A Book Review of Indra’s Net by Rajiv Malhotra

THE INTELLECTUAL PUGILIST

 ( Indra’s Net by Rajiv Malhotra, Harper Collins Publishers India, 2014)

By Khandavalli Satya Deva Prasad

Indra's Net

The title of this book is a metaphor for the profound cosmology and outlook that permeates Hinduism. Indra’s Net symbolizes the universe as a web of connections and inter-dependencies among all its members, wherein every member is both a manifestation of the whole and inseparable from the whole. In these pages I seek to revive it as the foundation for Vedic cosmology and show how it went on to become the central principle of Buddhism, and from there spread into mainstream western discourse several disciplines.

The metaphor of Indra’s Net originates from the Atharva Veda, which likens the world to a net woven by the great deity Shakra or Indra. The net is said to be infinite, and to spread in all directions with no beginning or end. At each node of the net is a jewel, so arranged that every jewel reflects all the other jewels. No jewel exists by itself independently of the rest. Everything is related to everything else; nothing is isolated. The mantra is brihaddhi jaalam brihatah shakrasya vaajinivatah(8.8.6), Ayam loko jaalamaaseet shakrasya mahato mahan (8.8.8). The fundamental idea of unity-in-diversity underpins all dharmic traditions….

Now excerpts from the preface of the book:

Each of my books tries to provoke a new kind of conversation, the goal of which is to confront some specific prejudice against Indian civilization. Established biases covering a wide range of issues need to be exposed, especially when they are unsubstantiated. The objective of every book of mine is to pick a particular dominant narrative which is sustained by a nexus of scholars specializing in that theme, and then target it to effectively subvert it. If my counter-discourse can become established in the minds of a sufficient number of serious thinkers, thenit will assume a life of its own and its effects will continue to snowball without my direct involvement. This is the end result I seek. To be effective, a book must resist straying from its strategic priorities and must avoid arguing too broadly.

For example, I developed the strategy, overall thesis, and much of the content of Invading the Sacred so as to take aim at the Freudian psychoanalytical critique of Hindism. This hegemonic discourse was being propagated by powerful nexus in the heart of the Western academia, and had spread as a fad among Indian intellectuals. Invading the Sacred gave birth to, and incubated, a solid opposition which cannot be ignored today.

My subsequent book, Breaking India, focused on demonstrating how external forces are trying to destabilize India by deliberately undermining its civilization. Such efforts are targeted at confusing and ultimately aborting any collective positive identity based on Indian civilization. The book exposed the foreign interests and their Indian sepoys who see Hinduism as a random juxtaposition of incoherent and fragmented traditions. Many watchdog movements have sprung into action because of that book. It has triggered a domino effect with other researchers now exposing more instances of the same syndrome.

My most recent book, Being Different, presents a coherent and original view of dharma as a family of traditions that challenges the West’s claim of universalism. Because Western universalism is unfortunately being used as the template for mapping and defining all cultures, it is important to become conscious of its distorted interpretations of Indian traditions. Being Different is prompting many Indians to question various simplistic views concerning their traditions, including some that are commonly espoused by their own gurus and political leaders. It is a handbook for serious intellectuals on how to ‘take back’ Hinduism by understanding it on its own terms.

The present book exposes the influential narrative that Hinduism was fabricated during British rule and became a dangerous new religion. The central thesis which I seek to topple asserts that Swamy Vivekananda plagiarized Western secular and christian ideas and then recast them in Sanskrit terminology to claim Indian origins for them. Besides critiquing this nexus and defending Vivekananda’s vision, this book also presents my own vision for the future of Hinduism and its place in the world.

Hence the book has two purposes: to defend the unity of Hinduism as we practice it today, and to offer my own ideas about how to advance Vivekananda’s revolution to the next stage.

This volume introduces some new vocabulary and ideas such as ‘open architecture’ and ‘toolbox’, which are critical to my insights on Hinduism. While openness has always been characteristic of Hindus, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. I argue that this very quality of openness has made Hinduism susceptible to becoming ‘digested.’ ‘Digestion’, a concept introduced in my earlier books, is further elaborated in these pages.

In the conclusion, I stick my neck out and introduce a set of defensive strategies for safeguarding against digestion. I call these stragies the ‘poison pill’ and the ‘porcupine defence’. I hope this provocative proposition will trigger debate and controversy.

Some of the new vocabulary that was introduced in Being Different such as ‘history centricsm’, ‘integral unity’ and ‘embodied knowing’ will be further sharpened in these pages. I will also ascribe new meanings to the old Sanskrit terms astika and nastika, and utilize them differently than in the tradition.

Clearly, I wish to influence mainstream Hindus who are often seriously misinformed about their own traditions.

My hope is to spur the genesis of what I call a ‘home team’ of intellectual leaders who would research, reposition and articulate Hinduism in a responsible way on important issues today.

I have made some compromises for practical reasons. For instance, I use the term ‘philosophy’ to refer not only to western philosophy but also, to Indian thought, even though the latter would more accurately be called darshana.

The difference between philosophy and darshana is significant. Philosophy is entirely disembodied and is an intellectual tool driven by the ego. Darshana includes philosophy but goes much further because it also includes embodied experience. Traditionally, Indian thoughthas been characterized by the interplay of intellectual analysis and sadhana, with no barriers between the two. Hindu practices cultivate certain states of mind as preparation for receiving advanced knowledge. In other words, darshana includes anubhava (embodied experience) in addition to the study of texts and reasoning. The ordinary mind is an instrument of knowing , and its enhancement through meditation and other sadhana is seen as essential to achieving levels of knowledge higher than reasoning alone can provide. Western philosophy emphasizes reason to the exclusion of anubhava and thus consists essentially of the disembodied analysis of ‘mental objects’. Such a philosophy can never cross the boundary of dualism.

The very existence of smritis- texts that are written and rewritten to fit the context of each specific period and place- indicates that our tradition has never been frozen in time. It has evolved in stip with the needs and challenges of each era.

Hinduism cannot be pigeon-holed into tradition, modern and post-modern straitjackets in the way the west sees itself, because Hinduism has always been all three of these simultaneously and without contradiction.

The book focuses on toppling a specific, well-entrenched line of discourse that tries to isolate tradition in order to create conflicts and contradictions. My challenge is to help general readers undergo some serious mental shifts.

Following are my comments:

Like the seminal concept of Indra’s Net, most fundamental concepts that are ruling the intellectual space in the modern days are from Vedic (Hindu) India. For instance the very idea of interconnectedness and complementary reflected in the Indra’s Net fascinated the western scientists and contributed in no small measure to the foundation ideas of quantum physics. Scientists like Ervin Schroedinger openly acknowledged their debt to Vedantic ideas in understanding and clarifying quantum concepts. Going further back, it is a well known fact in History of Hindu Science that the Zero symbol, concept of infinity, the number system, the decimal place value system, are the exclusive discoveries of Hindus. This fact is recorded by such historians of mathematics as G.B. Halstead. The medical science, astronomy, the cosmology of Hindus travelled to Arabia and Moorish-Spain in a big way beginning with 8th century. From there these Hindu sciences reached Europe from Spanish moors and also directly from Persia. Buddhism has Hindu knowledge system for its base and served as the export variety of Hinduism (vide S.Radhakrishnan). It is perhaps the first missionary religion in the world and carried Hindu Ayurveda, and Sanskrit lore to distant lands. The sramanas (thera-putras) served the medical and educational needs of the people of foreign lands and gained converts to Buddhism. These conversions were voluntary and never resulted in the disruption of those foreign cultures and societies as is the case with christian and muslim conversions in India at present. The medical services of thera-putras were so popular that the very name for the science and art of medical treatment came to be called therapeutics. It is an undeniable fact that Buddhism adopted its pantheon, and tantric lore from its mother Hinduism, however vehemently may some alienated neo-Buddhists deny the fact. Thus Hindu knowledge first went to Buddhism, then spread to distant lands, though some direct passage also occurred. One point to remember here is that the western mind with its excessively materialistic tendencies and lack of experiential culture, is forever at sea to grasp the Hindu knowledge in the original. So it needed some half-wayhouse. Buddhism and Islam served as the conduits. One who investigates the global circulation of ideas, and the history of ideas will see the truth in this statement.

Rajiv Malhotra attempted in this book not only to turn the tables on the west’s subversion attempts, but also to reestablish the centrality of Hindu knowledge system. His book is important in more than one way to the Hindus in general and to the alienated Hindus in particular who have lost all respect and confidence in their own dharmic religion and culture.

 

 

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