America’s Vedanta wars


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AS I write, a new front in America’s ‘academy wars’ has opened up, neither entirely unlike India’s under PM Modi nor altogether different from earlier episodes involving South Asian religious studies scholarship (Jeff Kripal’s Kali’s Child, Paul Courtright’s Ganesha, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus) and its extra-academy NRI critics, whose numbers, it would seem, are legion. In America, the academy wars are often India’s too, transposed into a diaspora setting, the Aryan invasion theory being a perpetual bogey, fought out in court, first in California in the early 2000s and as recently as last year and this in board of education hearings in Texas and Virginia.

In other respects, however, America’s academy wars have a more home-grown, diasporic or desi feel. ‘Hinduphobia’, for instance, is a trope redolent in the anti-academy discourse of the academy’s most vocal extra-academy critic, Rajiv Malhotra, entrepreneur turned philanthropist and ‘public intellectual’ with a largish following in a clamorous cohort of the South Asian community. While over-views of the Malhotra-initiated academy wars by Prema Kurien1 and Martha Nussbaum2 are available, Vedanta, the front where today’s action happens to be the most heated, requires an update.

Accordingly, I identify the casus belli, its precipitating factors and the social-capital functions the academy wars subserve. Afterwards, I close with some reflections on a variety of modi vivendi for Hinduism scholarship during difficult times. These, I hope, will be of help to colleagues, chafing under the surveillance of extra-academy vigilantes, who wonder what a proper response might look like.


The author of several books, Malhotra says of them that they target ‘some specific prejudice against Indian civilization,’3 and, indeed, each one names and accuses a ‘cabal’ of academics of intentionally breaking India. True to form, the most recent, Indra’s Net, carries a subtitle with a subtext – Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unity – revealing in no uncertain terms the author’s implacable opposition to the kind of postmodernist scholarship prevalent in the academy that reacts allergically to chauvinistic constructions of ‘Hinduism’ such as his, based on ahistorical essentializations. The biggest bugaboo of all, Malhotra avers, is the concept of neo-Hinduism, which, genealogically, goes back to Paul Hacker (1913-1979), a German Indologist renowned for his studies on Shankara.

A proponent of Hinduism as a diverse but coherent phenomenon imbued with its own ‘integral unity’, Malhotra finds his current casus belli in Hacker’s claim that an epistemological shift occurred in and around the era of Vivekananda (1863-1902), from shrűti to anubhava. In one form or another, according to Indra’s Net, neo-Hinduism has a foothold in the American academy – it has, but not as the dogma Malhotra makes it out to be – where scholars employ it not only to imply a rupture between Hinduism, past and present, but also to ‘Balkanize’ Hindus, the better to subvert India, politically. As an antidote to the ocean of poison churned by the academy, Malhotra prescribes large doses of the ‘Hindu Grand Narrative’ from the Hindutva medicine box of V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar.


While Malhotra’s blacklist of Hinduism’s adversaries is a long one, his main target has become Anantanand Rambachan, a senior scholar in the American academy with numerous publications on Advaita Vedanta to his credit. On the basis of primary texts, Rambachan argues that Shankara ranked shrűti over anubhava as a pramâna (source of authoritative knowledge), making the Veda not only preeminent but singular in its capacity for revealing or disclosing Brahman. Staking out a position almost diametrically opposed to Rambachan’s (with anubhava having, in effect, a pramânatva independent of, if not also superior to, shrűti), Malhotra, who is active online as a social media mogul, has single-handedly made Rambachan into an instant iHindu bęte noire.

Considering, however, that disagreements about pramânatva are nothing new and that ferment was a fixture of intellectual life within and among the Hindu darshanas, what makes today’s outbreak of hostilities over Vedanta different from other episodes in the past? The sheer scale of online participation – much of it intrusive in ways that digital-era anonymity exacerbates – is naturally unprecedented. Newly emerging global publics afford unparalleled opportunities for consolidating and diffusing the views of those who jockey to represent them.


One could look on this benignly and applaud the democratization of knowledge disseminated over the internet, which has perhaps catalysed more discussion of pramânatva nowadays than might have been the case in a good long time. On the downside, social media analysis reveals a polarization of tight-knit virtual communities that sail past each other, electronically, like proverbial ships-in-the-night, hailing vessels of the same flag but steering clear of all the rest. While the action most worth watching in the Vedanta wars has been digital (in online discussion groups lopsidedly aligned with Hindutva ideologies), Indra’s Net was the ur-text that got it all going, in particular its enumeration of eight myths about ‘Hinduism’ that Malhotra traced back to a coterie of scholars, including Anantanand Rambachan, whom he portrayed as the chief agent of its subversion.

That, however, was last year (2014), and in April this year, Ram-bachan answered back, alleging that Malhotra had – inadvertently or not – egregiously misrepresented his scholarship. That debate lurches along (as of now, Malhotra has not responded), but, tellingly, was initiated by Rambachan’s choice of Swarajya, a Bangalore-based right-of-centre digital magazine, for the publication of his counter-critique, ‘Untangling the False Knots in Rajiv Malhotra’s Indra’s Net’ ( What alarms me about the Vedanta wars is not that extra-academy publics push for a paradigm shift in Hinduism studies; institutions sometimes resist change with a tenacity we regret, eventually. Here, however, in the furore over pramânatva, a grain or two of distinction may bear the balance down on one side or the other of the scale of truth and error. Not always, but often, such nuances are lost on digital publics without the where-withal to make informed decisions. Umbrage is taken, ‘anti-Hindu’ blacklists are compiled, and the polarization becomes pedestrianized as hash-tagged harangues zing through cyber-space at high velocity.


Continuity, however, can hide in change, and one constant in the Vedanta wars would be Malhotra’s insistence on the indispensability of a guruparamparâ (intellectual lineage) to a proper understanding of how a ‘knowledge-system’ works. We ‘download’ our gurus into our hearts, he says, and this may be his reason for pointing out, untiringly, that Rambachan’s once-upon-a-time Ph.D. mentor (Ursula King), was (he supposes) an Anglophone conduit for the influence of Paul Hacker. Whether Malhotra really grasps what Hacker or others meant by neo-Hinduism seems doubtful (he insists, for instance, that ‘neo’ implies ‘phoney’ [sic]), but this does not stop him from diagramming the Hacker paramparâ with arrows pointing from the műlaguru to Rambachan.

Thus far in the Vedanta wars, it makes no difference that Rambachan robustly denies all such stigmatizing associations, pointing out that his publications simply do not feature Hacker in the way Malhotra primes his readers to imagine they would. At a time when Hacker, a self-identified Catholic Indologist, has come under increasing scrutiny,4 more might be made of this, were it not that Rambachan flatly abjures the label Malhotra slaps on him of a ‘neo-Hinduism protagonist’ who was ‘groomed’ to become one of the foremost ‘expositors of the thesis that contemporary Hinduism is merely an inauthentic neo-Hinduism’.5


Rambachan is by no means the first academician Malhotra has flagged as a fifth columnist, but before I segue into the last part of my discussion, it should be pointed out that Malhotra, committing the fallacy of the petitio principii, has conscripted Rambachan into a rogues’ gallery of other suspects for whom he has scripted a frothy narrative of fishy goings-on. An inveterate conspiracy theorist who assumes what he must prove, Malhotra also arrogates to himself the privilege of unmasking the ulterior motives of these purported agents of subversion.

Anti-Hindu machinations figure so consistently in Malhotra’s overwrought imagination that Rambachan felt compelled to open his Swarajya article with a statement about his bona fides as a committed, self-identified Hindu: ‘Malhotra’s concern with my work’, he opined, ‘goes beyond the usual matters of scholarship.’ A fourth-generation Indo-Caribbean descended from colonial-era indentured labourers, Rambachan protested that Malhotra’s objectifying, innuendo-laden public scrutiny of him (e.g., the libel that he had been ‘groomed’) had an ‘affinity to the tendency among some Hindus to treat Dalits [as] childlike individuals who are unable to exercise choice and self-determination.’


The stress Malhotra puts on Rambachan’s Caribbean origins is more than matched by his silence on his prominent role as a Vedantic theologian. In his most recent book,6 Rambachan engages a range of contemporary global concerns, from ecology to homophobia, as a committed Advaitin. Erasing this dimension of Rambachan’s scholarship and playing a game of associational logic instead, Malhotra shines the spotlight on Rambachan’s professional career at a church-affiliated college as well as his dialogue-related involvements with the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. Overall, Rambachan is made to look like the ‘Manchurian Candidate’, programmed for nebulous but nefarious schemes intended to ‘Fragment Hinduism’, as the chapter title on him in Indra’s Net insinuates.

While surely ignoble, all of this might have been ignorable were it not for its instrumentalization by cyber-guerrillas and blogger provocateurs. This began a short while back when the Durga Temple in Virginia’s Fairfax Station (a suburb of America’s capital) invited Rambachan to participate in a Hindu-Catholic dialogue, along with Abhaya Asthana of the VHP of America, Jesuit theologian Francis Clooney of Harvard and eminent Catholic ecclesiastical figures ( This, then, is the hyperinflated cause célčbre that precipitated the latest outbreak of hostilities in America’s Vedanta wars. Unsurprisingly, the issue has to do with representation – but with an unexpected twist.


In his preface to Indra’s Net,7 Malhotra lauds the Hindu American cohort that learned in the early 2000s how to ‘talk back’ to the academy – ‘audaciously’ – and contest its ‘hegemonic discourse’. The problem with most such scholarship, in his analysis, has been its monopolization by extra-Hindu, non-practicing, distantiated observers, whose undisclosed conflict-of-interest commitments to another religion, usually Christianity, render them untrustworthy in the judgment of the Hindu American public. Nowhere else in religious studies, Malhotra argues, is the deck so lopsidedly stacked as it is against Hinduism – thus the imperative that Hinduism studies undergo antitrust proceedings (as it were), regulated by the Hindu American diaspora, to insure a more Hindu-friendly ‘insider’ approach.

Transparently, however, the way forward that Malhotra proposes is one of simple substitution – one hegemony for another – leaving us where we were, with conflict-of-interest commitments and the very kind of undisguised monopolistic promotionalism that religious studies scholarship (at its best) prescinds from and finds anathema. Not only that, as Martha Nussbaum observes, understatedly: ‘We should at all times remember how complicated the question of "insider" status is.’8 The ‘we’ that she speaks of – and for – are of course, other academicians; in the digital public square, however, where Malhotra’s posse of vigilantes keeps the academy under watch, the question has no traction at all but rather a life-or-death urgency.

Prima facie, one might think a scholar-believer such as Anantanand Rambachan, truly a rara avis in the American academy – a Vedantic theologian who engages some of the most intractable crises of our era – would qualify. And yet, like the spokes of a fast-turning wheel that appear to move in a direction the opposite of what they should, the American Dharmacakra also moves in seemingly contrary directions, depending on the perspective of the constituency involved. And with that we come full circle to questions of entitlement: who deserves the privilege of making it move? which way it should go? and for whom does the Dharmacakra turn?


Here again, I turn to Kurien, who illuminates the social-capital gains that accrue from accosting the academy and upbraiding religious studies scholars: ‘Although the Hindu nationalist side of American Hinduism is often hidden, expressed in internal communications and events directed at the Hindu Indian community in the United States and around the world, it also has a "public face" that is shown to the wider American public. Mobilizing to defend a beleaguered Hindu identity has become an important way for Indians from a Hindu background to counter their relative invisibility within American society …’9

A perfect illustration of the very thing Kurien describes was afforded a short while ago by a participant in Malhotra’s Yahoo listserv. Irked that an email sent to a trustee of the Durga Mandir in Virginia had gone unanswered, the author (whom I anonymize) wrote again more insistently, demanding an explanation of Anantanand Rambachan’s invitation for the Hindu-Catholic dialogue event mentioned above. Introducing himself as someone with a proven track record of ‘successfully challenging academia’, he then recalled his role in the (failed) campaign of 2004 to have Paul Courtright dismissed from Emory University for writing the Ganesha book that some had found offensive: ‘I prepared a briefing book’, the email said, ‘that was hand delivered’ to Emory’s president and trustees. Such a great wealth of social capital, the author believed, entitled him to ask, rhetorically, in a hectoring tone: ‘Does this qualify me’ – the words appear in red – ‘to ask questions?’10


In this light, stripped of their religious facade, the Vedanta wars are little else than power grabs, bare and naked, revealing under the charade of piety how different factions of NRI’s jockey for the prize of being singled out and held up as America’s most representative Hindus. Proxy wars are nothing new; in an immigrant society, where minoritization goes hand in hand with attenuating ties to the Indian matribhumi, such things constantly occur, exacerbated by vestiges of white Christian privilege and an interreligious illiteracy so rampant that ignorance of Hinduism is rarely a bar to anyone’s voicing vociferous opinions about it. For reasons such as these, the Hindu legions who watch Malhotra at work (on YouTube especially), thumbing his nose at some of academe’s most revered figures, feel a vicarious sense of communal empowerment, a boost to their quest for visibility on the American stage.11

Coinciding with the events described above (and wholly by coincidence), the New York Times featured an article on the cancellation of Phagwah, the festival of Holi that Indo-Caribbean Americans in Queens have celebrated since 1988 – until this year. The story quoted neighbourhood informants who blamed the cancellation on the organizers, who, they said, were ‘driven by vanity’: quarrels over who among them would ‘get to walk at the head of the parade’ brought the whole thing down.12

Taking Phagwah’s demise as an NRI parable, it bears mention again that Rambachan – originally from Trinidad – has a disproportionate share of Indo-Caribbean critics. Many of the most troublesome digital kamikazes come from the region; through the instrumentalization of intracommunal tension, they discover that one of long-distance hypernationalism’s most coveted rewards is that of being green-channelled into the mainstream of India-born NRI’s. For immigrants uncertain of their position in diaspora society, the manufacturing of polarization – Rambachan on the wrong side, others on the right – proves ideal for staking and reinforcing claims about identity.


Thanks to social media, America’s Vedanta wars have an undeniably global impact, and scholars will find it increasingly difficult to remain indifferent to the fray, not least of all because they are themselves some of the worst affected casualties. In troubled times like these – which, as an informant for the Phagwah article put it, ‘are more bloody’ ‘when it’s a nationalist thing’ – several modi vivendi suggest themselves. One approach – the gradualist – holds that academicians ought to keep doing what they always have, noses to the grindstone, pondering hard questions inside the corridors of academe. Another is the tougher-sounding, no-concessions-without-conditions approach advocated by Martha Nussbaum, who insists that extra-academy critics of religious studies scholarship must first of all agree to abide by its standards and ‘drop the campaign of intimidation and hostility.’13


A third has been espoused by Arvind Sharma as follows: ‘The cause of civilized discourse’, he writes, is not advanced when academics ‘decline to respond to informed critiques simply because the critics do not happen to be academics.’14 While I have leaned toward each of these at different times, depending on the circumstances, my quandary has to do with extra-academy critiques that are half-baked or flat-out ignorant. What do we do with them – the ones that become ‘true’ merely by virtue of their digital replication at nanosecond speeds?

The ‘informed’ variety all of us would surely entertain regardless of provenance. But to be so bold as to answer back, the way Anantanand Rambachan has, against the ones that fail to meet academy standards, entails the risk of being cyberbullied and may prove unattractive except to the already-tenured and stout-of-heart. Be that as it may, the rough and tumble world of social media is upon us; it is already our new Kurukshetra. And on this battlefield, choosing our opponents on the basis of their response-worthiness has begun to look more and more like a luxury we can ill-afford. A more robust defence may be needed.



1. Prema Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 2007.

2. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2007.

3. Rajiv Malhotra, Indra’s Net: Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unity. Harper Collins, Noida, 2014, p. xiii, emphasis added.

4. Joydeep Bagchee and Vishwa P. Adluri, ‘The Passion of Paul Hacker: Indology, Orientalism, and Evangelism’, in Joanne Miyang Cho et al. (eds.), Transcultural Encounters between Germany and India: Kindred Spirits in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Routledge, London, 2014. See also Andrew Nicholson, ‘Vivekananda’s Non-Dual Ethics in the History of Vedânta’, in Rita D. Sherma and James McHugh (eds.), Swami Vivekânanda: New Reflections on His Life, Legacy, and Influence. Springer, Dordrecht (forthcoming).

5. Malhotra, Indra’s Net, p. 95.

6. Anantanand Rambachan, A Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-Two Is Not One. SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 2015.

7. Malhotra, Indra’s Net, p. xiv.

8. Nussbaum, The Clash Within, p. 253.

9. Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table, p. 184, emphasis added.

10. Dated 01/05/15, distributed 03/05/15 on RajivMalhotraDiscussion, by yahoogroups. com, with ‘Hindu-Catholic Dialogue’ as the subject. The same email recounts the author’s involvements during 2010 in America against Wendy Doniger and in India in support of Dina Nath Batra.

11. For a classic case, see Richard Fox Young and Sunder John Boopalan, ‘Studied Silences: Diasporic Nationalism, "Kshatriya Intellectuals" and the Hindu American Critique of Dalit Christianity’s Indianness’, in Chad M. Bauman and Richard Fox Young (eds.), Constructing Indian Christianities: Culture, Conversion and Caste. Routledge, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 215-238.

12. Kirk Semple, ‘A Traditional Hindu Spring Parade in Queens is Cancelled as Organizers Feud’ (02/04/15)

13. Nussbaum, The Clash Within, p. 260.

14. Arvind Sharma, ‘Hindus and Scholars’, Religion in the News 7(1), 2004, pp. 16-17.