Pankaj Mishra's essays on Communalism in India; Vivekananda and Religious Modernizers

Through SACW, I caught a link to a long Pankaj Mishra piece on the origins of "Hinduism" in Axess, a Swedish magazine of the "liberal arts and social sciences." Mishra's piece appeared in an issue a couple of months back called India Unleashed. The same issue has an essay by Subash Agarwal, who also has a more recent piece written in the wake of the Indian elections (results that disappointed him).

Mishra has written on the subject of the misuse of "Hinduism" several times before. You can find a Feb. 2002 article from the New York Times here. And then an April 2002 a two-part piece on the same topic, this time for the Guardian. He also wrote a piece for the Boston Globe in December 2002 on the same topic (no longer online). And then a Feb 2003 piece for the New York Times Magazine (via SACW), on the anniversary of the assasination of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

These various essays use some of the same material over and over again. Most have one or two immediate anecdotes and first-hand interviews, while relying heavily on accounts of the history of the RSS, V.D. Savarkar, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, Nathuram Godse, a small host of familiar suspects. Most essays also place the movement to take down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya at the center of the current history of the Hindu right. Ayodhya casts the longest shadow for Mishra: one finds explanations of Ayodhya even in the pieces written in the wake of the February-March 2002 riots in and around Ahmedabad, Gujurat.

Don't get me wrong -- this is all good work. Mishra is performing a valuable function in educating western readers about the history and current status of communalism. But it gets a little repetitive. I'd been longing to see him approach the communal question somewhat more deeply, or with a fresh perspective.

The most recent piece (in Axess) partially fills this demand; it has some surprises in it even as it also rehashes. Most importantly, perhaps, Mishra writes approvingly of people like the poet Mohammad Iqbal (one of the patron saints of Pakistan), Swami Vivekananda (one of the sources of inspiration for the Indian nationalist movement), and Angarika Dharampala (a major figure in the Buddhist-Sinhala nationalist movement in Sri Lanka). All were roughly contemporaneous -- they were active in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Both Vivekananda and Dharmapala made a big splash at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. Most importantly, however, all were reformers and modernizers. In Mishra's interpretation of Vivekananda in particular, the emphasis is on the inspiration taken from the west, not on the personal connection to Hindu spirituality. Mishra posits a divergence between Vivekananda's approach to worldly sprituality and his master's (Ramakrishna's) inward-looking mysticism. For Mishra, Vivekananda's desire to indigenize western civilization was secondary.

This contradicts what some other recent critics have said about Vivekananda (most notably Meera Nanda, who is directly hostile to both Vivekananda and Gandhi).

For me personally, it raises a 'half-empty/half-full' dilemma. Are religious reformers who develop a modernized theological language to be placed in the camp with the modernizers and secularizers, or are they in fact mainly motivated by strong, primoridal religious feeling, which they merely market with modern trappings? Mishra puts them in the former camp; critics like Nanda place them in the latter.

But this is a manichean question, which overlooks the possibility of situating reformers in between the religious and secular viewpoints. People like Vivekananda and Dharampala are secularizers, but specifically within their respective religious communities. By ignoring this middle-ground, I think Mishra oversimplifies the history of religious reform movements in South Asia. He makes this oversimplification for a good reason -- he wants to show that the stories told by the Hindutva advocates today about the history of the concept of "Hinduism" are on very thin ice. But the oversimplification leads to a somewhat patchy history.