A critical review of Rajiv Malhotra’s
Being Different – An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism
By Kalavai Venkat
“Dharma traditions resemble Silicon Valley innovation and freedom (whereas) Judeo-Christian religions come across like controlled, state-supplied, monopolistic products. Like the Soviets who believed in allowing only one airline, one brand of car, one toothpaste, (…) most Christians believe in allowing only one approach to religion.”
These are among the closing words of Being Different. Whereas most westerners and colonized Hindus implicitly assume that the west is the best and view other cultures from a Christian western viewpoint, Malhotra takes his readers through an intellectually engaging journey where he reverses the gaze on the Christian west and evaluates it using the dhārmic paradigm. Western civilization is an artificial fusion of Judeo-Christian dogmas and the Greco-Roman thought and as a result is synthetic and tension-ridden. Even the tensions that characterize the racial relationships in the west are traceable to the historical colonial conquests that were fueled by Christianity. Westerners imagine their culture to be universal but in reality it is aggressive and expansionist, and usurps traits from other cultures in the same manner as a tiger consumes and destroys its prey. One such example is the surreptitious incorporation of quotes from the Vedas into the Tamiḷ Bible. The west violently rejects what it cannot assimilate from other cultures. Liberal and conservative westerners are products of the same mindset, and their perceptions of Hindu society are identical.
Sounds like a harsh indictment of the west? It is. But it is also the outcome of a systematic analysis of the Christian western culture using the Hindu rational method of pūrva pakṣa. Malhotra argues that one must look deeper beyond the superficial similarities between religions and cultures and shows that there are fault-lines that divide the Christian western and the dhārmic worldviews.
In Judeo-Christian traditions, revelation is initiated by God, from above, with the individual being a passive and submissive recipient. This process is highly history-centric, relies upon authority that is frozen in time, and allows for no direct experience. Dogma insists that one is born into Original Sin and human existence is sinful unless one seeks salvation from a historical prophetic tradition. But this salvation does not transform man into something sublime. God always remains an external agency and all that salvation means is that one escapes eternal condemnation to hell. These history-centric beliefs of Judeo-Christian systems also fail scientific scrutiny.
Dhārmic traditions provide a refreshing contrast. The individual is free from the guilt complexes that characterize a Christian. History has no metaphysical significance in dharma. Hindu narratives, as Śri Aurobindo states, are ever present in nature because one can experience those out of one’s own efforts. The Hindu initiate is an active participant in his quest for adhyātma vidya (knowledge of the self). Unlike Judeo-Christian systems which are fossilized, dhārmic systems dynamically evolve. As a result, the teachings of a guru are as valid as the words in a sacred text. Even more importantly, the guru does not merely transmit historical sayings dogmatically but evokes the initiate’s own experiential wisdom. This is precisely why one finds welcome diversity in dhārmic traditions. Most importantly, mökṣa (self-realization) is something one can actively experience here and now and is not a chimera called heaven a baptized Christian must be content with chasing post-mortem.
Malhotra aptly points out that none of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, or Paul allowed for individual freedom. Instead they rejected individuality as something stained by Original Sin and even salvation in Christianity is a collective exercise. This denial of individuality in the religious realm extends to all walks of western life, and contrary to what westerners imagine they are not individualistic but highly institutionalized creatures. On the other hand, dharma frees one from conditioning, celebrates individualism, and leads one to the blissful state called satchitānanda. Unless the west rejects the foundational premises of Christianity as embodied in the Nicene Creed, it is not possible for westerners to pursue internal quest.
Being Different discusses the absence of simplistic and artificial duality in dharma vis-à-vis Christian dualism brilliantly. Dharma traditions avoid artificial divides and Malhotra presents narratives from fields as diverse as music, neuroscience, and literature to drive home this crucial difference. For example, in dhārmic traditions, good and evil are always inter-connected as evident from the Hindu literary narrative of samudra manthana (churning of the ocean) where there is inter-dependency between poison and nectar. This is quite the opposite of the Christian dichotomy between good and evil. As a result, not only does Christianity seek imminent finality in the End Times but “war against evil” (which of course results in genocides) too comes easily to Christians. The western mind, as a result of this dualistic foundation, is bewildered by chaos and seeks artificial order everywhere. Dharma offers a positive alternative by balancing order and chaos. For example, Indian Classical music is non-linear and non-normative, and as a result possesses not only the musical note but also a melodic ecosystem complex called swara which has no equivalent in Western Classical music. Malhotra’s observation brings to mind Yehudi Menuhin’s rueful remark in his famous book Unfinished Journey that the tempered scale in Western Classical music where each note is adjusted up or down from its true center has corrupted western ears whereas the perfect fifth set by the tanpura in Indian Classical music is a criterion for all other intervals and has rendered the Indian ears sensitive to microtonal variations called ghamaka that westerners cannot comprehend. In an echo of Malhotra’s remark about Indian individualism vis-à-vis the lack of individualism in the west, Menuhin too remarks that whereas the Indian musician’s expressions celebrate his individual quest to unite with the infinite the western musician accepts loss of freedom for the sake of collectivism.
The unrealistic western obsession with order not only destroyed the perfect fifth but as Malhotra points out citing latest studies from neuroscience it also prevents a westerner from seeing oneself as part of the whole. For example, when shown a photograph, a westerner observes only the foreground whereas an easterner observes the background as well in a holistic manner. This ability to see the environment as inter-connected and a willingness to accept natural chaos enables a Hindu to self-organize better than westerners and to be less reliant on institutions and systems. For example, during the Hindu festival of kumbha meḻa 60 million pilgrims come together and self-organize without any agency coordinating the effort. One might also add that during disasters such as the terrorist attack on the Mumbai train system, Indians got back to normalcy within a few hours on their own whereas after the 9/11 attacks America was brought to a standstill and only a systemic and institutional galvanizing could return it to normalcy. Malhotra cautions that the willingness to realistically balance chaos and order does not mean a lack of accomplishment as evident from the fact that Indians built the most advanced urban complex of the ancient period, the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilization. On the other hand, Christian dualism and a lack of ability to balance order and chaos is a limitation of the human mind.
Another important point that Malhotra discusses is that dharma is both context-specific and non-contextual. Baudhāyana, Manu, and other writers always integrated local customs into their texts but every prescription depended on the context. This is precisely why numerous texts were written over time. Only a few aspects such as the framework of dharma remained non-contextual. This allowed dhārmic religions to become embracing, organic, and ever-progressing. Since dharmaśāstras accord greater importance to local traditions than to codified law, there was no imposition of practices from above, and as a result Hindu society experiences natural harmony. This also allowed local traditions to permeate into and influence society as evident from the examples of Pūri Jagannātha and Madurai Mῑnākṣi where tribal and urban Hindu traditions have fused. On the contrary, Christianity assumes that Semitic codified practices from a bygone era are universal and enforces them on all people at all times.
In some cases, a few sentences in Being Different could be edited to be consistent with the analyses and conclusions of the book. For example, Malhotra argues that in inter-faith dialog religious tolerance must be replaced with mutual respect and adds that “respect implies that we consider the other (religion) to be equally legitimate.” On the surface, this appears to be at odds with the Hindu tradition of pūrva pakṣa which Malhotra otherwise commendably employs. In pūrva pakṣa, one can never start with the premise that the other doctrine is respect-worthy or legitimate. One has to evaluate it without bias, as is the case with scientific evaluation, and using nyāya, pramāṇa, anumāna, etc, either accept or reject the doctrine. So, respect and legitimacy is something a religious doctrine earns as an outcome and not as a precondition. But what Malhotra actually means here (which he has elaborated in his discussion group and talks) is according mutual respect to the interlocutor and accepting the legitimate right of the interlocutor to hold on to a religious belief in private life. It does not mean that all religions are worthy of respect or that they are true. If anything, Being Different systematically deconstructs Christianity and makes a case for how the core Christian doctrines actually prevent self-realization and hence must be abandoned. The cited sentence could be reworded for better clarity and to be consistent with the narrative of the section where it appears.
Elsewhere, Malhotra writes that Constantine seized “the dhārmic message of Jesus and turn(ed) it into a political weapon.” The context is the discussion where he contrasts archetypes in dharma and Christianity. Constantine, a subscriber to the Arian ‘heresy,’ indeed used Christianity for political ends though one could disagree that the message of Jesus was dhārmic. Critical examination of the Bible by Strauss, Ehrman, Somers-Elst, etc., has demonstrated that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet and a paraphrenic, and that his words were irrational, vindictive, and violent; as Somers-Elst show, more acutely so by the time he authors the Revelation. No doubt, in subsequent centuries, a few passages resembling Hindu and Buddhist teachings were incorporated into the Bible, but as Thundy demonstrates, these were borrowed from the east and were not integral to the message of Jesus. Importantly, such passages lack a dhārmic context, and never influenced the Christian mindset which was purely conditioned by an expectation of the Apocalypse. However, it must be pointed out that Malhotra uses this sentence to challenge the exclusivist claims of Christianity as evident from his discussions with Mark Tully. Once a liberal Christian accepts that Jesus was dhārmic, he has to concede that Jesus was not unique since there have been numerous dhārmic teachers and paths. In the framework deployed by Being Different, this stance not only helps separate the co called liberal Christians from fundamentalists but also negates the foundational claims of Christian exclusivity.
Being Different implies that “kunḍalinῑ-like manifestations have occurred sporadically among Christians” even though the church suppresses such manifestations and condemns the person to mental asylum. What Malhotra means, as evident from the narrative in that section, is that while an untrained person could accidentally have some rudimentary form of kunḍalinῑ-like experience, such experiences not only bewilder that person but are also opposed and suppressed by society. He does not mean that such manifestations are integral to Christianity. Laya-krama (process of dissolution), where vāsanas (tendencies) are permanently annihilated so that one attains a state which is nirvikāra (changeless) and vaideha-kaivalya (body-less), is a central methodology to kunḍalinῑ yöga. In all of the reported Christian mystical experiences there is absolutely none where such states are described. The so-called Christian mystics are nothing more than hesychasts, and hesychasm itself is a technique that was borrowed from Buddhism and Hinduism and incorporated in Alexandrian churches. This is also evident from the crude manner in which it is incorporated into the Bible where anti-Semitic words are put into the mouth of Jesus to condemn the synagogue-going Jews and their modes of prayer (Matthew 6:5-6) and to contrast it with hesychasm. Hesychasm never matured into anything kunḍalinῑ-like as the church cracked down on hesychasts. So, hesychasm is not a kunḍalinῑ-like variant within Christianity; it is a concept borrowed from the east and synthetically imported into early Alexandrian churches, until it was purged by the mainstream. This is very similar to how yöga is appropriated as Christian yöga but condemned by the Vatican. Given the reality of Christian misappropriation of Hindu practices, an example being how yöga is crudely repackaged as pilates, one feels Malhotra could rephrase this sentence to be consistent with the message of the section where it appears.
None of these minor disagreements diminish the importance of Being Different. Any scholarly writing engages the reader and is bound to spark an occasional disagreement. The book is of utmost importance as it reverses the gaze towards the west and evaluates it using the dhārmic paradigm. It is daring, witty, well-researched, and well-argued. It is certain to inspire others to stand upon Malhotra’s shoulders and extend the gaze.