Antiquity of Advaita Vedanta (was Re: An Open Letter to All)

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Thu May 11 23:17:27 CDT 2000

On Thu, 11 May 2000, Rajiv Malhotra wrote:

> Lets define what you mean by propaganda, and apply it also to what you do.
> Others' views seen as propaganda but not one's own, is the hallmark of
> narrow-mindedness. Hinduism has never been narrow minded.

Propaganda is all about image.  You said your aim was to improve
Hinduisms' image.  I acknowledge several other views other than mine but
that doesn't mean I acknowledg everything.

> Our foundation gives grants to universities and schools to sponsor PhD work,
> conferences and course development in areas that would focus Indic
> religions. Academicians do not as a matter of principle, agree to get
> influenced in what they say, because they are fiercely independent.

So political correctness is a myth?  Academics an have biases just like
anyone else.

> But what
> the grant giver can do is specify the topic although not the conclusions. If
> that's called propaganda, then all the R&D grants must be propaganda.

Perhaps they are.

> India is often buried within South Asian studies, whereas China is a
> department of its own. Indology departments have shrunk over the past few
> years, as our survey showed, due to the reason of lack of funds, whereas
> other areas grow. Many Christian philanthropists such as Templeton, have
> endowed massive education to upgrade Christianity's portrayal. Hinduism has
> had few sponsors in education and in this country that matters.

No it doesn't.  In academia it matters but that is a realm far apart from
mainstream American life.

> Successful
> Hindus are generally not so generous.

Many Hindus donate generously to Mandirs both here and in India.  Perhaps
they just don't think colleges and Indologists are that important?  I went
to Columbia University for a year to study Sanskrit.  I was the only
Indian in most of my classes.  Were all the other Indian students
self-hating assimilationists?  I don' think so.

> Honesty, I don't think any of this is what bothers you. You probably don't
> like someone to disagree with you, and that all there is to it.

Yes, how dare people disagree with me. :-)  Seriously it's not that I
think what you're doing is bad, it's just that in my opinion there are
many better things someone of your talents could be doing.

I'll give you an example from Tuesday.  As I was riding the train home, I
was approached by a Bengali man who asked me where I got my mala from.  It
seems he had been asking in all the shops for some time without any
luck.  Now here is a person who doesn't need textbooks to tell him what to
do.  He knows what he has to do but can't do it because he hasn't got the
equipment.  What good is a theoretical understanding of Hinduism if one
cannot put it into practice?  What a difference it would make if your
foundation provided rudraksha malas for those who needed them?

> 20 pages. I would very much appreciate your comments if you would be
> interested.

I believe you did send that to me before.  I'm sorry I didn't get around
to reading it but I'll try to do so.

But again I must point most of the contact we have with non-Hindus is not
with academics.

> It is based on textbook analysis, web site analysis etc. of
> non-Hindu portrayal of Hinduism Your views above are the typical superficial
> ideas most Indians have. America is a culture that is big on politeness and
> being politically correct, so they will not tell you on your face.

Well for instance there have been several occasions during business
lunches and the like  where people have bent over backwards to get me
vegetarian food.  Perhaps it was just an evil trick to lure me into
Christianity but somehow I don't think so.  When we look at peoples
attempts at goodwill with a jaundiced eye, we are not just selling them
short, we are diminishing ourselves.  Who would want to live in a world of
such paranoia and mistrust?

> Have you done surveys with Americans on such topics as the following:
> What percentage think Hinduism is pagan, believing in many gods?
> Is Kali a vampire, or some sort of worship of evil deity?
> Is Shiva a sex god because of the Shiva linga?
> Is Hinduism world negating, resulting in no social committment, hence the
> chaos and poverty in India?
> I have a whole list of such stereotypes resulting from years of surveys in
> schools and colleges. Mine are conclusions not based on an ivory tower
> opinion, but hands-on engagement with grass-roots America on the specific
> topic of what the public thinks of Hinduism ESPECIALLY what they don't talk
> about. We are now in the process of sponsoring a major Princeton market
> research firm to do an opinion poll, whose results would be used to educate
> the media on how their stereotyping can hurt the image of a community.

You will never be able to squash stereotypes with such a top-down
approach.  The focus of education should be on Hindus themselves not other
people.  If a Hindu is asked if Shiva is a sex god can he answer?  If we
are all ambassadors for Hinduism, it would do more than any editorial
board could hope to achieve.

> I agree with you. Hate not the person but only the ignorance and prejudice.
> I also feel that hatred cannot be fought with hatred, only with
> understanding. That is what the sadhana has to be, to upgrade understanding
> through education that is unbiased and friendly to all religions.

The only way you'll be able to get an unbbiased and inoffensive-to
-everyone religion is by watering it down to vague
nothingness.  Fundamentalism exists and thrives today becase it meets
human needs in which ineffectual libral religions just cannot.

> I agree with this also, which is why VHP or any type of politicization of
> religion is bad. Only education can help build pluralism in society.

But your talk of united fronts etc. is 100% political.

>> I'm not suggesting one cannot learn anything from Buddhism.  The fact is
>> that
>> Advaita Vedanta stands for certain things.  As a result it stands against
>> certain other things.  Many of the Buddhist ideas fall in the against
>> column.
> I am not so sure on this.

That's what the Advaita acharyas themselves say.  Read them yourself if
you don't believe me.

> Many Buddhist ideas and Vedanta are the same in
> different words, as is Kashmir Shaivism. But Vedanta could have been the
> Brahmin response to the non-Brahmin Buddhism. The latter disenfranchised
> Brahmins as the exclusive keepers of knowledge, the only ones to perform
> ceremonies (for a fee), the only ones allowed to recite the scriptures, etc.

We can find many things wrong with such a theory.  First of all the
development of Vedanta began long before Buddhism so it can hardly be
called a response.  Secondly Brahmans were never exclusively the keepers
of knowledge.  Witness the role of Kshatriyas in both astika and nastika
philosophies.  There is no particular reason to believe Buddhist were
against the caste system.  True they discounted its validity at the level
of truth but so does Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and even Advaita
Vedanta. On the subject of scripture, the role of the Puranas and epics in
Hinduism is to provide a scripture for those who could not access the
Vedas.  Buddhism on the other hand was in its' later stages almost wholly
concerned with esoteric Tantric practices which if anything were more
jealously guarded from the unworthy than the Vedas were.

> They had turned it into proprietary know how just like Microsoft Windows. So
> Buddha, Jainas, Kashmir Shaivists, and later Nanak,> were among those who
> taught the same or very similar truths WITHOUT relying upon the Vedas as
> their source. That's what the fight was about.

Their knowhow is not proprietary.  All the religions you mentioned
restricted their higher teachings to initiates.

 Its just like someone
> launching something very similar to Windows that is in the public domain. It
> would be a threat to Microsoft.

Devanampriya Ashoka didn't think so.  Else why would he have urged respect
for Brahmans as well as shramans?  The Hindu king of Kanyakubja didn't
think so.  Else why would he have celebrated a festival for Buddha as well
as Shiva and Vishnu?

The differences between astikas and nastikas were philosophical not
political.  We shouldn't read todays political fads into them.

> That's the group I am thinking about. In academics, only 1% study Hinduism,
> It's the other 99% whose attitude towards Hinduism is to be upgraded. This
> is not a good attitude today. Hindus often feel a taboo and prefer to low
> profile their religion. The dynamics is that many of Hinduism's ideas belong
> to philosophy departments, cognitive sciences and medicine. But these
> departments relabel as their own whatever they learnt of Hinduism. So the
> portrayal of Hinduism is reduced to anthropology, meaningless rituals,
> caste, women's abuses, etc.

By the time Hindu children get into college it is already too late.  45
minutes twice a week won't do anything for them.  Hindu education needs to
start from the time they can speak.  The very first stories I heard were
from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.  It took a long time for that to have
an effect on me but eventually it did.

> The K-12 school level textbooks now have Hinduism included as culture or
> history or religion. That is what 70 millions American students are being
> exposed to. It starts with the Harvard Plurality project and Univ of
> Chicago, and a couple of other places that got the govt. grants. These
> materials then get used to write school texts which are taught by teachers
> who know next to nothing about Hinduism. Once your kids go through the
> school system, you will have greater sympathy for what I have learnt.

When I have kids I think I'm going to home school them.  I'm certainly not
going to entrust their Dharmic education to institutions which can't even
teach how to read and count in many cases.  I don't want to teach my
children to be pluralistic.  I want them to be Hindus.  Actually I don't
even want them to be Hindus.  I want them to be Gujarati Smarta Brahmans.

> Otherwise, the bird's eye view which is so typical is not to be relied upon.
> One must get into the details of the education system, its structure,
> funding, politics etc to know who and what controls the portrayal.
> Islamic leaders organized a council to review all textbooks from leading
> publishers and advise changes to ensure nothing negative goes in.

In 10th grade, we were required to take an Ethnic Studies course.  The
textbook included a chapter on every major religion and ethnic group.  Do
you think the chapter on Islam had the slightest impact on any of our
class?  No our attitudes towards Muslims were mostly shaped by the
encounters we had with Muslim classmates in the playground etc.  Call me
cynical but I Remember the goal of the average High School student is to
only learn enough to pass the next test.  Then it is all forgotten.

> I am so glad to hear this, and feel very proud that there are leaders such
> as yourself so committed.

But do you understand why I am committed?  It is because I'm biased.
Biased towards very specific principles.  Watered-down pluralism cannot
inspire such commitment.

> What kept it alive is that its like a banyan tree with many trunks, roots
> etc. There has never been just one truth for all, simply many views each
> relative because the absolute is beyond all views. So we cannot turn it into
> an ossified dogma like the prophet based religions have become. There is
> constant revelation and not just one single historical revelation controlled
> by some privileged group.

Well here we are studying the ossified historical revelation of one
privileged group.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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