His command over Hindu scriptures and ability to quote from them in multisyllabic English make David Frawley a great catch for the Sangh.
He routinely criticises former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, calling out his “love of Marxism compounded by his disdain for Hinduism”. He tweets regularly against the “anti-Hindu communists of Kerala” for their stand on Sabarimala. He is an admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bringing “back dignity to India and a voice at a global level”. And he insists that the Vatican is most powerful in India.
All this makes him the Sangh Parivar’s guaranteed third favourite American, after self-professed nationalist Donald Trump and their most intimate biographer, Walter K. Andersen.
In fact, if the Sangh Parivar were to have invented a scholar to bolster their intellectual deficiency and take on their favourite bugbears, they couldn’t have done better than the 68-year-old David Frawley aka Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, usually of Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, and lately of various conferences, literature festivals, and ministry of external affairs workshops across India.
One of the 10 children in a Catholic family in Wisconsin, a self-confessed hippy at the height of the anti-war protests against Vietnam in America, self-taught scholar of yoga, Ayurveda, Vedas, astrology and Vedic history, Frawley is the Indian right-wing’s intellectual pin-up, singular poster boy in their sparsely populated ranks, and their one-man army against decades of what he calls “Nehruvian socialism, its Marxist shadows, dynastic arrogance, and intellectual pretensions”.
His command over Hindu scriptures in the original language and ability to quote from them chapter and verse in multisyllabic English make him a great catch for the Sangh. His work provides the cerebral compass to an otherwise rag-tag coalition of trident-wielding swamis, venom-spitting gaurakshaks and WhatsApp-educated unentitled urbanites. The sheer absence of thought leaders within the Sangh Parivar, which has been dominated by Deendayal Upadhyaya’s indeterminate and undistinguished Integral Humanism as well as a series of mofussil Maharashtrian Brahmins, has ensured he stands out. His popularity is evident, in over 1,42,000 Twitter followers, in requests for selfies at most public spaces, and in reprints of his books, most recently by Bloomsbury, which having re-published his What is Hinduism? A Guide for the Global Mind is now doing the same with Arise Arjuna: Hinduism Resurgent in a New Century. His back catalogue of 50 books in 25 translations should keep several publishers busy. Add to this, his avuncular affability in an environment dominated by poisonous name-calling, and it is clear why he is in such demand that he spends almost six months of the year in India with his partner, yoga shakti practitioner Shambhavi Chopra, who conducts mind-body-spirit rejuvenation workshops.
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Some of the bright young conservative scholars speak highly of his thought leadership. Hindol Sengupta, author of the well-received Being Hindu, describes him as being part of a long tradition of Western seekers and scholars engaging with and expanding the scope and nuance of India’s spiritual heritage.
‘’The names of Sister Nivedita, the Mother at Auroville and Ram Dass come to mind. Dr Frawley, in my opinion, is in this line of exemplary people who have engaged and enriched India’s spiritual heritage through their lifelong study and research on its various forms. Using the prism of practice, Dr Frawley, winner of one of India’s highest awards for public service, has made an invaluable contribution in the service of Indian spirituality both within India and around the world,” Sengupta said.
Frawley’s work spans many worlds. Since the ‘70s, he is one of the few who has written and practised in each. Beauty blogger and yoga teacher Vasudha Rai says his book Ayurveda and the Mind: The Healing of Consciousness has made a huge impact on her teaching and writing.
Economist Sanjeev Sanyal, who believes the idea of Aryan invasion has now conclusively been proved wrong, owes a lot to Frawley’s pioneering work Gods, Sages and Kings: Vedic Secrets of Ancient Civilisation. Here, he discovered 150 references to the ocean in the Rig Veda, showing that India was an “advanced, spiritual and poetic culture, not a group of primitive nomads”. Sanyal says Frawley has made an important contribution to modernising and reinterpreting Hindu ideas for a global audience. “Although himself of Western origin, he has been a strong advocate for understanding Indic culture from an Indian perspective rather than one captured by Western academia or missionaries,” he said.
Frawley’s gradual assimilation into the Indian intellectual terrain also shows the long-term game plan of Sangh Parivar acolytes and ideologues, which mirrors how L.K. Advani cultivated a clutch of English-speaking public school educated journalists post-1984. Enormously influenced by Dr Vasant Lad, who set up an Ayurveda institute in Albuquerque, Frawley then started a dialogue with B.L. Vashta, an Ayurvedic scholar in Pune. Vashta introduced him to members of the Sangh Parivar, most importantly K.S. Sudarshan who was to become the fifth sarshanghachalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) between 2000 and 2009.
“He was a gentle, Gandhian soul,” says Frawley, who also spoke at his shraddanjali.
This was also the time, early ‘90s, when a young pracharak invited him to a conference to debate conversions in Hyderabad. Ram Madhav was then with Pragna Bharati (which now calls itself a think tank) and was soon to become the lynchpin of the BJP’s foreign outreach programme. He remains a close associate of Frawley, who is a starred speaker at his India Foundation events. There was a similar encounter with a then-unknown pracharak in 1996 in Boston. Frawley recalls with a smile: “So we were speaking to a group of Hindu students. There was I, Subhash Kak (his computer scientist friend and sometime co-author) and a man introduced by our host as the future prime minister of India.” It was, of course, Narendra Modi.
Frawley became a Hindu 30 years ago through the process of shuddhi, conducted by Vashta, and has seen his extended parivar grow from a group of people “under siege” to being in positions of power.
He is a great proponent of renaming and reclaiming cities, streets and temples; of the need for a renaissance of India’s great Dharmic civilisation; and of combining the knowledge of the Vedas with the practice of yoga.
His open disdain for “Stalinist Communism” has won him many detractors as well. Historian S. Irfan Habib says he is no scholar of any standing, and prefers to call him a pamphleteer promoting Hindutva politics and worldview.
“We should not see these people even as right-wing scholars because that also provides them some respectability,” Habib said. “For me, R.C. Majumdar as a right-wing historian deserves respect due to rigour in his work. I may disagree with his interpretation of facts but will respect his scholarship. Frawley and his ilk invent facts and history to suit their present political motives and prejudices. One cannot be a credible scholar merely by abusing left liberal scholarship, the challenge is more serious than that.”
For Frawley, once described by The Week magazine as a well-known fascist, the brickbats are customary but the bouquets are a validation of years of often lonely work popularising the spiritual aspects of yoga in the US, and reminding Indians about their own heritage at home.
Always a curious child, he says he was part of what he calls a “whole generation influenced by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, yoga, Hinduism”. He would take some graduate classes at the University of Colorado on cosmology and metaphysics and even drove to the University of Southern California to take some classes until he discovered he had more books on the Vedas than there were in the university’s library. He started studying and writing privately, banging away at his old typewriter and writing on the Upanishads and Vedas.
He also started corresponding with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry. The Mother’s secretary M.P. Pandit visited America, and later published Frawley’s work in India, in particular a 500-page tome on the Rig Veda. That’s also when he met Dr Vasant Lad and finally found what was to be his home – Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1983, in one of America’s oldest cities with tremendous Latino influence, which has now emerged as a hub of multiculturalism – it hosts an ashram devoted to Mata Amritanandamayi. The City Different as it is called was perfect for Frawley’s own American Institute of Vedic Studies.
Frawley, who was given a title of Vamadeva Shastri by Vashta in 1995 and Padma Bhushan by the government in 2015, says he never had a plan or agenda. “We were just a small group of people under siege, battling a hostile administration and an even more negative media.” Hinduism has given him a new way of seeing. His work has attracted followers such as Deepak Chopra, who sought him out in 1993 to help with training at his California centre after he stepped away from Transcendental Meditation.
He believes there is nothing toxic in the identity politics being practised in India today. “Hindus have been oppressed for far too long by foreigners. They have been the most accommodating for so long. It’s time for an awakening. India should not be a footnote to Western civilisation. It was shortchanged at Independence after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the deaths of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Sri Aurobindo. It needs to reinvent itself especially at a time of the trifecta of global challenges: of technology, drugs and digital addiction,” he says.
Kak, now on the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council, has known Frawley since the ‘90s. He heard about him at the Hanuman Temple in Taos, New Mexico, when his family was on a tour of American national parks and began a long association with him. Frawley is immensely influential, he says, because he has “emphasised the need for Indians to become intellectual kshatriyas and stand up for truth. I believe his urgings are bearing fruit”.
As is perhaps the Sangh’s emotional investment in him.
The writer is a senior journalist. She was Editor of India Today between 2011 and 2014.
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