Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra Book Review


I picked up this book Being Different after I saw a few videos of Rajiv Malhotra talking about Hinduism and trying to explain it. Videos were impressive. I wrote to him asking which of his books should I first read and he suggested this one.

It is a very well written book. Sometimes, too much to read. But nonetheless, explains a lot of concepts that ideally Indians should know inherently. But unfortunately, due to too many influences that we carry, people lose the meaning of the concept. In initial parts, he explains how West views the Indian traditions through their own lens. How they try to understand our polytheism. While all they have ever known is monotheism. He brings out the difference between history-centric religions i.e. religions that have the origin in one act of history. And the Dharmic traditions that India follows – which are ever evolving principles developed collectively by saints and sages.

I have nothing against the western gaze of Indian traditions. As that is how we all see things- with reference to what we know or grow with. I am sure we also see their traditions the same way. However, what is important is that we have lately started looking at our traditions from their gaze. We must understand it the way we should, as part of these traditions. As a link in the unbroken chain. If we do not do so,  the chain would be lost. And we may lose out traditions that are probably far more developed and historic than most other traditions. Rajiv Malhotra does a good job of explaining the differences.

I loved his idea of replacing tolerance between religions with mutual respect – so that all can be on equal footing. He quotes many references including forums where he suggested it. And how people received it. I think once all religions start respecting each other, a lot of problems arising out of tensions between them would go away naturally. This is the biggest takeaway I had from this book.

Similarly, his section on non-transferable words in Sanskrit is an excellent read. He explains how proper nouns in Sanskrit are definite descriptions and content cannot be separated from context or given an absolute meaning. I learned that etymologically, Sanskrit means Elaborated, Refined, Cultured & Civilized implying wholeness of expression. He takes some often-translated words and explains how they are not equal to each other.  e.g Christian Saint is not equal to a Guru etc. I really enjoyed reading this chapter – gave me a lot more clarity on Sanskrit and why we must know it to understand a lot of our traditions.

I was lost in the last part of the book Being Different. The notes tell you the amount of research that has gone into writing this book. The book impressed me and I joined author’s yahoo group that discusses his book. And it again impressed me to see the amount of discussion that was going around. Since most of it happens in the USA, where the author lives. Every morning I used to get up and see tons of messages in my mailbox.

Then came the anti-climax.  The author and his team of people accused another author Sanjeev Sanyal of plagiarism. And claimed that he has used works of Rajiv Malhotra in an article without acknowledging him. It was fair to raise the issue – if there was even a doubt that it happened so. The way his team pounded on Sanyal and claimed ownership of all that Rajiv has ever written – forgetting that he was writing about the traditions which have existed for thousands of years. Millions have critiqued them before him. And studied by students of comparative religion for ages.

The manner in which they carried the tirade, made me question the author on ‘his thought on IP from Dharmic traditions point of view’. I am still awaiting his reply. As far as I understand, in Indian tradition people, treat knowledge as sacred and not as personal property. Rajiv & his team’s ruthless behavior in dealing with this matter nullified his whole work for me. As I found him stuck deep in western traditions – where anything that you write becomes a property of yours. Which the author can sell or rent or exploit in whatever way possible. He could have chosen a discussion route out of the public glare, as both gentlemen seem to know each other.

The whole episode left a bad taste. And I was wondering if I could really see an author’s work independent of what you see him doing in public. Especially when you see contradictions between what he says in the book and what he actually does.

Having said that, I do recommend this book Being Different, to understand many aspects of Hindu Dharmic traditions that are often misunderstood. Rajiv Malhotra has explained them very well in this book with the help of simple tables and charts.

You may buy this book – Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism by Rajiv Malhotra at Amazon.

Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra
Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra
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  1. Hi Vhanni!

    (Remember me? We met at Dipak Pai’s wedding reception in Hyderabad, and spoke about Oracle and Siebel CRM)

    Thank you so much for this review – GREAT GREAT reminder and wake up call to “Walk the Talk”.



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