National Public Radio Interview
of Rajiv Malhotra on show called, “Tapestry”
on October 22, 2000
I am Don Hill and Welcome to Tapestry. Ayurveda, the indigenous system of medicine, Yoga, Meditation – these are making a major comeback now in recent years in India because it is now accepted that Indians might miss the boat. The patents for Ayurveda might end up in the hands of large pharmaceutical companies in the western world so people are suddenly waking up.
From shampoo to mindfulness meditation, Indic scholar Rajiv Malhotra on how western entrepreneurs are cashing in on eastern wisdom. And dangerous dharma – can meditation make you sick? Dr. Louis Vandercoy, a clinical psychologist, talks about the troubles that may arise from too much meditation. On the lighter side, Freelance Journalist Lisa Christensen with
a primer on meditation for dummies.
But first, religious robbery. Guided mediation, lucid dreaming, memes, units of psychological programming, even morphogenetic fields – these are theories and practices that are moving from the periphery of western culture into the mainstream. Topics once thought too archaic for scientific inquiry are now of great interest and several well known scientists have made a career out of investigating esoteric realms of thought. The rewards have been handsome. Popular books and tapes line bookshelves, conference talks are well attended. This makes Rajiv Malhotra angry.
An Indic scholar, Rajiv Malhotra is on a crusade to right an academic wrong. ‘Where do these novel ideas and concepts come from?’ he recently asked at a scientific conference I attended. ‘India’, he answered tersely, ‘and Hinduism in particular’. By not acknowledging Indic religion as the headwaters of their scholarship, Rajiv Malhotra accused several western scientists attending the conference of nothing less than academic arson. The room got real quiet, real quick. When directly challenged, one presenter admitted she had studied in an Ashram, ‘but that has nothing to do with my theory’, she said. ‘Really’, Rajiv Malhotra pressed and then described how her theory erred a time-honored concept in Hinduism. Jabbing his finger around the room Rajiv Malhotra pointed out other similarities, religious concepts from the east that had been restated in the language of western science. Nobody shouted, chairs weren’t thrown, but things got
somewhat frosty in heat-drenched Tucson, Arizona, the location of the conference. Rajiv Malhotra joins us in our studio in New York City.
Don Hill: Welcome.
Rajiv Malhotra: Thank you.
Don Hill: What do you mean by academic arson? I’d like some examples of that.
Rajiv Malhotra: Well, academic arson is only an extreme case of a phenomenon, which has many levels of severity. It starts with very ethical and desirable appropriation by western scholars of wisdom from eastern civilizations – China, India, etc., Hinduism, Buddhism. And this is not only ethical but perfectly desirable in the interests of cross fertilization and expansion of the total data base of human knowledge. Unfortunately, sometimes appropriation, either by the original western scholar who did it or subsequent students, disciples or historians of them, turns into a little bit of a twist wherein the appropriation is not acknowledged in terms of its
sources. The terminology gets changed and a whole new scientific jargon, or western jargon, is introduced to describe eastern ideas and gradually after it is passed through a certain number of hands or minds or authorships, after a few generations of this, the origins are lost and the prevailing view is that it’s something original that came out of somebody in Massachusetts or California or London. Meanwhile, the benefits of marketing this to the western world, in terms of prestige, financial or power, end up exclusively with somebody in the western world, without any credit going to the real sources from where this was derived. So I call this extreme end of
it academic arson, but I don’t think that is a term that you can apply across the board for all appropriations.
Don Hill: Let’s name some names here. In your opinion, who are the main characters in this ongoing appropriation of eastern religious concepts?
Rajiv Malhotra: Well, Rudolph Sterner, who broke off from Theosophy and started the Anthroposophy movement.
Don Hill: Now this goes back several generations. The middle part of this . . .
Rajiv Malhotra: The 20th Century, Teilhard de Chardin – most of his followers today would refuse to acknowledge the influence of India on the development of his thoughts.
Don Hill: Now this was the Jesuit who was writing in the fifties.
Rajiv Malhotra: Yes, and he actually, during his exile in China for a few years, went to India. He bought a two-volume book on Vedanta, which covered the four different schools of Vedanta. He wrote notes on it. He commented on the Vedanta. He liked the particular interpretation Ramanuja, who was in the 10th century and has been a major figure in Hinduism. He wrote all that and yet in the mainstream conferences and books about Teilhard de Chardin, you will be hard pressed to find people who will acknowledge that he had any Indian influence upon him whatsoever.
Don Hill: Is this deliberate?
Rajiv Malhotra: I think there is a kind of peer pressure or maybe there’s a social pressure, because of the taboo of eastern mysticism, maybe it is perceived as less rational than western science, maybe it’s considered backward, maybe it’s considered (incorrectly in my opinion) as the cause for poverty and pollution in these countries, because people haven’t seen the history of how rich these civilizations were until the last two or three hundred years and so they think that being associated with these places is somehow derogatory. And there is a very recent case of Dr. Piet Hut at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, who is a well known follower of
the Dalai Lama, a meditator and has written about the eastern first-person experiential methodologies. He is an astrophysicist who had been fired; he has a court case going on. He has been served with papers by the Institute because they felt that his approach to science was not appropriate and not in keeping with the standards and so forth. There was a recent article in
the New York Times about the experiences of Dr. Piet Hut and what he is facing in academia. So there is a kind of pressure to cover up one’s eastern affiliations if one is in academics and one wants to be taken seriously. One has to re-label things, maybe meditation has to be called
phenomenology. Vipassana has been renamed as ‘mindfulness meditation’ and so forth – because of social and academic pressure, which is the result of prejudice I think.
Don Hill: Well it is certainly true that religion is often a stranger not welcome at the table of scientific inquiries. So what’s the problem with restating religious concepts from the east in the language of western science?
Rajiv Malhotra: Well I think it’s actually fine if the appropriation is ethical with the same standards as one would follow in acknowledging something borrowed from or inspired from Plato, Socrates or Kant. If the same standard of acknowledgement is applied when bringing ideas out of the east, I think its an absolutely wonderful thing, because all of the cultures and civilizations of the world brought many good things and in this age of multiculturalism, it’s a good idea to celebrate and acknowledge everybody’s contributions. But if something is from Shankara or Nagarjuna, and it’s considered more politically correct to re-characterize it as neo-Platonic
for instance, I do have a problem with the lack of integrity in a situation of that sort.
Don Hill: But if it’s about an information transfer, some people might think that this is not so much appropriate but rather illumination for the culture.
Rajiv Malhotra: Yes, there is an advantage when you take an idea and explain it in vernacular that the audience can understand. But I think you can achieve that and at the same time acknowledge that the source of this is XYZ culture from another part of the world. So the modernized commentary and modernized packaging does not conflict with the ethics of proper
Don Hill: If what you claim is correct, then why hasn’t Indic religious scholarship defended its intellectual property right?
Rajiv Malhotra: There is a history starting with Lord Macauley in 1835, who developed the education policy in India under the British system. I don’t have the exact quote here, but quite a lot is written about him. He proposed creating a whole population of Indian middle class who would be the intermediaries between the Colonial rulers and the Indian subjects, who
would think like the British, look up to the Europeans, and completely be alienated from their own roots and culture. Basically anything rational, intelligent, scientific or progressive they would look at the Europeans to provide – basically have an inferiority complex. When I grew up in India,
I learned in a system of education where the books were by British inspired writers, that there really wasn’t a whole lot worthwhile in the indigenous civilization of India. So the program of the Colonialists succeeded. Indians are among the most difficult people I find in mobilizing support for
the correction of history, because they don’t want to stick their neck out, they don’t want to make a scene. They think that it’s ok, and this is all past stuff, and they should just westernize and move on with life. So I think there is reluctance on the part of Indian thinkers to reopen history
because it’s sort of embarrassing.
Don Hill: Rajiv Malhotra you suggested at the conference we both attended at Tucson recently that the Indians have been taken in by the repackaging of their own culture at the expense of their own religious traditions. How so?
Rajiv Malhotra: Well you know when I was growing up in India I remember the Maharishi in the 1960’s visited India with the Beatles and because the Beatles were with him, not because of himself, the media was very interested in what he had to say. And there was suddenly a revival of meditation and TM and so forth. Because someone had legitimized it in the west, so it was ok
for Indians to practice it. About 8 or 9 years ago, I went back to India, Deepak Chopra had just started coming out with his best-seller books, and I asked a lot of friends if they’d heard about him. No one had ever heard about him, and I gave a few talks just summarizing what he was saying, and people laughed at me. I said ‘you know he is going to become so important and he is already becoming so famous in the west that you will soon see him’, and no one took me seriously. But sure enough, in the last four or five years, Deepak Chopra is a big name in India, all of a sudden, because he’s been accepted, acknowledged, honored, legitimized by the west. So this is a situation quite common in India – that Indian know how, because of 200 or 300 years of being suppressed or irradiated from its roots, has to somehow come back via the west.
Don Hill: Staying with that for a moment we had a conversation with Deepak Chopra on Tapestry last season and I asked just before we turned on the microphone of Dr. Chopra “what accounts for your success in the west, have you got some idea, but you know you have sort of taken off…” and he looked over to me, smiled slightly and said “I think its because of my Indian
Rajiv Malhotra: You know it’s very interesting, yes, that is probably a factor in his success but we know when you look at Ayurveda, the indigenous system of medicine, Yoga, Meditation – these are making a major comeback now in recent years in India. Because it is now accepted that Indians might miss the boat, the patents for Ayurveda might end up in the hands of large
pharmaceutical companies in the western world, so people are suddenly waking up. I was shocked to find out that the company Aveda, which is now I think owned by Estee Lauder, has become the largest marketer of Ayurvedic treatments.
Don Hill: It’s a cosmetic company, right?
Rajiv Malhotra: It’s a cosmetic company. Aveda is short for Ayurveda. I visited an Ayurvedic clinic in India and the technicians were very experienced and very proud to tell me that they were really using Aveda products. I said ‘who is this Aveda?’ They said ‘Oh, don’t you know,
Ayurveda has been replaced by Aveda.’ It is not only easier to pronounce, it’s more modern, it’s better, it’s technologically sophisticated.’ They were giving me a sales pitch. So I said ‘why are you, Ayurvedic doctors and technicians, promoting this Aveda.’ Then one of them told me that they got free samples and as long as they talk about it and promote it they are well supplied and well taken care of. The people in the Indian Ayurvedic economy do not realize that probably they’ve been had, and they will lose. Millions of farmers will be out of work because suddenly from being the world supplier of Ayurvedic herbs, Kerala, which is the southern state that does
all this, might find itself competing with people supplying these herbs from everywhere else in the world. They’ve just never bothered to patent these things and suddenly from being producers and exporters they might end up being importers and consumers of their own heritage.
Don Hill: Well from shampoo to academia you certainly brought to this table some ideas that have been imported from the east without being acknowledged and used here in the west. You have also been suspicious of the level of the expertise of the people who are repackaging this knowledge. I guess you’re proposing it’s kind of akin to the arrogance of ignorance.
Rajiv Malhotra: Yes, before I go into that, you mentioned the word ‘shampoo’, did you know that that’s an Indian word?
Don Hill: No I did not know that.
Rajiv Malhotra: The word ‘shampoo’ which was a kind of head massage so the English in India would get a bath regularly, get a head massage, that process is called ‘champoo’. Champoo got turned into shampoo, and the ingredient shampoo is out of that. The practice of bathing was introduced into Europe from India where bathing is a religious ritual – you get up in the morning and take a bath before you do anything. When first introduced in England, it was laughed at as something kind of strange or silly, or maybe it could do you some harm, because a daily bathing practice was not part of European culture.
Don Hill: Well I am personally happy that this happened.
Rajiv Malhotra: So your question?
Don Hill: Well is it the arrogance of ignorance?
Rajiv Malhotra: Yes and I think that when . . . I would say that a lot of scholars I’ve looked at go through 4 stages before they reach this arrogance of ignorance. The first stage is as a disciple; they have great respect for the Indic tradition – that’s step one. Stage 2 is when they start
distancing themselves. They start removing the Indic terminology and replacing it with neutral new terms that maybe are done in the name of making it easier for people to follow. But it could also mean that they are finding it politically more acceptable to be sort of distanced because there may be a taboo or some kind of stereotype or baggage with India and they don’t want to have that hurt their career or chances of getting grants. So that’s stage 2. In stage 3 they begin to really re-package it as part of neo-Platonism or Christianity or something called neuro-phenomenology – some sort of buzzword or metaphor that will sell very well within their
constituency and their constituency could either be science or it could be religion. Stage 4 is when they decide that to show how far they are and how original they are from the Indic sources, they actually start trashing it.
Don Hill: So what’s the way out of this?
Rajiv Malhotra: Well we have formed an organization where there are educators who are reviewing school text books in the United States as they pertain to the history, religion, culture, and so forth of India. And this shows that the portrayal is full of errors, it is full of selecting the
negatives and omitting the positives in the way India and its civilization have been presented. We are going to take it to the education commissioner and school board and make some noise. There are so many words in the English language that come from India. There are so many good modern writers in English that are Indian people right now. So we want to have a world conference to show the intellectual contributions of India toward global civilization, so it is not viewed as a place of mystics, poor people and irrational backward kind of country.
Don Hill: Rajiv Malhotra thanks very much for your conversation today.
Rajiv Malhotra: Thank you Don, my pleasure.
Don Hill: Rajiv Malhotra is a communications specialist and an Indic scholar. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.