My Experience with Rajiv Malhotra

My Experience with Rajiv Malhotra October 20, 2014

Ever since I started my blog I have been getting recommendations to read the work of Rajiv Malhotra. His book is called “Being Different” and it has really spoken to the current generation of Hindus who are ready to take pride in themselves and their traditions. (Actually he has several books but that’s the one people keep mentioning to me!)

After having his work recommended at least once a week for the last several years, I was really thrilled when my local temple announced that he was coming there to speak! What a fantastic opportunity!

I signed up right away.

Then a couple of weeks ago I suddenly found myself having a debate with some of the people who follow him very closely and they linked him in. He didn’t come into the discussion much, just dropped two comments that made me start to worry about what this workshop experience would be like.

Here are the comments…

Rajiv Malhotra@RajivMessage 13h13 hours ago: @AmbaaBlog Characteristic of Wendy’s Children & others distorting Hinduism is to capture the adhikara to define it by their “opinion”

Govind Nishar@govindnishar 13h13 hours ago: @RajivMessage @AmbaaBlog do they capture or is it given? Is the Hindus obsession w/ all things phoren & white not responsible 4 his slavery?

13h13 hours ago: Both. They sense our vulnerability & take advantage by assertiveness, just like . Hinduism is seen as “available”

Even though Mr. Malhotra claims to do vast amounts of research in reading other people’s statements, I doubt that he felt I was worth looking at further. I don’t see how he could possibly say that I’m taking advantage of Indians or seeing Hinduism as “available” if he’d read anything I’ve written (and, for example, the post I was being criticized for). Maybe some do this, but to me it seemed like a very “all white people are the same and can’t be trusted” attitude.

I’m not a “Wendy’s child” (referring to Wendy Doniger). I’ve never read any of her work and I’ve never studied Hinduism in an academic setting. I have studied it only from gurus and I’ve lived it. Part of why I’ve never studied it academically is that I haven’t trusted that the classes were accurate. Growing up with Eastern Philosophy, I have definitely seen how it can be completely misunderstood by people who have no framework other than a western one.

When I pressed for further discussion I heard nothing more from Mr. Malhotra.

So the day of the workshop approached and I felt sick with anxiety wondering if people would turn me away, make me unwelcome for not being Indian. I had no idea what to expect. I was hurt that he seemed to just decide that I was an enemy without talking to me about it.

(And if he ever does decide I’m worth his time, I’d be curious to know his thoughts on this post: How To Explain Hinduism)

I’m happy to report as an overview that his statement at the workshop about “white” Hindus was not bad at all and he definitely caused me to rethink some things.

So let me give you some details. Oh, but first I thought it was funny that one of the first things he said was that he just got back from Sringeri where he visited the Shankaracharya. That’s my guru and exactly where I’m going this January! I’ll be curious to hear what the guru thought of Mr. Malhotra’s ideas.

Pride In Indian Thought

To me it seems so obvious. Indian thought has been great for thousands of years. Indian philosophy and scientific inquiry has benefited the world tremendously. Many of the best things the west have come from India and her scholars.

It’s heartbreaking to realize that many Indians don’t know this!

Mr. Malhotra talked about Indian ideas and products that were taken by westerners and repackaged and sold back to India, who accepts them as western progress. I completely agree with him that this is a disgrace.

Indians deserve to know that they are great and their culture and history has always been great.

For that people should definitely read Mr. Mahlotra’s work because he studies and points out very specific examples of things that India gave the rest of the world.

I mean, I can see a slick packaged product and roll my eyes, knowing that Americans often rebrand and pass things off as their own and it’s terrible but I can see through its bullshit. From this talk it sounded like Indians are not as practiced at seeing that.

Intellectual Kshatriya

One of his messages is that the modern battlefield is not a physical one but an intellectual one. He is training people to defend Hindu beliefs and thought from misunderstanding and repackaging (“digestion”).

Realizing this helped me understand that debating with his followers is not a bad thing. It’s part of what they do. And a lot can be learned on both sides so long as we don’t take things too personally (a weakness of mine).

A concern though is that the language reminded me a lot of the Christian “quiverful” movement where they had lots of children and taught them debate specifically so they would become an “army” of God and destroy all us non-Christians and atheists, etc. In a lot of cases what has happened is the children learned debate so well that they realized their own side didn’t have a shred of logic in it. I’m not saying that would happen to Hindu youth, but there is a danger in trying to tightly control how they think and what they think. People should definitely be taught to debate and stay strong in their beliefs but also they need the freedom to formulate those beliefs with support that isn’t completely stifling or you’ll get a backlash.

Mr. Malhotra’s method is to disrupt the status quo and I respect that. He measures his results in how the dialog around Hinduism changes. He warns against being too nice, being too accommodating. I’m not sure on this one. It seems like there’s a big risk of shutting down learning and growth when you go into debate with an attacking attitude, but he makes a good point that if you don’t stick up for what’s important it can be erased by those who have the power and the control.

He asks people to pay attention to who has the control and not to give up too much power because people are nice or say nice things.

Digestion

He uses this word to mean how Indian philosophy is stripped of its Indian roots and repackaged as ideas that came from the west. Yoga has been very digested. One can get quite involved in Yoga without ever having to go near Hinduism or knowledge of India. Which is pretty shocking.

This articulates the problem that I had with SES growing up. And I think that fact should give a lot of hope to Mr. Malhotra and his followers. It is possible for people to realize when they’ve been brainwashed in some way. I grew up with Hindu philosophy and it was not often enough that it was acknowledged that it was Hindu. It might be called Eastern, but I was told it was a blend of Hindu and Buddhist without getting any details of how or what that meant. As an adult I looked at it more closely and found that it was very Hindu and it had been repackaged for westerners. That realization is what made me a Hindu today.

White Hindus

After six hours of speaking, Mr. Malhotra had barely scratched the surface of all he wanted to talk about. Towards the end things got a little rushed, unfortunately. But there was a brief moment spent on the concept of non-Indian western Hindus.

Basically what he said is that Hinduism missed out on an opportunity to grow by millions because Hindu leaders were not prepared to welcome the westerners into the fold. Westerners needed a way to feel like they belonged and that was lacking, so many of them drifted away again or became New Age, etc. Many gurus told people interested in converting to Hinduism that it wasn’t necessary. And while yes technically that’s true, I hope that you have learned from my blog that people who want to embrace Hinduism do need a bit of guidance. It seems friendly to say “You’re fine, you already have all you need.” But people disillusioned with the west who turned to Hinduism needed a lot more support.

He told a story of a Jewish boy who very much wanted to become a Hindu. The swami that he spoke to kept brushing him off so he made a very specific request: to be given a mantra. The Swami said his mantra could be “Om, Jesus.” Not exactly appropriate for a Hindu or for a Jew!

What I Learned

He made some great points about Hindus who are too accommodating and yielding with others. I recognized myself in some of the examples he gave (he calls it being a “moron” and blames the colonized mindset for it).

People have suggested to me that I am sometimes perhaps too open minded and this talk helped me to see what they meant. This is something that I’m going to think about some more and figure out how to take more of a stand on the things that I think are truly critical.

One Concern

I didn’t find him to be as political as I had feared. (It was a little upsetting how he always called anyone from the left wing “Marxist” and at one point suggested using the words dharma and adharma to refer to right and left wing, which was incredibly insulting to the left). But aside from those moments I could really see where he was coming from. UPDATE: several people have explained what was really meant by his comment not to use “right wing” and “left wing” and it makes a lot more sense to me now!

However, he does seem very quick to judge who is “really” Hindu and who isn’t. People who disagree with him in any way are quickly labeled “Marxists” and dismissed. He spoke several times about organizations or people that he collaborated with who later turned on him, distanced themselves from him. He blamed it on their being bought off or brainwashed by those darned leftists. (This is just how it came across to me, so I could be wrong. Just an observation of what it seemed like).

And he may be right. Perhaps it was ego or money or approval from westerners that caused these people to no longer affiliate with Mr. Malhotra. But I know he’ll understand that I’m not going to take his word for it. I think I may reach out to some of the people he named to hear their side of the story. I’m very curious to hear some other perspectives.

He acts as though they turned on him because other people got to them and brainwashed them against him. But it’s possible that these people re-examined and changed their minds. They are allowed to do that! Hindu thought really can’t be locked down to one accepted narrative. Personally I think the diversity of thought is one of Hinduism’s greatest strengths but not everyone sees it that way (naturally!). I am wary of what sounds like “this person disagreed with me therefore he is confused and doesn’t understand Hinduism.”

The whole point of Mr. Malhotra’s work is that we must question authority, learn for ourselves, ask questions, and be confident that Hinduism can hold up to criticism. So before I “drink the Koolaid” (as they say) I want to do my own due diligence and research on him.

The Future

Mr. Malhotra mentioned that he’s working on a book about the Hindu philosophy that influenced the western religions. I would love to read that! Will definitely be watching for it.

There is still the question of who speaks for Hinduism. I like Mr. Malhotra’s emphasis on scholarship, though. When trying to examine what is authentic Hinduism and what is Hinduism that has been crammed through western thought, learning where the thoughts you’re hearing came from would go a long way to helping.

I’ve taken a ton of notes and have some further thoughts that will be later blog posts I’m sure!

There’s a lot to learn at his website. Check out his articles, debates, projects, etc. http://rajivmalhotra.com/

Disclaimer: I am not a scholar and I am not a leader. I’m an ordinary Hindu in America trying to figure life out in the framework of the religion that I love and this is a journal of my progress. It is not meant to tell you what’s right and wrong, just to document my thoughts about issues as they come up in my life.

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