Rajiv Malhotra Speaks Out on Challenges to Swami Vivekananda’s Legacy Today

Chicago IL: Rajiv Malhotra, President of Infinity Foundation, is well-known in USA and India for his fulltime championing, funding, and articulation of Hindu causes. His most recent book, Being Different: The Hindu Challenge to Western Universalism, which is being translated into several Indian languages, is the focus of widespread public debate. He spoke on Sep. 28, 2013 at the Jain Center in Chicago about the book he is completing on various challenges to the legacy of Swami Vivekananda (SV). His essay on “Vivekananda’s Ideas – Two Revolutions in Western Thought” appeared this year in Vivekananda as the Turning Point: The Rise of a New Spiritual Wave (Advaita Ashram). Malhotra spoke to Asian Media USA on the occasion of University of Chicago’s (UC) public announcement on October 7 of the two recipients of the Swami Vivekananda Chair.

What is unique about SV’s legacy?
Rajiv: For India, SV modernized the way traditional Hindu dharma could be applied in the context of his time, thereby making Hindu dharma relevant. For the US and the world, he opened the door to pluralism beyond Judeo-Christianity, a novel idea in the West at his time.

What is the state of this legacy today?
Rajiv: SV has been under severe attack since the 1950s by scholars who pejoratively refer to his teachings as “neo-Hinduism”, alleging that “his” Hinduism is phony, disconnected with the tradition, and even contradicting the traditions, and copied from European ideas both Christian and secular. This view has become quite normative in Indian media, journalism, and academics, though the Ramakrishna Mission and other supporters of SV prefer to simply ignore this attack. In the US his ideas have become mainstream but they are not attributed to him any longer.

What has been achieved by the SV150 celebrations?
Rajiv: Very little of substance or lasting value is achieved by such short lived displays of symbolism. I predict that in a year or two nothing of these celebrations will be remembered. These short term pageantries are more like hagiographies. They do not uncover his deep and lasting contributions beyond superficial ways, or debate and respond to the controversies started by the “neo-Hinduism” school of academic scholars.

Why are you completing a book on SV?
Rajiv: My book argues against the “neo-Hinduism” thesis by showing that modern Hinduism as developed by SV is an adaptation of dharmic tradition, very much in line with earlier adaptations, and done mostly using internal resources and not by appropriating Christian or Western enlightenment ideas. This book is the first such comprehensive response to the prevailing thesis on modern Hinduism in the mainstream academy. Hence it deserves a fair hearing. It is nowhere close to being a hagiography of SV, and hence it is far more useful in the long term implications.

Is SV’s pluralist legacy being hijacked by Hindu ‘fundamentalism’?
Rajiv: I am uncomfortable branding as a “fundamentalist” anyone who defends Hinduism and its distinctiveness. By that token the only non-fundamentalist of any faith would be someone who either opposes it or regards it as the same as everything else – thereby making a mockery of the given faith’s tenets. That said, if the question refers to the political groups identified with Hindutva, my response is that merely parroting SV’s name, identity, and one-liner slogans does not do justice to his legacy. I do not see substantial scholarship today that would take his ideas forward in the present context. Hence, the political appropriation of SV is not of an adequate standard in my opinion.

Is SV’s profoundly Hindu message being diluted by ‘secularism’?
Rajiv: Secularism originated in Europe to address a uniquely Christian problem, one that Hindu dharma does not have. This has to do with exclusivity claims in Christianity and the non-separation of what in Hinduism would be brahmin and kshatriya functions (loosely equivalent to “church” and “state” functional separation). SV would have argued for dharma-sapekshata (dharmic governance) with sampradaya-nirapekshata (separation from institutions) instead of secularism. India’s postcolonialists need a good dose of education on Indian categories.
Have American universities furthered this legacy?
Rajiv: Exactly the opposite. U.S. universities have largely adopted the “neo-Hinduism” thesis, which my book shows is an insult to SV’s legacy. Many of the scholars are honest about their “neo-Hinduism” position and I enjoy debating them based on evidence. But other scholars are double faced, and they “promote” SV mainly to get funded by diaspora Hindus and escape facing criticisms of their work.

Should Indian taxpayers fund Western Chairs of Hindu studies?
Rajiv: The present setup for foreign chairs on India Studies leaves a lot to be desired, as many of the appointments are being made within the old school cabal of Indology and South Asian Studies. This cabal is a sort of nexus of Anglo-American ideas of “universalism” through which India is studied. It causes more harm as it pre-empts India-based academic excellence, and Indian categories for seeing India and the world. They are not “reversing the gaze”, and hence they use India’s national wealth to empower the Anglo-American lens further.

What is your take on UC SV Chair and its first two appointees?
Rajiv: These are excellent scholars in terms of using the Western “lens” to study India, and thereby perpetuating the same assumptions. They are too invested in Western paradigms even though they might be proficient in Indian languages and facts of history. While seeking to topple the grand narratives of Hindu dharma and of India as a nation (in the name of emancipating the “real” Indians from their civilization’s oppression), they are not in a position to topple the grand narratives of postmodernism and other disguises for Western Universalism.
Headshot of Rajiv Malhotara