Apoorvanand: Gagging the argumentative Indian // Professor explains ‘distorted Western’ view of Hindu gods, draws Rajasthan govt ire, FIR

NB: The latest example of the sheer idiocy of the ruling dispensation may be seen in a police case being filed against a philosophy professor. What was he trying to do? He was attempting a philosophical defence of the Hindu tradition against some scholars whom he believed to be misreading it. In order to refute their arguments, he quoted what they had written. He upheld the time-honoured practice of presenting the opponents' viewpoint (poorv-paksh) before refuting it. This itself has been taken as a sign of blasphemy by the Hindutva brigade. When the report first appeared I could not believe that this senior and respected academic could be dragged into a police case for presenting his arguments in a seminar, that too, arguments in defence of the Indic tradition. 

Our current rulers and their cadre do not possess the minimal literacy required to conduct an argument. The minister concerned has condemned Professor Vohra as guilty without any regard to the facts. This reminds me of the courts in Pakistan who face a problem when trying blasphemy accused. The trials rarely take place because reporting the accusations against the accused would make even the prosecution lawyers guilty of blasphemy. 

Truly, we are faced with an assault on the mind itself. These people are not opposed to this or that idea, but are alarmed that we have any ideas at all. They actually take pride in their mindlessness. As Professor Apoorvanand asks, should academics now seek prior approval from the PMO before attending seminars or entering their classrooms? If this is what the RSS/BJP and its supporters think will make India 'great', all we can expect is the complete degradation of scholarship, thought and education. 

Professor Ashok Vohra is an old friend and a reputed scholar. I would like to express my utmost sympathies and solidarity with him, as well as Professor Sudha Chaudhury of the MLSU Philosophy department. The Parivar that now rules India should understand (if they retain the capacity to follow an argument) that they are not defending Indian culture but destroying it. DS

Effigies of professors of philosophy were burnt in Rajasthan, ironically, for delivering a lecture in defence of Hinduism. If scholars of repute have to seek the Prime Minister’s protection, scholarship will not survive.

THE  enterprise of intellection is in peril in India. Lest it be read as an alarmist, rhetorical rant from a confirmed anti-RSS pseudo secular, it would be useful to know what is happening in places away from the eyes of the metro media. The most recent incident is being reported from Mohanlal Sukhadia University of Udaipur. Effigies of professors of philosophy were burnt there. The Minister who looks after education in Rajasthan has issued orders to lodge an FIR against the professors. What has enraged the defenders of Hindutva is ironically a lecture in defence of Hinduism by Professsor Ashok Vora, a well-known scholar of philosophy, who has recently retired from Delhi University after having taught for more than four decades.

What was poor Professor Vora trying to do?  He explains, in a letter to the Prime Minister after he learnt of the real threat of a criminal case filed against him: 

“I had, quoting influential scholars like Wendy Doniger, Paul Courtright et al, shown how these scholars are misinterpreting and making false, maligning, derogatory and misleading propaganda in the name of scientific and objective study of Hindu gods and goddesses. I had argued in my lecture that these scholars without understanding the context — culture, values and form of life, misunderstood completely the narratives in the Hindu texts. I had shown that the all-inclusive character of Hinduism and its total neglect of the zeal for conversion is an enigma for the Westerners. They have to be educated about this distinctive characteristic. Not challenging these scholars is like being a pigeon who closes his eyes and thinks that the cat has disappeared and the danger is over. 

To evaluate the theories supported by these scholars one has to use their vocabulary, their descriptions and their interpretations. I had just done that and established my thesis that the claim of these scholars to being objective, psychoanalytic and scientific is a pseudo claim. Their claim is the outcome of their prejudices and misunderstanding.”

Now, this is something many of us may find problematic. But our reservation is not relevant here. Professor Vora was delivering a lecture on the need and possibility of dialogue on religion. He was speaking in the specific context of Hinduism. He was trying to understand why some scholars or observers from other traditions fail to initiate such a dialogue which he says is imminently necessary. According to him, such scholars, and he names some of them, instead of impassively observing and analysing rituals and protocols attached with what is known as Hinduism use the lenses of their own traditions. It prevents them from comprehending the significance of the symbolism of Hindu traditions.

Professor Vora uses the categories of "Antarik"(Insider) and "Bahya"(Outsider) for two different kinds of observers or scholars. He says that Hinduism is unique precisely because it does not treat anybody as "Bahya". It is all-inclusive. Even the Charvakas and 
Meemansaks are not non-Hindu. And yet, there is an outside of or to Hinduism. For example, it cannot claim Islamic or Christian traditions as its own.

It is a different matter, as Vora argues in his lecture, that Hinduism is not interested in drawing people from other traditions to its fold or is indifferent to them. But for scholarship to start you do need to have an other or outsider. Who this “other” would be? Is this other denied the right to discuss something he or she does not belong to? There are “others” and there are “others”. Who are those who help us further our understanding of our own traditions, including religious ones?

To build his argument, Vora quotes Tevenie, a French traveller Bapiste Tavenrnier, who visited India in the 17th century. He records his observation of the rituals attached with the puja being offered at the Bindu Madhav temple of Varanasi. It is a dispassionate description, without any adjective attached to the rituals or idols of gods and goddesses. Vora calls it an academically valid observation by an outsider. He is observing and recording his experience dispassionately, without imposing on it his own understanding of what is truly religious or spiritual. What is most important is that he is non-judgmental.   

Vora contrasts it with other “outsiders”. They also observe and record the Hindu religious protocol and rituals but seldom do it without using adjectives like “demonic”, “grotesque” or a milder qualifier “funny”. Vora says graver than this is the problem which arises when they use analytical categories derived from their own traditions. To strengthen his contention, he uses quotes from these scholars. It is obvious even to a person of modest intelligence that Vora is presenting their views only to demolish them. 

However, this is what went against him and his host Sudha Chaudhary. It is being alleged that Vora used references which are derogatory to Hindu gods and goddesses and Chaudhary committed the crime of giving a platform to him for his blasphemous act. The defenders of Hinduism expressed their outrage by burning the effigies of Vora and Chaudhary, a privilege mostly politicians enjoy. Academics would surely not like to join this club. Local newspapers chose to play along with the vandalisers. The Minister of Human Resource Development, Rajasthan, promptly asked the police to file an FIR against the “offender” professors. One of the deans of the university said that such lectures could not be allowed on the campus. The university succumbed and ordered an inquiry into the whole affair. It is said that the committee formed for this purpose comprises teachers like him and one should not expect much from it.

Professor Vora is protesting. He says that what he did in his lecture was the truly Indian way of polemics. In this method, you have to faithfully present the viewpoint of the Poorva paksh. Only after that are you allowed to dispute or refute it. This is the minimum one expects from academics.

The defenders of Hindutva would have none of it. They want to blunt our hearing. One must say that they have succeeded in their mission to a dangerous extent. Otherwise, how is it that a sharp ear like Karan Thapar fails to appreciate the rhetorical device used by Aamir Khan to drive home the insecurity that is gradually engulfing not only the Muslim and Christian minorities but also other liberal and independent- minded people? Thapar went on to sagaciously advise Khan to stay on and fight the irrational forces. Was the fear of Kiran Rao, Aamir Khan's partner, misplaced? Should we ignore her as it only concerns Muslims? 

As we can see from the attack on Sudha Chaudhary and Ashok Vora in Udaipur, the innocent act of scholarship is now under threat. If scholars like Vora are forced to seek protection from the high office of the Prime Minister, are we to understand that scholarship is no longer a “normal” business in India? Would scholars be unpatriotic if they choose foreign universities for their pursuit of knowledge? For the land of knowledge is where scholars live. Would they be advised by our ministers that they should face criminal charges bravely staying in India or would they be declared anti-nationals? Should all researchers and teachers secure anticipatory bail before publishing their work or attending seminars or even before entering classrooms? 

A former Delhi University professor’s attempt to explain alleged “distorted views” of Western scholars about Hindu gods and rituals has landed him in trouble with the Rajasthan government ordering an FIR against him for “insulting” the gods. Professor Ashok Vohra, former head of the department of philosophy at Delhi University, has now written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking his intervention and urging him to “keep the registration of an FIR against me in abeyance until the written lecture is read by some competent scholar to determine the import of its content”.

Vohra attended a seminar on ‘Dharmik Samvad: Adhunik Anivaryata’ (Religious Dialogue: The Need in Contemporary Times), organised by the philosophy department of the Mohan Lal Sukhadia University (MLSU) in collaboration with the Indian Council of Philosophical Research on December 3. At the seminar, Vohra said western scholars were constricted by their environment and so they analysed Hindu gods and goddesses through uni-dimensional reading of Hindu religious symbols and idols. He cited, among others, the works of clergyman Norman Macleod, Indologists M A Sherring and David Kinsley among others.

He also referred to Paul B Courtright’s 1989 book ‘Gane’sa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings’ and his analysis of Lord Ganesha’s elephant head “from a psychoanalytical perspective”. It was during this explanation that Vohra courted controversy though he underlined “I have deliberately used the translation used by Courtright. One can see how tenuous the proof is”.

Following a representation by the ABVP and the RSS, Rajasthan higher education minister Kalicharan Saraf ordered the MLSU administration to file an FIR against Vohra. “I have read his script… this sort of vulgar, obscene language for Hindu gods and goddesses will not be tolerated, not in Rajasthan,” Saraf told The Indian Express. Told that Vohra said he only wanted to explain the skewed understanding of Hinduism by western scholars, Saraf said: “Will a thief ever admit that he is a thief? I have asked the VC (vice chancellor) to file an FIR and have asked the principal secretary to find out who organised this seminar and invited such nuisance-creating people.”

When his comments were sought, Vohra said he had not received any communication from either the Rajasthan government or the university. “People should either remain quiet or be ready to be discarded by both sides. If you don’t say something critical about Hinduism, don’t expect grants from foreign institutes. And if people in India don’t understand your arguments, you should be ready to go to jail,” Vohra told The Indian Express.

Professor Sudha Chaudhary, head of department of the philosophy department at MLSU, called the episode “an attempt to hegemonise the university’s intellectual autonomy”. “Where will a free flowing exchange of ideas take place if not within the academic ecosystem of a university?” she said.

see also
Gurudwara vandalised in Los Angeles with 'anti-Islamic State' graffiti
Inside the heresy files

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