Rajiv Malhotra – his life: Slander and Truth

By: Rajiv Malhotra

This article is published at this website:


Over a decade ago, Professor S.N. Balagangadhara was staying at my house to discuss my writings which had stirred up the religious studies academicians. He is the one who explained that the term ‘autodidact’, which means a self-taught person, was being used to describe me in a pejorative sense. My foes in the humanities said that to be a legitimate scholar one must go through ‘the formal system’, which in my case would be religious studies under their control. I am grateful to Balagangadhara as he made me conscious of the fundamental problem academicians have had with me ever since.

When my non-profit foundation was giving away large grants to these academic scholars, they loved that, and I have a massive archive of correspondences to prove this. But they did not like me having serious ideas of my own on the subject matter, because, after all, they were the scholars and I was the ‘funding source’. They routinely told me how great I was, being the only Indian at that time donating for this field of study, and they wanted to put me on a pedestal at their gala events.

But my heart and temperament are different than such a passive role. I am too hands-on and too original in my thinking to be a mere listener. I work extremely hard and apply my analytical training and intellectual rigor combined with my experiential (adhyatmic) practices under gurus. Surely, I did not switch from a thriving business career to a non-profit role just to write donation cheques and receive accolades. As a result of many arguments, I discovered the prison of Western Universalism in which most Indians in this field are stuck. I could never become a prisoner of it, and I felt that I should free other prisoners by dismantling the prison system. My mind set is provocative and combative, and I decided to disrupt the established structures that are unfair and abusive. I realized that by funding them I was feeding a crocodile hoping to turn it into a friend.

Of course, I am self-taught, but I consider that to be my advantage. I bring fresh, original approaches that are not taught in their formal training. Had I accepted their persistent invitations to ‘become part of the academic system’, I would have ended up like one more mediocre professor of Indology wearing the burqa of the mind.

Even in the West there have been many important autodidacts, one of the most famous being Leonardo da Vinci. Thomas Edison was another example of a brilliant man educated entirely at home. The list of industrialists who taught themselves the skills for success includes many college dropouts like Bill Gates. (Gates taught himself computer programming from an early age.) Steve Jobs dropped out of college and went to India to study Buddhism. His enormous creativity emerged after this immersion into Indian meditation, and was not the result of reading some professors’ works. So much for the claim that formal education is the only way to learn. The West uses the term ‘polymath’ to praise their own thinkers who acquired multifaceted intellectual competence by self-learning.

In India, of course, being self-taught has never been a disqualifier, or else Sri Ramakrishna or Ramana Maharshi would not have become so important. Gandhi and other freedom fighters did not have a political science PhD. Nobody is bothered that Narendra Modi is self-taught as a leader with so many areas of competence. The dharma principle of integral unity applied to knowledge explains why Indians are naturally able to cross the artificial boundaries which the West has erected among various domains, and the ease with which Indians learn topics beyond their formal training.

The Western system of modern formal education began when the industrial revolution demanded large numbers of workers with specialized skills. These were repetitious tasks that could be performed by robots today. The modern education system was thus invented to supply industry with workers, and not for nurturing creative thinkers. This system was exported to India where the East India Company wanted to produce brown-skinned babus to do clerical paperwork and obey rules. The traditional Indian system had been far more creative as Dharampal has documented extensively, and this was systematically dismantled in order to make the youth go through ‘proper education’ and make them easier to dominate.

It is ironic that though the postmodernists attack modernity precisely for such standardized structures, they, too, have replaced the old structures with their own ‘canons’ of standard ‘theories’. In other words, thinking is required to be contained within the scaffolding of some specific normative theory that has been authorized by a consensus of the ‘academic peers’. Naturally, these elders feel threatened by someone like me who has no reason to obey them the way the scholars within ‘the system’ must do.

A few years after my discussions with Balagangadhara, I met an Indian at Princeton who had just finished her doctorate and was looking for work before she returned to India. So I asked her to evaluate a draft of a book I was writing (which still remains one of many unpublished works of mine). To my surprise, she lacked the ability to think critically for herself; she was unable to understand my draft. Finally, she told me one day that she could only understand my book if I start off by declaring which ‘theory’ I use. She said: ‘You use history, then you discuss philosophy, then you discuss religion, then you get into sociology, and in each of these you use many kinds of arguments rather than applying one theory consistently.’ I was shocked that she felt a book must necessarily be within some brand-named theoretical framework.

More recently, a young Indian writing her MA dissertation on terrorism in Afghanistan told me her professors did not want her to mix the disciplines of International Relations and Political Science. Each has its own ‘accepted theories’ and one cannot combine them. Her MA got delayed a whole year just to force her to ‘stick to the process’ and not think out of the box too much. Finally, she caved in and produced a thesis as per the ‘standards’ of writing, but felt it was not her true voice.

I have realized that there is a sort of ‘theory power’ by which minds get streamlined to follow certain ways of thinking. Adding a new theory to this tool kit of sanctioned theories takes a huge movement of shifting the prevailing consensus. This is not something Indians are allowed to do in the humanities; they are taught to master the Western theories and prove their competence by applying these to Indian society. This way, the Western theories become more ‘universalized’ because they are seen as being applicable to India as well. The Indians who dish out such scholarship get rewarded. This is why you cannot cite a single theory in sociology that was pioneered by an Indian and that is not an Indianized version of something imported. From Marxism to postcolonial studies to subaltern studies to feminism to human rights studies to critical theory – in all cases the Westerners (or Western-trained Indians) supply theories and Indian scholars are the data-wallahs/apprentices, whose job is to fill the blank slots in the templates by supplying Indian data that supports the theories. This is mental slavery and works because of the low calibre of many (not all) Indians who enter such disciplines. It is these mediocre ones that get planted in places of importance as loyal chowkidars (gatekeepers). They are the sepoys guarding the gates of the academic fortress.

Almost every article wanting to attack me in recent days has referred to me as a ‘businessman, and at times as a ‘wealthy businessman’. But how do they know this to be true? Have they done their homework as is required by the journalism profession? Those who know me at all are well aware of my story: Over 20 years ago, I had some life transforming personal experiences for which I credit my guru (who has left the body since), and this caused me to completely leave my business and pledge a lifetime of service by giving back to society and not engaging in any for-profit activity. I used the funds I had made from my business to (1) endow Infinity Foundation (see: http://www.InfinityFoundation.com), (2) help out several individuals who approached me for a variety of needs, including total strangers, and (3) set up my personal pension to be able to meet the needs of my family. My wife is a homemaker and my children were aged 11 and 7 at that time. This radical shift was under the guidance of my guru. I was advised to set aside funds to meet family obligations and then be free to proceed with my sva-dharma to serve society. The role model of vanaprastha in a modern sense inspired me, although I admit I do not live in poverty or in some isolated forest. The vyavharika (mundane) world is my kurukshetra, and the parmarthika (transcendental) realm is my inner journey. These are interconnected.

To start out, I personally volunteered for a local hospice organization helping individuals in their final days before dying; then became a certified social worker for New Jersey’s major AIDS organization (http://www.hyacinth.org/); helped set up an animal shelter; became a worker in the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen feeding the hungry (http://www.trentonsoupkitchen.org/); and got involved in numerous other causes of pure compassion. My foundation helped establish a shelter for battered women of South Asian origin, and it was also the first source of funding to bring CRY (Child Relief and You) to the USA – in fact the very first full-time employee CRY hired in the US to get them started was paid by our donation. Only after embodying karuna through numerous such projects did my guru feel I was ready to venture out into ‘intellectual’ areas, which is what I eventually focused on.

Hence, this branding as a ‘wealthy businessman’ is at least 20 years obsolete. It shows the low IQ of many Indian journalists and their newspaper editors who have published whatever rumours look sensational. They merely parrot each other, it seems.

Rather than being embarrassed of my background, I consider my knowledge in physics, computer science, management, consulting and entrepreneurship to be very useful in my present work. My onlyformal training was in physics and computer sciences. I never studied management (no MBA) or how to be an entrepreneur. Yet, I had rapidly advancing careers in each of these fields, entirely by my creative, hard-working nature and my ability to learn by myself.

When I wanted to become an expert on academic religious studies, I approached it two ways: I wanted to use the lens of my adhyatmic practices; and I wanted to examine it as a knowledge ‘industry’ the way industry analysts do. Nobody had ever done an industry analysis of this field. Hence, I built a database (the only one of its kind) on the producers of knowledge of Hinduism, thedistributors/retailers of this knowledge, the consumer segments, the industry bodies (like the very powerful American Academy of Religion), the church seminaries that study it for their own agendas,government agencies that feed ideologies and also use the output to make policies, the think tanks, and so forth.

I remember a meeting with Rajat Gupta in his office when he was head of McKinsey & Company. I argued that before he raises funds for Harvard’s South Asia Initiative, he better do an industry analysis. He raised his eyebrows, saying that these Harvard folks were ‘good people’ whom he trusted, etc. So I asked: would you advocate McKinsey clients to invest in a business venture without doing due diligence on the company as well analysing the whole industry, merely on the basis that the people seeking funding are ‘nice guys’? Aren’t you known for insisting that before investing in a venture the client must study the industry? Then I asked him: Can you estimate how many full-time scholars there are in the West who study India or its civilization? He drew a blank. I gave him my figure and told him that I am the only person who has routinely tracked this industry’s research output, conferences, journals, dissertations, etc. Without knowing who the main industry suppliers of knowledge are, who funds them, what output they produce and what it gets used for, how can you advise a client to invest in them?

I must say Rajat was candid that he had never thought of India studies as an industry; he had only a surface idea of what goes on, and he had never reviewed their output systematically. My colleague at Infinity Foundation, Krishnan Ramaswamy, was in the meeting, as we left feeling that Rajat understood our point about the irresponsibility of the typical Indians funding prestigious academic activities without the necessary due diligence.

It was after giving 400 grants to various scholars and institutions (including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and various others) that I became my own scholar, starting to write based on my own research both textual and experiential. My corporate training gives me presentation skills that most academicians lack. While the world has moved on to multimedia and newer technologies for education, the Indologists proudly stick to methods of writing that were designed for linear, one-dimensional, non-interactive arcane communications. In other academic fields, like sciences, medicine and business, there is a proliferation of new interactive learning methods; but the writing standards of Indology are frozen in the age of the dinosaurs.

The tension I have with most Indologists is this: they are insiders to the academic field. By the same token, I am an insider to the industry analysis methodology, but even more importantly I am an insider to the tradition as a practicing Hindu. All these insider and outsider perspectives must be fairly represented in the discourse. Right now the playing field is tilted against us.

Naturally, the academicians are angry because I do not fit any of their stereotypes about Indians. I am extremely modern in my upbringing and life experiences, and yet I have great regard for my ancient heritage. I love and admire Americans in so many ways, yet I argue with them on their misunderstandings concerning Indian civilization. I have served the sort of causes mentioned above which the leftists champion, yet I did this as part of my dharma and not by ‘secularizing’ myself. Most of all, I understand the modern and post-modern Western discourse and can respond from my dharmic drishti. This makes it difficult for them to control me in their usual ways.

Furthermore, I do not want whatever they can offer me. And what I seek in this life they cannot give me. So they have no leverage over me and do not know how to locate me in their coordinates and be able to control me. They are frightened because I am out of their control.

They tried to declare me an outcaste in the world of scholars. But then I went directly to the public and achieved far greater success than most of them have. Imagine if many other Indians started asserting themselves the same way I have. Naturally, my success in bypassing them, especially in India, has generated jealousy and anger. If I were not so successful they would not be bothering to attack me so aggressively for the past 20 years, using one false allegation after another.

I am a contrarian in the sense of taking positions that oppose the views of the intellectual establishment on several matters. While this strategy is appreciated as the crucible of creativity in many fields where change is encouraged, in the study of Indian civilization this has earned me a controversial reputation. I bring a unique perspective to this field that complements (but done not replace) the training that insiders of the field have. To do the kind of work I do, one must have the following qualities:

  1. The uncompromising dharmic commitment to want to do this even if a heavy personal price is paid. This requires sadhana to be grounded and have resilience.
  2. The freedom from needing to generate monthly income.
  3. The freedom from greed to go on accumulating materially.
  4. The risk-taking ability and fearlessness.
  5. Originality, creativity and ability to think out of the box.
  6. The intellectual calibre to study intensely detailed works and decode the other side; then be able to write well-structured arguments.
  7. Autodidact with a genuine interest in the subject matters at hand.
  8. Extensive experience managing Westerners from a position of authority – I.e. not be weak or obsequious in facing aggressive Westerners.

The future of the brick-and-mortar university is bleak in the US, because an increasing proportion of students is going for distance learning; new paradigms are emerging in education in which a worker will be continually learning as part of his or her career. Education is increasingly interactive and there is more emphasis on self-education. All this creates economic challenges for American universities. Hence, they actively recruit students in places like China and India to meet their budget targets. Faculty salaries face downward pressure, and many new PhDs in religious studies and Indology are unemployed. In this climate, the quest for wealthy Indian businessmen to donate money is gaining momentum.

The type of ‘good Indian businessman’ they love is one who gives them money with little scholarly expectation and no independent due diligence. The ideal Indian businessman for them is one who lacks depth of knowledge in the field of Indology and judges by superficial appearances, ‘reputation’ of the scholar among his peers, body language, etc. In exchange, they can shower the businessman with praise, media coverage seen amongst important Westerners, positions on prestigious boards, admission for their children into Ivy Leagues, and high level ‘networking opportunities’ for business. In other words, the donor gets a boost in his personal brand and the Westerners get his money as well as the credibility seen as ‘good cops’ helping Indian culture.

It is clear that we have already started an irreversible trend to generate a large number of such thinker very soon. Because my core ideas are rapidly being used as a new intellectual framework, vocabulary and tool kit for our home team, there will be hundreds of others producing similar works. Therefore, undermining me personally will be worthless, and in fact, it will be counterproductive because it will further consolidate our support. One day, we will be in a position to give solid competition to the Ford Foundations of the world.


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