When elites eschew defense: The case of India

"Everybody's got a plan until they get hit."  So said Mike Tyson some years ago in the most brilliant statement of political realism since Thucydides.  Bharat Mata, or "Mother India," the birthplace of the glorious Upanishads as well as Prince Siddhartha, has been sucker punched by 21st century monsters.  The blood from the innocent victims was barely dry when journalists published articles, not about the vicious killers, but about the dangers of a "rightward tilt" in India.  The rise of Hindu nationalism however began as a response to a perceived lack of "manliness" in the Hindu warrior the result of which was an open door to centuries of foreign persecution and terror in India.

When explaining the "root" causes of the massacre in Mumbai we will hear plenty in the coming weeks about disaffected Muslims living in India, or about the menacing American war on terror, or about the situation in Kashmir.  What the literati in the media will probably miss however is a profound and paradoxical thread stitched into the very fabric of Hindu culture:  what does it means to be a "man?"  In other words, is the true "male" the Kshatriya caste warrior or the Brahmin caste renunciant?  Was it the Hindu patriot and warrior-hero Shivaji Bhosle, the 17th century equivalent to Scotland's William Wallace, who organized the first successful guerilla campaign against Muslim rule in India?  Or is the "real man" the gentle, transnational and priestly archetype embodied in figures such as Mohandas Gandhi, who renounces violence in the name of universal love?

Simply put, Hinduism's masculinity crisis is deeply embedded in its social structure, in its ancient texts, and in the language of modern Hindu nationalists such as Swami Vivekenanda and Lala Lajpat Rai.  Both men would have identified the complexities of caste as the "root cause" of over 800 years of Muslim and then British rule in India.  That is, when searching for the reasons why Hindus have been traditionally defenseless in the face of foreign invaders Hindu nationalists tend to see their own culture and traditions as the culprit.  Beginning with British rule in the early 18th century, Hindu nationalists began some serious soul searching concerning their inability to protect Mother India from subjugation.  Lala Lajpat Rai spoke for many Hindus when he speculated back in 1907:

"A question that has often haunted us, asleep or awake, as to why is it that notwithstanding the presence among us of great, vigorous, and elevating truths, and of the very highest conception of morality, we Hindus have been a subject race, held down for so many centuries by sets of people who were neither physically nor spiritually nor even intellectually so superior to us as to demand our subjugation."

Trying to explain why a handful of foreigners coming from six thousand miles away in England could become India's masters became the focus of an intense amount of scholarly activity among Hindu intellectuals.  Profound thinkers like Aurobindo Ghose, India's greatest 20th century philosopher, argued that the "ascetic ideal" etched into Hindu identity became oppressively "top heavy" in India and smothered the more warlike themes in Hindu tradition and culture.  In his Foundations of Indian Culture Aurobindo claimed:

"Still it is true that the ascetic ideal, which in the ancient vigor of our culture was the fine spire of life mounting into the eternal existence, became latterly its top-heavy dome and tended under the weight of its bare and imposing sublimity to crush the rest of the edifice."

Although Aurobindo's vision was of a harmonious and peaceful international community inspired by Hinduism's spiritual grace and maturity, he was quite impatient with what he called the "fanatics of pacifism" whose myopia threatened this lofty goal.  Aurobindo understood, as pacifists like Gandhi did not, that the international community was still a menacing state of nature.  Aggressive national actors were always ready to fill, as Thucydides said in Greece over 2 millennia ago, any potential vacuum including the one in India.  Therefore, for the Hindu warrior warfare could be an elevating experience if the conflict safeguarded the "principle of right, justice, and law which shall be the basis of the harmony towards which the struggle ends."

Nationalists like Aurobindo, in other words, were not foolish enough to believe that Islamic armies, or armies from the West for that matter, wouldn't continue to take advantage of India's "top-heavy" orientation toward gentle, non-violent renunciation.  A "handful" of British occupiers for example managed to turn much of India's northern provinces into an opium industry.  From here British entrepreneurs derived the powerful narcotic that British troops eventually helped to cram into the veins of helpless Chinese addicts during the Opium Wars of the 1840s.  Aurobindo argued that pacifism can do nothing to root out the causes of war or oppression.  Indeed, he said, the non-violent approach may be responsible for extending the shelf-life of international conflict:

"It is not enough that our own hands should remain clean and our souls unstained for the law of strife and destruction to die out of the world; that which is at its root must first disappear out of humanity.  Much less will mere immobility and inertia unwilling to use or incapable of using any kind of resistance to evil abrogate the law."

Aurobindo and other nationalists recognized that traditions of renunciation in India together with the gentle wisdom contained in Buddhism, Jainism, and the inward-searching Upanishads had conditioned Hindu men to meet foreign aggression with passive resistance.  This "top-heavy dome" of the spirit in other words had smothered the more aggressive and warlike features of the Hindu edifice.  In fact, the roughly 4th century B.C. Bhagavad-Gita -- considered to be the "Hindu bible" -- highlights the spiritual adventures of Hinduism's greatest warrior in history, Arjuna. (Arjuna is something like a combination of Achilles and Socrates -- on steroids). In the Bhagavad-Gita, or "Song of God," Krishna - an incarnation of God - persuades Arjuna, through the lush philosophy characteristic of Hinduism's greatest thinkers that he should choose to fight when threatened by subjugation and injustice.  In one famous passage Krishna tells Arjuna:

"Happy are the Kshatriyas (warriors) O Arjuna, for whom such a war comes of its own accord as an open door to heaven."

Indeed, of the four traditional castes in Hindu culture, the warrior caste, or Kshatryia, was created by God to be the "arms" or protectors of society.  Their courageous protection and sacrifice allowed members of the other castes such as the Shudras (servants), Vaishyas (merchants), and Brahmins (priests) to accrue spiritual merit in the successive lives that would eventually result in the rediscovery of God as the ground of each person's entire being.  God is telling Arjuna that to fulfill his caste obligations he should not shrink from battle.  To be overrun by enemies would be to threaten the entire soul-making process at the heart of every individual Hindu's journey back to God. 

The problem many modern Hindu nationalists noticed however is that those with the highest spiritual discipline and merit, the Brahmin priests, fulfilled their caste obligations by renouncing the same ties to nation and family that provided the bulwark against foreign invaders.  By renouncing all earthly attachments -- including violence and anger -- in the pursuit of God those at the top of the Hindu hierarchy provided an example that was troublesome to the warrior's maintenance of national integrity.  Simply put, it meant that the very existence of nationhood was an impediment to rediscovering God.  This left India at the mercy of Western and Islamic civilizations, both of which had no problems combining religion and statecraft in the pursuit of their national interests.   Another way to look at this is to ask yourself the following: how often were Hindu armies leaving India to ransack and colonize non-Hindu civilizations?  Why were Muslims in Delhi instead of Hindus in Mecca?  When was the last time a Hindu tried to convert you on your front porch or at the leading edge of a sword?

Muslim and British conquerors met little resistance in a culture that had become, in Aurobindo's words, so spiritually top-heavy as to make any kind of violence a nauseating prospect.  Noticing the weak resistance they encountered, both British and Muslim occupiers openly called Hindu men "effeminate."  In some cases the Muslim occupiers refused to allow their children to mingle with Hindu boys for fear of being contaminated by the Hindu male's "effete" qualities. This cavalier dismissal of Hindu male identity penetrated the Hindu male psyche like a hot knife through butter. 

Gifted Hindu nationalist writers and orators over the last century and a half like Swami Vivekenanda were stung by these Western and Islamic criticisms.  Vivekenanda's project was to reinvigorate the essence of manhood in the Hindu Kshatryia warrior.  The Swami's poignant pleas to his creator spoke for many Hindu men when he cried out in anguish:

"O Thou Mother of the Universe, vouchsafe manliness unto me!  O thou mother of strength, take away my weakness, take away my unmanliness, and -- Make me a Man!"

It was Vivekenanda who famously said that Hindu men needed an intense regimen of "beef, biceps, and the Bhagavad-Gita."  Weightlifting and wrestling became popular in India.  "No more weeping, but stand on your own feet and be men" said Vivekenanda.  "It is a man-making religion that we want.  It is man-making theories we want.  I want the strength, manhood, kshatravirya, or the virility of a warrior."  Posters of Hindu guerrilla fighters like Shivaji Bhosle began to adorn the walls of gyms.  Vivekenanda recognized that without a tough warrior caste Brahmin priests would be helpless in the face of international aggressors:

"The Kshatriya [warrior] said, "But for the power of my sword, where would you be O Brahmin [priest], with all your power of lore?  You would in no time be wiped off the face of the earth."

The sad truth is that for much of its history since the late Medieval period Hindus have been the victims of proselytizing, aggressive, and often violent foreign powers who swept into the vacuum created by a Hindu culture that values internal, not external spiritual conquest.  It's no wonder that today in Mumbai Hindu nationalists are again on the rise.  The "progressive" Western press disparages these warriors as dangerous right wingers, thus betraying their bottomless naiveté concerning India's aggressive Muslim neighbors, past and present.  Nationalists like Aurobindo and Vivekenanda reminded Hindus however to evaluate for themselves the efficacy of pacifism.  Weakness only invites invasion.  Warrior energy, or rajas as the Hindus call it, is a normal and natural part of cultural survival.

During the 19th century flurry of intellectual activity in India journalist Walter Bagehot, 6,000 miles away in England, made a rather cryptic remark about the Darwinian struggle for survival among nation states:

"History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it."

When will "movements of the world" like Islam for example stop menacing neighbors and filling vacuums?  Well, according to the brilliant French philosopher Blaise Pascal as soon as they recognize that conquest and invasion are byproducts of discontent at home -- not some mission ordained by God:

"I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quiet in their own chamber.  A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town."

For Aurobindo, until that day arrives -- the day when we're all content enough to "stay with pleasure at home" -- a nation would be foolish to let its guard down in the name of "progress."