Deconstructing Martha Nussbaum: The Hindu Right Revisited

May 24, 2007
Cynical Nerd

Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Law, Religion and Philosophy at the University of Chicago launches her book this week titled The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India's Future. The Harvard University Press published this. She had a preview published at The Chronicle for Higher Education on May 18, 2007. Here are my preliminary impressions on the latter.

I give her the benefit of the doubt. Nussbaum appears to be a genuine liberal, a well wisher and broad minded. Her criticisms of the Hindu right are not without reason and she makes some valid points. The 2002 Gujarat riots deserved criticism. This said, she makes huge leaps of argument without substantiating them, provides zero context and stands accused of several factual inaccuracies. This makes me query her credentials as a lawyer-academic. Nussbaum lacks the rigor one would have expected of a senior academic. Let me illustrate.

Hers is a foreign policy prescription directed at a liberal democrat audience. She argues that democratic institutions are vulnerable to the challenge posed by religious nationalism. In India, this is epitomized by the Hindu right as witnessed in the Gujarat riots. The phenomenon was largely unnoticed in the United States preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism. She iterates that such threats need to be confronted.

Nussbaum is not entirely incorrect. The RSS represents an insular atavistic world view that is often coarse. The rhetoric of the Bajrang Dal exemplifies this. But Hinduism and the BJP-led National Development Alliance (NDA) can not be equated with the RSS. The NDA when in power included Dalit activists such as Ram Vilas Paswan, the Kashmir-based National Conference, anti-Brahmanic "Dravidian" parties and veteran socialists like George Fernandez! It cut across regions and the social divide. She needs to temper her strident critique with a more nuanced and accurate view.


Nussbaum distorts history with her slipshod analysis and facile methodology. At one point she describes "traditional Hinduism" as "decentralized, plural and highly tolerant". She contrasts that with the Hindu right and proceeds to outline what she thinks to be their version of history. She concludes that "Hindus are no more indigenous [to India] than Muslims" in light of the Aryan invasion. Her history needs to be corrected.

The colonial-era hypothesis of "a people who spoke Sanskrit migrating into the Indian subcontinent finding indigenous, probably Dravidian peoples there" needs to be revised in its chronology and sequence . The Indo-European speaking peoples purportedly migrated at a much earlier time period, were far fewer in number and certainly did not speak Sanskrit which evolved later. I refer to archeologists such as Colin Renfrew, J.N. Kenoyer and Marija Gimbutas and to the geneticist Cavalli-Sforza. Whether the purported indigenes were "Dravidian" is uncertain as well. It is more likely that the introduction of iron and improved technology facilitated the spread of civilizational ideas associated with those speaking Indo-European dialects. Hinduism had evolved over the centuries in the Indian subcontinent drawing from multiple sources be they Aryan or Dravidian by the time the earlier verses of the Rig Veda were first uttered in the Punjab circa 1,500 BCE. Hinduism had its origins in the region!

Political Context

Nussbaum views events in isolation. She repeatedly fails to provide political context. She relies on V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar to illustrate the Hindu right emphasizing their alleged Nazi German ideological antecedents. I do not intend to defend either except to add that the German and Japanese defiance of the West during World War II found resonance not just in India but in Latin America, the Middle East and South East Asia. Mohammed Iqbal, the intellectual forerunner of Pakistan, found inspiration in Germany. Subhas Chandra Bose of the Indian left was another example. Many were attracted by the discipline, defiance and success on the battlefront. This fascination across continents had little to do with the Nazi treatment of European Jewry though Nussbaum would understandably be aghast given her adopted Jewish heritage.

It is indeed correct that Golwalkar extolled Germany in 1939. The Muslim League had upped the campaign for partition the previous year by accusing the Congress under Mohandas K. Gandhi and Nehru of sidelining Muslim interests. Religious riots had assumed a new ferocity, the seeds for partition had been sowed and a program of religious polarization initiated. This was exemplified in the Muslim League's Pirpur report of 1938. Nussbaum is unaware of context. She should therefore not arrogate the right to comment on issues that she knows little about.

She asks "how did fascism take such a hold in India?" Context is key once again. India is surrounded by neighbors that epitomize raw aggression and violence. The recent history of Afghanistan hardly needs reiteration. Bangladesh, the erstwhile East Bengal, had a Hindu population of 29% in 1947. This fell to 10% in 2001 due to the eviction, intimidation and land grab over the decades. Bhutan expelled 1/7th of its population because they spoke Nepalese. 30 million people might have died in the great Chinese famine in the late 1950s. China's treatment of Tibet in the late 1960s had elements of genocide. Hindus and Sikhs comprised 19% of what is today Pakistan in 1947. This declined to 1% where the rest were subject to sectarian ethnic cleansing. Pakistan unleashed terror in East Bengal in 1970 that led to the death of 1.5 million Bengalis. India stands out by its commitment to pluralism and democracy despite setbacks.

The RSS became influential in a political vortex fueled by multiple actors. A credible analysis needs to factor this in and not view things in isolation. India's only Muslim majority state i.e . Kashmir expelled its centuries old Hindu minority from the valley in 1989. Nussbaum fails to cover the rise of fundamentalism in Kashmir while she zeroes in on it in Gujarat! Rather than condemn the Hindu right alone, one needs to contextualize the competing religious fundamentalisms, each of which fed upon the other to cause mayhem. Islamic fundamentalism has had a vigorous presence in India as witnessed in efforts to stall the reform of Muslim Personal Law, the rights of Muslim women, bomb attacks and riots triggered by reported attacks on Islam in the West etc. The international campaign against Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses had its origins in India.

Social Service

Nussbaum draws inspiration from Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas K. Gandhi. She fails to mention that both were profoundly influenced by the Hindu ethos of inclusivism, tolerance and restraint. M.K. Gandhi, a devout Hindu, turned to the Bhagavad Gita each day to seek spiritual strength to fight injustice. He termed this Satyagraha or the power of truth. Rabindranath Tagore was leader of the Hindu reformist Brahmo Samaj having established Vishwa Bharati as a center of learning and culture. If one were to meaningfully counter the Hindu right, one has to incorporate the wellsprings of the 20th century Hindu enlightenment rather than rely on a flawed Nehruvian secularism.

This said, the Gandhian movement to alleviate poverty known as Sarvodaya (the awakening of all) and Bhudan (land to the landless), and the Brahmo Samaj failed to sustain the empowerment of the marginalized. The Brahmo Samaj and Sarvodaya are no longer active. The RSS affiliates conversely strengthened their grass roots presence. The Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram provides service to the scheduled tribes. The Seva Bharati works with the largely scheduled caste urban poor. Vidya Bharati works on education in remote rural India.

While the intelligentsia may condemn the rhetoric of the Hindu right, they lack a similar calling to serve the poor and downtrodden. So rather than decry political Hinduism, Nussbaum should perhaps assess why the tolerant Hindu ethos as represented by Tagore and Gandhi failed to retain a social service ethos. The two movements lost their civilizational moorings and relevance in their embrace of "Nehruvian secularism". The decline was therefore inevitable despite the real needs on the ground.


Nussbaum makes sweeping statements , each of which can be critiqued. Her hypothesis of the "wounded masculinity" of India partakes of an unsubstantiated pop psychology. She refers to the "rote learning" and the "lack of critical thinking" reportedly pervasive in Indian public schools. I would stay free of such facile generalizations. I am not sure how nuanced the average American student is or whether "rote learning" is a phenomenon confined to India. Her narrative of events be it with regards to the Gujarat riots, the Indian general elections or the fractured poll verdict is wrong. More importantly, she fails to illustrate the threats to Indian liberalism in a meaningful, nuanced and factually accurate manner.

Nussbaum is not alone in her critique of the Hindu right in American circles. The American conservative has sought to cultivate good ties with a resurgent India only to stymie it. This is witnessed in the provisions of the proposed Indo-American nuclear deal. This is a barely disguised attempt to coerce India to throw open its nuclear reactors to international inspections, halt fissile material production and commit to a nuclear test ban, all under the garb of a purported energy deal!

The American Atlanticist on the other hand flaunts his commitment to liberalism and uses that to urge greater scrutiny of China, India, Iran and Russia. The pro-Israel lobby, of which I count Nussbaum as one, is alarmed by the Islamic resurgence that threatens Israel's existence. It attempts to divert Islamist attention away from Israel to other instances of alleged persecution of Muslims be it in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Indian subcontinent. Nussbaum is not all that kosher after all given the wider effort to "deconstruct" potential geo-strategic competitors. In this, she has the powerful backing of academics like Frykenburg and Witzel, of newspapers like the New York Times with its former editor Rosenthal and one time correspondent Barbara Crossett, not to mention Indian journalists of the ilk of Pankaj Mishra who writes to the Atlantic Magazine!

Authored by Jaffna

The author writes at National Interest
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May 24, 2007
03:10 AM


You provide an exceptional and brilliant critique of a tenured professor arrogant with the academic achievements of yesteryear. Her piece on India is neither a lawyer's brief nor a text of genuine scholarship. It was a merely a highly subjective rant.

Sanjay Garg
May 24, 2007
06:17 AM

Jaffna: Congratulations on a hard-hitting yet objective and thorough review. It is not often that one sees a review that is actually more objective than the original but you have demonstrated brilliantly that this can be done.

May 24, 2007
09:25 AM

A great article. I have read her articles at and I can understand the way she makes sweeping generalisations.

May 24, 2007
09:55 AM

Great article. I am amazed at your writing abilities and knowledge. Learnt a lot.

May 24, 2007
11:02 AM

Jaffna: What an eye-opener! As one of the posters mentioned, it is not often one sees a rejoinder more objective and rigorous than the original piece. I hope this opens many minds and changes the perception of India/Hinduism in academia and the public at large.

Your final point about the attempt of demonstrating India's persecution of Muslims to divert the excesses committed by Israeal and America is superb. The same applies to the Atlanticist 'concern' about Russian efforts against Chechen terrorists. It is to Putin's credit that he crushed the insurgency. But what about India? When will India overcome the internal security challenges.


WIlliam Glick
May 24, 2007
11:58 AM

Muslim Hindu Christian Jewish Peace
William Glick
(The Jewish Hindu Dialogue)

The desire to bring peace to the world is most likely the inner mood of most of us today.
Todo that we need to come to a common understanding of religious terminology and beliefs.

For example most of us have no idea that the name Allah comes from the Hebrew letter Alef,
our A, in the English alphabet. This simple point contains enough information for every
Christian, Jew and Hindu to accept Allah as a name of God.

I will explain further, in the "Old Testament" which Jewish people call the 5 books of
Moses, God explains that He is the beginning to the end. This same idea is expressed in
the New Testament. Revelation 22:13, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,
the Beginning and the End. This English usage of Alpha is based on the Hebrew Alef. Also
in the Hindu (Vedic) scripture, Bagavad Gita, Krishna says "of letters I am A."

Has God sent so many messengers each with a different message? Is He sitting in the Garden
of Eden laughing at us? I think not! We have twisted His message based on our own material
desire, creating our own Hell on Earth.

The objection we find from our Muslim brothers today comes from the desire to bring the
world back to God and His ways. We find this mood in our Jewish-Christian tradition also.
Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

This lack of discipline, this foolish rush of insane materialism is what every deeply
religious person objects to, no matter which faith he or she is coming from. We can take
good example from our Amish brothers and Hindu (Vedic)sages.

An error of modern society and religion is to identify the body as the self. The Bhagavad-
Gita clearly explains that we should see and accept the spiritual essence (the soul) of
each living being as spiritually equal. There it is said, "The humble sage, by virtue of
true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle Brahman,a cow,an elephant,a dog and a dog-eater [outcast]." [Bagavad Gita 5.18]

How does the learned sage see every living entity with equal vision? He sees the spirit
soul within the heart of each of God's creations. He understands that although living
forms may appear different, those appearances are only the external coverings of the soul,
and that spiritually we are all equal.

A careful analysis shows that all problems result from our first mistake of identifying
the body as the self. If we identify ourselves by race, religion and ethnic group we will
then suffer or enjoy the results of that identity, but the fact is we are spiritually
equal and the bodily identity that we accept is both temporary and insignificant compared
to our eternal spiritual identity. We suffer due to birth, disease, old age and death; we
need not identify with the body, which is being afflicted by these difficulties.

If everyone understood and acted on the level of the soul rather than the body, the
world's problems would practically cease. Understanding the difference between matter and
spirit, and that God is the controller of all things, is the essence of knowledge.

It is natural that when we become overwhelmed by difficulties, we become aware of our
dependence on God. Unfortunately, due to our deep attachment to materialism, we are drawn
to perceive religion in much the same manner, as we perceive ordinary social activities.
That is, we become attached to identifying with the external or social side of religion,
while we forget its essence-loving service to God.

Our modern use of the word religion, expresses an external alterable faith, while the
Sanskrit word dharma, implies an internal or essential eternal relationship with God. Our
religion or faith can change but the soul's relationship with God is eternal. For example,
I may claim that I am a Christian today, but I may adopt the practices of a Hindu or of a
Jew tomorrow. However, whatever faith you my follow, the essence of that faith is loving
service to God.

We must understand that our Muslim brothers and sisters who have come to understand the
true message of Allah accept all of us as children of God based on this verse from the Koran. 2.62: Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.

We should also understand that as a nation, nay as a human race if we do not come to follow God's laws and develop our love for Him and His creation, our future is all too clear.

For Our Lord says: Isaiah 46: I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.

Thank You and God's Blessings I pray for us!
William Glick (Isa das)

Ruvy in Jerusalem
May 24, 2007
11:17 PM

I'll eschew commenting on William Glick's observations - though his heart may be in the right place, this comment thread is not the appropriate venue for his ideas. He should write an article of his own...

Professor Nussbaum's problem in writing her book is that she is not an Indian. She is an American Jew. So she does not understand from the inside the culture she seeks to write about.

No matter how much scholarship I were to do on the topics she writes about, I'd not feel equal to the task of writing a book claiming to have serious insights about it for the same reason. I am a Jew who is not an Indian and I do not understand Indian culture from the inside, which one needs to do to understand the dynamics of communal strife in India. I would always be an outsider looking in, and would never achieve the understanding needed to intelligently address many of the issues of communal strife in India that are not apparent to the outsider.

Not everyone can be a de Tocqueville.

May 25, 2007
12:52 AM

brilliant piece...very well written, as usual

May 25, 2007
07:23 AM

A sincere thank you to all for your kind words.

Ruvy, you make a valid point on the need to understand dynamics from the inside rather than to preach selectively from the outside. While outside commentary has its uses, it should be even-handed and not partisan to be helpful.

Best regards

May 25, 2007
08:42 AM

I am an Indian and have read both Martha Nussbaum's critiqued article and the above critique.

The critique written by Jaffna is brilliant in its scholarship and dissects Nussbaum, argument by argument. I would say that it is critical but very 'proper' in its criticism as an academic exercise must be.

India, however, is a country that needs to be understood at an emotional level as well, and both these commentators cannot do so, for the simple reason that they are not Indian. While talking of the Hindu 'Right' the fact that is forgotten completely is its origins. The Hindu way of life is one totally accepting different points of view and involves living with contradictions. Into such a land, where there was acceptance of even an iconoclast such as Charavaka, there arrived a set of marauders called Muslims whose worldview consisted of killing Kafirs and destroying other faiths. One does not try to pass a value judgement on this faith or way of life as one is too Hindu. For the Hindu, the world is full of Maya and life as we know it is only a part of the continuum that leads to merging with Brahman. Hence, the arrival of this set of 'barbarians' who played by a different set of rules was a traumatic experience. Prithviraj Chauhan, a Rajput King, defeated Mohd Ghauri seven times and in the eigth was defeated and humiliated and killed. The previous seven times he actually released Mohd Ghauri, sending him back with gifts and honour fit for a king. Even in the Mahabharata, the battle was from dawn to dusk. At the end of the day's battle, the troops of the two sides used to get together and joke and laugh. The reason was that for them it was all Maya, something that they had to do and which they did as a part of their Karma. However, a Moslem bred in the desert, who saw the world through a different lens, the rule was kill or be killed!

The Hindu 'Right' is a product of this mix. On the one hand, there is a greater acceptance of other religions but at the same time, one does not want to become roadkill, which is what will happen if Hindus just allow themselves to be overrun by marauding hordes. Gujarat was the product of a Congress inspired massacre of fifty odd peaceful Hindus by burning down one compartment of a train and the mayhem that followed was simply because of the gory images that were aired on TV thereafter, which instigated a peaceful Hindu committee. I am sure that if a similar thing were to happen in the US or Europe, the retribution would be worse. One WTC and the US bombed and overran two countries. So do you expect the Hindu to just bend over and spread out at provocation after provocation, bombings and what have you.

May 25, 2007
10:10 AM

Netaji wasn't a part of the Indian left, he was much, much bigger than that rag-tag bunch - the original CPI - who were but a rump of the grand old Congress. Netaji was very clear that he was taking the help of his enemy's enemy - the Axis powers - only for the purpose of throwing out the British from India. Netaji was close to Savarkar's Hindu Mahasabha, which was set against the Axis, and one of whose leaders was the late Nirmal Chandra Chattopadhyay, the father of our honourable Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. Savarkar advised Indian nationalists to fight with hte British against the Axis, so that they may learn to oust the British after the WW was won. Netaji OTOH wanted to take the help of the Axis to throw out the British and then keep everyone out of India. Netaji followed in the footsteps of another illustrious patriot - Shenbagaraman Pillai - of the WW-1 - who worked with the Central Powers to defeat the British in India. And it is Shenbaraman who coined the slogan - Jai Hind - which Netaji adopted. Netaji's advocacy of class/caste-lessness was in part owing to the then ideas popularised by the Hindu Mahasabha and many other Hindu reform movements that had been preaching these ideals for almost 50 years.

May 25, 2007
10:44 AM


I must add that this was a very informative and nuanced rejoinder. More Americans should read this.

May 25, 2007
11:42 AM

Content in her book is not based on any research. It is simply based on conversations with her boyfriend who is a deranged-secular economist.

Man singh
May 25, 2007
01:06 PM

Here are certain points I collected by common sense to prove that `Aryan invasion theory is a big lie'

Use your common sense and challenge the Anti India Historians (gangs of Mao, Marx and Macauley)
1.Almost all Hindus Dieties Ram, Krishna, Vinsnu are black in color curly hair like typical south India. All Devis look like typical South Indian women. Lord Shiva is karpur Goram again camphor is associated with South India and not North.

2.Vedas describe Indian rivers, Indian flaura and fauna not of any foreign country

3. Conch shell (Shankhs) used in Hindu worship is found in south India and not in North.

4. Sandal used in worship found in South India and not in North.

5. Roli (Kumkum) produced in South India and not in North.

6. Supari, etc all south Indian and not North.

7. Rice (South India) used in prayers not wheat produced in south.

8. Coconut produced in South India and not in North.

9. Sanskrit has alphabet of 53 letter similar in all Indian languages including Tamil while European languages have only 24-26

10. English has only 400 words common with Sanskrit, Tamil have more then 4000.

11. `Arya' in Sanskrit means a noble person who does his/her duty professionally and smartly irrespective of cast creed color or way of worship and never a race? So if Arya is not a race then from where the question of invasion arises. "Only from a crooked mind?"

12. All rivers described in Vedas are Indian rivers. If they were foreinegers they might have described foreign rivers as Muslim invaders always described `zam xam ka Paani'
13. All Mountains described in vedic Literature are Indian. If they were foreigners they might have described foreign mountains.

14. All atronomical descriptions match with star positions on India

15. All trees, plants medicines etc described are of Indian origin

Still do you believe the lie of Aryans invasion on India? This theory is an attack of very existence of civilization originated from soil of India.

Use your common sense and if you feel these arguments have some weight then let's challenge the anti India Historians (Gangs of Mao, Marx and Macauley)

"there is now evidence to show that Muller, and those who followed him, were wrong."

"The Aryan invasion theory was based on archaeological, linguistic and ethnological evidence.

Later research, it is argued, has either discredited this evidence, or provided new evidence that combined with the earlier evidence makes other explanations more likely.

Some historians of the area no longer believe that such invasions had such great influence on Indian history. It's now generally accepted that Indian history shows a continuity of progress from the earliest times to today."

When `Angrej' who abricated this theory themselves that they played the trick on Indians to divide them n rule, why we foolish are beliveing those lies even today?

is it because gangs of foreign ideologies (Mao, Marx, Macauley and Mohammed) are in the forfront of writing our history books and they want to keep this dead elephant alive in our memories so that Indian civilisational values never come on the forfront.

Just think and act.

Da Punjabi
May 25, 2007
01:54 PM

Could someone make an Effort to get Email Addresses of almost all editors from news Media, and print it on... I know this person, i believe Venkatamangala at AOL, who had compiled such a big list.... may someone want to contact him, so this article could be passed down

May 25, 2007
07:37 PM

Man Singh

Interesting information you provide.

May 26, 2007
04:58 AM

Good pragmatic points by the author about Hinduism and Sanskrit. Even though proto-Indo-European languages and beliefs were brought into India, the fact remains that Hinduism the religion and Sanskrit the language were developed into their recognizable form in India, are sufficiently distinct from other Indo-European religions and languages, and are unique to India alone. That makes them Indian. People like Nussbaum labelling Hinduism a "foreign" religion and Sanskrit a "foreign" language have no sense of context or scale. The idea that Indo-Europeans brought Sanskrit and Hinduism into India is an sneaky little lie on the part of Nussbaum, and representative of either dishonesty or shoddy academic thinking, an idea that is being abused by both ideological camps for their own ends at the expense of the truth.

June 9, 2007
09:28 PM

You all make for fascinating reading. I think you might want to spend more time contemplating the ultimate nature of reality and a little bit less being defensive.

June 10, 2007
12:17 AM

The contemplation of ultimate reality has its place. The intellectual battle on more mundane issues has its relevance too. Both need to be undertaken on the lines of how the Bhagavad Geeta had inspired Gandhiji and Vinobha Bhave.

June 10, 2007
05:55 AM

Hey brilliant analysis dude.

That Hinduism and Sanskrit are "foreign" to India is an outrageous lie. Actually, it doesnt even matter. Even if we concede that they came from outside, no one can deny that both Hinduism and Sanskrit evolved and reached heights only in India, by the efforts, thoughts and actions of only Indians. India is the ONLY home of Hinduism and the Sanskrit language. So what is Martha's problem?

June 13, 2007
09:33 AM

Many people on earth dont move with local people but write pages of essays simply to become famous-world will not respect the lie ,,you need to be honest to agree that Hindu is equavalent to India and respect the orgnisation like RSS which is striving to hold the dharma.

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