|1 year ago :: Apr 02, 2012 - 12:21PM #1|
There has been since 1990s a deterioration in the relations between Hindu lay persons and the North American academy. There were attempts to stop this deterioration and I am posting below some speeches by participants on the issue of Hindu-American Academy of religion relations in the annual meeting of the Amercan Academy of Religion in Denver on November 17, 2001.
Reflections on Hindu Studies vis-á-vis Hindu Practice
Two years ago, after I was invited to join the United Ministry at Harvard as the Hindu chaplain, I was curious to know how the chaplains working on the campus were connected with Harvard's Divinity School. When I asked a minister about it, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "We don't have too much connection with them really. They study religion whereas we are practitioners."This answer surprised me. I had naively assumed that since both the chaplains and the Divinity School were involved with religion, they would naturally share common interests and goals.
Later when I got to know more people on the campus—at Harvard as well as in other colleges in and around Boston—I got a clearer picture. I saw that there was indeed a wall separating religious studies from religious practice, but it was not uncrossable. Some scholars are practitioners and some practitioners are scholars. While there is often a tension between what ministers think and what ordinary practitioners believe—and this tension complicates the picture—we still must acknowledge that the scholar/practitioner divide is real and it merits discussion.
Although much of what I say will probably be applicable to religious study and practice in general, I shall use examples from Hinduism studies in the West and from the life of practicing Hindus, since that is the context of this dialogue.
Many factors are responsible for the split between the academy and the practicing community. One factor is the focus of the two groups. Those who study Hinduism in an academic setting want to know about Hinduism, and not all scholars want that knowledge to influence the direction of their lives.This is not to deny that many of those who do study Hinduism do so for religious reasons. On the other hand, practicing Hindus study their tradition too, but they do so with the clear intent of transforming their lives. This difference in focus leads to differing approaches to Hindu philosophy and religious personalities.
There are many on either side of our porous wall who suspect the value of what the other side does. Some in the Western academy see the "faith"of practicing Hindus as a blind, unquestioned acceptance of personalities andevents. This is often due to predetermined academic or religious views held by some scholars. On their part, many Hindus see academic study as equally faith-driven: unquestioned faith in certain methods of research and totalreliance on certain theories, often with little firsthand acquaintance with the living tradition.
Many scholars tend to believe that as "outsiders" they can be more objective and less conditioned by the environment in which the "insiders" thrive. On the other side of the fence is the belief that without being an "insider" one cannot have access to at least some aspects of the tradition—and without that access the study, however objective it may be, would still be inaccurate and incomplete. Much has already been written and said about the outsider/insider divide and how it affects the study and practice of religion.
It is neither possible nor necessary for Hindu practitioners and Hinduism scholars to agree with each other on every issue. Disagreements are one thing and outrage is quite another. We need to explore the causes that provoke reactions stronger than healthy disagreements. I shall use an example from my own personal experience that, I feel, highlights many relevant points.
A year and a half ago I did some research on Jeffrey Kripal's book Kali's Child. A provocative review of that book hadappeared earlier—in 1997—in the Calcutta daily The Statesman and it had generated much heat among the practicing Hindus in Calcutta. They were outraged at the interpretation of Ramakrishna's life that was so radically different from their own and they were outraged even more when they heard some Western scholars characterize the book's treatment of Ramakrishna as"sympathetic." Many people—both in academia as well as from the Hindu community—were also outraged because those critics hadn't even read the book and yet they were denouncing it on the basis of a single review.
In this heated exchange, what went largely ignored was the voice ofpracticing Hindus who had read the book carefully, were familiar with the textual sources on Ramakrishna (most of which are in Bengali), and knew Bengali well enough to see that the problems in Kali's Child were more basic than mere interpretation. If interpretation is to be based on historical data, it is vital that the data is not manipulated. It is vital that the texts are translated honestly and accurately. It is vital that loaded language with its own subtext is not used to bolster a thesis, particularly when it distorts textual evidence. In my study of Kali's Child, I felt outraged too—but this was not the result of a blind, unquestioned faith in some dogma or belief or personality. It was simply because a book that was being lauded as"scholarly" had violated some of the basic norms observed in academic research and I realized that, without those violations, it would have been difficult to sustain a plausible thesis.
To be sure, there have been other books on Ramakrishna with interpretations that are not palatable to practicing Hindus, but those books didn't attract the kind of reception that Kali's Child received because—I think—they made fair use of scholarly tools.
This first hand experience was most educative for me to understand the dynamic that governs the relationship between the Western academy and the Hindu community. What irritates and sometimes outrages people on either side is arrogance: on one hand, the practicing community's insistent hope that whatever the scholars write be in harmony with what they believe, and on the other hand,the scholars' presumption that the community's faith is misplaced—their beliefs presumed irrational.
Another factor that dismays the Hindu community is what they perceive a smisrepresentation of their faith. This can occur in several ways. One way is through selections or anthologies. It is true that any anthology will always have at least a few unhappy critics, because what is important to one may not be important to another. Take for instance Wendy Doniger's anthology of theRig-veda. Although she makes no claim to its being a representative collection, it is the only one at present which is handy and easily available in the West and hence widely read and studied. But those who are familiar with the contents of the complete Rig-veda find her selection quirky and offensive. That is why eyebrows are raised at such anthologies that merely reflect the taste of the compiler.
What Hindus see as misrepresentation can occur even through the distortion of Hindu symbols and deconstruction of Hindu myths and personalities. In the West, people are used to similar critiques that deny or ignore some of their cherished religious beliefs; many thoughtful Westerners have learned to take such critiques for granted and are not disturbed by them. In India, however,religious studies as an academic pursuit outside of a visibly religious environment hasn't developed yet. Since this context doesn't exist there, many Hindus are offended when they feel that their tradition is being distorted.
It may be argued that academics have the right to freely express their views without being under any obligation to respect the sensibilities of a community. In that case, it must be recognized that neither is the community under any obligation to respect the sensibilities of the academic world. Freedom is a two-way street. If I want to express my freedom in my own way, I must be prepared to let others express their freedom in their own way. But if this leads to conflict and misunderstanding, then it may be helpful to examine whether there is something wrong with the way we are using our freedom. I amconvinced that freedom is a value fundamental to human existence, and if it is expressed properly, it can lead to only greater understanding between divergent viewpoints.
Is it possible to cross the wall that separates Hinduism scholars and Hindu practitioners? My own response is yes, because I personally know many fine people who have crossed this wall several times. It's easy to mention names—and several of their books—but I won't do so because many of these scholars/practitioners are still amongst us and I don't want to embarrass them.But their lives and books have taught me what good scholarship means and how it cannot be separated from one's own life.
The distinction between intellectual understanding and spiritual experience—or "indirect" knowledge (parokshanubhuti) and"direct" knowledge (aparokshanubhuti)—is often stressed in the Hindu tradition. I feel that keeping this distinction in mind is useful for both scholars as well as practitioners. Intellectual understanding is important and often a necessary prerequisite to spiritual experience but it cannot replace spiritual experience. So both scholars and practitioners have something unique to contribute and they can be allies in a quest for greater knowledge and understanding.
In order for that to happen, the academy as well as the practicing community will have to shed their biases. It is counterproductive for either to perch itself on a high moral or intellectual ground and belittle the understanding of the other. The academic study of Hinduism will become richer if an effort is made to look at the subject from all perspectives, the insider's as well as the outsider's, without privileging one over the other. Hindu practice will become richer if it gets the benefit of newer ways of approach and newer insights from different viewpoints. No matter what, some differences will persist but bitterness need not. Disagreements are healthy and good so long as each side expresses them in a way that assures the other of its honesty of purpose.
Hopefully the wall dividing the academy and the practicing community will be torn down one day. We already have enough walls separating us from each other; we don't need more. September 11 is the most recent wake-up call. It's time to break down barriers and move together with understanding and mutual respect.
1. See JAAR (December 2000), vol. 68, issue 4 onarticles and response on "Who Speaks for Hinduism?" [Returnto text]
2. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kali's Child: The Mystical and theErotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 2nd ed (University ofChicago Press, 1998). [Returnto text]
3. My review of the book can be accessed online at home.earthlink.net/~tyag/Home.htm.Prof. Kripal's responses to it appeared in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin(Winter 2001) and on the Divinity School's website at www.hds.harvard.edu/dpa/news/news/kripal....This resulted in counter-responses from Huston Smith, Somnath Bhattacharya andSwami Tyagananda, which were published as letters to the editor in the Spring2001 edition of Harvard Divinity Bulletin. [Returnto text]
4. Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, The Rig Veda (PenguinBooks, 1981). [Returnto text]
5. See ibid., 12. "This is certainly not a'representative' anthology of the Rig-veda except in the sense that it isrepresentative of my taste . . .." [Returnto text]
|1 year ago :: Apr 02, 2012 - 12:25PM #2|
In the course of the last five years, the form, content, history, andauthority of Western academic scholarship about Hinduism have been vigorously questioned by practicing Hindus. Major landmarks along the way have been theinternational conference on "Revisiting Indus Saraswati Age and AncientIndia" (Atlanta, 1996), the AAR panel on "Who Speaks for Hinduism?"(Orlando, 1998), and the renewed controversy about Jeffrey Kripal's Kali'sChild in the light of Swami Tyagananda's rejoinder Kali's ChildRevisited, or, Didn't Anyone Check the Documentation? (distributed at the AAR, 2000). Recently the institutional reality of the AAR itself has become a target of criticism.
This panel is an attempt to gather various strands of that debate, including the voices of some of the major participants to date. Inevitably, we find ourselves re-engaging controversies that are already familiar to many readers,but our principal hope is to step aside from the particulars of these debates and try to understand better the dynamics that underlie them. As our title suggests, we feature a sense of defamation, experienced in very different ways by different members of the panel. In addition to providing perspectives on this history of tension, hurt, and attack, several of our panelists draw attention to moments of concord and cooperation.
The text that follows is a written representation of what our panelists said in Denver. Inmost cases, it is the text from which panelists they actually read. RajivMalhotra's contribution is the exception to this rule, in that he spoke from notes; those notes form the basis for the text he presents here. There was also lively discussion. Alas, we cannot reproduce that discussion here, but we hope that by publishing the remarks on which it was based, we will allow it to continue.
In the course of the year 2001, several statements circulated in anticipation of our panel at the AAR. I would like to quote from three of these as a way of marking the terrain on which ourdiscussion takes place. They provide us with three signposts—three points of orientation to keep in mind as wade into the conversation that follows. The first characterizes that conversation as a game. The second sees it as a sortof cold war. The third suggests what it might mean if it were to be seen from the perspective of a court of law.
Signpost 1: The Game
The first of these signposts was erected by one of our panelists, RajivMalhotra, on February 15, 2001, as a message to email@example.com:
"It's basically a game, in which one side controls the rules, appoints the referees, and even fields most of the players on behalf of the other side! It started with 18th and 19th century Indology, now re-labeled as Orientalism and found to be heavily catering to missionary, colonialist, and racist agendas. The tradition was established that Western scholars study 'primitive'cultures through informants, and there was no pretence of symmetry or honest conversation as peers. At that time, the political power asymmetry required that this had to be so.
"But the methodology remains largely unchanged today. Notice how 'Hindu reactions' must be represented by scholars who 'gather data' on the informants' reactions and not by bringing in Hindus to speak for themselves. The three examples of proposed panels I mention above [including the panel we reproduce here - ed.] suffer from this asymmetry."
Signpost 2: The Cold War
The second signpost was staked down by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman, a member of the listserv Indic traditions. Anticipating the AAR'sannual meeting in November, and with it the convening of a panel just such asours, he wrote as follows to Indictraditions@yahoogroups.com on April 1, 2001:
"...So I take it to be the intensification of the cold war by the western academics against Hindu Dharma. Times are long past when the people professing the Hindu faith will accept meekly, in the spirit of tolerance, the arrogant, 'drain-inspector-like' behavior of practitioners of religions like Christianity and Islam. If indological scholarship cannot come to grips with a culture alien to them, they should stop casting aspersions against Hindu saints in the name of Freudian or other an irrelevant Savadhanapattra continuing the tirade against a phantom, the mischievous marxist phrase, 'hindutva'.
"Clearly, the western academics are crossing the limits of academic courtesy and are blatantly indulging in Hindu-bashing. I am sure they are not helping the cause of American Academy of Religion with the levels of intolerance and total absence of empathy displayed by the academics in refusing to see the point of view of the culture of a billion people. If the Academy believes that it is an extension of the ongoing efforts at harvesting souls in Bharata, and if the Academy persists with the organization of separate panel discussions on 'Hindu responses', the Academy should be told that the rules of academic engagement and debate should provide for equal time for the views opposing those of Kali's and Wendy's children being presented."
Signpost 3: The Legalities
A third signpost was provided by Joel Silverman, Esq., in an e-mail to one of our panelists, Laurie Patton, who had inquired about what the term defamation would mean in a legal setting. As Mr. Silverman is careful to say,the legal framework he sketches applies specifically to the state of Georgia, in the USA, and not necessarily elsewhere.Still, the Georgia law's discriminations between intent, truth, context of utterance, and the difference between the living and the dead seem worth our general consideration. I quote his private posting to Laurie Patton, as forwarded on November 5, 2001:
"Defamation in Georgia is defined in Georgia Law 16-11-40. A person commits the offense of criminal defamation when he or she communicates a falsehood with "intent to defame" (in other words, both a truthful statement and also the mistaken belief that you are speaking the truth are valid defenses.) The statement must be "published" (i.e., communicated to a third party.)
"Both living or dead persons can be defamed. To defame a dead person, the lie must "blacken the memory" of the deceased. To defame a living person, the lie must "expose them to hatred, contempt, or ridicule"and must "tend...to provoke a breach of the peace." There are certain privileged communications which will shield the communicator from this crime even if the other elements are satisfied.
"Crimes like Defamation and Libel are thorny because speech is given a wide umbrella of protection under the First Amendment. Accordingly, courts have ruled that certain otherwise defamatory statements can fall under exceptions such as parody, political criticism in the public interest about public figures, communication between spouses, etc."
Helpful as these signposts are for directing us to the turf on which our debates are staged, the settings they suggest—games, wars, and courtrooms—are only three of the landscapes relevant to our discussion. A fourth would have to be the inner terrain of hurt, that cavity into which each of us is apt to descend long after we've done our best to forgive the person or situation that caused the hurt. Our collective hope is that the thoughts we put forward here will not only illumine the sense of defamation felt on many sides, but help to diminish it—and perhaps even point beyond.
|1 year ago :: Apr 02, 2012 - 12:27PM #3|
When Scholarship Matters:
Everyone in the field of South Asian studies by now knows about, and is likely exasperated by, the debate over the origins of the Vedic-speakingIndo-Aryans. We have all, I think, heard something of the voices that have emerged, primarily from Indian archaeologists and historians, as well as from the Hindu diaspora, challenging the idea of an external origin for this language and cultural group, and claiming an Indigenous origin for the Vedic culture (a view I have termed the 'Indigenist' position). Fueled by suspicion of the racist and elitist biases of colonial Indology, and, according to its detractors, by the imperatives of Hindu nationalism, this view provokes endless discussions, as anyone with the patience to follow the Indo-Aryan migration debates on the Indology nets and other conferences in the West can attest. These debates all-too-often degenerate into emotional name-calling, as accusations of 'neo-colonial chauvinism' from one side, and assertions of 'Hindu nationalistic dogma' from the other, inevitably start to be bandied about, while the scholarly value of the discussions rapidly evaporates.
Most western Indologists, on the whole, have remained unconvinced by the limited exposure they have had with the all-too-often selective quality of the Indigenist arguments they encounter, which they view as indicative of a nationalism that seeks authenticity in unscholarly interpretations of history and pre-history, and some scholars are becoming exasperated by the polemical rehashing of the racist genesis of western Indology. While the debate is viewed by most western Indologists as, at best, peripheral to serious scholarship and,at worst, as an annoying—and, in the present-day Indian context, politically dangerous—disturbance, it is ferociously contested in India, where it is situated in much more of a mainstream academic context.
The Indigenist stress on the continuity of Indian history, and the generic use of the term 'Vedic culture', with its ahistorical and monolithic overtones and troublesome implications for minority cultures, is the feature of the 'Indigenist' position, that is most troubling to opponents of this view. The concerns of those who fear the ideological corollaries underpinning such interpretations are by now well-known: if the Vedic Indo-Aryans are interpreted as being indigenous to India, then the 'Vedic Civilization' and all thatdeveloped from it can be construed as 'truly Indian' and all subsequentcultural groups known to have immigrated into India can be depicted as'Others'. Indigenism, consequently, is generically stereotyped as a discourse promoting communal tension.
Predictably, an inevitable corollary of stereotyping is that it results in counter-stereotypification, and those most actively defending the theory ofAryan migrations in India (whom I have termed the 'Migrationist' school), are characterized in turn a shaving ideological predispositions of their own. These are usually associated with secular Marxist agendas in some Indian contexts, and neo-colonialist ones in others, and the 'Leftist' or 'secular Marxist' academic is subject to an amount of disgust equaled only by that vented upon the 'colonial stooge.' Secular Marxists are accused by Indigenists of maintaining a defunct theory in order to insist that the arrival of the Aryans is analogous to the arrival of the Muslims, Christians and numerous other groups of newcomers to the subcontinent. In such an amalgamation of immigrants, no one has more claim to indigenous pedigree or cultural hegemony than anyone else. A secular state,from this perspective, is the only political system that can protect the equal rights of all citizens to define themselves as being Indian with cultural credentials that are as good as anybody else's. Thus, Migrationist, that is, anti-Indigenist scholarship is stereotyped, in its turn, as being subservient to secular, Marxist ideology by its opponents.
As for the colonial stooge caricature, a recent book by D.K Chakravarti captures this perspective with such statements as: "the Indian historians became increasingly concerned with the large number of grants, scholarships,fellowships and even occasional jobs to be won in Western universities, [and thus] there was a scramble for new respectability to be gained by toeing the Western line of thinking about India and Indian history." The bitterness, hostility and ad hominem sarcasm seeping from the pens of participants in this debate (from both sides of the fence) when referring (increasingly by name) to those holding opposing views is apparent for all to see, and the academic value of much of the exchange—on all sides—has been singed by the emotional temperature such issues ignite. The result is an almost complete lack of communication between two mutually antagonistic and angry camps, and intransigent, cavalier, selective and often grossly inaccurate generalizations of opposing views are bandied about on both sides of the issue. Thus, an entire fascinating field of study has become inextricably linked with ideology and the politics of representation to the point where it is almost impossible to have a rational and objective conversation on the origin of the Indo-Aryans in India without becoming associated with the ideologies that are immediately correlated with pro- or contra- stances on the issue.
Blanket stereotypification of the Aryan debate with Hindu nationalism was a source of great annoyance amongst numerous scholars I interviewed in India who were questioning the theory of external Aryan origins. In such generalizations,distinctions are often not made between communal revisionism and post-colonial reconsideration. Of course, these two ingredients are not always easily distinguishable, nor detachable, but, tiresome or not, this anti-imperialistic, post-colonial dimension of the issue is nevertheless an inherent and essential ingredient. Many members of the Indigenist school are quite understandably uncomfortable about inheriting an account of their ancient history that was assembled for them by their former colonial masters, and are committed to reclaiming control over the reconstruction of the ancient history of their country. A principal motive of many Indian scholars in this debate is the desire to reexamine the infrastructure of ancient history that is the legacy of the colonial period and test how secure it actually is by adopting the very tools and disciplines that had been used to construct it in the first place.While the more dogmatic, polemical and sometimes amazingly ill-informed publications do not exactly help the case along, some Indigenists have presented some quite compelling arguments that do merit consideration. There are a number of quite legitimate reasons to question a good deal of the data that has been produced to support a Migrationist position.
Moreover, the opinions of significant numbers of Indian intellectuals about the history of their own country cannot simply be dismissed by those engaged inresearch on South Asian proto-history, or be relegated to areas outside the boundaries of what is considered worthy of serious academic attention. One must be aware of falling into a kind of uncritical Indological McCarthyism towards those open to reconsidering the established contours of ancient Indian history, irrespective of their motives and backgrounds, and of lumping all challenges into a simplistic, convenient and easily-demonized 'Hindu Nationalist'category. Neglected viewpoints do not disappear. They reappear with more aggression due to frustration at being ignored. The western academy must, in my opinion, revisit the entire issue of Indo-Aryan origins, respond respectfully to the objections that have been raised by the Indigenous school against the prevailing western consensus of Indo-Aryan migrations, and submit their own presuppositions,inherited or otherwise, to fresh scrutiny—an exercise that is surely healthy for any scholar committed to striving for objectivity, (and especially so given both the critique of 'Orientalism,' and the present-day, post-colonial environment of South Asian studies).
Having said that, it seems fair to state from the other side, that while pointing out colonial biases is of fundamental importance—cleansing Indology from the ghosts of the past is a process that is by no means passé—there is still solid empirical data that need to be confronted and addressed if one chooses to tackle a problem like that of the Indo-Aryans; suspicion of colonial motives does not make such evidence disappear. Besides, this is no longer the colonial period; it is still a post-modern one where alternative, suppressed and subaltern views are, if anything, glamorized. Established paradigms have been subverted left, right and center throughout humanities departments all over western academia. Why on earth would present-day western Indologists still be invested in an 'Aryan Invasion' theory anyway? Whatever may have been the agendas underpinning 19th century scholarship, the fact is that most present-day western scholars have been unconvinced by the polemical and all-too-often embarrassingly ill-informed arguments they encounter, not because they somehow have some mysterious investment in insisting on an external origin for this language group. There were, and still are, some very good reasons to retain the theory of Aryan migrations, and this evidence needs to be addressed.Simply aggressively promoting only those selective aspects of the data that are amenable to a specific alternative view with troubling ideological underpinnings is to duplicate the errors and excesses of the much-maligned 19thcentury European Indological enterprise. Two wrongs do not make a right:European racism and elitism cannot be replaced by Hindu chauvinism. History cannot be written by decibel.
Casting off the legacies of colonialism opens up exciting new possibilities for the understanding of Indian proto-history provided the constraints of the colonial period are not replaced by an equally constraining insistence on a different ideologically driven reading of the historical evidence, whether 'western elitist,' 'secular Marxist' or 'Hindu nationalist.' Unless attitudes to this issue change from all sides, I foresee the perpetuation of two wideningdivides as the 'Indigenist' position becomes more vociferous: one between western Indologists, and the more persistent voices from the Hindu diaspora,and the other much more serious confrontation between 'leftist' and 'rightist'academics in the subcontinent itself. Most unfortunate, if this trend continues, will be that the entire field will suffer due to loss of communication between differing opinions and points of view—the lifeblood of a progressive field of study.
|1 year ago :: Apr 02, 2012 - 1:07PM #4|
Defamation and Diaspora Hindus:
Should there be a lakshman rekha, a line self-imposed or otherwise, that scholars should not cross? If so, who should draw the line and who should moveit?
My task today is to talk about "defamation" on the internet. There is some ambiguity attached to the term in the context of today's discussion: we deal with the alleged defamation of Hinduism on the one hand, and defamation ofscholars on list serves and web pages on the other. I will spend most of my time today outlining a list of issues that concern some Hindus about listserves where most of the discussants are non-Hindu. I will focus primarily on RISA-L and, to a lesser extent, on Indology. In this enterprise, I would like to acknowledge the help of a former Indian/Hindu student from the University of Florida who took some advanced level reading courses on Vedanta, specifically the Sri Vaishnava tradition, with me.He would like to be identified as "a recent resident in the US, an engineer by profession but very much interested in scholarly Hindu studies." He sent me a long document with specific problematic issues in RISA-L, and it seemed to reaffirm the tenor of many internet discussions criticizing western scholarship. However, he does say that this critical reportdoes not mean that he holds the "RISA scholars in contempt per se;"and says that this is only an anthology on what he considers to be the "bad aspects."
Many moons ago, when western scholars studied and wrote about Hinduism, Hindus had little control over what was said and how information was interpreted and disseminated. The audience for the articles and books was also Euro-American scholars. Obviously that has changed now—we all know that there are Indo-American, Hindu scholars in the academy, and second generation Hindus in our classrooms. More important to our discussion today, there are many Hindus who are reading and listening in on academic discussions. While in the past, there had been groups of Hindus rather bemused and occasionally even flattered at the attention that American or European scholars seemed to lavish on their texts and rituals, now there are some in the United States who are wary and angered at the way in which they perceive Hinduism is being portrayed in classrooms and more particularly at the AAR. It is, of course, hard to get numbers in this quest and I certainly do not want to generalize about how"Hindus" feel about so called "western" scholarship. Justspeaking from my anecdotal experience, most Hindus are not aware of a great deal of "western" scholarship and have not made an attempt to know more about it.
I also do not mean to suggest that this is an intellectual battle of Hindus against non-Hindu Euro-American scholars; rather, what I would like to underline is that there are many assumptions not shared between the groups.There are many Hindu scholars in many disciplines—humanities and some behavioral sciences—who are also being criticized and condemned by a fewHindus. Rather than draw a broad picture, I will simply bring up some of the criticism against RISA and RISA-L in particular. It is obvious that I am a memberof RISA, the AAR, and a Hindu. I thus participate in all these universes and have received e-mails from several individuals who have perceived attacks. Thus, I have been involved in many of these conversations. My comments today are largely based on e-mails, both personal and to list serves, and not on any scientific or methodical sampling of particular web pages.
We all know that internet discussions and list serves have created several interest groups. With web pages for most of the major gurus, sampradayas,and members of several communities, information and misinformation has never been so regularly available. Many groups for various sampradayas have list serves set up by Hindu devotees with very pious, interesting, and scholarly dissemination of information. For example, in just the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya alone, there is not just one generic discussion list, but a number of web pages and list serves for "in house" devotees of different matha-s and teachers (acharya) of the Vatakalai and Tenkalai subsects. And of course, there are discussion groups for the Advaita and Dvaita sampradaya-s and particular gurus like Ammachi. There are many learned discussions in these,but the driving energy behind their creation is devotion or adherence to aparticular teacher or tradition. There are a whole range of list serves, ofcourse, between these devotional list serves and those devoted to the academic study of religion, like RISA-L.
Indology was one of these "in between" ones which had its share of those who have had professional training in the subject and many who did not.The list included many educated professionals, students of math, engineering,and allied fields. RISA-L, on the other hand, has been restricted to those who are in the academic study of religion and most, but not all subscribers are members of the AAR.
It was in subscriber lists like Indology that I first encountered the postings of Indian professionals who had more than a passing interest in the subject. Some were well versed in music, others knew Sanskrit, some knew about Indian science and so on. What many of them shared was a tremendous knowledge of various parts of Indian culture and a professional education in non-Indological subjects. What many people who subscribed to the list seemed to have and this is from all sectors, not just Indians or academics, was an abundance of time to answer questions and move quickly on to ideological matters. I learned a lot in this forum for a while on Tamil culture, the Indus valley debate, beef eating in the Vedas, but a lot more about people's prejudices about each other.
RISA-L, on the other hand, has been relatively cloistered. Most subscribers are teachers or graduate students of religion. Yet, this group has also been criticized in the internet. The group as a whole has been castigated in other list serves, and individual members have been taken to task in web pages. Therehave also been very strong, very hurtful attacks against individual scholars.
While there have been many topics that have merited attention from Hindus on non-Hindu treatment of Hinduism, two are particularly noteworthy—the Aryan migration debate and Kripal's Kali's Child. The Aryan migration and indigenous Aryan debate has been extraordinarily heated in the Indology network and relatively mild in RISA-L. There is now a very large body of literature on Kali's Child including many discussions which erupt regularly on RISA-L. There are several other areas of concern as well; some voiced in internet sites, others in private email correspondence. I will briefly enumerate some areas which are of concern to the Hindus who follow these discussion. My comments here are very brief and can be discussed at length later.
In regard to the question of Hinduism being studied and represented by non-Hindus,at least two issues are explicit—the question of representation and the participation of Hindus. Yet there is a third issue as well, but this one is unstated: it is probable that the lament is not just about the non-participation of Hindus, but specifically, about the lack of participation on the part of Hindus whose ethnic origins are in India. Checking out the field, it is obvious that there are few students of Indian origin who really major in religious studies in America.Putting on a third hat here—not just as a Hindu and a RISA member but specifically speaking as a Hindu parent—I can say that most Indian parents I know want their children to be doctors or accountants. Even my former student,who articulated many of these problems discussed on the internet, says that the teachers in the humanities in academia are paid too little! The culture of the younger generation taking up humanities, fine arts and performing arts for a living (or lack thereof, which seems to be the moot point) is simply not prevalent at this point among Indian immigrants in this country. Until we have more of the younger generation Hindus in academics, I don't know what can be done.
My former student sent me his views on why the younger generation is turned off from Indian studies in America: he believes that one finds there some hostile, biased representations by American professors—"an infatuation with 'Hindu Fascism.'" He perceives American professors to like select"Marxists, liberals, and other political commentators" and names several of them.
While these are similar to the thoughts expressed by some factions in India,as well as about Indian academia's infatuation with "Marxist"historians in general, most Hindu students I know are able to sift through different kinds of materials and critique them with some sophistication. One ofthe things we do try to teach in our classes is to understand the agendas behind the texts, to see where the writer is coming from. It is true that many undergraduates take a while to figure out where they can get alternative opinions. There is a slow influx of Hindu students in our classes and it is to be hoped that eventually there can be many fruitful discussions with people of many backgrounds, including many with a Hindu heritage, who participate in the learning process.
Most scholars in RISA-L don't think of themselves as representing Hinduism—they are in AAR meetings and in RISA-L for exchange of ideas, research ideas. The study of religion for many ofthem is an academic discipline. It is very important to keep this in mind; this is an academic forum, a research forum, and should be seen in such a context.
Many other criticisms are directed against RISA-L. There is a perception that the scholars discuss the "faults" and "excesses" ofHindu nationalism and do not speak about issues where Hindus are victims.(This, is the politics of news making and reporting; scholarship seems to feed off the media and sometimes into it). There is also a perception thatEuro-American scholars tend to give patronizing answers to Hindus who post onlist serves like Indology. Connected with this is the perception that some"western liberals" jump all over those who try to voice their opinions and "restore balance" to e-mail discussions. Some Hindu critics think that "poverty" and "lack of women's rights"and other social ills are portrayed by "western" scholars as Hindu problems and that stereotyping is still rampant. A few Hindus in this country also have very specific ideas of what should be taught in classes: Vedanta,certain kinds of philosophy, and yoga. There is a certain aversion to the portrayal of ethnographic materials, including phenomena like"possession," the occasional animal sacrifices found in some communities, and so on, because they believe that many high school students and undergraduates do not have the background to put it all in perspective. Many religion scholars have only recently moved from purely textual approaches to one which integrates ethnography with texts; some Hindus are uncomfortable with this.
One should not think that all textual approaches are seen as good. Hindus in this country point to errors in translations and what they see as strained interpretations of texts. But perhaps the most sensitive issue is that of method.Some methods, especially psychoanalytic when applied to revered figures likeRamakrishna are considered at best, insensitive, and at worst, extraordinarily insulting to the Hindu tradition.
A word here about the last issue, which has been treated at length in otherforums. One point that the Hindu critics make is that psychoanalytic approaches and also the exoticization of the religion (which in the Hindu case results infocusing on sati, dowry, etc.) are simply not done in the study of Islam in theUnited States.Thus, they say, there is no psychoanalytic approach used to interpret the prophet Muhammad, there are no AAR panels on polygamy in Islam, and so on. They point out that there are many"sensitive" issues in Islam which Ameican scholars do not touch—thus,we do not seem to have panels on, say, cultural and religious factors in Islam which promote violence at certain times. The last issue is one that we can,perhaps, discuss in this forum today. One may ask: is there a perceptible difference in the kind of topics and kinds of methods used in the academic study of Islam in the last few years and those used in the study of Hindu traditions? Many scholars of Islam I know are constantly aware of the"misportrayals" (as they call it) of Islam by the media and are constantly trying to restore a balance. The criticism, then, is that RISA scholars feel no such compunction when it comes to the study of Hinduism and that, therefore,they hold double standards.
A point that many Hindu critics make is that Hinduism is a minority religion in this country and that specialist work—psychoanalytic and otherwise—done in RISA and similar forums "trickles" down and that Hindu students in this country are uncomfortable with it. Younger students without any knowledge of Hinduism get a wrong "feel" for the tradition when the focus is on sati, sexuality, and social discrimination. In this way Hindu students feel ridiculed and marginalized. On the other hand, there are some Hindus who seem to welcome such open inquiries; they point out that in India, where they are in the majority, very little is being done to promote such critical inquiries and that freedom of thought and expression should not be sacrificed in academia.
Finally, before I leave all this open to discussion, let me make a few quick remarks. I think there are several misunderstandings and perceptions about the academic study of religion, and we are just beginning to see in relation to Hinduism the kinds of issues that surfaced many decades ago between the rigorous academic study of religion, specifically Christianity, and the faith communities. Those lines, divides, and a few bridges have long been accepted inthe American academic world. Some Hindus—like those Christians, Muslims, Sikhs,or Jews who are not trained in the professional study of religion and the critical theories that have emerged in the last hundred years—think of academic studies as encroaching on matters of faith. When this is augmented by what they perceive as poor language preparation or politically motivated interpretation,the temperature level of the discussion begins to rise.
Scholars in the field, both Hindu and non-Hindu of the field, believe that discussions will be more fruitful if the others understand that Religion, like History and other subjects in the humanities, is a highly evolved field with rigorous training—one needs to know not just the texts, but the social and political contexts, gender, class, age and other hierarchies in those contexts,and so on. A number of techniques are to be deployed in the understanding ofthese materials. Further, work presented at the AAR,RISA and other forums are simply a fleeting snapshot of work in progress and not a comprehensive view of Hinduism. The audience here is comprised of research scholars; it is not meant to be a substitute for the chamber of commerce's introduction to India done for a business traveller. Many of my colleagues in RISA would agree that what they teach in classrooms, especially in introductory classes, is different in texture from the kinds of issues they discuss in research forums and that they try to be sensitive to the students needs.
The conversations are just beginning in the study of the Hindu traditions and there are many parties to this: Hindu scholars from India and other parts of the world who are professionally trained in the study of religion;Indian-Hindu professionals who are experts in other fields but who nevertheless have a lot invested in the portrayals of Hinduism that emerge from academia;traditional scholars; political bystanders; and other actors.
And so, we ask, what we can do now? We may ignore the critics completely and go on with our business; or we can come back to our original question and ask:should scholars draw certain lines for themselves, the lakshman rekha of Hindu thought, to accommodate the sensitivities of a minority and/or faith community?The lines would be shaded in different ways in teaching and research, changing with increased knowledge, increased understanding, and sophistication on all sides. It is this issue that we can discuss now, and ask if we need such a line in academic teaching and research. If so, who draws it and where?
|1 year ago :: Apr 02, 2012 - 1:14PM #5|
Panch (Five) Asymmetries in theDialog of Civilizations:
To have a genuine dialog of civilizations, the 'other' side (in this case the Hindus) must be present as themselves and not via proxy, must be able to use their own framework to represent themselves, and must be free to anthropologize and criticize the west without fear of undue censorship or academic reprisal. However, five asymmetries resulting from the present imbalance of power often obstruct this dialog today.
Before describing these asymmetries, I wish to clarify that I represent neither pole of what has become a bipolar fight for the representationof Indian culture: I am not representing the Hindutva view, which should not be conflated with Hinduism, because: (i) Hindutva is a political mobilization, (ii) it is a recent 20th century construct in response to contemporary situations, and (iii) it assumes a specific (reductionist) package of stances, whereas most Hindus pick and choose positions from an a la carte menu of choices. At the same time, I do not deny their right to a position within the vast spectrum of Hinduism, as one of many ways to be a Hindu. At the other pole, is the theory of Hinduism defined as The Evil Brahmin Conspiracy. Most Hindus I know belong to neither extreme, although there has been a tendency for one pole to insist, 'if you are not pink, you must be saffron', and vice versa. The vast middle is un-essentialized space, where creative dialog can take place, and it is in this middle space that I position myself and the observations below.
The five asymmetries, of which the first three concern academic translations of Indic culture, are:
I. Anthropologist Versus Native Informant:
While unintentional in some cases, scholars often seem to operate on the notion that distance (intellectual, cultural, geographic) produces objectivity.But distance has been the antithesis of dialog, and reciprocity is the key to dialog.Western anthropologists use native informants, who are typically poor and less educated villagers paid to produce the data, and who typically place the scholar on a pedestal because of their own limited material resources and the glorification of India's xenophile elite. Scholars mine such data, filter it through western lens, legitimize it with western peers who are part of their own academic system, and too often assert this Orientalist construction as 'the truth'. Few today do this overtly or intentionally. However:
While there are many sensitive researchers, there needs to be greater recognition of the need for reciprocity. This calls for dis-intermediation of the role of anthropologist as knowledge broker between the villagers and theAmerican students. I do not yet know how to achieve true 'independence', but a plurality of cross-cultural worldviews would be better than one dominant view.For instance, besides reverse surveys, native informants could get invited to panels via video phones that are now very cost effective, with translators. Perhaps,the scholar-as-broker feels threatened that the native informants would be found to have agency after all, and to challenge decades of research. This is especially severe when the White Woman's Burden drives the scholar to impose her gift of agency on poor people presumed to have none.
Are the native informants becoming victims of the scholars' violation of trust? I propose that an interactive dialog between equal civilizations become anthropology's new hermeneutics. I request that scholars expand their work to enhance validation and symmetry. Exactly how this could happen would need considerable joint exploration.
II. Western Scholar of Texts Versus Pandit:
The use of pandits is another method by which the west re-maps Indianculture. Many pandits are simple and straightforward, not aggressive compared to many western scholars, not into power games or concern for royalty or intellectual property rights, and are trusting of western intentions. Themis-appropriation of basmati rice and other intellectual property may be used as an analog to appreciate that the Indian ethos does not emphasize personal ownership of know how (including spiritual knowledge), and that some of what the west does is unethical and exploitative as per the pandits' own system of professional ethics. One must inquire whether the publish-or-perish syndrome and personal egos cause some scholars to try to own pre-existing knowledge and to reduce pandits to native informants, whereas in their own tradition they deserve respect as great humble teachers.
Furthermore, since pandits are rarely invited as respondents or co-authors when the work gets presented, they do not always find out what finally gets published, and their interpretation sometimes gets distorted along the way. For instance, when scholars write that Ganesha symbolizes the limp phallus, or when they over-interpret sati as a defining feature of Hinduism, should the reader not be told what the insider has to say also? Sanskrit terms that deserve thick descriptions often get reduced to simplistic Eurocentric andAbrahamic representations. Even comparative religion is often framed in a paradigm of western superiority. Is it that scholars see pandits as not having western PhDs, and hence as not legitimate experts of their own tradition?
III. Cognitive Scientist Versus Yogi/Meditator:
The laboratory measurement of higher states of consciousness achieved by advanced yogis and meditators is at the cutting edge of transpersonal and humanistic psychology, mental health, neuroscience, and phenomenology. And some Indic theoretical models are at the center of the philosophy of quantum physics based emerging worldviews. But many ancient Hindu-Buddhist inner science discoveries are being mis-appropriated and/or plagiarized:
This is only part of a long list: the core of the emerging 'western' world view and cosmology involving physics, cognitive science, and biology is being rapidly built upon repackaged Indic knowledge, but too frequently the source is being erased and over time. Yogis and meditators, who should be regarded as co-discoverers, usually remain anonymous 'laboratory subjects' and native informants.
Does this remind us of the way America is said to have been'discovered' in 1492, as though the millions of Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years did not matter? It became a bona fide discovery only when Europeans registered it as such. Because land owned by the natives had not been recorded in European registration systems, their ownership was declared illegitimate. Much of the Renaissance and Enlightenment of Europe was based on the appropriation of Indic and Chinese civilizations, and yet these civilizations were demonized to justify colonialism.
I have been told in private by some of the cognitive science mis-appropriators that they respect Indic traditions greatly and personally know them as the sources, but that in public the distancing is good for booksales and for securing research grants, and that the stamp of 'western science' is what legitimizes these traditions. Their position, stated quite openly in many cases, is that discovery occurs only when the west appropriates something. This appears to be a racist theory of knowledge, one that denies agency and rights to non westerners. Also, while plucking the fruits, there is no attempt by these appropriators to nurture the roots of the source traditions.
A plausible theoretical model for this is: The west plagiarizes fromHinduism-Buddhism with one hand (i.e. cognitive science), while another westernhand stereotypes the source as 'caste, cows, curry' exotica and worse (i.e.anthropology/religious studies). The academic arson referenced above is merely a continuation of the age old 'plunder while you denigrate the source' process at work. It is a continuation of the paganization of pre-Christian religions while at the same time appropriating many central elements from the pagans into Christianity.
IV. RISA Versus HinduDiaspora:
The Hindu Diaspora, which includes non-Indian Hindus in yoga-meditation centers, is usually kept out of the RISA fortress. Huston Smith, in the Spring2001 Harvard Divinity Bulletin, describes certain western scholars' attitude towards Hinduism as "colonialism updated". When compared to science,technology, business, and other professions where Indians now routinely achieve the highest positions, Indology remains perhaps the last holdout of colonialism. Indians with self-esteem and experience in dealing with westerners are seldom included as dialog representatives in a joint enterprise to study the tradition.
Meanwhile, Indian Marxists and Macaulayites—born again as 'progressives' after the Cold War—dominate India's academe, and often power broker and become strategic allies with western academicians as experts on India.But there are many contradictions in these intellectual sepoys: (i) While many are Subalternists, India's masses, classics and culture are often alien to them, and they disrespect and caricaturize Hinduism in a reductionist Eurocentric way. (ii) Instead, they know mainly western thought and hermeneutics. (iii) Yet, their careers are based on being proxies for the very tradition that they regard as a scourge. The phenomenon of South Asianizing, which has emerged from this confluence ofexcessive ethnography and Indian Macaulayism, has subverted Hinduism's universal truth claims. Contrast this with other world religions—for instance,Christianity is not defined in terms of Middle Eastern ethnography, although it is studied also in sociological terms. Furthermore, the Diaspora feels that the ethnographies of South Asia get superimposed as their image.
Anyone speaking assertively for Hinduism is too often branded as Hindutva,saffronist, fundamentalist, fascist, fanatic, neo-BJP, nationalist, or equivalent. In fact, the only way to be a good Hindu in the eyes of some is to behave in accordance with Orientalist images.
V. Asymmetric Hermeneutical Power:
There is asymmetry in the license to criticize: RISA and its scholars control the vyakhya (i.e. hermeneutics, right to criticize, what is deemed important and interesting, etc.) , manage the adhikara (i.e.appoint those in charge of gate-keeping the academic channels), and sometimes even field the persons who represent the Hindus. Any in-bred, pedigree-based, closed system is likely to slip into stagnation. When opposed by truly independent outsiders (i.e. those who do not seek visas, PhDs, jobs, tenure, etc.), someRISA members have resorted to intimidating name-calling to affect censorship.Sometimes, this attack on the messenger deflects from the message. The trial of Sri Ramakrishna in absentia, with no defense side allowed, is an example of what happens under such asymmetries of power.
But Hindus have a long standing tradition of making fun of their gods,since they do not fear blasphemy. Hindus can summon a god, argue and make fun of him, even scold him with impunity—in a process called 'nindastuti'.Being prone to questioning and challenging gods, they do not hesitate to challenge human icons either. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find Hindus using satire, parody and caricatures in what outsiders regard as 'attacks' on those scholars who proclaim god-like status. Nicholas Gier used "Titanism" to describe Hindu gurus who are larger than life and assume unquestionable authority. But in the Indian mind, the West has a Titanic presence. There are Scholar Titans dominating Hinduism Studies, who have usurped the ultimate authority that traditionally belonged to the Vedas—a sort of colonialism.
Hindus feel disenfranchised and outcast in the academic study of the irreligion, perhaps because of a smaller presence of the practitioner-scholar than in the case of Buddhism, for instance. Hence, they resort to this traditional method of dealing with arrogance from the gods. Until two years ago, there was one-directional name-calling, only by the scholars. But then Hindus made several internet forums which scholars could not control, and these have become vehicles to mobilize and develop counter name-calling back to scholars.Frankly, this is unproductive, and the time has come to move beyond rudeness and name-calling in either direction.
While I have focused on the 'problems' here, let me close by saying that many RISA scholars have been very sympathetic, have devoted their lives to positive and fair scholarship, and have had the courage to step out of the orthodoxy of scholarship. Learning from the way blacks and women achieved symmetry, we need non-Hindus in RISA to stand up to blatant asymmetry before real progress is made. Hopefully, we can together evolve a better and more liberal understanding of Hinduism. The mere fact that this panel was held is a greatstep. Thank you for inviting me.
1. For instance: (i) I have criticized the introduction of astrology as a'science' into the academic curriculum, and the notion that there is a 'VedicScience'. (I have argued that Newton'sLaws of Gravitation are not 'English Laws' or 'Christian Science'). (ii) I have expressed concern that the Aryan theory controversy is overdone in its significance, at the expense of more serious issues. (iii) I do not subscribeto the literalist interpretation of the Puranas—neither to claim hi-tech accomplishments (that the Hindutva believe), and nor to essentialize the verses suggesting social abuse (that westerners like to rub in). (iv) I have written about the general intellectual shallowness in Hindutva scholarship, at least in its current stage. (v) I am against the demolishment of mosques, even when there is compelling evidence (including from Muslim sources) of some of these having being built by destroying Hindu temples. [Return totext]
2. Karen Brown, the anthropologist of religion, speaking at the World Conference on "Gender and Orality"—May 2001, Claremont CA,proposed the following as the credo for western anthropologists: "The people and cultures that we Westerners study deserve our respect, reciprocity,and responsibility." [Return totext]
3. Examples of terms deserving better treatment include: murti, deva, varna, lingam, tantra,agni, sati, atman, etc. [Return totext]
4. See for example, J. J. Clark's book, Oriental Enlightenment. [Return totext]
5. These elites are not anchored in the tradition. Western scholars are often shocked to learn: (i) Indian scholars of the humanities (especiallyhistory and sociology), who claim to study Indian civilization in the eye's of the western academy, seldom have any education in Sanskrit or the Indian Classics; (ii) Sanskrit and Indian Classics were abolished in post-Independence India in the name of 'secularism' and to promote 'modernity' by eradicating 'intellectual backwardness', whereas in the west it would be unimaginable to bean expert in the western humanities without having a grounding in Greek Classics. To get a good education in Sanskrit, Indology, or Religious Studies,one must go to a university in the west as India's own education system abolished these fields. [Return totext]
6. As one example only, those adopting a literalis tinterpretation of Indian texts are often deemed as fanatics, nationalists,and fundamentalists. But in Bible Studies, literalist interpretations are awell-respected hermeneutical approach. George Gallup's book of surveys ofAmericans' religious beliefs says that over 50% of all Americans believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Yet, we don't denounce the majorityof Americans as fundamentalist-fanatics. In the case of Islam, the Koran is viewed as the literal history and not metaphorically by the mainstream.Personally, I prefer the metaphorical interpretation of all religious texts,but feel that literalist interpretations are a person's right without facing abuses. [Returnto text]