Intellectual prowess of Michael Witzel

I would have liked to make the following points on the IER forum but either of the two moderators are (obviously) willing to be courteous enough to post my letter on their forum, despite my explicit request. Let me react to their letters on this forum, and I shall leave it there for the time being.

1. Neither Michael Witzel nor Steve Farmer answers my request for clarifications but simply take off on polemical tones. I do not see what purpose is thereby served. Globally speaking, both their letters seem to indicate that they are convinced that either I am aligned with the Hindutva movement or that I am a Hindutva man myself or both. Of course, because we have not met each other so far, there is only one way for them to divine my political preferences: through my writings. Witzel claims that he has read them, whereas Farmer keeps silent about the issue. It is a matter of public record that I claim that ‘Hinduism’ (as a ‘religion’) does not exist in India. Consequently, from my writings on the subject, no one can accuse me of supporting a stance that wants to found India on ‘hinduness’ or on ‘hindudom’ or on ‘Hinduism’ (whether conceived as a ‘religion’ or called as ‘sanatana dharma’). So, from where could anyone draw conclusion that these two have drawn?

Consider the following possibility: let us assume that in some of my writings, I reach the same conclusion as some or another ideologue from Hindutva. (Of course, neither Farmer nor Witzel shows that this is the case. But that is not the issue.) In other words, let us assume that, with respect to some or another issue, I arrive at the same conclusion as people from the Hinudtva movement do. The question is: what does that indicate, or prove or is an evidence for? After all, Witzel, Farmer and others reach the same conclusion as the Hindutva people do, when you ask them about the sum of two integers (say adding two to itself); or (assuming the presence of relevant There is only one answer possible in this case: there exists a unique theory (‘the Hindutva theory’) from which one can derive certain conclusions. It is not possible to derive the same conclusion from any other theory that we know (or can invent). Consequently, one can argue backwards: if someone, anyone, supports a specific conclusion (‘the Hindutva conclusion’) then that is because such a conclusion is derivable only from the ‘Hindutva theory’. Only a fool could entertain making such a claim today, if ever. Assuming that Witzel and Farmer are not fools, they appear reasonably intelligent to me, how then could they ‘see’ Hindutva in my writings? A more charitable assumption would be: Witzel either has not read my writings (he lies when he says he has) or has not understood them at all (which makes him dim witted). Choose your poison.

The conclusion is simple with respect to their global tone: they just do not know what they are talking about. To me, ignorance of some subject is a reason to keep quiet about that subject; to them it is an occasion to be pretentious and abrasive. I suppose it takes all kinds of people to keep the world going…

2. Let me address myself to their specific mails. To begin with Witzel first. He suggests that reactions like his are to be expected when one enters ‘political waters’ (and becomes ad hominem when he insinuates about my naiveté in thinking of myself as ‘a philosopher’), especially because Hindutva has damaged his soul. Of course, he apologises (for the use of the word ‘soul’?) quickly and provides (what appears) as a synonym: one of his many ‘atmans’. Grotesque: not only because (even as a joke) he speaks about plurality of ‘atmans’ but also because he seems to make fun of those of us who object to such ‘translations’. (Of course, having a grotesque sense of humor is nothing to get excited about, and I do not want to make an issue about it either.) Well, those who know my biography know that this comment about my own involvement in ‘politics’ is also grotesque. In other words, an advice by someone who does not know (or want to know) what he is talking about.

Quite independent of all the above, a question bugs me: what have I to do with either his damaged soul or his multiple atmans? I am not his psychiatrist or his friend or even an acquaintance. How does it concern me, as an individual, what happens to the ‘soul’ (or the multiple ‘atmans’) of one Michael Witzel? What is its relevance to understanding his comments about me? I can think of only one possible (charitable) answer: the Hinudtva attack has unhinged Witzel. So, he is not in control of himself and sees Hindutva plots everywhere. (Perhaps, this explains why he cannot even pen coherent posts.) May be. May be not.

About the invitation. John Blair did invite him: but not for a ‘conference’ but to a panel that Blair organized in the Asia Network conference in Texas early this year. I wrote him a mail inviting him to participate in the conference in Delhi. He declined my invitation by saying that he is ‘not interested’. In any case, he declined Blair’s invitation because, he says, he had “seen my and my cohorts’ production before.” I have never met this man (Witzel) in any conference I have been to; none of my students have either. So, where could he have “seen” us or our ‘productions’? Clearly, the only charitable interpretation in this case is: this man is suffering from delusion. He ‘imagines’ all kinds of encounters that have never taken place.

Of course, when he speaks of my and my cohorts’ production, he speaks about the so-called ‘Hindutva’ fests. That is, he has simply assumed as true whatever his fancy dictates. How can one ever take such a man for a scholar?

3. To Farmer’s mail. He claims that he has taken a look at the abstracts accepted at the conference and finds them (most? all?) thoroughly bad. I have two remarks to make. The first is that the parallel paper session is the least important facet of the conference, when it comes to judging its scientific or intellectual merits. The intellectual centre of gravity lies in the ‘platform sessions’ and the ’round table discussions’. The second remark is this: most of these paper abstracts come from Indians working in India. One of the things about India is the absence of ‘religious studies’ there. People are not used to working in this domain and, consequently, in the early days of promoting any such studies, you will invariably come across amateurishly conceived papers. Were the programming committee to use the criteria it otherwise normally uses, we would have had to disqualify all (or most) Indian contributions. One of the aims of the RRI cluster is to promote a serious study of religions in the Indian academic environment: hence the need to be generous, encouraging and tolerant. This selection is the best of the lot: the others were even worse. Farmer can only be ‘stunned’ by the participation of academics in this conference, if he believes that it is not the task of academics to encourage (hitherto) non-existent studies in India. If we want to do that, we have to begin with where the Indian academics are: they are nowhere in the field of religious studies. It is at least a work of a decade (if not more) to encourage the Indian intellectuals to take up this domain seriously. Why make fun of those who cannot, as yet, do research at the same level of sophistication as the western intellectuals? Farmer might not want to help the Indian intellectuals learn new skills; why heap scorn on those who would like to?

And then he shifts to Koenraad Elst. The discussion, if you remember, was about my (and my students’) research; the issue was whether or not our research should be ‘politically correct’ or seek truth. Now, I am suddenly supposed to defend the research of Koenraad Elst as ‘scientific’. Let me make something very clear. I do know that Koenraad Elst is accused of being ‘pro-Hindutva’. However, to me, this is not a reason to boycott having discussions with him. If he submits an abstract of a paper, and the programming committee judges that the abstract passes the criteria in use, then he has the right to present his positions at the conference. I do not look at the skin color, the passport, the sexual leanings or political convictions of individuals in order to find them fit to participate in intellectual discussions. (Why, I even invited Witzel!) If they pass the criteria we use, then they get to have a forum to speak. Even if they are hard liners from the Hindutva or die-hard secularists. As long as one is willing to argue and defend a position on reasonable grounds, such an individual enters the intellectual citadel. This is and has always been my intellectual conviction. I shall not change it just because some nasty minds gossip about me or my students. We have given the platform to one such secularist: Achin Vinayak. What is wrong with either that or allowing Koenraad Elst to come and tell his story?

Further, he suggests that I confuse scientific research with politically inspired propaganda. That might or might not be the case. However, what has that to do with calling our research “politically motivated tripe”?

4. In short, it is sad to read what these two write. Probably, they ascribe to themselves the heroic role of preserving some ‘noble values’ in India, which many Indians of today (all the ‘Hindus’? Or only ‘the Hinudtva’?) trample under their feet. They seem to aim at rescuing India from the Indians. Well, I cannot wish them luck in this endeavour: as an Indian, I am offended by the fact that it is both sanctimonious and pretentious. These two even lack the elementary human decency to carry on a reasonable discussion and are not averse to being rude and abrasive. My guilt, apparently, is one of association, even though it is unclear who I am not supposed to be associating with or what evidence there is for my association.

  • Danila Cinellu

    Too sorry to know that Western scholars boycott and offend Indian ones in such an arrogant way.
    Can I ask why Witzel labels you as ‘Hindutva’? Given that Koenraad Elst is mentioned here, I can just guess that your research led you to reject the “Aryan Invasion Hypothesis” (or whatever sub-species of it linguists have been proposing).
    As far as I know, Savarkar himself, as author of “Essentials of Hindutva”, was quite fond of it. So I seriously do not understand what help Witzel & co are supposed to give to free-minded no-nazist