6. Are Hindu reformists Hindus?

The historical and legal definition of “Hindus” as “Indian Pagans” is clear-cut, easy to use, and it has the law and historical primogeniture on its side.  This inclusive definition of Hinduism is eagerly used by Hindu nationalist organizations (usually in its Savarkarite “Hindutva” adaptation), but there is still a serious problem with it: a number of the people included object to the label “Hindu”. Indeed, this label is often in conflict with the self-descriptions of certain communities, particularly among the Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and some of, the Scheduled Tribes.

An obvious choice for a definition could have been: “Is Hindu, he who calls himself a Hindu”.  But history decided otherwise: no Hindu called himself a Hindu when the term was first applied by the Muslim invaders.  The converse definition: “is non-Hindu, he who calls himself a non-Hindu”, was also not favoured by history: the British census policies overruled the self-description of many Sikhs and tribals as “Hindus” and forced them into newly created non-Hindu categories of “Sikh” and “animist” against their explicit wishes.

Today, eventhough the term Hindu has gained wide acceptance as a self-description, it is still an ill-fitting garment.  Within the Sikh and Jain communities, there is discussion about the question: “Are we Hindus?” Self-definition will be only one factor considered in the following discussion of the Hindu or non-Hindu identity of some borderline cases, along with the several sets of criteria which we have come across in the preceding chapters.

6.1. The Ramakrishna Mission’s conversion

The label “Hindu” is very unpopular.  Both in its traditional and in its activist incarnation, Hinduism has been getting a bad press: the former is attacked as the ultimate in social injustice (caste, self-immolation of widows etc.), the latter as fanatical and dangerous to the minorities.  Moreover, being a Hindu brings material disadvantages: Hindu organizations active in the field of education may find their institutions taken over by State Governments, a take-over against which minority institutions are protected by Article 30 of the Constitution, esp.  Art. 30.(1): “All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.”

One such Hindu organization threatened in its educational project is the Ramakrishna Mission, founded by Swami Vivekananda.  To protect itself against such takeovers by the West Bengal Government, the Ramakrishna Mission itself approached the Calcutta High Court in 1980 to have “Ramakrishnaism” declared a non-Hindu religion which is, moreover, a minority religion.1 The opposite position, that the Ramakrishna Mission has always been and still is a representative and servant of Hinduism was upheld not only by the materially interested West Bengal Government, but also by lay members of the Ramakrishna Mission itself (who had joined the Mission for no other reason than that they wanted to work for Hinduism), and especially by the teachers at Vivekananda Centenary College, Rahara, District of 24 Parganas.  The latter had started a trade-unionist agitation, supported by the Communist Party (Marxist), against the college management, and their demands would have to be met unless the college was a minority institution, which has far greater freedom in selection and recruitment (including lay-off) of personnel. 

RK Mission sympathizers like Abhas Chatterjee and Ram Swarup had no problem in proving that Swami Vivekananda, representative of Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions (Chicago 1893), had established the Mission as an instrument for rejuvenating and propagating Hinduism.2 Ram Swarup replies to those who take Vivekananda’s optimistic belief in a “universal religion” for a goodbye to Hinduism: “Vivekananda believed in a universal religion, but to him it was not an artificial product made up of quotations culled from various scriptures, the current idea of universal religion.  To him, it already existed in the form of Vedânta, which alone I can be the universal religion in the world, because it teaches principles and not persons’.”3 Whatever else Vivekananda may have been, he was certainly a Hindu.

6.2. Ramakrishna’s experiments

The central argument of the RK Mission for its non-Hindu character was that, unlike Hinduism, it upheld the “equal truth of all religions” and the “equal respect for all religions”.  The latter slogan was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi as sarva-dharma-samabhâva, a formula officially approved and upheld in the BJP’s constitution.4 In 1983, RK Mission spokesman Swami Lokeshwarananda said: “Is Ramakrishna only a Hindu?  Why did he then worship in the Christian and Islamic fashions?  He is, in fact, an avatar of all religions, a synthesis of all faiths.”5

The basis of the Swami’s claim is a story that Swami Vivekananda’s guru Paramahansa Ramakrishna (1836-86) once, in 1866, dressed up as a Muslim and then continued his spiritual exercises until he had a vision; and likewise as a Christian in 1874.  If at all true, these little experiments shouldn’t be given too much weight, considering Ramakrishna’s general habit of dressing up a little for devotional purposes, e.g. as a woman, to experience Krishna the lover through the eyes of His beloved Radha (not uncommon among Krishna devotees in Vrindavan); or hanging in trees to impersonate Hanuman, Rama’s monkey helper.

But is the story true?  Ram Swarup finds that it is absent in the earliest recordings of Ramakrishna’s own talks.  It first appears in a biography written 25 years after Ramakrishna’s death by Swami Saradananda (Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master), who had known the Master only in the last two years of his life.  Even then, mention (on just one page in a 1050-page volume) is only made of a vision of a luminous figure.  The next biographer, Swami Nikhilananda, ventures to guess that the figure was “perhaps Mohammed”.6 In subsequent versions, this guess became a dead certainty, and that “vision of Mohammed” became the basis of the doctrine that he spent some time as a Muslim, and likewise as a Christian, and that he “proved the truth” of those religions by attaining the highest yogic state on those occasions.7

It is hard not to sympathize with Ram Swarup’s skepticism.  In today’s cult scene there are enough wild claims abroad, and it is only right to hold their propagators guilty (of gullibility if not of deception) until proven innocent.  In particular, a group claiming “experimental verification” of a religious truth claim as the unique achievement of its founder should not be let off without producing that verification here and now; shady claims about an insufficiently attested event more than a century ago will not do.  It is entirely typical of the psychology behind this myth-making that a researcher can testify: “Neither Swami Vivekananda, nor any other monk known to the author, ever carried out his own experiments.  They all accepted the truth of all religions on the basis of their master’s work.”8 This is the familiar pattern of the followers of a master who are too mediocre to try for themselves that which they consider as the basis of the master’s greatness, but who do not hesitate to make claims of superiority for their sect on that same (untested, hearsay) basis.

6.3. Was Ramakrishna a Muslim?

For some more polemical comment, let us look into one typical pamphlet by a Hindu upholding the Hindu character of the Ramakrishna Mission: The Lullaby of ‘Sarva-Dharma-Samabhâva’ (“equal respect for all religions”) by Siva Prasad Ray.9 The doctrine of “equal respect for all religions” (in fact, even a more radical version, “equal truth of all religions”, is one of the items claimed by the RK Mission as setting it apart from Hinduism.

This doctrine is propagated by many English-speaking gurus, and one of its practical effects is that Hindu girls in westernized circles (including those in overseas Hindu communities) who fall in love with Muslims, feel justified in disobeying their unpleasantly surprised parents, and often taunt them: “What is the matter if I marry a Muslim and your grandchildren become Muslims?  Don’t these Babas to whom you give your devotion and money always say that all religions teach the same thing, that Islam is as good as Hinduism, that Allah and Shiva are one and the same?”10

When such marriages last (many end in early divorce), a Hindu or Western environment often leads to the ineffectiveness of the formal conversion of the Hindu partner to Islam, so that the children are not raised as Muslims.  Yet, Islamic law imposes on the Muslim partner the duty to see to this, and in a Muslim environment there is no escape from this islamizing pressure.  Thus, after the Meenakshipuram mass conversion to Islam in 1981, non-converted villagers reported: “Of course, there have been marriages between Hindu harijans and the converts. (…) Whether it is the bride or the groom, the Hindu is expected to convert to Islam.”11

Even when the conversion is an ineffective formality, such marriages or elopements which trumpet the message that Hindu identity is unimportant and dispensible, do have an unnerving effect on vulnerable Hindu communities in non-Hindu environments.  They also remain an irritant to Hindus in India, as here to Siva Prasad Ray.  More generally, the doctrine that all religions are the same leaves Hindus intellectually defenceless before the challenge of communities with more determination to uphold and propagate their religions.

To counter the facile conclusion that Ramakrishna had “practised Christianity and Islam and proven their truth”, Siva Prasad Ray points out that Ramakrishna was neither baptized nor circumcised, that he is not known to have affirmed the Christian or Islamic creed, etc.  Likewise, he failed to observe Ramzan or Lent, he never took Christian or Islamic marriage vows with his wife, he never frequented churches or mosques.  This objection is entirely valid: thinking about Christ or reading some Islamic book is not enough to be a Christian or a Muslim.

Equally to the point, he argues: “‘Avatar’ or incarnation may be acceptable to Hinduism but such is not the case with Islam or Christianity.”12 In Christianity, one might say that the notion of divine incarnation does exist, but it applies exclusively to Jesus Christ; applying it to Ramakrishna is plain heresy.  Sitting down for mental concentration to obtain a “vision” of Christ or Mohammed is definitely not a part of the required practices of Christianity or Islam.  Neither religion has a notion of “salvation” as something to be achieved by practising certain states of consciousness.  In other words: before you claim to have an agreement with other people, check with them whether they really agree.

The same objection is valid against claims that Swami Vivekananda was “also” a Muslim, as Kundrakudi Adigalar, the 45th head of the Kundrakudi Tiruvannamalai Adhinam in Tamil Nadu, has said: “He had faith and confidence in Hinduism.  But he was not a follower of Hinduism alone.  He practised all religions.  He read all books.  His head bowed before all prophets.”13 But “practising all religions” is quite incompatible with being a faithful Christian or Muslim: as the Church Fathers taught, syncretism is typical of Pagan culture (today, it is called “New Age”).  Leaving aside polytheistic Hinduism, the mere attempt to practise both Islam and Christianity, if such a thing were possible, would have stamped Ramakrishna as definitely not a Christian nor a Muslim.

Moreover, it is simply untrue that Swami Vivekananda ever “practised” Christianity or Islam: he was not baptized or circumcised, did not attend Church services or Friday prayers, never went to Mecca, never observed Ramzan or Lent.  But he did practise vegetarianism (at least in principle)14 and celibacy, which are both frowned upon in Islam.  Worst of all, he did worship Hindu Gods, which by definition puts him outside the Islamic fold, Islam being based on the rejection of all Gods except Allah.

Ramakrishna was quite satisfied worshipping Goddess Kali, but: “There is no respectful place for deities in female form in Islam.  Rama Krishna engaged in the worship of Kali was nothing but an idolater in the eyes of the Muslims. (…) Islam says that all idolaters will finally end up in Islam’s hell.  Now, I want to ask these egg-heads of sarva-dharma-samabhâva if they know where exactly is the place for Rama Krishna in Islam?  The fact is that Rama Krishna never truly worshipped in the Islamic fashion, neither did he receive Islamic salvation.”15

Ray challenges the RK Mission monks to try out their assertions on a Muslim or Christian audience: “All this is, thus, nothing but creations of confused and boisterous Hindu monks.  No Christian padre or Muslim maulvi accepts Rama Krishna’s salvation in their own religions.  They make snide remarks.  They laugh at the ignorance of the Hindu monks.”16 Ray makes the snide insinuation explicit: “Only those Hindus who do not understand the implications of other religions engage themselves in the propagation of sarva-dharma-samabhâva; like stupid and mentally retarded creatures, such Hindus revel in the pleasures of auto-erotism in their wicked pursuit of the fad.”17 This rude comparison means that they pretend to be interacting with others, but it is a mere fantasy, all inside their own heads, with the assumed partners not even knowing about it.18

Finally, Ray wonders what happened to the monks, those of the RK Mission and others, who talked about “equal truth of all religions” and chanted “Râm Rahîm ek hai” (“Rama and Rahim/Allah are one”) and “Ishwar Allâh tere nâm” (“both Ishwara and Allah are Your names”) in East Bengal before 1947.  As far as he knows, they all fled across the new border when they suddenly found themselves inside Pakistan, but then: “Many a guru from East Bengal [who] has been saved by the skin of his teeth, once in West Bengal, resumed his talk of sarva-dharma-samabâva. (…) But the point still remains that if they really had faith in the message of sarva-dharma-samabhâva, they would not have left East Bengal.”19 As so often in Indo-Pakistani and Hindu-Muslim comparisons, the argument is reminiscent of the inequality between the contenders in the Cold War: you could demonstrate for disarmament in the West, but to demonstrate for this in the East Bloc (except if it were for unilateral disarmament by the Western “war-mongers”) would have put you in trouble.

Siva Prasad Ray also mocks the RK Mission’s grandiose claim of having evaluated not just a few popular religions, but all religions: “Did Rama Krishna ever worship in accordance with Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Saurya or Ganapatya principles?  No, he did not. (…) Neither did he worship in accordance with the Jewish faith of Palestine, the Tao religion of China, the religion of Confucius, or the Shinto religion of Japan.”20 Empirically verifying the truth of each and every religion is a valid project in principle, but a very time-consuming one as well.

According to Ray, the slogan of “equal truth of all religions” is “nothing but a watered-down sentiment that means nothing.  It is useful only in widening the route to our self-destruction.  It does not take a genius to realise that not all paths are good paths in this life of ours; this is true in all branches of human activity.”21 Unlike the RK Mission monks, Ray has really found some common ground with other religions and with rationalism too: they all agree on the logical principle that contradictory truth claims cannot possibly all be right; at most one of them can be right.

To sum up, Ray alleges that the RK Mission stoops to a shameful level of self-deception and ridicule, that it distorts the message of Ramakrishna the Kali-worshipping Hindu, and that it distorts the heritage of Swami Vivekananda the Hindu revivalist.  Yet, none of this alleged injustice to Hinduism gives the Mission a place outside Hinduism.  After all, there is no definition of “Hindu” which precludes Hindus from being mistaken, self-deluding or suicidal.  Regardless of its fanciful innovations, the RK Mission remains a Hindu organization, at least by any of the available objective definitions.  Alternatively, if the subjective definition, “Is Hindu, he and only he who calls himself Hindu”, is accepted, then of course the RK Mission, unlike its founders, is no longer Hindu,-but then it is no longer Ramakrishna’s mission either.

The larger issue revealed by the incident with the RK Mission is a psychology of self-repudiation which is fairly widespread in the anglicized segment of Hindu society, stretching from actual repudiation of Hinduism to the distortive reformulation of Hinduism itself after the model of better-reputed religions.  In a typical symptom of the colonial psychology, many Hindus see themselves through the eyes of their once-dominant enemies, so that catechism-type books on Hinduism explain Hinduism in Christian terms, e.g. by presenting many a Hindu saint as “a Christ-like figure”.22 Modem translations of Hindu scriptures are often distorted in order to satisfy non-Hindu requirements such as monotheism.  This can take quite gross forms in the Veda translations of the Arya Samaj, where entire sentences are inserted in order to twist the meaning in the required theological direction.  The eagerness to extol all rival religions and to be unsatisfied with just being Hindu is one more symptom of the contempt in which Hinduism has been held for centuries, and which numerous Hindus have interiorized.

6.4. Yogic value of Ramakrishna’s visions

Ram Swarup reflects a bit a more deeply on the RK Mission lore about Ramakrishna’s visions: “The students of Yoga know that ‘visions’ are of a limited value and they prove very little. (…) They tell us more about the visionary than about the object visioned.”23 In Christianity and Islam, visions have nothing to do with the respective concepts of salvation, and in the Hindu Yoga tradition, they are equally unimportant (unlike in Shamanism, where the “vision quest” is the central experience).  If the RK Mission monks had known this common trait of each of the religions concerned, they would not have concluded to the equal truth of these religions on the basis of one individual’s visions.

Even the sentimental theology of “equal truth of all religions” deserves a better basis than an individual’s vision: “The fact is that the truth of harmony and human brotherhood derives not from an absorbed trance but from an awakened prajñâ or wisdom; and its validity depends not on any dramatic ecstatic visions but it belongs to man’s (…) natural reason unspoilt by theologies of exclusiveness.”24 Universalist ideas are very much part of the general Hindu outlook, but are not conceived as depending on ecstatic experiences.

The luminosity of the faces visioned by Ramakrishna is again a normal element in the visions produced as a side-effect of yoga practice: “From the Yogic viewpoint also there was nothing unusual or extraordinary about Ramakrishna’s visions of Jesus and Muhammad.  When one meditates on the object (karmasthâna), it undergoes several successive modifications.  It gets internalized; it loses its blemishes; it assumes a luminous form (jyotishmatî); it assumes a joyous form (visoka).  All this is a normal process of yogic modification and ingestion.”25

The fact that images of Jesus and Mohammed passed through this mental process, “need not give birth to an indiscriminate theology like the one produced by the Mission-that all prophets and religions are equal and that they say the same thing”.26 Ram Swarup points out that yogic writings like Patanjali’s Yoga Sûtra always stress the importance of careful observation and discrimination, quite the opposite of the facile and sweeping conclusions which the RK Mission monks draw from one or two alleged visions.

Ram Swarup offers, for contrast, the example of another luminary of the Bengal Hindu Renaissance, who did not lose his power of discrimination after having had visions: “Visions of a transcendental state have a limited phenomenal (vyavahârika) validity.  For example, Sri Aurobindo, as a prisoner of the British, saw in the British jail, in the British judge and in the British prosecuting officer the veritable image of vasudeva, but this did not invalidate the Indian struggle for independence nor the reality of British imperialism.  There was no slurring over, no loss of discrimination.”27 Ram Swarup’s point is: whatever Ramakrishna may have visualized concerning Mohammed, vigilance against Islam remains a foremost duty of responsible Hindus, for reasons which can be ascertained without reliance on ecstatic visions.

6.5. The verdict

In spite of all the arguments to the contrary offered by Hindus, the Calcutta High Court ruled in 1987 that the Ramakrishna Mission is a non-Hindu religious minority.28  The public debate occasionally resumed and so did the court proceedings.  When the case was taken to the Supreme Court, the Ramakrishna Mission submitted that “any attempt to equate the religion of Ramakrishna with the Hindu religion as professed and practised will be to defeat the very object of Ramakrishnaism and to deny his gospel.”29

In 1995, the Supreme Court had the final say and ruled that “Ramakrishnaism” is a branch of Hinduism.30 As Hinduism Today reported: “On July 2nd, 1995, the Supreme Court of India declared that neither Sri Ramakrishna nor Swami Vivekananda founded any independent, non-Hindu religion.  Thus ended the RK Mission’s labyrinthine attempt to gain the privileges accorded only to minority religions in India, specifically the right to manage their extensive educational institutions free from government control.”31

The verdict came with an unexpected rider, disappointing the West Bengal Government and considerably sweetening the defeat for the RK Mission: “Despite the legal loss, the court’s decision surprisingly allows the RK Mission to retain control of its schools in Bengal.  This was not by virtue of any constitutional provision, but rather because the law in Bengal regarding the governing of schools specifically exempted the RK Mission schools from government control.”32

All those concerned about Hindu unity heaved a sigh of relief.  In a last skirmish, the Mission’s office-bearer Swami Hiranmayananda polemicized with Ram Swarup and denied that Swami Vivekananda had ever expressed pride in Hinduism.  Ram Swarup now only had to quote the Supreme Court verdict, which had quoted Vivekananda a number of times to this very effect, e.g.: “Say it with pride: we are Hindus.”33 Another clinching quotation from Ramakrishna himself was that “various creeds you hear about nowadays have come into existence through the will of God and will disappear again through His will (…) Hindu religion alone is Sanâtana dharma” for it “has always existed and will always exist”.34

Ram Swarup remarks that none of the Ramakrishna Mission spokesmen have been able to point out even one instance where Ramakrishna or Vivekananda expressed a desire to give up Hinduism or to start a new religion.  For, as so often, Ram Swarup and other Hindus had in fact accepted the burden of proof by taking the trouble of proving the Hinduness of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, when that burden was logically on those who made the totally new claim about “Ramakrishnaism”.  Now the court case had exposed the Mission’s inability to discharge its own burden of proof and to offer even the faintest evidence of Ramakrishna’s desire (let alone decision, let alone implementation of the decision) to found a new religion separate from Hinduism.  The evidence offered by the Mission consisted entirely of testimonies by outsiders (Romain Rolland, Arnold Toynbee, even Lenin) to the “universal spirit” of Ramakrishna or Vivekananda, but even these Westerners (still a source of authority) could not be quoted as attesting any repudiation of Hinduism.

But the Supreme Court verdict was only a battle won, and the war continues.  Ram Swarup observes: “Though it took shape under particular circumstances, the RK Mission now has an articulated philosophy of being non-Hindu, a veritable manifesto of separation. (…) Now that it is forcefully articulated, the case for separation could exert a continuing influence on the minds of RK Mission authorities. (…) Pseudo-secularism is abroad, and under its auspices Hinduism is a dirty word, and disowning Hinduism is deemed both prestigious and profitable.  Those ideological conditions still obtain, and no court can change them. (…) In trying to prove that it was non-Hindu, [the Mission] spoke quite negatively of Hinduism (…) Can the RK Mission outlive this manifesto of separation?”35

In Ram Swarup’s view, the RK Mission’s problem with being Hindu is but a particular symptom of a widespread and deep-seated trauma: “We will do well to remember that Hinduism has passed through a thousand years of foreign domination.  During these centuries, its deepest ideas and its cherished institutions were under great attack.  The trauma of this period produced deep psychological scars.  Hindus have lost self-confidence.  They have become passive and apologetic-apologetic about their ideas, their institutions, about themselves and about their very name.  They behave as if they are making amends for being Hindus.”36 This, then, is the fundamental problem underlying the intellectual and political ferment which in the present study we are seeking to map out and understand.  And such a large-scale problem will take time to find its solution.

6.6. Is the Arya Samaj Hindu?

Many Hindus feared that a different outcome in the RK Mission court case might have had a disastrous precedent value for other organizations with a weak Hindu self-identification. Jagmohan, former Governor of Jammu & Kashmir and a hero of the Hindutva movement, comments: “Had the Supreme Court come to the same conclusion as the Calcutta High Court, many more sects and denominations would have appeared on the scene claiming positions outside Hinduism and thereby causing further fragmentation of the Hindu society.”37

Then again, perhaps the effect of a recognition of the RK Mission as a minority would not have been nearly as dramatic as Jagmohan expected, for in several states, another Hindu reformist organization has enjoyed minority status for decades without triggering the predicted exodus. Jagmohan himself has noted a case where “the temptations in-built in Article 30 impelled the followers of Arya Samaj to request the Delhi High Court to accord the status of a minority religion” but “the Division Bench of the Delhi High Court rightly rejected the contention of the Arya Samaj”.38 However, as early as 1971, the Arya Samaj gained the status of “minority” in Panjab.  Then already, it had that status in Bihar, along with the Brahmo Samaj.39

In a way, the Arya Samaj is a minority: the Arya-Samajis are fewer in number than the non-Arya-Samajis.40 By this criterion, every Hindu sect is a minority, and every Hindu school which calls itself “Shaiva school” or “Ram bhakta school” would pass as a minority institution, protected by Art.30. But that is of course not how the courts and the legislators have understood it: in principle, all Hindu minorities within the Hindu majority are deprived of the privileges accorded to the “real” minorities.

In Swami Dayananda’s view, the term Arya was not coterminous with the term Hindu.  The classical meaning of the word Arya is “noble”.  It is used as an honorific term of address, used in addressing the honoured ones in ancient Indian parlance.41 The term Hindu is reluctantly accepted as a descriptive term for the contemporary Hindu society and all its varied beliefs and practices, while the term Arya is normative and designates Hinduism as it ought to be.  Swami Dayananda’s use of the term Arya is peculiar in that he excludes the entire Puranic (as opposed to the Vedic) tradition from its semantic domain, i.e. the major part of contemporary Hinduism.  Elsewhere in Hindu society, “Arya” was and is considered a synonym for “Hindu”, except that it may be broader, viz. by unambiguously including Buddhism and Jainism. Thus, the Constitution of the “independent, indivisible and sovereign monarchical Hindu kingdom” (Art.3:1) of Nepal take care to include the Buddhist minority by ordaining the king to uphold “Aryan culture and Hindu religion” (Art.20: 1).42 Either way, the semantic kinship of the two terms implies that the group which chose to call itself Arya Samaj is a movement to reform Hinduism (viz. to bring it up to Arya standards), and, not another or a newly invented religion.

The Arya Samaj’s misgivings about the term Hindu already arose in tempore non suspecto, long before it became a dirty Word under Jawaharlal Nehru and a cause of legal disadvantage under the 1950 Constitution.  Swami Dayananda Saraswati rightly objected that the term had been given by foreigners (who, moreover, gave all kinds of derogatory meanings to it) and considered that dependence on an exonym is a bit sub-standard for a highly literate and self-expressive civilization.  This argument retains a certain validity: the self-identification of Hindus as “Hindu” can never be more than a second-best option.  On the other hand, it is the most practical choice in the short run, and most Hindus don’t seem to pine for an alternative.

6.7. Are travelling gurus Hindus?

A somewhat special case is that of the travelling Hindu gurus in the West.  They don’t have to worry about Article 30 or the Communist government in Kolkata, but they do have to fine-tune their communication strategy vis-à-vis the Western public.  Usually they claim that their yoga is “universal”43, often also that it “can be combined with other religions”.  Thus, in a popular self-presentation video of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation (a.k.a. the Science of Creative intelligence), a Christian pastor is interviewed and he testifies that he has deepened his Christian faith with the help of TM.  In the West, weary and wary of religious labels, this seems to be a more successful strategy than an explicit attempt at conversion would be.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) generally denies that it is Hindu, in spite of practising purely Hindu rituals and a purely Hindu lifestyle in the service of a purely Hindu god.44 That this policy is guided by petty calculations of self-interest is clear from the cases where ISKCON exceptionally does claim to be Hindu, viz. when collecting money from Hindus.

A former ISKCON member explains: that ISKCON is non-Hindu “is clearly evident in the writings and lectures of Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON’s founder, as well as in the day-to-day preaching statements of its members and current-day leaders.  What is especially troubling is that ISKCON periodically does claim to be a Hindu organization.  Unfortunately, these claims on the part of ISKCON occur when, and only when, it serves the legal and financial interests of the sect.  Thousands of unsuspecting Indian Hindus have been persuaded to contribute funds to the group with the reassurance that they were supporting ‘Hinduism’, ‘Hindu’ temples and the printing of ‘Hindu’ books.”45

But these peculiar elements of separatism in this sect or that can only occur because of the general background of the depreciation of Hindu identity.  In Christianity and Islam, only the reverse case exists: sects claiming to be Christian (Mormons) or Muslim (Ahmadiyas, Alevites) but being denied that label by the orthodox.  The day Hinduism gets respected again, these sects will probably reaffirm their Hindu identity, and the RK Mission will preface its publications with Vivekananda’s appeal: “Say with pride, We are Hindus!”


1According to the RK Mission register (quoted by Ram Swarup: Ramakrishna Mission in Search of a New Identity, p-3), there were 1400 Ramakrishnaist monks and 106,072 lay followers in 1980; on an Indian scale, this is definitely a minority.

2Ram Swarup: Ramakrishna Mission in Search of a New Identity (1986) and his exchange of arguments with RK Mission representative Ram Narayan in Indian Express, 19/20-9-1990 and 15/16-11-1990.

3Ram Swarup: “His vision and mission.  Vivekananda is being wrongly portrayed as a champion of a synthetic religion”, Observer of Business and Politics, 28-8-1993.  No source is given for what seems to be a quotation; at any rate, it sums up, faithfully if not literally, the message of the first part of Vivekananda’s famous address: “Is Vedanta the Future Religion?” (San Francisco 1900), reproduced in Vivekananda’s complete Works, vol.8, see esp. p.124-125.

4BJP: Constitution and Rules, art. IV, p.4.

5Quoted in S.P. Ray: Turning of the Wheel, p.58.

6Details of the step-by-step genesis of this story are given in Ram Swarup: Ramakrishna Mission in Search of a New Identity, p.8-9.

7As the alleged vision of Jesus was slightly more glorious than that of Mohammed, Ram Swarup sarcastically suggests (Ramakrishna Mission, p.9) new horizons to the “equal truth of all religions” school: “This difference could provide much scope for future disputants. One school may hold that while all prophets are equal, some are more equal than others.”

8George M. Williams: “The Ramakrishna Mission: A Study in Religious Change”, in Robert D. Baird: Religion in Modern India, p.62.

9Included as Ch.7 in S.P. Ray: Turning of the Wheel.

10This scenario has been related to me by at least a dozen overseas Hindus in the UK and the USA; the Hindu revivalist publisher Arvind Ghosh (Houston, speaking to me in October 1995) told me that in the Houston area alone, he knew of over 30 cases of Hindu girls marrying Muslims to the dismay of their parents.  Others, like RSS prachârak Rama Shastry from Los Angeles (October 1996), assured me that the magnitude of this problem is being exaggerated.

11Report in Illustrated Weekly of India, 6-2-1993, p.11. Likewise: “In Khairontoli [in the tribal belt near Ranchi], there are as many as 15 out of 28 families with 45 children whose fathers are Muslims and mothers Christian tribals. (…) But marriage is held in a unilinear direction, with Muslim boys tying the knot with Christian tribal girls and not vice-versa.  Invariably, their offspring bear Islamic names.” This report by Manoj Prasad was mis-titled: “Stupid Cupid sees not caste, creed in Bihar” (Indian Express, 23-1-1994), for what it shows is not at all that love overrules religious discrimination, on the contrary: even in these reported love marriages, Muslim families see to it that the dominant partner is Muslim, and that at any rate, the children are exclusively Muslim.

12S.P. Ray: Wheel, p.58.

13T.S. Subramanian: “A Secular Vivekananda.  Interview with Kundrakudi Adigalar”, Frontline, 12-3-1993.

14When travelling in the US, Vivekananda ate whatever he was offered, including pork and beef.  This is one more reason why his recognition as a “representative” of Hinduism at the 1893 Parliament of Religion in Chicago was out of order, a pure stroke of personal luck.

15S.P. Ray: Wheel, p.60.

16S.P. Ray: Wheel, p.61.

17S.P. Ray: Wheel, p.63.

18At least one Muslim reply is known.  Ram Swarup (Ramakrishna Mission, p.11) quotes an article “Ramakrishna and Islam” from an unnamed Bangladeshi journal, in which a Muslim author argues that Islam does not allow you to “take a holiday and spend a few days as a Muslim”, because “the practice of Islam lasts till death.  To embrace Islam and then leave it makes a man an apostate”, an act which “is punished with death”.

19S.P. Ray: Wheel, p.56.

20S.P. Ray: Wheel, p.59. Saurya: devoted to Sûrya, the sun as deity; Ganapatya: devoted to Ganapati/Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity.

21S.P. Ray: Wheel, p.62.

22Sic in Viswanathan Edakkandiyal: Daddy, Am I a Hindu?, p. 157.

23Ram Swarup: Ramkrishna Mission, p.11.

24Ram Swarup: Ramakrishna Mission, p.13. 

25Ram Swarup: Ramakrishna Mission, p.12. 

26Ram Swarup: Ramakrishna Mission, p.12.

27Ram Swarup: Ramakrishna Mission, p.12, with reference to Aurobindo’s Uttarpara SpeechVâsudeva, “son of Vasudeva”, is Krishna’s patronym.

28Details in M.D. McLean: “Are Ramakrishnaites Hindus?  Some implications of recent litigation on the question”, in South Asia, 1991/2.

29Quoted in Hinduism Today, Sep. 1995, p.1.

30The international monthly Hinduism Today (Honolulu), Sep. 1995, captioned this news as “Ramakrishna Mission Wins!” (viz. wins back its true Hindu identity).

31”India’s Supreme Court to RK Mission: You’re Hindus”, Hinduism Today, Sep. 1995.

32 “India’s Supreme Court to RK.Mission: You’re Hindus”, Hinduism Today, Sep. 1995.

33Organiser published Ram Swarup’s initial comment on the verdict on 13-8-1995 (also in Observer of Business and Politics: “Faith denied or identity regained?”), Hiranmayananda’s reply on 24-9-1995, and Ram Swarup’s final rejoinder on 8-10-1995.  Reference is to Vivekananda’s Complete Works, vol.3, p.368-69. Incidentally, no less a secularist than Jawaharlal Nehru testifies (Discovery of India, p.337) that Vivekananda was a “Hindu sannyasin” and that “in America, he was called the ‘cyclonic Hindu’”.

34Culled by the judges from the testimonial collection The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, then quoted by Ram Swarup in “Ramakrishna Mission: identity recovered”, Organiser, 21-7-1996, written in reply to a statement by RSS man P. Parameswaran, President of the Vivekananda Kendra, who defended the RK Mission’s stand with reference to the impression that its very existence was threatened.

35Ram Swarup: “The RK Mission: judging the judgment”, guest editorial in Hinduism Today, Sep. 1995.

36Ram Swarup: “The RK Mission: judging the judgment”, guest editorial in Hinduism Today, Sep. 1995.

37Jagmohan: “Hinduism and Article 30”, Organiser, 6-8-1995.

38Jagmohan: “Meaning, message and might of Hinduism”, Organiser, 10-9-1995.

39Related by Edward A. Gargar: “Peril to the Indian State: a defiant Hindu fervor”, in Arvind Sharma: Our Religions, p. 54.

40A more principled Arya separatism also exists among Arya Samaj individuals, see D. Vable: The Arya Samaj, which emphasizes its distinctive traits and its quarrels with traditionalists.  But Arya Sarvadeshik Pratinidhi Sabha president Vandematharam Ramachandra Rao assured me (interview, 1995) that the official position still defines the Arya Samaj as a reform movement of Hinduism, whatever its legal status for practical (educational) purposes may be.

41Via Pali ayya and Apabhramsha ajje, we see the word evolve to  become the modern honorific suffix -, as in Gândhjî-.  It is well-known in Buddhist expressions like the Chatvâri-ârya-satyâni, the “four noble truths”, the Arya-ashtângika-mârga, the “noble eightfold path”, and Arya Dharmna.

42A. Peaslee: Constitutions of Nations, p.772 and 778.

43Far from marking a religion as non-Hindu, tall claims of universalism are typical of modern Hinduism, e.g. this one by Prof. M.M. Sankhdher (“Musings on Hinduism”, Organiser, 7-12-1997): “Hinduism is an all-embracing, comprehensive, universal, human religion which preaches love for all creations-humans, animals, plants and inanimates.”

44”Why do Hindus say, ‘I’m not a Hindu’?”, Hinduism Today, October 1998,

45Frank Morales: “Appalled and disgusted”, letter, Hinduism Today, January 1999.

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