On March 3, 2019, I had an opportunity to speak with Aravindan Neelakandan when he visited Pondicherry and Auroville area for conducting a couple of sessions at the Tantrotsav 2019 at Kalarigram.
Aravindan Neelakandan is a prolific writer on many aspects of Indian culture and society, and is well-known for his book “Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines,” co-authored with Rajiv Malhotra of Infinity Foundation.
With academic degrees in agricultural studies and psychology, Aravindan has written extensively on topics related to science and Indology in Tamil and English. He has also worked with Vivekananda Kendra-NARDEP (Natural Resources Development Project) for ten years. Aravindan is currently a contributing editor of Swarajya magazine.
The following are some key highlights from my interview with Aravindan. It has been edited primarily for brevity and clarity.
I wish to express sincere thanks to Aravindan ji for granting this interview. And also, many thanks to Tuhina Roy, an intern at SAFIC for transcribing the interview and editing the pictures that accompany it.
Beloo Mehra: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview for Renaissance.
Aravindan Neelakandan: It is my pleasure.
BM: My first question to you naturally concerns your well-researched book “Breaking India.” I must applaud and commend you and Rajiv Malhotra ji for this important work, because in many ways it has become even more relevant in today’s India. This book came out in 2011 and since then many things have happened. What key ‘Breaking India’ forces do you see at work today? And do you think in some ways these forces have become more aggressive?
In your book you focused more on what you called as the Dravidian and Dalit faultlines as well as other historical forces such as the evangelical church and related organisations and other institutional forces from the West. Do you think that over the past few years some of these forces have also become louder or stronger, and why so?
AN: Without taking any political sides, I can say very clearly that the pseudo-secular polity has become the den of breaking India forces today. And to put it bluntly, one of the major political parties of India has inherited the ‘Breaking India’ forces that were present during the colonial times and it has given them a kind of official sanction and recognition. The difference between secularism and Breaking India forces is almost gone. Now Breaking India forces have become sort of mainstream, like they have the right to break India. It is as if like they have the democratic right to break India and if you question this right then they will label you as fascist.
Point is, India itself is essentially a democratic nation. Its core values are democracy and pluralism. These forces use this very democracy and pluralism to break the nation, and unfortunately these forces don’t even tolerate some of the more pluralistic or syncretic ideas within themselves. For example, there are pan-Islamic forces trying to break India but these pan-Islamic forces do not accept ahmadiyas. There are forces in Tamil Nadu which in the name of Tamil chauvinism try to break India but these Tamil chauvinists do not accept other Dravidian languages as their brothers.
So, these people are inherently fascists, yet they say that they have the democratic right to break their really democratic and pluralistic nation and call the ones opposing them as fascist. And what makes it even worse is that all this is being supported by one of the main political parties of India. This is like the end game. We are approaching the end game where we see the ‘Breaking India’ forces on one side and the ones that are trying to oppose these ‘Breaking India’ forces on another side.
BM: So, the forces that are opposing the ‘Breaking India’ forces – let us call them the ‘Making India’ forces, those which are concerned about the unity of India as a nation – how can they counter these highly organised or institutionalised forces? And what is the role of an ordinary citizen in all this? I mean, an ordinary citizen of India who sort of intuitively feels within that India is one nation, my nation, and he or she wants to somehow contribute to work toward its unity and integrity. What can such a person do?
AN: The best way to counter the divisive forces is to get real knowledge of your culture, that is the only way. Unfortunately, some ‘Making India’ forces counter the ‘divisive forces’ in their own divisive way. For example, you cannot use Bhagavad-Gita to counter Bible, or Sanskrit to counter Tamil chauvinism.
If a person learns Tamil properly, like the very values of Tamil, he or she will realise that it is in essence a pan-Indian language. Same is the case when one learns real values of Telugu properly, it too has pan Indian values. So, teach every language as properly as possible. Become as rooted as possible in your culture, your language, then only you can effectively counter the divisive forces. If a person really studies Tamil literature, he can never become anti-India. He can never hate Hindi and Sanskrit, because he’ll know that Tamil has contributed to Hindi and Sanskrit in a beautiful way. It has actually enriched itself with Sanskrit and has not been polluted by it. When Sanskrit entered Tamil language, Tamil became more beautiful and so did Sanskrit.
I’ll give you a simple example. Let us see the word dharma from Sanskrit – it is non-translatable, right. According to linguists who have been part of an ammunition in the arsenal of breaking India forces formulating this Aryan and Dravidian theory and everything, Sanskrit and Indo-European languages belong to one family and Tamil belongs to Dravidian language family. They are different languages, so people speaking them must be completely different races or cultures. Thus, you have the absolutely racist theories of Aryan Invasions or Aryan-Dravidian racial divide during the colonial times.
Now, consider this word dharma – none of the other Indo-European languages have a translatable equivalent to this. But then you have the word aram in Tamil which is the perfect equivalent or translation of dharma. And again, for aram you don’t have any translation in any of the Indo-European languages. But Sanskrit and Tamil have dharma and aram which are related in terms of the spirit. Thinking process and the vitality are the same. The outer frames of Sanskrit and Tamil maybe of different cognates – in the family of Indo-European languages and Dravidian languages respectively. It might be true, but I do not accept it as true because in spirit we are one.
So, we can create an education system that imparts this particular thing to students. And in fact, there is not much labour required, because this work has already been done by our ancestors. We have to just go back to them, to the system created by our ancestors, and show it to our present generation, show to the people that this is our real culture. Then we would have countered them, the ‘Breaking India’ forces.
As you correctly said these forces have been institutionalised and they have big institutions to support them, they know how to capture institutions, and how to strangle institutions. But still these are mechanical and machine-like institutions. Whereas we know our strength… the strength of the ‘Making Indian’ forces is that we realize that we are organic beings, and we work organically. I’ll use this analogy from the Hebrew Bible – I don’t call it the Old Testament – it is the typical David and Goliath situation where we are trying to defeat the Goliath.
BM: You mentioned Education, so let me ask you this. You had written one article a couple of years back in Swarajya, titled “The Idea of Bharat Mata is Ancient and Originally Indian – Here Are the Facts.” There you give solid evidence to show that the idea of Bharat Mata is in fact quite ancient and that it was not a construction during the colonial times – as is often heard in our standard discourse these days.
Articles like that can be quite educational and eye-openers in many ways for a lot of people who are not exposed to these things, because let’s face it, our existing curricula in schools and colleges hardly speak of such things. In a way what you are saying in that article is similar to what you are saying now – that we are moved by the spirit and in spirit we are one.
So, my question to you is what, in your view, is this spirit of nationalism in India and how is it different from the idea of nationalism in the West? Even the idea of nation…how is Indian idea of nation different from the West, in your understanding?
AN: See, we have to understand one key thing. We are not a treaty nation; we are an organic national body, that is our national identity. And you can feel it beautifully. I will give you three instances.
First, let’s go back to the time when there was a very definite and clear aggression against us – our temples were being destroyed, our cattle were being slaughtered, and of course all this was done very intentionally, our women were being molested and abducted and people were being forced to convert to Islam. That was the situation.
At that time, Hakka-Bukka laid the foundation for the Vijayanagar Empire. Kumara Kampana, who was an army commander and the prince in the Vijayanagar Empire, the son of king Bukka, came here and was on his way to Madurai. Madurai was the place where everything happened the Meenakshi temple was destroyed, closed down. So Kampana was sent and he had a minor victory around Kanchi, after which he relaxed and started indulging in sensual pleasures.
One day a woman came in his court and it is said that she gave him a sword and said that this was a goddess’ sword. This was the sword of Dharma, she said, which had been directly given by Shiva himself to the Pandyas and Cholas to protect Dharma. And now it was being given to Kampana because it was his duty now to protect Dharma. He then destroyed the Sultanate enemies and freed the temples. Today you see the big temples in and around Madurai, which are given by this Kampana. You read about this in the Sanskrit epic poem Madhura Vijayam, written by the great poetess Gangadevi.
So that’s number 1.
Next is the story of Shivaji. There is this famous tradition according to which, Shivaji’s sword was given to him by Goddess herself. He named his sword as Bhavani.
Then there is Guru Gobind Singh who was fighting for the very diversity, the very basic soul of the nation; he named his sword Bhagwati. So, you can see the connection here?
Whenever there is an attack on dharma, the spirit arises and it guides and helps in building this nation again, builds up dharma again.
So the question was what is this Shakti? This Shakti is a very physical presence that is taking this nation further. This shakti, this energy, this spirt moves through each one of us, provided we are ready to become its instruments like Guru Gobind Singh was ready. Why would he, there in Punjab, name his sword Bhagwati? Why should he be singing Chandi di var? Shivaji in the Deccan named his sword Bhavani, why? And why should the call of Vande Mataram suddenly erupt?
So, when you put them all together what you see is that it is not some kind of political imagery, it is not fantasy or imagination. It is a very living process of this land because this land is not just a physical mass; it has a purpose.
Sri Aurobindo has said that India has not uttered her last word. India’s work is not done, it has a big grandeur to reveal. That is the reason why this Shakti will always be there, and will manifest itself in the times of crisis. This Shakti we call the goddess.
I don’t know if the goddess worship originated here but the goddess worship found its complete evolution and fulfilment in all its diversity and in all its grandeur here in this land. So, this land is worth protecting, the values of this land and the people of this land are worth protecting. For this an instrument will be needed, we have to become the instrument of this Shakti, this goddess.
BM: That was beautiful. I remember you actually start that article with Sri Aurobindo’s line that India is not a nation, India is a Shakti. That line is very moving, of course the whole Bhavani Mandir is a soul-stirring piece of writing. And perhaps we are again at a time, right now, when we need to invoke that Bhavani, that Shakti. So, thank you for all that you just said.
Now, I recall another piece of yours, which I found quite relevant for today – your article titled “A Space for Differences: Samanvaya.” You speak of samanvya, the process of creating harmony as opposed to the Cartesian concept of mere tolerance. And you actually give some very good examples in the piece. So, in today’s time what is required to go back to the very Indian idea of harmony where differences are not eliminated or annihilated but, in a way, are celebrated within the larger unity? Where did we go wrong? And how can we go back to that idea of harmony?
AN: See this diversity that we have, that is worth protecting. The ability to hold on to this diversity, and protecting that ability to protect diversity – that is, in a way, what we are doing. We are not trying to destroy the diversity.
Our very purpose is to protect this diversity and for this we have to put a full stop to monopolistic religions, not monotheistic religions. Each religion is an ideology in a sense, but there are religions or ideologies that claim that truth is ours alone and no one else has the truth. And they also say that if you don’t have the truth you don’t have the right to live as equal citizens – there are systems or religions or ideologies that say that. If you are not with me, you are against me. So, our fight is against this tendency, against this kind of ideology, not against the people.
See, there has been no fight in this land between Allah and Rama, the fight has always been against those who claim that theirs can be the only one god and other gods are false. We don’t say that. That is now who we are, or what India is. We say that the Divine is infinite and the Divine has the ability to manifest itself in infinite ways, and we don’t limit it to a book or to any set of narrow ideas.
Samanvaya – that is the process which will, given the natural course of things, which will allow the truth to take it into itself the seemingly contradictory ideas. If Christianity and Islam want to deepen themselves and live, then they have to submit themselves to this samanvaya process. Otherwise they even will end up only as theocratic and power mongering structures that will eventually kill themselves. Even Marxism can be incorporated through the samanvya process, because in a way each ideology has some truth to it.
BM: You hit the nail right on the head there. Sri Aurobindo has also said that Hinduism would have in fact assimilated within its fold through its very organic and unique integrative process both Christianity and Islam if they had tolerated the process, and in the process would have also enriched itself.
AN: Yes, this samanvaya is an organic process. I often give this example – and I think I have written about it also – about the difference in the way Prahlada was taught by Narada and by Shukracharya.
Shukracharya education is all that our children are getting today. It is the Shukracharya education which says you should only worship the State or any one particular ideology. Right now, we only have the Shukracharya education. What about the Narada education which was given to the child starting from the womb itself, an education that is given in as organic a way as the life itself? Our ancestors had created this system for us, like I said, they taught all this in the house itself. In modern times we have to make sure that this education is given in the house itself.
Ideally, the State should also give an education that gels in the wavelength with the education that the child gets in the house, that is well and good. But before that can happen, at least this home education will persist and things will change. You take the example of Sri Aurobindo. His father was very insistent that not even the shadow of India should fall on his son, Aurobindo. Still, he attained it. How did he catch this? The environment that is already there in India – it touched him when he returned here and even when he was there, something of it went with him which began to blossom. So, this subtle energy, a system of connecting with this energy is there.
Even though the system is there we are not able to connect to it because by every passing day we are getting more and more separated from it. And that is a problem. We are getting separated every day, so we need to narrow down the widening gap. Fortunately, there are people like Anant Pai who created Amar Chitra Katha. I don’t know how Amar Chitra Katha is doing now…
But what Amar Chitra Katha did was that it showed how the Narada education could be taken to children. It was not dependent on the State; it was an individual who just collected the stories and started the movement. Why should he research about Kannagi and create the comic about her? Why should he research about someone in south and give them to children in Madhya Pradesh and Kerala? I see here also the work of Shakti.
I see Shakti working at the darkest of times and the only thing one needs to do is to become the instrument of this, then naturally things begin to open. Ultimately, it’s like providing space for individual sadhana, and sadhana right now is national service. And you are not doing service to the nation, essentially you are doing the sadhana. You are worshipping the nation.
BM: Speaking of stories, one of the things I picked up from your talk here today is this emphasis on local heritage, local stories, how important it is for us to know our regional legends, histories, heroes... I mean the way you were communicating and sharing these stories from Tamil Nadu, stories of the great saints and sages of this area, and the way you were making a pan-Indian connection through these local stories, it was just marvellous to listen to that.
AN: Yes, telling these stories from local heritage is very important. See, each of these local stories contain universal truth. And I am not the one making the connection, the connection with the Indian essence is already there. We just don’t see it when we don’t know the essence of India. And I am not speaking out of any humility here, I really mean it when I say that I am telling these stories firstly to myself, because that is important.
See, there was this donkey which was carrying sandalwood idols, and as it was walking people started admiring the idols. The donkey thought that the people were marvelling at it, and so it started braying out of arrogance. But the real fragrance is of the sandalwood, the stories, the saints and sages of this land, whose stories I am merely recounting. And maybe in the process if I am braying out of my own limitation, it is my ignorance that I might have something to do with this fragrance. It is important that we know this.
BM: Beautifully said, thank you! Well, it has been really wonderful speaking with you. Much to reflect on here. Thank you for being so generous with your time and for sharing your valuable thoughts and perspectives.
AN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.