A Hindu View of the American
Academy of Religions
by Rajiv Malhotra
© The Infinity Foundation
The American Academy of Religion has over 9,000 members representing the academic scholarship and teaching of religious studies at all levels of the education system. Its week long annual convention was in Nashville, in November, 2000, and attracted roughly 7,000 attendees. Literally hundreds of talks and panels covered a diverse range of religious studies topics, involving all the religions of the world. The high leverage of this organization stems from the fact that its members shape the portrayal of religions in schools and colleges, and hence indirectly the attitudes of media and public life in America. I was especially proud to learn that the president elect of AAR is Professor Vasudha Narayanan of Florida, the youngest person ever to have this honor and the first Hindu ever in such a prominent position.
Naturally, my interest was in attending those events that concerned Hinduism. One of many special units within AAR is called RISA (Religions of South Asia) but with only about 300 members joining it out of the total 9,000 member of AAR. There is also another Hinduism unit formed recently with about 150 members. What would shock most Hindus attending this for the first time would be the nature of portrayal of Hinduism in American education. It is nothing like what you would find at a temple, ashram or Hindu gathering. Rather, it is mainly an arms-length ‘objective’ view typically dominated by graphic details of the social ills of Hindu society – caste, women’s abuse, poverty, pollution, superstitions, animal worship, animal sacrifice and the like. This material permeates college teaching about Hinduism and India in a big way, and in many instances also secondary schools.
In the panel titled ‘Bridging Times: Politics of Memory and Myth in North India’, chaired by Professor Jack Hawley, the panelists were Ann Gold, Lindsey Harlan, Peter Gottschalk, and Christopher Lee, with the concluding remarks from Tazim Kassam. That there was not one Hindu on it was not the problem, but that it was a very explicitly anthropological portrayal. For example, one speaker showed slides of abused women in Rajasthan, and described the Rajputs as evil ‘cowboys’. I walked out after the first few talks of this panel, as I could not appreciate the irrelevant ethnography that many Hindus would consider as Hindu-bashing. This was a typical portrayal of poor women’s plight explained strictly in terms of being a Hindu problem, selecting data that fits the picture with no attempt to include or reconcile data that did not fit the pre-conceived theory. Women’s issues are common stereotypes that are politicized. They are often out of context and are rarely compared to women’s conditions in poor Christian countries or Western nations. India’s problems are labeled as ‘Hindu’, yet Western scholars would not label the US’ very high incidence of child abuse, rape, murders of spouses, massive prison population, drug and other addictions, and high incidence of clinical depression as ‘Judeo-Christian’ problems. Another Indian told me that he walked out of another panel showing Hindu animal sacrifices as being typical of its superstitious nature. Yet, Christian ‘exorcism’ increasingly practiced in the US would not be in college or school texts on introducing Christianity. Educators trusted by the public failed to explain that, despite it poverty, India’s crime rate is small compared to the US’ on a per million population basis, in every major category. These scholars visit India routinely to dig up such ‘gold’ for their sensational writings. Gullible Indians honor and respect them as they show a different face there.
Hindu society is depicted as having been intrinsically poor throughout its history, without factoring in the massive destruction its academic institutions suffered during multiple foreign invasions and the decimation of its infrastructure by colonialists. Environmental problems in contemporary India are seen as rooted in India’s traditions, rather than a phenomenon over the past 150 years only. But such portrayals fail to delve into history, and to properly explain the economic and ecological problems. Islamic and British records are emphatic and voluminous about the enormous material wealth of India, its higher literacy rate than Britain’s up to the 19th century, and its massive manufacturing export base that was later input into Britain’s industrial revolution. Many of India’s social problems have economic roots, which in turn originated or were exacerbated during Islamic or colonial rule. But this is suppressed.
As another example, when Leela Prasad a young PhD student at Duke University spoke extensively and graphically on the topic of inter-caste trouble in South India, I asked that if she had called it ‘class’ rather than ‘caste’, would it have compelled her to compare with the US’ own racially segregated churches, white supremacy groups, racial profiling, economic stratification, and civil rights issues. America’s caste system is implicit and subtle rather than explicit and publicly acknowledged, but it is no less harmful. Americans label their social categories as demographic groups rather than castes, but this does not make the problems disappear. Nobody on the panel wanted to deal with such a question. Often, social science and religious studies scholars place the West above such ‘primitive’ practices while ridiculing other traditions. Hinduism has acquired the image of meaningless superstitious rituals. Kali and other scary images are deployed to indicate a negative and violent religion. Simplistic logic is used – Shiva is evil because he is the destroyer and because destruction is evil. Animal symbolism is interpreted to indicate animal worship, or worse still, some form of animism. Hinduism is often portrayed as ‘world negating’ and socially backward, compared to the ‘rational’ West. It is said to exploit the underclass. Karma theory is interpreted as fatalism and as accepting one’s plight rather than taking responsibility. There seems to be an obsession on the part of many Western scholars and Westernized Indians to select precisely those issues about India which enable them to develop a posture of pity and patronizing sympathy from above the glass ceiling, while filtering out rational, progressive and superior elements of India’s civilization under the excuse that these would not represent the ‘real’ India.
One of the liveliest and most revealing sessions was called ‘Coming out as a Hindu or Buddhist’. The intent was to share experiences of those scholars who revealed their Hindu or Buddhist identity in religious studies departments. The courageous panelists detailed their career problems resulting from adopting such an identity. Rita Gross, an American Buddhist explained how she had been blackballed in her career because she had complained how the religious studies academicians were prejudiced towards non-Western religions. It is often better to remain a ‘secret’ Hindu/Buddhist or at least to down play it. One exception was Dr. Deepak Serma, who took the stand that he had decided to make his Hindu dharma very open and face whatever consequences came along – however, he is still looking for a job. Tamal Krishna Goswami, an American Hindu explained how he had from the very beginning decided not to hide his religious identity but that as someone now entering academics he was anxious as to how he would be received. Ramdas Lamb, another American who has ‘come out as Hindu’ teaches successfully at Hawaii, where such prejudice is not a factor and in fact, his students like the fact that he can speak from direct experience. Anne Kleine was another Buddhist who also mentioned how scholars have viewed her Buddhist practice with skepticism. An academician confided in me that the litmus test of India’s secularism is the level of Christian proselytizing it can endure, and Hindus are often subject to this burden of proof.
Muslims have insisted on a fair and even positive presentation of Islam in the Western academia with considerable success, but the same cannot be said about Hinduism. If Judaism were subject to a mild version of the Hindu-bashing that is normal on campuses, there would be charges of anti-Semitism. Antonio de Nicholas, now retired as Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Religion at SUNY writes: “Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, even Shinto studies have found a place in the American Academy and are being taught by scholars of those traditions. All but Hinduism, the earliest of all ancient cultures recorded in writing, the store house of our own internal habits of soul, mind, society, mortality, immortality; the reference of later cultures and mystics, the mother, literally, of our own human possibilities has neither found an autonomous voice in the Academy nor have the children of this culture, Hindus, allowed to represent themselves in the American Academy when Hinduism is taught by non-Hindus, or patronized or vilified or simply ignored.”
The Hindu-Christian Society’s panel on the political implications to Hindu-Christian scholarship featured only non-Indian speakers, who did a balanced job of representing Hindus’ sentiments. At first, the Southern Baptists’ pamphlet denouncing Divali as the ‘festival of darkness’ and portraying Hindus as having darkness and evil in their hearts, was read briefly. Then Ed Bryant gave a very strong response to this from the Hindu view, challenging the premises in the pamphlet. Diana Eck took the middle road, explaining how there were nuns being raped in India and other abuses against Christians, but also mentioned that this had started mainly in recent years with aggressive proselytizing and the BJP coming to power. Another Special Session on ‘International Religious Freedom Act’ discussed the state of religious freedom in the world, but NONE of the panelists were Hindus. Chaired by Rosalind Hackett, the panelists were Drs Gunn, McGee, Shterin, Sullivan, and Tahzib-Lie. Hinduism often gets portrayed as the perpetrator of abuses, ignoring the aggressive proselytizing and its history of being invaded.
While Judeo-Christians have strategic control over the scholarship of Hinduism in the West, Hindus have seldom been concerned about the scholarship of their own religion, much less about Judeo-Christianity. I was also shocked to learn at the convention that there is a team of mainly non-Hindu scholars doing the Mahabharata translation to be published by The University of Chicago Press, and expected to become the standard in education on this classic. Can we imagine a hypothetical scenario in which popular translations of the New Testament came mainly from Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist scholars? One wonders why there are no grants specifically designed to encourage Hindus to advance in the higher education of Hinduism.
Another Hinduism panel was on ‘Satire and the Rhetoric of Reform’, chaired by Dr Hess, and included Drs. Davis, Pinkney, Schaller, Wilson, and Martin. They seemed to be excellent scholars although none was a Hindu or an Indian.
One factor behind the skewed choice of topics is that most faculty positions on Hinduism and India related studies, as well as editorial boards in university presses and scholarly journals, are controlled by scholars from outside this tradition. This is also reflected in the asymmetrical representation on panels, and in journal articles and textbooks about Indic traditions. No other tradition has such a low percentage of its own scholars representing its portrayal than does Hinduism, even when compared to Buddhism, but especially when compared to Christianity and Judaism. Indians seeking to advance in the study of their own traditions face the conventional power structures that survive decades after colonialism. They must at the very least ‘prove’ their objectivity sometimes by alienating themselves from Indian ways of thinking, including having to adopt the use of Judeo-Christian categories and/or Marxist idiom for their work. Those who have tried to stand up to such a hegemonic situation have often been blatantly declared as fundamentalists, or else marginalized in subtle ways. The biggest irony of all was that the panel specifically to discuss the Western media’s portrayal of Asian religions did not have a single Asian or a single Hindu on it! Imagine a review panel on race relations with only whites on it!
This situation might be compared to the field of Afro-American culture and history, which until the civil rights laws of the 1960s was entirely in the hands of whites. Afro-Americans had to fight hard to get included in their own portrayal, and they eventually entered faculties, wrote books, and participated in their own portrayals. Today, it would be unthinkable to have a program on Afro-American studies dominated by white scholars. A similar situation also existed in the case of women in America prior to the feminist movement. But once women demanded, they did receive their legitimate position to control the discourse concerning women’s studies. One would consider it unthinkable today to have a women’s studies department or to have secondary school textbooks about women’s issues that were written mostly by men. Jews had to negotiate their position in America to be classified as ‘white people’. Given their organized mobilization, today the best scholars, most faculty positions, most powerful boards and committees concerning Judaism, and most textbooks about their history, are largely in the hands of Jewish people.
It is sad to note that Indian kids in American colleges often tell of being embarrassed in class when their heritage is portrayed in a demeaning manner. Many choose to deny their identity, just as Jews did a century ago in Europe. What is ironic is that these Indian kids are often majoring in ‘rational’ disciplines such as science, finance, law, medicine, or business. Indian students who go through American campuses often transform their identity into ‘South Asian’ and some have even defined their religion to be ‘South Asian’. To contain Soviet influence, the US State Department allocated money to American universities for studying the non-Western world, and the new field was called ‘Area Studies’. Under this rubric, the notion of a ‘South Asia’ was born, along with far reaching consequences of balancing India with Pakistan, and trying to ‘South Asianize’ the identity of Indians. This grouping of countries is a politically correct way of referring to former British colonies. It is the American equivalent of colonial Europe’s field of Indology.
In general, few Hindus have gone into higher studies of the humanities, preferring sciences and more lucrative fields instead. In fact, it is amazing to see such a large number of Indian Christians in the academic study of Hinduism, whereas Hindus seldom bother to study Christianity. Departments are seeping with leftist and/or social anthropological portrayals – India is seen as a land of problems with every kind of strange and backward phenomenon. Academic Indians have not fought against this and sometimes even facilitate it. It has become especially fashionable for Indian women to trash India’s heritage as being responsible for all sorts of women’s problems, thereby alienating many young Hindu girls from their own heritage as a way to get liberated from its evils. Indian Christians often co-opt these women to help trash Hinduism. The senior academicians in power, who are usually Americans, have encouraged this, and in many instances, have pressured PhD students and even junior faculty members against scholarly conclusions that run counter to the stereotypes. Rarely are students encouraged to research the invasions by Islam and colonialism as factors that caused or exacerbated India’s social problems. Yet, these very scholars often don the human rights cloak to condemn other cultures.
Issues of this nature are now beginning to be discussed openly by many kinds of Hindu scholars: (a) American Hindus such as Ed Bryant, Ramdas Lamb, Guy Beck, Stephen Philips, Antonio de Nicolas and Yvette Rosser. (b) Young Hindu scholars being raised in the West such as Deepak Serma, Paramil Patil and Sushil Mittal. (c) Senior academic scholars such as Arindam Chakrabarti, Arvind Sharma and T. S. Rukmani.
Finally, the best panel on Hinduism was titled ‘Revisioning Patanjali’s Dualism’. It consisted entirely of American yogi-scholars, in which everyone did a serious examination of the tradition, combining scholarly authority and personal experience from within the tradition. I expressed the hope that this panel would set the standard for future scholarship in the field.
But the most positive of all developments I saw was that there were some young Hindus in their 20’s who had either finished their PhDs or were in the process of doing so, and most importantly, who were taking a constructive approach to their scholarship of Hinduism. These included: Arti Dhand, Paramil Patil, Deepak Serma, Sushil Mittal, Aditya Aarkar, Ed Bryant and Steven Rosen, each of whose talks were a refreshing contrast from the typical socio-political anthropology that has become too common in the name of scholarship. Unfortunately, too many other young Hindus continue to get sucked to Orientalist views.
What serious Hindus with an interest in scholarly matters should do is to join the American Academy of Religions, and then enroll into its Hinduism unit, so as to monitor the pulse of academic portrayal and also to participate in its direction.