The Position of Hinduism
in America’s Higher Education,
by Rajiv Malhotra
While the recent construct of Hindutva is the voice for many Hindus, it does not speak for all Hindus. The West and India’s secular left have condemned it, but have not offered an alternative that would be sympathetic to Hindu identity nor proposed a non-threatening environment for ordinary Hindus to regenerate their faith after a thousand years of subversion. Rather, many mainstream Hindus feel that an alliance by multiple subversive forces is engaged in intimidation: Proselytizers in India fight hard for market share to harvest the Hindu’s soul; leftists successfully secularized India’s education system for 50 years to try and obliterate Sanskrit, Hindu epics, yoga, meditation and other Indic traditions from India’s own education system; and Western academicians spun new kinds of Orientalism in the garb of anthropology, South Asian Studies and Religious Studies, and influenced a new breed of ‘honorary white’ Indian thinkers. Till this day, the West and India’s left have failed to delve into the pre-Hindutva psyche of ordinary Hindus so as to appreciate what led to the intellectual vacuum that Hindutva has tried to fill. A deeply spiritual population felt cornered with few choices if it did not wish to convert to Christianity, and did not wish to lose its religious expression with respect in its own country. This intellectual vacuum amidst the popular Hindu renaissance offered an opening for new leadership built on populist sensationalism in a reactionary sense. While it is commonly said that the recent Hindu assertiveness – encompassing a wide spectrum of ways from subtle to very aggressive – is reactionary, there has been no analysis regarding ‘what’ this is a reaction to. My own ideas are still evolving, but I feel that Hinduism is reacting to subversion by a multitude of historical and contemporary forces.
This essay focuses only on one aspect of the subversion – that by America’s scholars – who facilitated this sense among Hindus of being marginalized, and played into the hands of the very forces scholars now denounce. It does not go into the preceding subversions of Hinduism by Islamic invaders, colonialists, or India’s post-independence leftists, and nor the subsequent subversive revisions by Hindutva itself. It examines how America’s higher education suppressed the Hindu voice, reduced Hindu ideas to exotic anthropology, denigrated Hindu practices, and neutralized or re-engineered Hindu identity. It attempts to build a case for self-representation by Hindus that would be free from political forces, proselytizers, and Western career interests.
Most academic chairs on Hinduism, India Studies and Indic traditions, and other faculty positions in these fields, as well as editorial boards in university presses and scholarly journals are dominated and controlled by scholars from outside these traditions. 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 as compared to Christianity and Judaism. The result of this imbalance has been to perpetuate the condition observed by W. Halbfass in India and Europe, “In the modern planetary situation, Eastern and Western ‘cultures’ can no longer meet one another as equal partners. They meet in a westernized world, under conditions shaped by Western ways of thinking.” 1
Indic traditions now seem poised on the response threshold as defined by Eric J. Sharpe:
- A ‘response threshold’ is crossed when it becomes possible for the believer to advance his or her own interpretation against that of the scholar. In classical comparative religion this was hardly a problem since most of the scholars time was spent investigating the religions of the past and often of the very remote past. Interpretations might have been challenged, but only by other specialists working according to Western canons and conventions. Today, by contrast, a greater proportion of study is devoted to contemporary or at least recent, forms of living traditions. The study of religion often shades into a dialogue of religions, in which the views of both partners are (at least in theory) equally important. The response threshold implies the right of the present day devotee to advance a distinctive interpretation of his or her own tradition often at variance with that of Western scholarship and to be taken entirely seriously in so doing.” 2
To appreciate the implications of Indic traditions having reached the response threshold, it is important to examine the conditions pertaining to its scholarship in American academics. Western style academic study of India’s traditions was started in the 19th century colonial era as the field called Indology – the study of India by the West for the West. Even today, 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 Western categories and language for their work. Given the natural ambitions of many Indians to study about India, numerous Indian scholars become ‘Macaulayites’, exactly as hoped for by Lord Macaulay in 1835, when he re-engineered India’s education to “form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” 3
Over time, Macaulayism was planted within Indian minds, invisible and harder to fight than physical dominance. The endgame was the universalizing of colonial ideas and values, through prominence of their writings. This subliminal adaptation has helped many Indians to enter, survive and advance in the field of Religious Studies, Anthropology, Asian Studies, or Social Studies.
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. There were many personal accounts of this at the American Academy of Religion 2000 Conference, as explained by participants in a ‘coming out as a Hindu’ panel. Hindus find it appalling that the litmus test of India’s secularism is the level of Christian proselytizing it can endure, and it is often subject to this burden of proof. A good Hindu, it is portrayed, is an obedient one or at least is easy to ‘manage’. 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.” 4
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. Also important is the new trend among non-academic Hindus asserting their faith through building temples in America, participating in public affairs, and supporting activism against Hindu-bashing, while at the same time avoiding the extremes so as to preserve the pluralism within the traditions.
My definition of a Hindu is liberal and fuzzy in the true spirit of the tradition, and includes those born outside the tradition that embrace it as free spirited explorers. But I would not include anyone bonded by allegiance to an incompatible historic dogma of exclusivist claims, especially anyone linked to a proselytizing tradition targeting Hindus. In claiming a dual identity, one must not have a conflict of interest. Specifically, I have difficulty acknowledging as Hindus those whose other affiliation include scriptures declaring Hindus (even by implication) to be ‘damned’, ‘sinners’, ‘pagans’, ‘condemned’, ‘heathen’ and the like. That would be analogous to inviting the wolf dressed in grandmother’s clothes to sit at the head of the family dinner. This definition does not eliminate a liberal Christian or Muslim whose Bible/Koran interpretation is not literal, who rejects the exclusivity claims of dogma, and most importantly, rejects proselytizing.
Within India’s long tradition of debate amongst its darshanas, the healthy encounter and skepticism was very constructive in shaping every one of its systems. So it is certainly true that both the etic (outsider) and the emit (insider) views are important to include in scholarship. But here we have a competing religion, namely Christianity, with a clear proselytizing agenda, controlling much of the criticism through use of its categories and/or its scholars. Therefore, the current asymmetry between the positions of Hinduism and that of Christianity has two aspects:
- (i) Christian emit scholarship is large in quantity and therefore is a strong voice in balancing the etic, whereas in the case of Hinduism, the scholarship has been dominated by etic for the past 150 years. The best evidence of this is that Indic traditions are commonly portrayed using language and categories of the West rather than its own.
(ii) Christian etic scholars are themselves Christians, albeit assuming a ‘secular’ posture. The analogous situation would be if the etic studies of Christianity were done mainly by Muslims and Hindus, rather than by secular Christians. But Hinduism’s etic scholars are mainly Christians, which is not the same thing as if they had been Hindus adopting a ‘neutral’ and ‘secular’ methodology, especially since Christianity and Hinduism are now pitted as competitors for market share in intense campaigns in India. Scholars of Hinduism are not merely outsiders to Hinduism, but even more importantly, they are sometimes insiders of the tradition Hindus see as predator, namely Christianity. It is also important to note that Christianity has not had a history of giving any other religion a peer status. Because of historical factors, Christianity has been to do its own criticism in its own environment by Christians themselves, and this discourages non-Christians from criticizing Christianity, as it is declared that Christians themselves have done whatever criticism could be done and that no more would be possible or required.
This situation might be compared to the study of Afro-American culture and history, which until the civil rights laws of the 1960s was entirely in the hands of whites. It was claimed that the portrayal was authentic as the white scholars involved had excellent credentials. After civil rights were enacted, Afro-Americans had to fight hard to get included in their own portrayal, and they were told initially that they simply did not have the qualifications to be able to do so. This was eventually remedied as Afro-Americans 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. It was whites such as Hubert Humphrey who helped blacks win their civil rights, and likewise, there are many Jewish and Christian scholars and leaders who express sympathy for Hindus gaining a greater voice in their own representation.
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. Yet, I clearly remember that in the 1970s in corporate America, even highly educated women had to downplay their feminine identity and pretend to enjoy the sexist jokes by men for fear that they might be labeled as extremists or marginalized otherwise. Then came the other extreme of feminism, at which time it became dangerous for a man to joke at all for fear of being labeled a male chauvinist pig. But as women gained control over their own identities, gender relations relaxed and matured as a result. Today, a woman can bring her baby into the office with great pride – something unthinkable in the 1970s, except in rare instances.
Jews had to negotiate their position in America to be classified as ‘white’. Given their well-organized mobilization, today they control their tradition’s portrayal very successfully. 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. Compare this with the situation today where Hinduism’s major scriptures, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are now being translated by mainly non-Hindu scholarly teams sponsored by powerful university presses and under the aegis of well-entrenched academic interests. Can we imagine a hypothetical scenario in which popular translations of the New Testament came mainly from Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist scholars?
It might be claimed by the current academic power structure that there simply are not enough qualified Hindus in the field. However, that situation also faced women, blacks and other minority groups not so long ago. India gained independence earlier than Afro-Americans and women finally received their equal legal standing, and yet Hindus have been unable to climb to positions of importance in sufficient numbers to alter the discourse into their own linguistic categories. The question asked should be why initiatives similar to those found in the case of blacks and women were not implemented in the case of Hindus in order to promote higher education, research and teaching from within the community? Why are there no grants specifically designed to encourage Hindus to advance in the higher education of Hinduism? There was a time when American corporations’ response to pressure from minority groups was to appoint one minority face to their top management symbolically as good public relations in their annual report. But genuine self-representation makes a community more responsible once it is respected in peer terms.
Is it that while blacks and women are considered as American minorities, Hindus are considered as a far away, exotic and foreign people with whom Americans have little to do, except to pity. Did American scholars in positions of power use the Hindus to construct their own superior self-image, as rational Westerners compared to mystical Indians, and as progressive Judeo-Christian people specially chosen by God as compared to world negating Hindus? But the two million Hindus in America are in the classrooms where teachers are using stereotypes to describe their traditions. They are in America’s offices as engineers, doctors, scientists and businessmen, and are tired of being viewed from a patronizing, self-congratulating and condescending attitude. In American neighborhoods, they are asked to define their beliefs in the Judeo-Christian categories of monotheism and polytheism – a dualism that does not exist in Hinduism – and told that they are idol worshippers. They are anxious when their children come home and ask whether they have been saved, when in fact Hindus do not accept that they were damned to begin with.
While icons of Western rational, scientific and progressive development, such as Bill Gates, consider Indians to be amongst the finest rational and progressive thinkers in the world, and they are putting their money on that judgment, it is strange that some religious studies scholars, who are not as qualified technologically, scientifically or in rational training, view their own culture as more rational than the Hindus’. By the West’s own standards and history, religion experts would be the last persons considered qualified to pass judgment on who or what comprises rationality. Why is it considered that Hindus could not adequately do scholarship about their own heritage when they can do so brilliantly in modern literature, on Wall Street, in medicine, and numerous other intellectual disciplines that are more demanding analytically and rationally than religious studies is? Amazingly, when I discussed this with a well-respected Christian academic scholar of Hinduism, his response to me was that ‘Hindus learnt their rationality only recently from the West’. The field would be better served if religious studies scholars such as this professor would learn the Indic darshanas more thoroughly before they are allowed to get their PhDs. It seems that Orientalism continues to be spun in ever more elaborate webs and under different guises.
Thurman, Staal, Cardona, Tubb, Potter and many other eminent Western scholars have rigorously documented that India originated a significant portion of the world’s mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, linguistics, ethics, psychology and technology until 1000 C.E. Yet, this is largely ignored by the mainstream’s portrayal as it challenges the Western dominance narrative. India made a heavy influence on the development of European and Asian languages and linguistics. The entire field of linguistics in Europe was born when Europeans found in India a highly advanced civilization with a rich language and literature. Pannini’s grammar from 500 B.C. (with over 4,000 precise rules) became the inspiration and model for the entirely new fields of philology and linguistics in the West. In East Asia and South East Asia, India exerted great influence on literature. Furthermore, India’s influence on modern and post-modern literature in the West has included the famous works of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Browning, James, Eliot, Isherwood, Huxley, Hesse, Ginsburg, Kerouac, diPrima, among others. This Indic influence, which was so enthusiastically celebrated by these literary geniuses, now verges on being subverted in the general curricula on American literature. Indic ideas have profoundly shaped modern philosophy, psychology, Western spirituality and its emerging worldview, including the influence on thinkers such as Schopenhauer (philosophy), Schrodinger (physics), Jung (psychology), Teilhard de Chardin (Christianity), among others. But most educated Americans are never told this.
Many Western thinkers have gone through the four-stage U-Turn from Indic traditions: (1) discipleship; (2) distancing and situating the know how into ‘secular’ language; (3) re-labeling it into Judeo-Christian tradition; and in some cases, (4) denouncing the source Indic tradition to become ‘free’ from it. I have been examining cases of such U-Turns from Jung on to contemporary scholars, and have developed a few questions to help the process. For example, might the stage 1 discipleship appear in hindsight to have been the anthropologist’s method of getting close to and even inside the subject’s culture so as to get a more intimate peek, or might it be closet proselytizers doing what marketers consider competitive research? Are these U-Turns the result of blaming India’s poverty and social issues on its own tradition without adequate understanding of its history of external oppression? Or are they the manifestation of underlying samskaras of collective cultural identity of the scholar, previously not expressed for lack of self-esteem, but later empowered by the experience of Hinduism? Finally, might there also be the factor of enhanced commercial success if Indic ideas are recast into a more popular Judeo-Christian framework and/or into modern ‘Western’ science? Subversion might have especially facilitated the plagiarism by this final category. However, there is no single pattern or set of factors applicable to all cases.
It is ironic and contradictory that many in the West are so concerned about saving Indians from their supposedly inferior heritage of Indic traditions, and yet are rapidly appropriating the same Indic traditions into the West so as to save themselves.
While Judeo-Christians have strategic control over the scholarship of Hinduism in the West, Hindus have seldom been concerned about the scholarship of Judeo-Christianity in Hindu categories. The result of this asymmetry has been devastating. Under this control, which began during colonial times, 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. The whole subversive enterprise has been to depict an unscientific tradition lacking rational tendencies, compared to European superior intellectual traditions.
These assumptions make the missionary activity and the economic hegemony easier to justify morally. To dismiss Hinduism, it 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. 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. 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. Environmental problems in contemporary India are seen as rooted in India’s traditions, rather than a phenomenon over the past 150 years only. The focus is on caste, cows and curry rather than on Indic ideas presented in a sensible respectful way. The motive is to justify the Western case that globalization equals Westernization – the indigenous cultures are positioned as chronically and systemically flawed.
But such portrayals fail to delve into history, and to properly explain the economic and ecological problems. Whereas the past 500 years of history of the West has been a ‘development’ tale from the dark ages to modernity, India for a thousand years was plundered, subjugated and drained of its economic surplus, by those very civilizations that now proclaim their superiority over it. 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 transferred 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. The Western lens therefore presumes that India’s condition today reflects its intrinsic civilization at its highest; hence, its poverty, social issues and pollution are seen as chronic and systemic problems unsolvable from within and in need of Westernization – including Christianity – as cure.
Harvard University’s Samuel Huntington wrote that in 1750 India had 25% of the world’s manufacturing output while Europe and America combined had less than 18%. But in 1900, India’s economy had collapsed to less than 2% whereas America and the West had 84% of the world’s economic share. He concluded: “The industrial revolution of the West was done at the expense of de-industrialization of the colonies.” 5 The material wealth of India and its industries were legendary for millennia, and were the very reason for the obsessions of the Europeans, Arabs and Persians to go to India – they were not desperate to go there to save souls. To survive, any society requires self-renewal and growth through knowledge, institutions, values and resources. In the case of India, these institutions and assets were systematically destroyed, either by design or by neglect, and the harvested resources were deployed to build empires elsewhere. But few educated Americans seem to know any of this.
Gandhi’s statement in London, in October 1931, criticized the British subversion of India’s traditional learning: “India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago . . . because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out.” 6 Gandhi accused his colonizers of destroying the ‘beautiful tree’ of the indigenous system of village schools by digging up the roots and leaving them exposed. William Adam’s survey of the state of education in Bengal in 1835, found “that almost every village in Bengal had a pathshala [school] and estimated that there were about 100,000 such schools in existence at the time in Bengal and Bihar.” He reported that pupils were taught mainly through the oral tradition. Pathshalas were open to people of various social classes, “irrespective of religion, caste, or social status,” since the “curriculum was designed towards meeting the practical demands of rural society. Such pathshalas had functioned for centuries, providing practical instruction to all classes of children and meeting local needs by teaching traditional subjects in the traditional way.” 7
However, in 1854 the British initiated ‘modernizing’ the education system. All pathshalas were provided British books, traditional gurus were turned into bureaucratic administrators of attendance and standardized punishments. Exams were instituted to evaluate the gurus as well as the pupils. These changes “had a negative impact on the enrollment of the pathshalas. Pupils belonging to the lower classes could not comprehend the utility and began to drop out from the improved pathshalas.” 8 This was noted in Government of Bengal, Education Proceedings, General Department, no. 64, October 1860:
- In the former [original schools] I found the naked children of the cultivators, and boys of the lowest class that has ever been reached by instruction of any kind with a rare specimen of better class of villagers; in the latter [modernized schools] I found (as a rule) only the Brahmin and writer-cast boys. To my enquires, made from everyone I met, there was but one answer, namely that the lower-class boys had retired altogether from the patshalas. 9
Colonial documents such as the Education Commission Report of the Bengal Provincial Committee (Calcutta, 1884), and the Report of Public Instruction in Bengal (Calcutta, 1863-64), describe how the students were made to study the administration of Warren Hastings, Lord Cornwallis and Lord William Bentinck. 10 Under centralized control, teachers had to teach what was deemed worthy by the colonial state, moving away from indigenous knowledge which was intimately embedded in the local culture and emphasizing the needs and deeds of a conquering elite. Education became a hegemonic tool. Bayly concluded: “The knowledgeable man of the Indo-Islamic order was remade in the course of a generation to become the ‘native servant of government’ educated in Milton and Shakespeare, friend to Copernicus, and reader of The Times.” 11 Yet, few scholars reflect this history when explaining why India now has high illiteracy, sometimes hastily jumping to lay blame on Hinduism.
At the time, Western pedagogy was understood to be in opposition to Hinduism, with the ultimate result of the Westernization of the Indian education system being the eradication of Hinduism. Lord Macaulay wrote in a letter to his father:
- Our English schools are flourishing wonderfully…The effects of this English education on the Hindu is prodigious. No Hindu who has received an English education ever remains sincerely attached to his religion. Some continue to profess it as a matter of policy; but many profess themselves pure Deists, and some embrace Christianity. It is my firm belief that, if our plans of Education are followed up, there will not be a single idolator among the respectable classes of Bengal some thirty years hence. And this will be effected without any efforts to proselytize; without the smallest interference with religious liberty; ‘merely by the natural operation of knowledge’ and reflection. I heartily rejoice in the prospect. 12
Fortunately, Macaulay’s confidence was misplaced. And while such blatant cultural chauvinism is now condemned, one might wonder to what extent this attitude lingers on subliminally in the academy.
Anthropologists fail 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. India’s problems are labeled as ‘Hindu’, yet Western scholars would not label the US’ very high incidence of child abuse, rape, massive prison population, drug and other addictions, and high incidence of clinical depression as ‘Judeo-Christian’ problems. Western scholars emphasize caste as the defining characteristic of Hinduism, often to the exclusion of other qualities. However, if they called it ‘class’ rather than ‘caste’, it would compel students to compare with the US’ own racially segregated churches, white supremacy groups, racial profiling, economic stratification, and civil rights issues. In fact, the very foundation of the American prosperity has been historically based on white and Christian supremacy over blacks and Native Americans. 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. Historically, the West’s encounters with other ethnic groups resulted in genocide or slavery – an occidental method of resolution rather than social hierarchy for co-existence. The West should not be exempt from examination under the same microscope for a comparative analysis by students. Often, social science and religious studies scholars place the West above such ‘primitive’ practices so as to ridicule Indic traditions.
The Oneness of the Absolute, optionally viewed either as impersonal or as personal, was a common idea in India well before monotheism was articulation by the Semitic religions. Ironically, Judeo-Christian ideologies, whose distinctiveness is that they are monolithic and monopolistic, have claimed monotheism as their gift to civilization. The monotheism vs. polytheism debate needs to be re-phrased to more accurately describe the divide between historically situated dogma vs. a religion that emphasizes freedom to experiment with processes and direct experience. Rarely do educators mentioned that this intellectual freedom to seek spiritual self-realization resulted in the know how that gave rise to the world’s first universities, built in India. Students from around the world flocked to India for higher education. When invaders inspired by Islam destroyed the great cultural centers of India, including its famous institutions of learning in Takshashila, Vikramashila, Nalanda and other places, they also destroyed the expression of free-spirited genius that was the basis for India’s science. In Europe, Christian dogma destroyed the great free-spirited Greek Civilization. The natural progression in the historically frozen dogma-based West has been from canonical absolutism to fanaticism – the result in the 20th century was Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and Proselytizing. Ironically, Indic traditions are portrayed as being fixed in fossilized texts and the West is shown to have the capability to renew itself, to generate diverse ideologies and debate, without acknowledging the fact that these open traditions existed in India since many millennia.
It is sad to note that Indian kids in American colleges often report 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. The religious/social studies teacher looking down below the glass ceiling at these ‘less rational’ people might often have less academic training in rational disciplines. Furthermore, many such kids come from highly educated Indian families and find it nonsensical to see their heritage downgraded.
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? Could it be that the scholarly emperor is without clothes – and the empress too? Might this be some scholars’ way to boost their own self-esteem, using cultural membership to compare themselves with poorer and lower others? Many scholars are disinclined to interact with well-educated, economically mobile and assertive Hindus, as they do not fit the stereotypes that have become so central to the scholarship.
The history of India’s encounter with European traders who turned into colonialists demonstrates that control over the distribution of goods turned into control over production. In this age, intellectual property is often the currency for competitive success. Hence, it is the control over the distribution of ideas that would result in eventual control over the production, packaging and branding of ideologies. Therefore, educators in USA should be charged to take seriously their role in engineering young minds and public opinion, including the subversion of Hinduism. As one example, 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’. Study about India is found across many diverse departments in American Universities – South Asian Studies, Religious Studies, Indology, Anthropology, History, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, and Philosophy. In general, few Indians have gone into higher studies for the humanities, preferring sciences and more lucrative fields instead. Most Indians who have entered the humanities as a serious career have had an ideological agenda, and over the past 50 years, this was almost exclusively Marxist and/or Indian Christian. 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. Here are some observations about specific university departments:
- With its origins in colonialism, this field is shrinking in size, the more sophisticated Orientalism now being done by other humanities departments noted below.
- Except for University of Hawaii and Austin, major universities’ philosophy departments do not offer a PhD in Indian Philosophy and many do not acknowledge its existence. Those who attempt to approach philosophy from an Indic perspective are aggressively attacked – as happened in Rutgers University’s philosophy department in 1996 to four eminent philosophers who dared to present an Indic view. The American Philosophical Association has many special interest groups within it, but not one on Indian Philosophy.
South Asian Studies, Anthropology, Social Studies, and History:
- To contain Soviet influence, the US State Department allocated funds 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. Within these area studies, there are somewhere between three and five faculty positions for East Asia (China, Japan, etc) studies, for every one position for South Asia. The government’s funding was based on geo-political importance at a given time based on its strategic interests.
- Japan understood the leverage of endowing chairs for Japan studies to give its view at major universities, and today these Japan chairs proliferate. They also endowed many influential institutions such as the Asia Society, and hence controlled or at least influenced the selection process of scholars and topics. While there is a Tibet House in New York, and similar entities for so many countries’ or civilizations’ promotion, there is not even an India House in New York. Funds for South Asia studies are very low compared to China/Japan even in think tanks such as Brookings Institute.
- The Pakistan government is very active in such educational interventions, whereas India has not yet learnt the game. As one example, the government of Pakistan announced in May 2000 that it is endowing the Quaid-I-Azam Chair in Pakistan Studies at Berkeley in the South Asian Studies department. A similar chair is also being created at Columbia.
- Partly as a result of this neglect by India, much of the coverage of India in these departments is about social problems facing women, caste, religious conflicts, nuclear bombs, pollution, …They are hardly the place where a student would get a deep appreciation about the gifts of India’s civilization to the world, past, present and future potential. The mentality and agenda seem to be of social re-engineering based on the scholar’s ideology rather than of social studies. These 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, perhaps for their own agendas. 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.
- These departments are enjoying immense growth, as religion becomes more popular among students. Unfortunately, despite Hinduism’s pre-eminence as the fountainhead of Buddhism and therefore much of Asian civilization, and its intellectual contributions in the realm of religion in general, it is amazing that THERE IS NOT ONE SINGLE HINDUISM STUDIES CHAIR in USA and the only one in North America is in Concordia (Canada). There are a few specific chairs on Sikhism, many on Buddhism, and of course literally dozens on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There are now even chairs for such obscure religions as ‘Shintoism’, but still Hinduism has none. Chairs dedicated to a particular tradition are not set up by the universities but by donors, who are either governments or private individuals.
- Most teachers of Hinduism in Western academic departments are non-Hindus: the only major world religion with little representation from within. I am told that the situation in UK is similar, and that the only person from a Hindu background holding a post in Religious Studies at a major university in the U.K. is Ram-Prasad Chakravarthi at Lancaster University. We need to re-evaluate the criteria of what it means to be ‘qualified’ for academic positions in Hinduism: the Western religions’ notion is sometimes that texts are fixed fossils to be interpreted in isolation, whereas Indic traditions would also place great emphasis on the practical and experiential credentials of a good yogi, or pundit, or bhakta.
- This discipline holds the greatest promise for scientific and authentic portrayal of Indic thought in intellectual circles, as many psychologists have begun to appreciate yoga, meditation, various philosophies of India, Kundalini, tantra, charkas, and some even appreciate bhakti in this context. The problem here is plagiarism, as nobody wants to be associated with a tradition having such a bad social reputation. Therefore, most Indic contributions are camouflaged as being recent Western discoveries by ‘science’ and/or syncretised into Judeo-Christian narratives. Since the evidence of appropriation is still fresh in this field, the scholars can be caught red-handed and made to acknowledge. It would be a very important task to introduce Indian thought into psychology books explicitly as Indian thought. This would bypass the Judeo-Christian religious language and the social/anthropology stereotyping. It would position India’s heritage as the science of consciousness rather than as ‘religion’ in the Judeo-Christian sense. But disappointingly, at every conference on consciousness studies that I have attended over the past four years, the Indian participation is minimal, whereas now there are hundreds of Judeo-Christians and secular psychologists in the fray rapidly appropriating Indic ideas as newly discovered ‘science’ or as liberal Judaism/Christianity.
- Without active participation, Hindus are merely abandoning the scholarship in the hands of others, especially Christians who are from a faith that is aggressively proselytizing against Hinduism and who are very active in promoting their position in the interpretation and distribution of Hindu scriptures. Hindu thinkers have failed to understand the importance and power in ‘academic’ scholarship about religion, and continue to confuse it with religious teachings to the community. Many Hindus sit on ivory towers refusing to get involved, sometimes justifying this based on quoting some lofty shlokas, or proclamations about being spiritual and not religious, or about all religions being the same. Those who take the time to understand the situation often think that it should be someone else’s task to remedy it. The situation in America’s academics is the ultimate glass ceiling that Indians must negotiate, having already pierced through other glass ceilings in scientific, technological, business, medical, and many other fields. Academic religious studies, being rooted in the historical dogma methodologies of Judeo-Christian language and the narrative of Westernism, is fortressed as one of the last bastions of the superior West.
1. Wilhelm Halbfass, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. (Albany: SUNY Press1988), p. 44.
2. Eric J. Sharpe “Study of Religion”, in The Encyclopedia of Religion. (New York: Macmillan, 1987), vol. 14, p. 85.
3. From the Minute by T. B. Macaulay, 2nd Feb. 1835.
4. In his “Neurobiology, Communities, Religion”, an unpublished manuscript.
5. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Touchstone Books, 1998, p. ???
6. M. K. Gandhi, op cit. Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century (New Delhi: Sita Ram Goel for Biblia Impex Private Limited, 1983), p. vi.
7. Kazi Shahidullah, “The Purpose and Impact of Government Policy on Pathshala Gurumohashoys in Nineteenth-century Bengal”, in Nigel Crook, ed The Transmission of Knowledge in South Asia: Essays on Education, Religion, History, and Politics, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 120-22.
8. Ibid., p. 125.
9. op cit. Shahidullah 1996, p. 125.
10. See Shahidullah 1996, pp. 125 f.
11. C.A. Bayly, “Colonial Rule and the ‘Information Order’ in South Asia”, in Nigel Crook, ed., The Transmission of Knowledge in South Asia, Essays on Education, Religion, History, and Politics, (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996), p. 308.
12. Quoted in Piarelal Sharma, India Betrayed, (Delhi: Red-Rose Publications, 1980), vol. 2, p. 38.