I thought that Meera Nanda's argument was just like yours: Hinduism is the worst because the caste system is inscribed in it, unlike the much-reviled Abrahamic religions.
As for history of atheism in India, I have some references, but I also have a section of my web guide on the subject (English-language material only). If you can suggest further links, that will be helpful:
This, as I have stated above, arises from Hindu propaganda misstating the scientific method, and is used to create a straw-man argument. Reason and rationalism are universal. The Hindu apologists claim that certain forms of argument against Hinduism are invalid because they "reflects Christian missionary critique of HInduism" as you put it. This is special pleading. All beliefs are influenced by other beliefs. None exist in vacuum. Science and reason don't belong to any particular group. Just because there has been a break in rational thinking in India, following the eradication of atheism by the Hindus in the early part of the millennium, it doesn't mean that reason now belongs to the West. The fact is that many of the great philosophers in the last 5 centuries have been European, but that doesn't make the philosophies themselves European. Have you read Meera Nanda's work? She criticizes Hinduism, not using the arguments of other religions, but from a sociological point-of-view, a view born out of the scientific tradition. This is a valid perspective in critiquing anything academically. I was stating in my previous comment that we must present this as such when making our arguments. I have heard often, as you have too I'm sure, that such criticism stems from the Western perspective. This is just Hinduism's way of not addressing the criticism itself but creating a straw man. To counter this, we must present the same rational analysis from a universal perspective, making that perspective clear. I have heard all the special pleas that the apologists make about Hinduism, claiming how it cannot be critiqued by science. All complete nonsense. We all live in the same natural universe that science tries to describe. All truth claims can be judged by the evidence for and against them, objectively.
" Her whole-sale importing of ideas from European critical thinking at times becomes as a apologist to Islam and Christianity."
Two things about this. First of all, Meera Nanda does not import anything from anywhere. Secondly, if you think that European critical thinking somehow justifies Islam and Christianity, then I'd like to try some of what you're smoking. There has not been any harsher criticism of Islam and Christianity than from the European critics of religion.
Regarding apostacy, which is the only subject you actually mention specifically, Ashish deals with it well here. I would only add that pointing to one area of difference hardly qualifies Hinduism for any special status. I do agree with your assessment about the nationalistic link to rleigion. In fact, religious nationalism is one of Meera Nanda's most researched and well written areas of criticism. I suggest you read what she has written on the subject.
One last thing, the fact that Meera Nanda's books and articles generate so much anger in the Hindu community is the best clue that she is doing a great job.
Ashish, I'm inclined towards your first point. But I think it may not be as linear as you make it seem. For one, the Hindu identity was not present in ancient India. A number of "learned" men studied philosophy and debated complex subjects. So I think the answer may be somewhere lost in time.
Meera Nanda's idea also seems likely, but I think she meant different writers working independently. They had no conception of being part of the same religion. Like you say, the Sankaracharya-induced institutionalism of Hinduism is responsible for hijacking all aspects of Indian culture, placing them within the boundaries of the label.
I have become very aware of this problem in recent days. In blogs and forums I keep meeting Hindus who claim that 1) Hinduism is not a religion and 2) Everything Indian that is not Muslim/Christian is Hindu. 3) Hinduism is a tolerant religion. The don't seem to be aware of the contradictions in their views.
The caste system is an affront to humanity. How do we modify the attitudes of millions and bring about social change? What is currently being done? I ask because this might be an interesting area for research.
That's very interesting! I had no idea, so I think it's likely that at least a few others are also ignorant about this fact. I like the idea of using historical figures to call for change, as long as those historical figures don't take on supernatural qualities in the transition.