a position to understand the Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi; it simply does not learn or practice this.

He strongly recommended that Hindus in the West begin by publishing a simple paper explaining what Hinduism is and what Hindus believe in. He stressed that it be a short work – restricted to about three pages and emphasizing the spiritual and philosophical aspects.

The very area that is the strength of Hinduism – spirituality – has been purposefully ignored by the anti-Hindu and anti-Hindutva forces, he said. Sometimes, they go so far as to associate spiritual and yogic aspects with Buddhism. So, he underscored that all Hindus should teach their children the fundamentals of Vedanta, with Bhagavad Gita as the primary text, so when they deal with their peers, they are armed to deal with as well correct the prejudices. Educational assertion and educational outreach are necessary, Frawley said, encouraging grassroots activism. Why not discuss this with teachers and have them make field trips with their class to a Hindu temple?

Frawley also advised vigil – against academic apartheid where classes on Hinduism and related subjects are not taught by practicing Hindus. Again, he provided an example faced by Buddhists: At a Council for Foreign Relations meeting on the Rohingyas, not a single Buddhist was there to voice why the Rohingyas were being viewed as a problem to them. The other trend to be aware of is the importing of distortions by the Left from India to America, turning Americans against the Hindu diaspora and Hindu yogic philosophies. The negative connotations associated with Hindutva stem from this, he said.

The best way to fight this would be to do it in a positive spirit, highlighting the yogic, spiritual, and Dharmic aspects. Educationally, the more Hinduism is promoted as Vedanta, the lesser room for detractors to challenge it. Also, youth will begin to believe that there is something valuable to defend.

With political savvy and education savvy, Frawley said, the core Hindu ideas like Yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda, Sanskrit, temples, music, and dance – can reflect Sanatana Dharma, a glorious universal tradition and not a narrow ethnic or geographically defined tradition. Changes can occur, he said, it will be slow, but it can be done.

Dr. David Frawley has written numerous books on Vedas and Hinduism. In 2015, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan. He also has a special national eminence award conferred by the South Indian Education Society for his work in Ayurveda, Yoga, and Vedic Astrology.

Dr. Subhash Kak is the Regents Professor of Computer Science at Oklahoma State University, honorary Visiting Professor of Engineering at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a member of the Indian Prime Minister’s Science Technology and Innovation Advisory Council. He has published widely on science, mathematics, philosophy, and Vedic astronomy. He is a preeminent Indologist who has challenged the Aryan invasion and migration theory and the dating of the Rig Veda.

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