Musings of a Shinto Rishi

I came across this wonderful interview with Florian Wiltschko, an Austrian Shinto negi (priest) based in Japan courtesy Akshay Alladi. I was struck by some of the similarities in Wiltschoko’s worldview and my own sanskaras- the approach to life I was taught by my elders, particularly my mother.

“[Japan] is rich and the seasons colour the natural landscape in beautiful ways. Maybe that’s why a monotheistic belief system did not evolve here,” he says. “The bounties of nature, on the other hand, were seen as being the workings of divine forces that needed to be respected and cared for.” This struck a chord. It’s a very Dharmic sensibility and worldview.

There’s also the challenge of adaptation and change, without losing the essence. Incorporating good ideas, discarding the bad ones, but all the while maintaining the core spirit. Wiltschko’s observations are based on the interactions between Shinto and Buddhism, but the same would seem to apply to modern Hinduism, which has over the centuries blended Vedantic and Shramanic metaphysics with folk tales and traditions. It’s a complex mélange and trying to describe it precisely to non-Indians reminds me of the parable of the blind men and an elephant.

What is noteworthy about Wiltschko is that he is a priest by profession. In my compartmentalised mind, there are gurus/yogis and then there are pujaris/purohits/archakas. The former are philosophers and the latter are pedants. There is some experiential basis for this, but perhaps some of it is also a function of my own biases. I “lost” religion in my teenage years through my twenties and identified as an agnostic classical liberal, only to “rediscover” it in my thirties. The religion that interests me is still quite rationalistic: a Vendantic Monism based principally on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, with an interest in Buddhism, Kashmiri Shaivism and Yoga. It is certainly not ritualistic. Temple visits are only to admire the architecture. The privileging, as it were, of jnana marga (the path of knowledge) over bhakti marga (the path of devotion).

But perhaps there is wisdom in customs and rituals too. There need not be a neat bifurcation between the high philosophy and the riti-riwaj. Jnana marga and bhakti marga are not mutually exclusive.

“It’s very important to maintain a positive inner spirit,” Wiltschko signs off. “You might say that it’s my mission or my calling to contribute to maintaining this spirit.” The words of a modern Rishi.

[The writer tweets @paragsayta]

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The Parsis of Bombay

I just finished reading Michael Axworthy’s Iran: Empire of the Mind, one of Razib Khan’s recommended reads on Iran. The book serves as a useful primer on Iranian history for novices (such as myself), covering over 3,000 years of history in less than 300 pages. It lacks the literary flair and flourish of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s magisterial Arabs. I found myself skimming through the latter parts of the book- the Pahlavi era and the subsequent Islamic Revolution- as I am broadly familiar with the events of the modern period.

 Pre-Islamic Persia was an advanced and sophisticated civilisation. Axworthy provides a good overview of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid periods of Iranian history. Ancient Iranians developed a complex and nuanced theology centred around the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of the Sassanid Empire, one of the superpowers of the pre-Islamic world. All of this was to change with the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. The armies of Islam burst out of the Arabian Peninsula like a supernova and reduced the Sassanid Empire to dust. The Zoroastrian religion was swept away in this upheaval.

 One group of Zoroastrians escaped and sought refuge in Gujarat in Western India. These Zoroastrians are commonly known as the Parsis (from Pars or Persia). The essay below is a personal account of the Parsis of Mumbai. I had written it a decade ago. Reading Axworthy’s book brought some of those sweet memories back.  

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Forgotten Masters: Indian artists during the Raj

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to e-attend (over Zoom) a lecture organised by London’s Royal School of Drawing on Indian artists during the Raj. Titled Reflections on Forgotten Masters, the talk by William Dalrymple (the famous Scottish historian) and Xavier Bray (the director of the Wallace Collection) followed the eponymous exhibition organised by the Wallace Collection and co-curated by William Dalrymple last year.

The Wallace Collection is not as well known as other London museums such as the British Museum or the Victoria & Albert Museum. Originally built around the private collections of the nineteenth century British aristocrat Sir Richard Wallace, they have a wide repertoire and organise a number of interesting exhibitions, including on themes related to the subcontinent. I had previously attended their exhibition on Indian medicine titled Ayurvedic Man, which was excellent. Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown last year meant that I couldn’t physically visit the Reflection on Forgotten Masters exhibition, and had to view it online.

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The (Original Brown) Pundits: Spies, Explorers and Scholars during the Great Game

Galwan Valley, Pangong Lake, Karakoram Pass, Doklam Plateau, Mishmi Hills. These obscure geographical features and landmarks in the high Himalayas separating India from China have suddenly made their way back into the public consciousness. The catalyst this time is the increased friction between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India. I use the phrases “way back” and “this time” deliberately. To scholars and enthusiasts of the Great Game, these names and the surrounding context are eerily familiar: shadow boxing between an ascendant, assertive superpower (Tsarist Russia) trying to throw its weight around in its immediate neighbourhood and an ostensibly weaker but rising middling power (British India) trying to protect its interest in its backyard.

The original Great Game, which played out over the course of the nineteenth century between the British Indian and Russian Empires in South and Central Asia, had all the characteristics of a bestselling novel, filled with action, adventure and intrigue. It also had its set of glamorous characters: Sir Alexander ‘Sikunder’ Burnes- the famous British spy with oodles of charm and dashing good looks to boot- was the James Bond of his era. He was matched on the Russian side by Captain Yan Vitkevich, the enigmatic Polish-Lithuanian orientalist and explorer. Mercifully, there was very little by way of direct bloodshed between the principal protagonists, although things did come close to getting out of hand on a few occasions. No wonder the Russians evocatively called the contest “The Tournament of Shadows”.  It was compelling drama and the public- in Britain, India, Russia and beyond- lapped it up. The romance and zeitgeist of the times was captured by the great Victorian author Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel, Kim.

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On Ahmadiyyas and Jains

One of my favourite examples to demonstrate why Hindus and Muslims are like chalk and cheese (or cheese and chalk- no value judgment implied by the metaphor!) is their respective treatment of Jains and Ahmadiyyas.

We all know about the plight of Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a story in the media on Ahmadiyya persecution. To Indian eyes, this can be quite baffling. The Ahmadiyyas reserve a highly exalted position for Prophet Muhammad. By all socio-cultural markers: naming and dressing conventions, eating habits, praying patterns etc., they appear “Muslim”. Yet certain theological red lines are crossed- including the recognition of Indic icons such as Buddha and Krishna as prophets, but most importantly the perceived violation of the doctrine of Khatam-un-Nabiyeen: the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. A clear case of orthodoxy trumping orthopraxy. This hostility towards the Ahmadiyyas is not a recent phenomenon and can be traced back to the views of the founding fathers of Pakistan, such as Allama Iqbal.

From a Hindu perspective, this can appear bizarre- ethnic Punjabi “Muslims” who share so much in common in both cultural and kinship terms are so hostile towards each other due to some theological disputes. There are more consequential theological disputes within sects of Hinduism. For example, within Vaishnavism, there is the Dvaita Vedanta school founded by the 13th century scholar-saint Madhavacharya which believes that the Divine (i.e. Vishnu or the supreme being) is distinct from the individual. The better known Advaita Vedanta school founded by Adi Shankaracharya is Monistic (i.e. believes in the essential unity of the Divine or Vishnu and the individual). From a theological perspective, these ruptures are perhaps as radical as those between Sunni Muslims and Ahmadiyyas. Yet, the average modern Hindu, even someone who self-identifies strongly as a Vaishnavite, would find the notion of being hostile to other Vaishnavites on the basis of doctrinal differences to be bizarre and laughable.

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Book Review: Islamic Empires- Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization

Justin Marozzi: Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization 

One of the starkest contrasts between the Indic and the Islamic civilizations is the relative importance accorded to the urban. Dharmic philosophies place special emphasis on solitude- going off to the forest to meditate (vanaprasthashrama) and then eventually renouncing the material world (sanyasashrama) are considered important virtues. Dharmic iconography is replete with non-urban landscapes and settings: Lord Shiva meditating in the Himalayas, Lord Krishna feeling most at home in the bucolic settings of Vrindavan, and Lord Buddha renouncing urban life to find the truth. The Monistic underpinnings of some dominant schools of Indic philosophy- the belief that the Divine exists (and can be found) everywhere- further reduces the appeal of urbanism. The final element at play here is geography: Dharmic philosophies flourished in a land of abundance- the sapta sindhu or the land of the seven rivers- a highly fertile landscape. There was little need to create the metaphorical oasis in the desert.

By contrast, Islamic civilization has always been defined by urbanism. The Prophet Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca. He spent much of his life in the cities that define Islam to this day- Mecca and Medina. While there are elements of the spiritual associated with his life- the time spent in solitude in the caves of Mount Hira, for example- the dominant strands of his life were temporal. The building of the empire beginning with the conquests of Mecca and Medina, the dispensing of justice and organising the Ummah. The concept of Jannah or paradise in Islam- a place replete with gardens- also drove the move towards the urban. In a desert region, the quest was to conquer (or build) cities: oasis where the faithful could congregate, protected from the harshness of the surrounding landscape.

Justin Marozzi, an Anglo-Italian journalist who has spent much of his life in the Islamic world, gives this twinning of Islam and urbanism an innovative twist. He seeks to tease out strands of Islamic history by examining fifteen cities across fifteen centuries- one for each century of Islam’s existence. He largely succeeds in his quest to provide a bird’s eye view of a complex and sophisticated civilization, across the arc of its history.

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Jaswant Singh: The Last Liberal Conservative

Major Jaswant Singh (1938-2020), a former Indian army officer and distinguished parliamentarian and politician passed away recently. He served high office in the first BJP/NDA regime (1998-2004) and was, variously, the Defence, External Affairs and Finance Minister. Perhaps his most enduring legacy was his deft handling of India’s foreign policy in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Most famously, his dialogues with the US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott helped cement Indo-US ties in the aftermath of the Cold War era.

There are some excellent obituaries- from allies, critics and rivals alike- which give us a good sense of the man and his persona. For me, the obituary that really struck a chord was the one by the senior Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta in his Cut the Clutter show.  It is worth quoting him verbatim:

Jaswant Singh was the last Indian liberal conservative… A conservative in the sense that he brought in a Hindu sensibility, a love for Indian culture. But liberal enough…to embrace everybody… and not interfere in anybody’s way of life and allow a healthy debate… he would have fitted the Swatantra Party very well and would have brought to it the one thing it seemed to lack in the 1950s and 60s: a strong appeal to nationalism”.  

With Singh’s passing, it does feel that the last vestiges of the Vajpayee era are fading away. In his obituary for Singh, the journalist Saeed Naqvi, by no means a cheerleader for the BJP says that “Vajpayee’s was a cabinet of women and gentlemen, a few rotten apples notwithstanding.” Old fashioned virtues of moderation, decency and honour were valued by Vajpayee, and there was no one who epitomised old school more than Jaswant Singh. Through his career as a soldier and public servant and his sense of noblesse oblige, this thoroughbred Rajput proved to be a worthy Kshatriya by virtue of his karma.  In that, he was not alone. Dr. Karan Singh of the Dogra dynasty of Jammu & Kashmir and Captain Amrinder Singh of the House of Patiala are others of his generation who come to mind, albeit with different political ideologies.

Jaswant Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The last of the Liberal Conservatives. Source: Indiacontent.in

As a self-avowed liberal conservative, it is hard to not feel a tinge of sadness at this. One got the sense that men like Vajpayee and Singh were able to balance tradition and modernity: adept at blending the Burkean with the Vedantic, and equally well versed in the Bhagavad Gita and the Indian Constitution.

I could name half a dozen prominent BJP politicians in the Vajpayee years who could have identified as liberal conservatives. I struggle to name any noteworthy ones in the Modi-Shah BJP. The closest that comes to mind is the Odisha politician Baijayant Panda, but he is not prominent or important enough in the party. Others such as the former Maharastra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis or the current Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan had the potential to tailor their politics in this direction with the right backing and support. Unfortunately the signal from the leadership is that chest-thumping nationalism and ideological purity counts for more than moderation and compromise. Unlike a Jaswant Singh, these politicians do not have the intellectual courage or independence of spirt to breach the party line and chart their own path. It is a sad indictment on Indian politics, one that would have undoubtedly greatly depressed Jaswant Singh.

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The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 3)

In my previous two posts, I traced the roots of India as a civilization state and proposed a framework which would seek to retain modern India’s classical Anglo-liberal framework but embellish it with Dharmic values. In this third and final post, I will seek to demonstrate how these seemingly contradictory systems could be reconciled in a coherent Anglo-Dharmic liberal conservative framework. I will also analyse Indian domestic and foreign policy from a liberal conservative perspective. Before doing that, it is worth examining how liberal conservatism would deal with the third great tradition that has influenced Indian history: Islam.

The Muslim Question

The ledger of the Nehruvian state’s interactions with and treatment of Indian Muslims is decidedly a mixed bag. On the positive side, it is to the Nehruvian state’s credit that Indian Muslims were able to see themselves as full and equal participants and stakeholders in the Indian Republic. It is easy to underestimate today how difficult and challenging this would have been in the immediate aftermath of the partition and vivisection of India in 1947. It would have been easy to let hatred and vengeance take over in the aftermath of a bloody division. The Congress party under the stewardship of Pandit Nehru ensured that the better angels of our nature prevailed and the Muslims who remained in India were treated with tolerance and compassion. The basic framework of the Indian Constitution, in particular the golden triangle of equality, freedom and liberty, ensured full and equal citizenship and freedom of worship for Indian Muslims. The wisdom and sagacity of the founding fathers of the modern Indian Republic who were the architects of this framework must be applauded.

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The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 2)

In my previous post, I sought to demonstrate the chain of continuity that has been characteristic of Indian civilization. I also posited that the current political dispensation in India- whose support base can be loosely characterised as “woke Hindutva”- is normatively undesirable. In this post, I build upon my previous arguments to propose a framework I call “liberal conservatism”, which could conserve and promote India’s civilizational heritage within a liberal democratic system.

The limitations of classical liberalism

During the high noon of the post-Soviet Pax Americana era (1990s and 2000s), two books on political philosophy were particularly influential. The first was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, which broadly argued in favour of the Hegelian notion of a progressive march of history leading to a global convergence based on free markets and liberal democracy. The other was Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations which argued that the battle between capitalism and communism would be replaced by a new clash between competing values, customs and traditions of different civilisations. The Huntingtonian thesis was severely criticised at the time. The Fukuyaman idea of a global neoliberal hegemony captured the zeitgeist and seemed inevitable.

In hindsight, the Huntingtonian insight of divergence based on civilizational values has proven to be quite prescient. The idea first gained popularity in China in the last decade. China sees its unique political institutions and public culture as an outcome of Chinese values that have evolved over the centuries. These include Confucianism and the network of social commitments called guanxi. The notion has since become widely popular and adopted by countries as disparate as Russia and France.

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The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 1)

I listened with interest to Brown Pundits’ recent podcasts with Gaurav and Tony on the current state of Indian politics. I could relate to some of their agonies and predicaments, although I profoundly disagree with some aspects of Tony’s worldview.  Slapstik’s recent post Indian woke wears saffron also contains some good insights on the nature and roots of the current Hindutva movement. In this post, I have picked on three strands of Slapstik’s argument: the comparison between Hindutva and woke culture, the genesis of the Bhakti movement and the nature of the leadership of the Indian National Congress both before and after independence.

While I share Slapstik’s assessment of the importance of the Bhakti movement, I do not regard the Bhakti movement as a radical rupture from the pre-Islamic Dharmic traditions. I also argue that by only highlighting the role and influence of the liberal modernist elements of the Indian political leadership in the colonial and early post-colonial periods, Slapstik overlooks the equally if not more salient part of the leadership that sought its inspiration from the country’s indigenous Indic heritage. In doing so, I seek to highlight the deep and abiding roots of India’s Dharmic consciousness that is characterised by cultural continuity.

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