Dr Koenraad Elst is a noted Belgian scholar and writer, specialising in coverage of Hindu contemporary issues, Indian history and comparative philosophy. He has authored at least 20 books, including the monumental ‘Decolonising the Hindu Mind’ and ‘Saffron Swastika: the Notion of Hindu Fascism’.
What first made you interested in India?
Its funny, Muslims never ask people who convert to Islam the question, “What drew you to Islam, or why did you go to Mecca?” They just assume, “How could anyone not be interested in Islam”. My answer to you is: “How could anyone not be interested in India?” Philosophically, intellectually and in many other ways, India was the centre of the world as I understood it.
Has that view changed after having spent considerable time in India?
Well there are many bad things I can mention about India, such as the tremendous confusion. But despite that, I did come across people in India who I looked up to and who incarnated the kind of India that I had envisioned, the India that had the answers. It is another matter that most of them are now dead.
What do you love most about India?
I’ve never really thought about that. (After a short pause) The atmosphere in the street in the morning is something really amazing, and the sunrise in a city like Varanasi.
There are tonnes of people who study Hindu philosophy and yoga, but very few of these go on to show an interest in Hindu social and political issues. What made you take an interest in issues such as Ayodhya?
I had noted that those in India who are classed as secular are not secular at all, so I was less inclined to take them seriously when they wrote all these scare stories about Hindu fascists trying to take over India. It was the Salman Rushdie affair that first alerted me to the strange kind of secularism that Indian secularists espouse. I came to India in 1988, the year of the ‘Rushdie affair’. Secular intellectuals in India were in favour of banning the ‘Satanic Verses’. This was an eye opener. All over the world, to be secular meant to uphold freedom of expression in the face of religious extremism, but in India, it seemed quite the opposite! I thought it was laughable.
I also had a few encounters with the ‘Sangh Parivar’ family of Hindu nationalist organisations. My perception of them was mixed. They didn’t have the depth of thought to have the answers to the world’s problems, but they were clearly not very dangerous, like they were made out to be.
What are your own religious or spiritual beliefs?
I do not have any set beliefs. After leaving Christianity at the age of 14, I have studied various religions and systems of thought.
I am not very inclined to believe in God. I like philosophies and worldviews where God is not essential to the scheme of things. Examples are Taoism, or the Mimansa system of Vedic thought. I like the idea of Karma, and as far as reincarnation is concerned, I am fascinated by documented cases where people have recalled past lives in accurate detail through hypnosis and regression, although there could be other explanations for this. I like meditation – I wouldn’t want to live without doing it. But this has nothing to do with beliefs – one can take part in and gain the benefits of meditation whether or not you believe in God or Karma.
Modern Hinduism – the temples, worship, popular beliefs etc do not particularly appeal to me. Ancient Hinduism, on the other hand, was much richer philosophically, and interests me much more than modern Hinduism.
Which out of your books do you like best?
On the whole, I don’t think my books are particularly good. I write them quite fast and when I look back at them I can easily see bits that could have been done better.
The favourite book of mine was probably ‘Gandhi and Godse’. I find it hard to fault that book. It was basically a running commentary on Godse’s court speech, and an interesting job to write up. Some people say that I was justifying Gandhi’s murder by writing that book. But that is not at all true. I was just analysing Godse’s motives, because it deserves to be known what his motives were.
(This interview took place in 2006)