A challenge to Professor S.N. Balagangadhara

Article written 26 November 2014

Balagangadhara is a professor at the University of Ghent in Brussels. He gave a talk with the following title: ‘What Do Indians Need, a History or the Past? A challenge or two to Indian historians’. It is a polemic which questions the colonial perception of Hindus and their history. In the process however he himself betrays a colonial attitude and an arrogant perception of Hindus. Throughout his talk full of pedantic display of words it is difficult not to conclude that he is doing a hatchet job on Hindu dharma. He quotes British Raj representative Macaulay: ‘Books written in Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the paltriest abridgement used as preparatory schools in England’. As a conquering power of what was the world’s richest country in the 17th Century, it was crucial for the colonialists to rubbish everything Indian so as to justify the biggest ransacking of a country in history. However there were also many European scholars and thinkers who considered India as a cradle of human civilization. I will refer to them later. Balas contention is that Hindus should not look at their history from a colonial perspective. The reason for this he says is that myths abound in the Mahabharat and Ramayan. To write history from a European/colonial perspective is an old knee-jerk reaction to professional criticism of Indian culture and its traditions. It is the Sangh parivar he says who claim that the stories of our past are true and is, ‘literal truth.’ There are not many intellectuals in the Sangh Parivar. They are mainly ideologues lacking the ability to do intellectual research. These ideologues he says might do what centuries of colonialism and Mughal rule could not do- that is to destroy Indian culture and her traditions. It is not only the Sangh Parivar who believe in the truth of Hindu scriptures. All Hindus believe in the truth of their scriptures. The young generation he contends will not accept the myths that are scattered in the Mahabharat and Ramayan. They will not want to be Ram bhakta (devotee) or Krishna bhakta. If this is the fear that has prompted Bala to warn Hindus to stop accepting their past as a truth as opposed to stories then he need not worry. The young generation is very much practicing Hinduism and tens of thousands of people all over the world are coming to the Dharma. Hindu Gurus have a huge following in European countries. The Hare Krishna mantra is heard in many parts of the world and temples are being built all over the globe. So if Bala is proposing that Hindus should stop believing in their past history because the new generation will reject it then he need not take the trouble to worry. Hinduism is safe and flourishing. Bala continues by asking as to how can there be a Treta Yug (the time when Lord Rama was present some 1.7 million years ago) ? According to him our species is hardly 50,000 years old. Well there are plenty of findings of human remains going back 100,000 years and more. Here he accepts blindly outdated empirical evidence. He also fails to grasp the fact that Western science and the perception of what is truth is constantly changing. It has yet to fully understand our past and the achievements of our forefathers. Mahabharat, Bala says was a tribal war that took place 500 BC and nothing more! He asks how is it possible to train monkeys that swing in the trees to build a bridge. Again Bala ignores historical evidence that there was a monkey species with human features almost a million years ago. Bala refers to a story of a Balinese Hindu who says to a Swedish person, ‘I do not understand why it is important that your God was on Earth’. Why Bala chose this individual’s comment to explain the Hindu world view is a mystery. The Hindu world view has always been that there are many paths to God. Bala goes on to say that people just add stories randomly. So Mahabharat is a collection of random stories!  He says Mahabharat has enormous scope for pornography but the story tellers did not want to add that on! Indeed Mahabharat can be a brahmin conspiracy to keep dalits down! Itihass or stories like Mahabharat have nothing to do with the past and has no reference to facts according to Bala. So here we have it. The colonial masters dubbed our scriptures as mythologies and so does Bala! Our stories help us in our Adhyatma or spiritual quest he says. They are simply stories not history. Bala goes on to vex lyrical about European intellectuals. He says perhaps the most interesting theories about human beings, their culture and societies are products of European intellectuals and so too are the practices such as democracy and courts of law! Bala does not acknowledge that the idea of democracy and pluralism has been around for thousands of years in Hindu history. The concept is called, ‘Anekantvad’. He goes on to say that the sheer scope, variety and quality of European contribution to humanity are overwhelming. In India on the other hand caste, subjugation of women, widow burning, and corruption, belief in astrology, karma and reincarnation go on. You would be forgiven to think that Bala is actually a colonial master in an Indian body! He obviously forgets the crusades, wholesale ethnic cleansing of South Americans, slavery, witch burnings, the Christian contention that the world is flat etc! Bala continues: When intellectuals of the European culture were challenging and changing the world, Indian thinkers were defending undesirable immoral atrocious practices. Bala has obviously not heard of Dayanand Sarasvati, Raja Rammohan Roy, Tilak and many others. Bala says we only have Buddha and Gandhi. Swami Vivekanand, Dr. Radhakrishna, Ranindranath Tagore and many others come to mind. Hindus were enslaved for a thousand years in which their progress was halted. It is to the credit of the Hindu heritage that it could not be destroyed in spite of the best efforts of the conquerors. To conclude I would like to remind Bala of what some of the great European scholars and thinkers have said about India. Phiostrus in his book, Life of Apollonius of Tyana said: ‘In India I found a race of mortal living beings upon the Earth, but not adhering to it. Inhabiting cities but not being fixed to them, possessing everything but possessed by nothing’. Friedrich Schlegal said India was the source of all languages, thoughts and poems, astronomy, astrology etc. Sir William Jones who mastered Sanskrit considered it to be more perfect then Greek, more copious then Latin. Arthur Schopenhauer claimed the rediscovery of the ancient India would be one of the great events in the history of the West. Henry David Thoreau marveled on the Gita and Upanishads. Voltaire said, ‘in support of my proposition about the power of Indian mind, I would mention three great products: the concept of the universe being an organic cosmic web, the concept of ecological balance and the concept of karma yogi. Drawing from the sublime thoughts of Hindu dharma Helen Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. This contributed to the renewed new age boom of 1960’s. Hu Shih the Chinese traveler said: India had conquered and dominated China for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across the border. Arnold Toynbee said in 1952: At the close of this century the world would be dominated by the West but the 21st. century will be India’s. The evidence for this is gathering pace. Starting with nothing in 1947 India has become a world economic power and boasts the largest democracy in the world. India’s scientists managed to land a spacecraft on Mars at the first go a feat not achieved by any other nation. This is just the beginning. Some Indian intellectual abroad are very uncomfortable with this new image of India as they have spent a lifetime looking at India’s failures. Regarding India’s contribution to the world, it gave the world the concept of zero; Aryabhata discovered the place value system. The decimal system was developed in India 100 BC. Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus all Indian achievements. The list is too long. How Bala can deny the complete existence of Hinduism is unfathomable!  One can only guess that he is one of the long lists of Indian intellectual abroad who have an intense dislike for their heritage. Perhaps because of the colonial education they had.

Nitin Mehta.


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