Renegade Hinduism Scholar Featured In Norton’s Anthology of World Religions

The just-released, multi-volume Norton Anthology of World Religions is a major project of substance undertaken by a group of world-renowned scholars in comparative religions.   However, what makes it stand out is the contribution of Professor Kancha Ilaiah, who hails from an illiterate sudra shepherd family.

In the four-level Hindu caste system the sudra are the lowest of the low, and in recent history have consisted mainly of artisans and menial laborers.  Because of the rigidity of the caste system, which persists in India today, the sudra are not normally permitted the kind of privileged academic place the Norton Anthology offers.  They, in fact, have been victims of brutally imposed social and epistemological deprivation for centuries.

Ilaiah is notable for his magnum opus Why I Am Not A Hindu (taking after Bertrand Russell’s famous, or infamous, essay Why I Am Not A Christian), both of which have been included in the anthology.  So it is significant that Ilaiah’s socially revolutionary text on the Hindu caste system from the sudra perspective acquired a place in the tome.  His essay places him on a par with Russell, and two of them together constitute examples of  what anthology editor Jack Miles terms “contrarian canons” in their respective traditions.   In this context, Ilaiah’s contribution discusses what forced this organic intellectual to climb the stature of contrarian canon by undertaking severe and serious critique of racism, casteism, and religious fascism from his everyday life-experience and from the framework of his own distinctive life-world.

This magisterial Norton Anthology comprises six volumes with each one devoted to the following major religions of the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. General editor, Jack Miles, is a Professor of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography.  In a lengthy and perceptive introduction, Miles explains how and why these six religions were chosen and why other smaller religions like Jainism, Sikhism, and so on were left out.  The basic criterion of selection, Miles writes in his preface, had to do with those faiths that represented “major, living, international religions”.

The anthology brings together foundational works – for example, the Bhagvad-Gita, the Bible, and the Qur’an  with the writings of scholars, seekers, believers, and skeptics whose voices over centuries have kept these religions vital[1].  Volume one covers Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism with Wendy Doniger as the editor for Hinduism part. Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of History of Religions at the University of Chicago and her popular work The Hindus – An Alternative History was banned in India for its controversial content, leading to a debate over the country’s democratic structure and academic freedom[2].

Ilaiah studied and worked in a little-known university – Osmania at Hyderabad, Telangana – for 38 years.  Later on, he moved to Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad as Director of Research Centre.  In his preface Miles observes that “the editors have even included occasional attacks on the religious traditions anthologized.  As [the Russell and Ilaiah] entries nicely demonstrate, the canon of texts regarded as permanent and irreplaceable in a religious tradition does not coincide exactly with the canon of texts arguably crucial for the study of the tradition”[3].   In the section on Hinduism  Doniger included a chapter from Why I am Not a Hindu called “Hindu Gods and Us”[4].  In the portion of the anthology where Ilaiah’s chapter is included, Doniger writes that “Kancha Ilaiah (b.1952) who announces officially that he is not a Hindu, writes brilliantly as the outsider within, the Dalit who simultaneously illuminates the Hinduism that he rejects, and that rejects him, and his own dalit strain of religion that strangely resembles Hinduism”[5].

Ilaiah,  who is demonized by the mainstream Hindu religious pundits and political Hindutva (a contemporary, militant, religious, nativist, and nationalist ideology) had a difficult existence at Osmania University.  A scholar who first worked on land reforms in Andhra Pradesh in order to advance his ideological cause of radical left, had struggled for eight long years to become a lecturer, as he was only a documentation officer in a research project of the department during those eight years.  He took almost a decade to complete his Ph.D. on Gautama Buddha’s political philosophy.

His reputation as an uncompromising (albeit well-mannered) civil liberties activist forced him to change supervisors during his graduate studies.  Finally, Ilaiah completed his unusual doctoral thesis under Prof. Rama Melkote, a radical left activist.   In 1996 with the publication of Why I Am Not a Hindu, Ilaiah became an internationally known intellectual figure, and his book was a best-seller for that year. It was listed as a millennium book by the leading Delhi based English daily The Pioneer[6] and has been translated into several languages. Later, it was also chosen for London Institute of South Asia (LISA) Book Award-2008[7].

Ilaiah’s Why I am Not a Hindu, a religio-philosophical text that is at the same time an unusual contribution in the Indian literary ethos, has been compared with Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth.  When Ilaiah published his book, whch has no footnotes or reference, his own colleagues and friends at Osmania University ridiculed him for writing it.  Unlike other critiques of Hinduism, Ilaiah has gone to the root of the problem of production, labor, and the relationship between the divine agencies that Hinduism constructed historically and socio-spiritual culture of masses.  As he continued to write in popular media on socio-political and philosophical issues, the Osmania authorities served a notice on him to stop writing[8].   In his own indomitable style, he fought the authorities and survived in the teaching profession.

Now that Why I am Not a Hindu is featured so prominently in the Norton Anthology, Ilaiah as an author and scholar needs to be reconsidered, and revisited.  He nowhere comes out, even in his subsequent writings, as an atheist like Russell.  Nor does he say that he is a believer.  But he invokes the productive ethic of the gods and goddesses of Dalitbahujan, as if he believes in the productive ethic of the masses, which makes him a naturalist and pragmatist.  As a result, we can deduce that he is a  religious naturalist, perhaps even some kind of theist.  In other words, one can consider him as Religious Naturalist.  One author has described religious naturalists as those who endeavor “to explore and encourage religious ways of responding to the world or at least ways that are analogous to what we traditionally call religious”[9].  Other examples of religious naturalism, even before the term was actually used, include Epicurus, Lao-Tzu, W.E.B. Du Bois[10],  and Albert Einstein [11].

As an atheist, Russell’s own contention with all religions is that they are grounded on a belief that is rooted in fear, and that they are both “untrue and harmful”[12], whereas Ilaiah has argued that Hinduism is only untrue and harmful so long as it treats its followers as unequal.  For instance, only a Brahmin can claim priesthood but not the others.  This religious privilege, dominance and hegemony portrayed as “spiritual fascism” by Ilaiah[13].  The core and centrality of Russell’s objection in denying religion is the belief in God and immortality[14] where Ilaiah focuses on the lack of spiritual democracy within religion without criticizing actual beliefs[15].

In several conversations with myself Ilaiah alleged that “God as the notion obtained in the four religious texts, namely Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, are as follows: God in Christianity reaches humanity as worker, in Islam God reaches humanity as an embodiment of power, God in Buddhism is non-existent, and God in Hinduism is a killer”[17].  Ironically, in his earlier work he had conceived Buddha as God, as we find in his book God As Political Philosopher – Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism.   The notion of God is a recurring theme in Ilaiah’s writings.  His newly published novel is called Untouchable God.

If the definition of religion centers on the notion of God and the belief of its followers in such a God, Buddhism cannot be treated as a religion at all. But the Norton Anthology breaks with this conventional framing of the issue. They treat religion as art, politics or ideology[18].  Ilaiah seems to have used his notion of God and religion in very “postmodern” sense.

There is a huge backlash to Ilaiah’s writing in the United States and the European upper-caste diaspora. The American Hindu Foundation and its temple network have been using various platforms to attack him both in regular writing and social media. They seem to think that Ilaiah’s writings, in general, and Why I am Not a Hindu, have cast Hinduism to the world in an undeserved and unfavorable light, chiefly because of their preoccupation with the social inequality of the religion and the caste system.  Within India the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the political extension of Hindutva, has filed two cases against him – one for writing an article -entitled “Is God a Democrat or Not?” in a Telugu newspaper, and another for a so-called speech he gave while releasing an autobiography written by a Dalit officer.  In the second instance they went to the extent of saying ‘He should leave Hinduism and join Christianity’[19].

Ilaiah’s publications and public pronouncements have generated a lot of anxiety among the Hindus, and Hindutva forces. They continue to accuse him of being a Christian agent.[20]  In the 1990s they even suspected his English communication abilities and went on accusing that somebody else was ghost-writing for him.  This suspicion was not totally unwarranted, because he studied in a single teacher village Telugu medium school and in a district level substandard degree college at Warangal.  The Telugu nationality itself has not produced a globally recognized English writer from such a linguistic nationality.  How a first-generation educated professional coming from a semi-nomadic shepherding caste could achieve this kind of English fluency is something of a puzzle to many.

The English style Ilaiah deployed in Why I am Not Hindu is highly sophisticated and globally communicative.  People believed in the writing abilities of Ambedkar because he studied at Columbia University and London School of Economics. Doniger, however, says that Ilaiah “writes brilliantly”, and Miles compares him with Russell himself.

Dr. Ramaiah Bheenaveni is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Osmania University, Hyderabad, India.  He is the author of Urban Management in India (2011).

_______________________________________________________________________________

[1] In Jack Miles’s blog in introducing the Norton Anthology of World Religions. Retrieved from http://www.jackmiles.com/Home/books/the-norton-anthology-of-world-religions on 24-12-2015.

[2] The Hindu, 30-10-2015

[3] Doniger, Wendy (2015). Hinduism in The Norton Anthology of World Religions, edited by Jack Miles, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, Preface 1, xxv.

[4] Ibid, 622.

[5] Ibid, 697-709.

[6] Sastry, M. V. R. (2003). “A Critical Review of Kancha Ilaiah’s ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’”, Hindu Review – The Hindu Perspective, 08-06-2003. Available at: http://hindureview.com/2003/07/08/critical-review-kancha-ilaiah%C2%92s-hindu retrieved on 28-12-2015.

[7] The Hindu 28-06-2008

[8] Kancha Ilaiah’s ‘Spiritual Fascism and Civil Society’ published in the Deccan Chronicle of 15th February, 2000 invited censure from the Registrar of Osmania University, couched in the form of advice. Copies of the Registrar’s letter dated 6th May, 2000, were marked to the Secretary and Vice-Chancellor of the University and Principal of the University College of Arts and Science. Clearly, the letter was an official communication that would go into Ilaiah’s personal file. Kannabiran, K. G. (2014),  The Wages of Impunity: Power, Justice, and Human Rights (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan), 315.

[9] Stone, J. A. (2003). “Varieties of Religious Naturalism”, Zygon, 38(1), 89-93.

[10] “Religious Naturalism”, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_naturalism retrieved on 26-12-2015.

[11] Einstein on Science and Religion. “Although he read the Bible often, spoke quite freely about God, and was unapologetically religious, the essay discloses a religious disposition not quite like that of an ordinary religious person. He believed “in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings” (Einstein Archive 33-272)”. Available at http://www.westminster.edu/staff/nak/courses/Einstein%20Sci%20%26%20Rel.pdf,  retrieved on 27-12-2015.

[12] Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear……… Fear is the basis of the whole thing fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion has gone hand-in-hand.” Russell, Bertrand (1957). Why I Am Not a Christian: and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. Simon and Schuster, 18.

[13] “The Brahmanic forces did not integrate [this] common sense knowledge into their spiritual texts. Spiritual democracies have made such knowledge a part of their religious books, but Hinduism has remained a moribund fundamentalist superstitious institution, thereby never allowing the human mind to grow on positive lines. Thus, all its books reflect only the spiritual fascist knowledge of Brahmanic forces.” Ilaiah, Kancha (2009). Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution. SAGE Publications, New Delhi. 273.

[14] “I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature-namely, that you must believe in God and immortality.” Op. cit., Russell, 2.

[15] “Goddesses and Gods live in all forms and in all shapes and in different places. Every Dalitbahujan child learns at an early age about these Goddesses and Gods. The children are part of the caste congregations that take place during festivals……… For Kurumaas whether sheep and goats will prosper depends on the attitude of Beerappa, a caste-specific God.” Ilaiah, Kancha (1996). Why I Am Not a Hindu. A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. Samya, Kolkata, 7.

[16] “The concept of God has come into human life in order to liberate the salve from their oppressor and to ensure the well-being of all human beings. The concept of Brahma, on the other hand, was worked out to enslave people and oppress them perpetually. The Brahmans worked out a method to mediate with God to produce spiritual fascism to suppress the Shudras, Chandalas and the Adivasis of India. Op. cit., Post-Hindu India, 196.

[17] The author discussed with Kancha Ilaiah about his understanding of the notion of God. In many public meetings he explained about the nature and character of God as that notion appears in different religious texts.

[18] Ilaiah Kancha. (2000). God As Political Philosopher – Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism, Samya, Kolkata, 208-215.

[19] Cr.No470/2015U/5 153 (A), 295 (A) IPC of Chikkadapally Police Station, Hyderabad. The first case was stayed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court filed in Sultan Bazar Police Station, Hyderabad. Cr.No 193/2015 153 (A), 195 (A).

[20] Malhotra, Rajiv., and Neelakandan, Arvindan. (2011). Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines. Amaryllis.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Renegade Hinduism Scholar Featured In Norton’s Anthology of World Religions

  1. It is great hounour for him for being featured in world’s famous Norton’s Anthology of World Religions. It is needless to say that the struggle of Kancha Ilaiah with indomitable spirit ignites the minds of students and youth who hail from dalitbahujan background. He is the role model for present generation. His way of analysis things is innovative, contextual and demystifies the so-called Hindutva forces. However, He is the champion who fight against unproductive parasites by proposing spiritual democracy.

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