I am the chief ‘villain’ in Rajiv Malhotra’s Indra’s Net: Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unity (HarperCollins India, 2014, 376pages, Rs 300). To Malhotra, I am ‘the leading scholar’ who is ‘destroying’ the Hindu tradition from within by promoting what he calls ‘the cancer’ of Neo- Hinduism. Moreover, Malhotra credits me for sparking the research that produced Indra’s Net. Against this backdrop, it has been interesting to observe the controversy raging around Malhotra’s work arising from charges of plagiarism. Richard Young, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, has collected evidence of copyright violations by providing many examples of passages from Indra’s Net that are lifted improperly from the works of other scholars. Readers can see a compilation of Young’s work online to form their own judgments.
While everyone, both within and outside the academic community, has the freedom to write, all published material ought to meet minimal standards of accuracy and good faith in the treatment of the work of scholars. Reckless assertions and unsubstantiated conclusions should not be made. The traditional method of guaranteeing such quality is through peer review. Admittedly, this process is not without its own faults and even biases, and fairness cannot always be assumed. When done well, however, it benefits the scholar as well as readers. The responsibility for accuracy becomes even more important when it comes to the work of writers like Malhotra, who are neither academics nor regard themselves as being accountable to the judgment of a broader academic community.
I refute Malhotra’s central thesis that I am an advocate of Neo-Hinduism. His thesis is not substantiated by any scholarly analysis. He attributes arguments to me that I have never made in any publication. In many cases, I actually argue the complete opposite.
Malhotra and his supporters have issued numerous calls for me to debate him publicly over Indra’s Net. In the Hindu tradition, debate is a sincere mode of dialogue that requires profound moral and intellectual commitments. Intellectually, scholars are required to be truthful (‘satyam vada’) and this includes truthfully representing your opponent’s viewpoint. I do not recognise myself in Malhotra’s representation of my work, which would make any effort to ‘defend’ conclusions that I have never made and do not support an exercise in futility.
The Hindu tradition requires us to debate vigorously (‘saha viryam’), but without defamation, denigration and hate (‘ma vidvisavahai’). Unfortunately, on top of consistently misrepresenting my published works, Malhotra insists on stifling constructive dialogue by littering his writings and statements with ad hominem attacks and polemic. He refers to me as a ‘pet’, brands me the Vatican’s ‘Hindu asset’ and denies me the right of self-definition by calling me a ‘Vatican appointed Hindu’. For instance, Malhotra issued a tweet on 6 April 2014 with such language:
‘@nisha_a: Romila T, Rambachan & other Neo-Hinduism wallahs obediently copy western scholarship. Over rated pets described in Indra’s Net.’
Moreover, in a recent article, Malhotra incorrectly claims that my PhD supervisor was a ‘church minister’. Readers can form their own judgments about Malhotra’s intention in peddling such lies.
From his writings, it appears that one of his problems with my work stems from my steadfast commitment to inter-religious understanding and my frequent participation in dialogue with people of all religions. In these dialogues, I always strive to be a vigorous Hindu voice that is faithful to the fundamental commitments of my tradition. Those who attend these events and choose to respectfully engage in dialogue know this very well.
My contributions are freely available for public scrutiny. Also, I shall never apologise for my work that promotes inter-religious understanding— work that I believe to be vital for mutual respect and peace in a diverse world.
Readers can also make their own judgments about Malhotra’s motivation for these ad hominem attacks, but this is the context in which I am invited to debate. It is a hostile environment that is the very antithesis of mutual respect, human dignity and the values of dialogical exchange (‘samvada’) in the Hindu tradition.
Earlier this year, Malhotra spearheaded a campaign, unprecedented in the history of the Hindu tradition in North America, to prevent me from speaking at a Hindu-Catholic Dialogue at the Durga Temple in Virginia (23 May 2015). Malhotra described those who invited me as ‘ignorant Hindu leaders’. His supporters were encouraged to flood my inbox with letters expressing their opposition to the ‘Trojan horse’ in the Hindu community. Strategies were formulated for protests and the organisers were bombarded with requests to disinvite me. I was warned ominously by one of his supporters ‘not to come to the Durga Temple in Virginia’. Below is an example of the type of emails I received before this event:
‘You want to do something to stop the leading spreader of that cancer of Neo Hinduism that is eating our dharma from within? This is your chance. You are one of thousands of Hindus on this discussion group. Let’s give Rambachan a message he will never forget.’
Tensions, ignited and fanned by Malhotra, reached such a boiling point that law-enforcement protection for my safety was required, a first in my 40 years of public speaking at Hindu temples. The Durga Temple, to their great credit, did not waver in the face of considerable intimidation and I refused to pull out.
Putting aside the aggressive effort to deny my freedom to speak at an event to which I was unanimously invited by the Hindu organisers, Malhotra wants to define the criteria for Hindu orthodoxy. He wants to establish himself as the authoritative enforcer of his criteria. Indra’s Net was presented as the repository of the ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ Hindu tradition. Since I failed to meet his criteria, he called me the enemy of my tradition and issued an edict that I must be silenced. He became my judge and jury. His followers rushed in to loudly broadcast and administer his judgment.
History is littered with the tragic consequences of religious authoritarianism and with individuals who claim the right to judge and condemn others. What does ‘being different’, to use Malhotra’s language, mean if it does not prevent us from ex-communicating, branding as heretics and excoriating those who differ from us? Hindus need to be vigilant. While always welcoming debate and dialogue, we must challenge efforts to silence and intimidate those with whom we disagree. This is not the way of dharma and we do not protect it by trampling upon its obligations.
Malhotra and his followers have succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear (‘bhayam’) in which scholar-practitioners of the Hindu tradition are afraid of challenging him. I refuse to be silenced by fear or be forced to whisper my dissent in the corners of meeting halls. I will not cede to Malhotra the authority to be the arbiter of Hindu orthodoxy. My tradition requires me, as a seeker of knowledge and a teacher, to be without fear (‘abhayam’). I will continue to respectfully share and learn from fellow Hindus of all nationalities and ethnicities. And I will continue to respectfully challenge and be challenged by my peers. No single person has spoken for or can speak for a tradition as vast as the Hindu tradition, and Hindus must vigorously contest anyone’s attempt to dictatorially do so. The value we place on diversity is a strength, not a weakness.