Thursday, May 6, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Are we 'post-Hindu' yet?

Are we 'post-Hindu' yet?

May 2010
By: Meera Nanda

Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, socio-spiritual and
scientific revolution
Kancha Ilaiah Sage

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

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).


Get all ZESTCaste mails sent out in a span of 24 hours in a single mail. Subscribe to the daily digest version by sending a blank mail to, OR, if you have a Yahoo! Id, change your settings at

On this list you can share caste news, discuss caste issues and network with like-minded anti-caste people from across India and the world. Just write to

If you got this mail as a forward, subscribe to ZESTCaste by sending a blank mail to OR, if you have a Yahoo! ID, by visiting

Also have a look at our sister list, ZESTMedia:! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> Your email settings:
Individual Email | Traditional

<*> To change settings online go to:
(Yahoo! ID required)

<*> To change settings via email:

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive