Are we ‘post-Hindu’ yet?

Kancha Ilaiah burst onto the Indian intellectual scene in 1996, with his now-famous book, Why I Am Not a Hindu. In that work, Ilaiah made a partly autobiographical case for why he, and his fellow Dalit-Bahujan (Shudra) brothers and sisters, feel nothing but anger and apathy toward Hinduism – the religion that had devalued their lives, their culture and their gods while also shutting them out from the 'high culture' of the twice-born castes. Nearly 15 years later, Ilaiah has written a new book making the case for why Hinduism itself deserves to die, and why the annihilation of caste will also annihilate Hindu dharma. India, he proclaims, is on its way to a 'post-Hindu' future, one he is himself trying to bring about and looks forward to with obvious delight.

The passage of time has clearly not moderated Ilaiah's passion, as the same burning anger at the injustices that have been heaped upon the Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi communities animates both his books. Unfortunately, time has also not cured him of an essentialist, black-and-white style of thinking that is largely unconcerned with facts. The same stereotypical 'we good, Brahmins bad' style of thinking that reduced Why I Am Not a Hindu to nothing more than a self-righteous howl reduces Post-Hindu India to a wishful daydream that floats free of history – and, indeed, even of contemporary reality. Ilaiah has written a romance, rather than the analysis informed by social science that one would one would expect from a professor of political science at one of India's most renowned institutions for higher education, Osmania University in Hyderabad.

The thesis in Post-Hindu India is simple enough. It claims that of the world's four major religions, Hinduism "is on the course of a slow and sure death" because the "caste cancer" that the religion legitimises is eating it from the inside, making it cede ground to more egalitarian religions such as Islam and Christianity. Enabled by capitalism, globalisation and the spread of English education, Dalit-Bahujans finally have the option of waging – and winning – a civil war against the "spiritual goondas" (Brahmins, in other words) and joining religions that are more "spiritually democratic". Even when they do not officially leave it, Dalits-Bahujans have "no respect for Hinduism", Ilaiah argues. The rise of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Hindutva forces is only "pushing Hinduism toward its death", because it is trying to achieve a national and global stature for Hinduism without ensuring equality for the oppressed majority.

This leads to the other part of Ilaiah's book, which focuses on explaining the nature of the "caste cancer". According to Ilaiah, the pathology of caste, ostensibly sucking the lifeblood out of Hinduism, lies in the religion's inability to condone and institutionalise a "spiritual democratic course of equality and transformation within its inner structures". This raises the question of why Hinduism lacks this spiritual democracy, which Ilaiah evidently finds in abundance in all other world religions. According to the author, the fundamental problem lies in "Hinduism's inability to mediate between reason and faith". While the labouring Dalit-Bahujan castes embraced a rational and productive stance toward the world, Hindu Brahminism took an "anti-productive and anti-science ethic". The irony, according to Ilaiah, is that Brahminism touted its own parasitic lifestyle based on superstition as the way to purity and knowledge, while looking down on the "real" scientists, engineers and workers – the Dalits, Shudras and Adivasis. If India has to survive in this era of modernity and globalisation, Ilaiah argues, it will have to necessarily embrace the scientific ethic of its labouring and long-suffering 'lower' castes, thus turning 'post-Hindu' – a change that the author considers inevitable.

Upward spiral
Ilaiah's triumphalist call for the end of Hinduism reminds one of the hue and cry that Hindutva ideologues raised some years ago over India allegedly becoming a Muslim-majority country, with Hindus being reduced to a minority in 'their own country'. While Ilaiah, of course, welcomes the prospect of a less-Hindu India, the Hindu right decries it, using it for fear-mongering against the imagined Muslim 'population bomb'. Ultimately, however, Ilaiah is as factually challenged as his Hindutva counterparts: by no stretch of the imagination is India at a post-Hindu stage. On the contrary, with the dog-eat-dog kind of capitalism and globalisation that the country has embraced, Indians of all religious faiths are becoming more religious, and Hindu religiosity is growing in all segments of society – including among the Dalits, Shudras and Adivasis. Far from turning their backs on Hinduism, Dalit-Bahujans are increasingly using conspicuous Hindu rituals – expensive pujas, jagratas and homas – to pass as genteel and 'clean' middle-class people. The age-old processes of co-option into the Hindu fold have by no means lost their power, as Ilaiah would have us believe.

Ilaiah's idea that Hinduism is on a "downward spiral" in number and influence, and is heading toward "a slow but sure death", is simply not supported by facts. Recent census data shows that the share of Muslim and Christians in India's total population was less than 15 percent in 1991 and less than 16 percent in 2001 – a slight increase that can be explained by the relative economic deprivation of Muslims, but hardly signalling a great stampede away from Hinduism. Additional data from the well-respected National Election Studies, by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), taken after the 2004 and 2009 polls show that the proportion of Dalits and Adivasis who had taken to praying to Hindu gods and goddesses was growing, not declining. More fine-grained ethnographic studies show that, as upward mobility grows among Dalits and other backward castes, they tend to adopt upper-caste Hindu practices to gain respectability and pass as middle castes – clearly a sad commentary on the durability of casteist attitudes in contemporary India.

Ilaiah simply discounts the still-strong tendencies among the historically deprived castes to seek approval from the twice-born castes, which often leads them to support the retrograde and often openly anti-Muslim and anti-Christian politics of the Hindu right. If Hinduism was really declining in influence among Dalit-Bahujan communities, as Ilaiah insists, how can one explain the fact that Dalits of the Valmiki caste have allowed their heroes to be co-opted into the Hindu pantheon? This process has been described by Badri Narayan in his fine ethnography of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar Dalits, Fascinating Hindutva. Though occasional statements demonstrate that Ilaiah is aware of the co-option, he does not let this temper his enthusiasm for issuing a death certificate for the Hindu religion.

This lack of attention to empirical evidence deeply mars Ilaiah's writings. Post-Hindu India boasts of a "unique methodology" that seems to lie in the total absence of any reference to published work: the entire 295 pages of text appear to have emerged straight from Ilaiah's own mind. Of course, there is plenty of name-dropping, from Ambedkar to Hegel to Marx, but there is no way to check the veracity or the relevance of their statements. Apart from unsubstantiated statements of the 'greats', there is not a single reference to any contemporary study. The wild generalisations that abound in this and Why I am not a Hindu could have easily been avoided had Ilaiah bothered to check his raw feelings against the available sociological and anthropological data. For all his insistence that Dalit-Bahujans and Adivasis are the custodians of scientific temper, Ilaiah himself does not exhibit a great deal of social scientific methodology in his writings.

Too much chaff
The issue of scientific temper brings us to the second part of Ilaiah's thesis, the 'failure' of Hinduism to mediate between reason and faith. There is certainly a grain of truth in this, as the Brahminical obsession with purity and mystical knowledge of an 'absolute truth' that transcends sensory methods of verification and falsification was chiefly responsible for setting back the development of the natural sciences in India. There is no denying that it was the labouring castes who took a lead in developing the stock of positive knowledge that traditional India possessed, be it Ayurveda or alchemy. The 'science' of astrology and yagnas are perhaps the only contributions of the twice-born castes. But here again, Ilaiah covers the grain of truth with layers of chaff spun out of wild and unsubstantiated exaggerations. Indeed, he uses the label science as loosely as the Hindu right does; if for the apologists of the reformist sanatan dharma everything from astrology to mystical trances is scientific in the modern sense of the word, Ilaiah is happy to confer the status of science to everything from curing leather and making manure to cutting hair.

The problem with this loose use of the label science is that it confers the status of rigorously tested experimental knowledge backed by theoretical explanations – in other words, what we understand as modern science – to what were at most the proto-sciences of our ancestors. It is true that involvement in the productive activities of curing leather, growing crops and taking care of sick people forces the practitioner to pay more attention to the material aspects of the phenomena. But materialism and the use of sensory experience by themselves do not make an activity scientific in any modern sense of the word. After all, even the most empirical science of the ancient Ayurvedic doctors contained a substantial amount of 'magical' thinking derived from Brahminical ideas of 'spiritual therapy' that involved incantations, talismans, fasting, sacrifices and the like.

Contrary to what Ilaiah believes, no scientist – including his Madiga "leather scientists" or the Mala "manure scientists" – approaches the phenomena by pure experience, and unshaped by the worldview and cultural assumptions prevalent in the larger society. At no point were the labouring castes free from the underlying assumptions about the divine origins of the cosmos, or the karmic workings of the soul that Vedic Hinduism taught. Though they were not allowed to learn the elite knowledge available in Sanskrit, that knowledge nonetheless trickled down to the lower orders through puranas and tantras, taught in the vernacular. In this context, drawing a hard and fast line between the supposedly 'scientific' knowledge of the 'productive' Dalit-Bahujans and the 'superstitions' of the 'parasitic' Brahmins is too simplistic.

While one can sympathise with Ilaiah's anger at what Hinduism has wrought, one cannot accept his analysis of where Hinduism is going. Hinduism is too much of a resilient, all-inclusive and flexible religion to loosen its grip on the Indian imagination in the foreseeable future. Post-Hindu India is thus more of a fairytale than a serious work of social science.

~ Meera Nanda is a philosopher of science who initially trained in biology. Her most recent book is The God Market: How globalization is making India more Hindu (2010).

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