New life for an ancient myth

 

Narendra Modi’s electoral campaign was premised on a government for ‘daridra narayan’ but he seems to be busy creating a class of new Aryans.

BY DOROTHY M FIGUEIRA

On February 20, 1939, 20,000 German-Americans attended a rally of the German-American Bund at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The organising entity, also known as the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, was an American Nazi organisation established in 1936.

I was not yet born, but my Italian-American mother spoke to me repeatedly about this rally during my childhood when she wanted to complain about the racist double standards at work in American society. She would argue that German-Americans sympathetic to the Nazis spewed their venom in her city with impunity, while the US authorities were far less accommodating to potentially seditious behaviour from groups of other hyphenated Americans whose countries of origin were deemed totalitarian.

German-Americans could flirt with the Nazis as much as they wanted. Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford could accept honours from Adolf Hitler, but law-abiding Japanese-Americans would soon be rounded up and put in concentrations camps in their own country, thanks to the racist policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Earl Warren.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had earlier taught Italian-Americans the degree to which mainstream America tolerated Italian anarchists.

So it is with a certain déjà vu that I read about how on September 28, 2014, Madison Square Garden yet again accommodated 20,000 people when the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, visited the United States. As recently as 2005, Modi had been denied a visa to enter the US on the grounds of religious intolerance. Now Indian-Americans greeted him at the Garden with tremendous pomp, similar to the fanfare that welcomed the Nazis 75 years ago.

Instead of swastikas, red and black banners, and massive portraits of George Washington described as a man of action “just like Adolf Hitler”, Modi’s staging was a high-tech and Bollywood-style extravaganza. It was not surprising that the supporters of both the Nazis and Modi had brought with them their own thugs to beat up protesters and journalists. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Of course, Modi is a statesman, a head of government elected by the world’s largest democracy, not a rabble-rouser, at least not on this visit. Whereas the leader of the German Bund had referred to Roosevelt as Frank D. Rosenfeld and the New Deal as the “Jew Deal,” Modi indulged in no such inflammatory nonsense. He focused on immigration reform and business opportunities. More importantly, he flattered his audience. He noted the degree to which they had been involved in his election, even if they could not vote. Had it not been for the monetary contributions from the Indian-American community, the BJP would not have had its great success.

He continued to stroke their collective ego. He told them that it was through their actions and values that they earned the immense respect they receive in the world. Without them, the IT revolution could not have been possible. He compared them to Gandhi. Like the “Mahatma” before them, they too work abroad, will return home, and give much to the homeland. Toward that end, he announced that he would establish lifetime visas for PIOs and long-term visas for US citizens. They could stay in India as long as they wished without the bother of registering with the police. In short, they could have all the benefits of living in the US and being Americans but could also enjoy India whenever they desired. No wonder these staid professionals responded to Modi’s remarks just as hysterical bobby-soxers had done when Sinatra played at the Garden years ago!

It must have been nice for Modi’s audience to have their worth reaffirmed. In fact, Modi presented them with a very gratifying story of identity which in essence is a variation of the Aryan myth examined in these pages. Like the myth of their Aryan ancestors, the Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin also brought sophistication to the lands they invaded. Unlike other immigrant populations, they did not come to America to flee poverty, starvation, religious discrimination or a tyrannical regime. They came to
conquer the US with their education and skills. However, an Indian immigrant quickly learns that one of the downsides of this migration is the loss of caste status. The reality is that most Americans, even though they discriminate in terms of class and ethnicity, do not care about Indian castes. An Indian immigrant soon discovers that he/she is just another “person-of-colour”, perhaps a bit richer than the rest.

One might think that an education, marketable skills, and wealth would suffice, but these advantages are really not enough if one is accustomed to the unearned respect and privilege that caste status offers in India. Without those intangible caste benefits, Indian immigrants, no matter how rich and fortunate they may be, crave additional assurance of their superiority. Their egos need accommodation. Modi knew his audience well and addressed them appropriately. They, in turn, appreciated his fawning praise.

The Indian-Americans’ need for validation to compensate for their loss of caste prestige determines their behaviour and how they seek to position themselves within the social fabric of the United States. In fact, the diasporic Indians’ construction of race and colour in the US is a complex affair.

Beginning in 1950, Indians were categorised as “other White” and, as such, not counted separately in the US Census. This definition suited them since privileged-caste Hindus in India have long used notions of “purity of blood” and “Caucasian features” to exercise power over the majority of the population who were dubbed non-Aryan, such as the populations then called Untouchables. It was, therefore, only natural that when they immigrated to the West, they brought this ideology with them. Their conviction of their intrinsic “Whiteness” and worth has not been effaced from their consciousness. The belief that they were “White” because they saw themselves as descendants of the Aryans never changed, and was supported by the US Census.

What did change, however, was the Indian immigrants’ understanding of American racism. Indian newcomers to the US gradually came to recognise the benefits to be accrued through minority status and sought to position themselves for gain of the resources available to America’s historically oppressed minorities. In 1975, Indian-Americans actually lobbied for and won minority status as non-White Caucasians. In other words, they are recognised as both “White” and deserving of minority hiring, even if they lead professionally comfortable lives and do not suffer discrimination on the level customarily still meted out to traditional minorities in America such as Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. By promoting a self-image as White, Indian-Americans and NRIs claim the privilege usually held by the White majority. By claiming status as a minority, they also make themselves eligible for special dispensation. It is a win-win situation.

Moreover, Indian-Americans have learned to use their unique position as “model minorities” strategically. Through diasporic “cultural” associations, they maintain strong ties to political parties in India, especially the major vehicles of the Hindu fundamentalist right, which champion Hindutva as the neglected Aryan culture of Hindu Americans. This ideology has consciously entered many places, especially the multicultural space of American academe where it purports to promote the neglected virtues of ancient Indian civilisations. Just as Indian-Americans exert political influence in India with carefully placed donations—the very aid for which Modi was thanking them—they have become increasingly instrumental in the development needs of US universities, tying their contributions to deciding which India is “taught” in America today. The money that they give to universities in the US does not support a curriculum that challenges religious or communalist sympathies. The India being taught that they finance is Aryan—classical, Sanskritic, and Hindu. Minority Indian religions that I could study forty years ago in college, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Sikhism, are rarely funded and taught in American universities these days.

To teach India in America today entails teaching a safely idealised and censored view of the homeland, lest American-based groups financed by Indian-Americans should make their disapproval known (as in the cases of the Hindu Heritage Endowment, and the more virulent Infinity Foundation). Indian philanthropic donors wield their economic clout in their newfound homeland in order to see their funds promote an ideology that is mainly Vedic and Sanskritic (such as the Hinduja funding to Columbia University in New York).

It is to the population of potential donors in the US who cherish a Hindutva belief system and wish to see it propagated in India and abroad that Modi addressed his comments. White American politicians, realising the economic power of this wealthy immigrant population, have learned to pander to them. This is why some thirty American politicians enthusiastically shared the stage with Modi.

One cannot blame only Modi for his rhetoric. He is what he is—a politician who has yet to answer for the bloodbath that occurred in Gujarat under his watch. I blame the 20,000 pravasi bharatiya in the audience for the slippery game they are playing. When the German Bund was addressing its audience in the Garden, it was inciting uneducated and unskilled labourers who were still suffering from the deprivations of the Great Depression. In contrast, Modi performed before a rapturous audience of educated professionals—the best and brightest, the wealthy IT nerds, medical doctors, and businessmen who have left India for the greener pastures of America. The German Bund spoke to blue-collar workers who felt disenfranchised by American capitalism; Modi spoke to a hyper-educated and successful elite who have benefitted from the American Dream more than any other ethnic group in the history of US immigration.

Yet, they bankroll the reforms that Modi has begun to implement which limit the opportunities of those Indians who have stayed home and contribute to the system there. The Indian-Americans’ children will not, for example, suffer from Modi’s dismantling of the Indian educational system. Their daughters will not be more vulnerable as violence escalates against women in urban areas. These Indian-Americans embrace Modi’s politics without having to live with the consequences. Skilled and educated as they are, they embrace Modi’s myth of Indian superiority as easily as the uneducated and poor Germans embraced the Nazi’s Aryan myth 75 ago.

If someone had told me when I was writing this present volume that its thesis would be relevant today, I would have been surprised. Though certainly, at the time I was researching it, India was in the throes of the Ayodhya crisis and Hindu triumphalism was rampant. I even remember a visit from the police in Pune asking me what issues of identity I was researching. I assured them that I was dealing with 19th century nationalists who were seeking models for the new India in the Aryan past, basing their discussions on the reading and exegesis of the Vedas. That description seemed to satisfy them that I was not some irresponsible American Indologist trying to make a career in the States by provocatively defaming Shivaji.

No one then cared that I had done my doctoral dissertation under Wendy Doniger. I was just a comparatist chronicling the Eastern and Western Aryan myths of identity as they were tied to readings of Sanskrit canonical sources.

But as I assess the present situation and reread my book, I am astonished by the degree to which what I had examined in these pages resonates today. I see these constructions of identity as mythic, but not in the sense of an anthropological inquiry or as a component of literary culture. Rather, I investigate them in terms of humanity’s continued insistence on carrying on quasi-mythical modes of thought, expression and communication into a supposedly scientific age. When I talk of myth, I am not talking about something poetical, but rather something prosaic, utilitarian and quite often ugly. Myths can be understood as collective representations. Their purpose is in recording and validating institutions, as the great German myth theorist Ernst Cassirer recognised in the wake of the Nazis’ deployment of their myth-making skills.

In The Myth of the State (1946), Cassirer voiced his concern regarding more general implications of valourising the irrational through myth. He criticised those contemporaries who had valued myth’s stress on the universal as symbol above history’s emphasis on the individual. Cassirer felt that this vision ran the risk of seeking in the realm of myth universal valences unencumbered by reason and history, especially when it was wielded successfully to effect political change.

Valourising the irrational in myth was (and is) symptomatic of the same disease that enables the irrational to flourish in politics. It is this “underside” of myth that I examine in these pages.

In part, I investigate the manner in which Indians deployed myths regarding the ancient Aryans in their various reform and nationalist agendas. Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, felt that the Aryans had knowledge of telegraphy and modern chemistry. Tilak felt that they travelled from the North Pole with the mission to civilise the world. Vivekananda saw the Aryans as un-sexist, superhuman geniuses. If you did not possess Aryan blood, you were not civilised. In this volume, I examine the ends toward which such myths of identity were deployed. I also identify the various non-Aryan “others” that the myth of the Aryan sought to neutralise or even destroy. I investigate the work of those who challenged the Aryan myth and sought to debunk it, thinkers such as Jotirao Phule and B. R. Ambedkar.

Phule subverted the Aryan myth by identifying national culture as consisting of those very persons that privileged-caste social and religious reformers had relegated to the margins. He did so by turning the myth of the Aryan back upon the elite. Phule took those very strengths and virtues that had been attributed to the Aryan in Western Orientalist scholarship and subsequently co-opted by Brahmin reformers, and transferred these to the oppressed castes. Instead of appealing to an Aryan Golden Age, Phule called for the re-establishment of an alternative myth—a non-Aryan Golden Age during the reign of King Bali. More importantly, by challenging the myth of an Indian utopian past, he introduced the new category of reason into the discussion. B.R. Ambedkar began his mission where Phule left.

He pointed out the fallacy of Indian social reform as only serving privileged-caste needs and sought to prove the illegitimacy of its basis in scripture. Instead of rewriting the Aryan myth, he rejected it as a plot devised to uphold Brahmin superiority, justify their overlordship over non-Brahmins, and satisfy their arrogance. Both Phule and Ambedkar offered a radical attack on Hindu revivalism and challenged the elite myth of the Indian past.

What I did not envision at the time I wrote this book was how the elected leader of a secular India would resuscitate the Aryan myth today in the service of Hindu revival and project this identity onto the professional diasporic Indian. Prime Minister Modi has not only recently entertained his countrymen with his statements regarding ancient Indian knowledge of plastic surgery, aeronautics and reproductive technology, but he also constructs the myth of the superior diasporic Indian of modern times: the IT geniuses who are revolutionising the world, the doctors earning millions of dollars in the US, and, last but not least, the businessmen to whom he is giving carte blanche. These are the Indians he was praising, uplifting and flattering in New York. Are his claims to Indian superiority, past and present, any different from those of Dayananda, Tilak, or Vivekananda? The answer is an emphatic “no”. The myth of Indians inhabiting a Golden Age of technological and moral advancement is the same. It has its believers, as the recent elections and Modi’s visit to New York amply demonstrated. We look to the Phules and Ambedkars, and their legatees, to challenge this mythmaking and offer a counter-narrative.

[Dorothy M. Figueira reflects on the rising tide of Hindutva in which she finds surprising echoes of her work, Aryans, Jews, Brahmins (first published in 2002). She is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Georgia.] 

Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority Through Myths of Identity, published by Navayana in 2015.

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