Who Speaks for Hinduism?
A Critique of the special issue of the Journal
of the American Academy of Religion
by Rajiv Malhotra
The recent AAR 2000 was my first ever participation in any religious studies conference. It was a privilege to be surrounded by a large number of very experienced scholars, and I found myself raising all sorts of issues. But often I was asked to hold my observations till I had read the special December 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, in order to appreciate how critically the scholars’ guild had anticipated and dealt with my concerns. I was promised and assured that the points I was raising had already been covered in this special issue, under its exciting theme, “Who Speaks for Hinduism?” So naturally, when I received the special issue recently, I read through the entire 131pages devoted to this topic immediately. What disappointed me was the narrowness of approach with which all ten distinguished writers missed a rare opportunity to bring out the issues more fully. My problem is not so much with what was said as what was left unsaid.
As any Marketing 101 class requires, one must first identify the target market to whom Hinduism education is relevant, before deciding what is to be said or who should speak. The question of who listens to Hinduism’s portrayal comes before examining who speaks. Here is a what a simple application of this would show: American businessmen and government officials dealing with India would benefit from more in depth appreciation of its civilization and culture; modern day pluralistic and multicultural America would get enriched as a result of improved education; and the Indian Diaspora in America (large and growing) makes such educational reforms imperative. Much of today’s portrayal centers around poor Hindus, abused women, and various social injustices depicted as chronic evils of Indic civilization. However, the typical Microsoft executive going to India on business is unlikely to be negotiating a deal with a tribal woman. In this global era, many American officials who deal with India feel naïve and uncomfortable about their knowledge of Hinduism. Consequently, Americans miss excellent opportunities to get closer to their Indian counterparts for fear of looking foolish. Today’s focus of Hinduism Studies is largely irrelevant to the kinds of Hindus most Americans will ever deal with. This scholarship about Hinduism has also filtered down to stereotyping in media coverage. Finally, if education’s goal is partly to meet the needs of the Indian Diaspora, it again hopelessly misses the mark.
On the other hand, if the goal is to equip missionaries and proselytizers, which may well have been one of the motives underlying the growth of Orientalism, then the emphasis on the poor illiterate is key as that offers a market analysis of the target population and also supplies ammunition against the ‘competition’. Or if the mission were to endow young Americans with a mistaken and misplaced superiority complex with regard to other cultures, I would commend the education system for a job well done. Does the Academy value its own ‘relevance factor’ to society at large? If it does, why does it fail to seek external feedback to supplement its own peer reviews on such matters?
The following examples directly pertain to the theme, which none of the panel of writers touched upon: Given how secondary school textbooks stereotype Hinduism, who is speaking for Hinduism? When the New York Times denigrated and/or demonized Hinduism several times in the past year alone, who spoke up for Hinduism? When the US Commission on International Religious Freedom held hearings to evaluate religious freedom around the world, but the commission’s own composition lacked any representation of Asian religions – a clear breach of the principle of being judged by one’s peers – who lobbied this matter for Hinduism? When ‘experts’ and media have explained the unfortunate reactions by Hindu fundamentalists against Christian proselytizing in India, why did they fail to even discuss the provocative and often abusive practices of the proselytizers themselves, as someone is bound to if he or she truly speaks for Hinduism? When the selection of topics for PhDs, for university press books and academic journals, and for conference panels, is skewed in such a way as to project the image of Hinduism as a social menace or worse still, as nothing more than pornography ripe for Freudian analysis, rather than as a tradition to be seriously studied for the contemporary answers to enduring questions it might have to offer, then who speaks up for Hinduism? There is recognition within academia about the quantitative limitations in the scholarship of Hinduism, such as the number of faculty positions available. But why were the qualitative issues illustrated here simply ignored by all articles, including the discussion of the truth-claims of the tradition for what they are?
America’s democracy thrives on protest and speaking out. Given these examples of what Hinduism faces on the ground, who speaks out for Hinduism? Is this apathetic posture by the academic sampradaya of Hinduism Studies an indication of a far too insular ‘ivory tower’ mentality?
Historically, there have also been those who speak for Hinduism while speaking against Hindus, which has often led to a combination of plagiarism with demonizing. Colonialists started this trend in Indology, when Europeans falsely assumed that their newly ‘discovered’ civilization of India was of European origin. Hence, Indic civilization was revered, but Hindus were deemed to be a racially mixed and hence inferior dilution of this European superiority – a pursuit of scholarship that led to the Aryanization of European identity and eventually to Nazism. Today, liberal Christians often appropriate Hindu ideas and symbols just as early Christians did from Paganism. But at the same time, other Christians demonize Hinduism, which is also comparable to the methods used against Paganism.
In 1772, Lord Warren Hastings hired a group of eleven pandits to cooperate with the East India Company in the creation of a new digest of laws that would enable British courts to govern under the pretext of implementing ‘Hindu law’. This new Anglo-Brahmin hybrid construction, printed in London under the title, “A Code of Gentoo Laws, or, Ordinations of the Pandits”, was a made-to-order text, in which the pandits dutifully followed the demands made by their paymasters. Are some of today’s scholars still portraying the Gentoo, albeit in the name of the Hindu? (The term ‘Gentoo’ is a derogatory term similar to ‘nigger’, and is probably a derivative from ‘gentile’.) What is the relationship between speaking for Hinduism and demonizing the Hindus through Gentoo Studies?
None of the scholars of JAAR discussed the inextricably symbiotic relationship between Hinduism and Hindus, as opposed to the case of revealed religions. Religions based on historical utterances from God, be they direct or via a series of spokesmen, can be separated from their practitioners. The Bible as God’s instructions stands by itself and could be interpreted in a manner similar to an independent lawyer’s interpretation of a business contract: hence the Abrahamic religions’ interpretation may well contradict most believers at a given time. God’s edicts can only be amended by God and by no lesser authority. This hinges on either believing or not believing the messenger of a given amendment as being genuine, which is typically based on whether or not his miracles are convincing. Unless backed by authenticated miracles, no claims of amendments sent by God may be authoritative, and this has turned Abrahamic religions into a study of history. Western religion is essentially a theory of history. However, Hinduism is different: Its truths are deemed to be rishis’ discoveries that are eternal and non historical. These truths are continuously renewed and received, in an infinite variety of representations. Svadharma is flexible, personalized, specific to each situation, and cannot codified into commandments. Hence, Hinduism by definition must be seen as a living tradition inseparable from the Hindus at any given time and place. Speaking for Hinduism implies speaking for Hindus.
Hinduism’s scholars commonly ignore that Hindu ideas are appropriated very successfully by the modern west. When Dean Ornish and many other medical researchers clinically proved to the health insurance industry and to the medical establishment that yoga, meditation, ayurveda and vegetarian dietary practices can reverse heart disease as effectively as the latest drugs and surgery, should someone have pointed out that they were speaking about Hinduism? When transpersonal and human potential psychologists such as Ken Wilber package Hindu theories and practice at the cutting edge of consciousness ‘science’, who informs the audiences that they speak about Hinduism? When mental health researchers in many places demonstrate the healing effects of Hindu techniques, where are the scholars who should be stepping in to explain that these come from Hinduism? Are the postmodernist thinkers influenced by Hindu ideas known to their readers to be speaking about Hinduism? Why are academic scholars who wish to be seen as speaking for Hinduism ignoring its important contributions to modern society? Perhaps, the western study of religion is too narrow and ill equipped to speak for much of Hinduism. On the other hand, some who claim to be speaking for Hinduism, brand every social ill of modern day India as ‘Hindu’, while others quote them ‘objectively’.
Are highly experienced pandits and adept yogis allowed to speak for Hinduism without first going through western licensing, where agenda setters and peers are largely non-Hindus? While the western scientific establishment, from psychologists to medical researchers, report amazing findings about yogis’ feats that defy human potential known to conventional science, these yogis are deemed unqualified by the Academy to speak for Hinduism. Are the pandits and yogis mere ‘informants’ for western scholars who either appropriate the Indic know how or reduce it with their own ‘spin’ into western categories? It seems that the Abrahamic notion of religion has become a limiting lens to reduce Indic religions. Expertise in modern western idiom and bias are key weapons in establishing one’s legitimacy in Hinduism scholarship.
Are Hindu women who reject western feminism, as for example, Usha Menon and Madhu Kiswar, able to speak for Hindu womanhood, especially if they are not poor or abused? It is often felt that to be certified to speak for women in a western feminists’ dominated academia, a Hindu woman must first stop being Hindu herself and pretend to have turned into the globalized female fabricated in the past few decades. (This problem is especially acute in South Asian and social studies departments.) Is this subversion of Hinduism by those who claim to be its spokespersons simply hushed up by the gatekeepers?
The humanities today have often become prepackaged and branded ‘isms’ akin to religions. The Feminist Agenda and the Subalternist Agenda are examples of ideologically (and sometimes politically) driven social engineering programs in the name of progressiveness. Since preaching religion within religious studies is condemned, why have religion scholars not complained about the preaching of specific ‘social religions’ that view Hinduism as a scourge, and why have they instead adopted many of these postures replacing the religion’s own view?
The elite guard of the sampradaya who were in charge of discussing such an excellent thematic topic should have first done a survey amongst Hindus so as to uncover what it means for someone to be speaking for Hinduism in a wider sense – a realistic and pragmatic methodology. Would this or any other form of external feedback invite self-doubt amongst the scholars’ guild? Given that the above issues pertaining to the meaning of speaking for Hinduism were not even discussed by any of the ten writers, it goes to show how the answer to my complaint is already too obvious to the esteemed scholars – namely, that the guild of scholars is in business solely to speak to each other and nobody else, and hence it functions as an academic cartel. This ivory tower cocoon mentality seems to be a sign of insensitivity towards social responsibility by scholars, who at the same time also claim that they indeed are the ones who speak for Hinduism and not just about it. Is there a de facto assumption that speaking for Hinduism has relevance only as internal scholarly dissection about its strangeness? Could this attitude imply that Hindus themselves should not or dare not speak out?
Amongst all the major world religions’ academic study, Hinduism has the lowest ratio of scholars from within the tradition to scholars who stand outside it – the insider/outsider ratio. Does this asymmetry have anything to do with the above examples where few truly speak for Hinduism? While continuing to support all approaches to scholarship about any religion, why did such a special JAAR issue on the subject not even address this point of the skewed ratio, given its uniqueness to Hinduism? Is it simply too close to the internal power structure of the sampradaya to be admissible for discussion?
Whether I am an outcaste scholar or a casteless non-scholar depends on whose licensing of scholarship we recognize. As a management consultant, I am used to analyzing the internal structure of various industries in detail, and I have merely made a few obvious observations about Hinduism Studies. There is a pattern of how institutionalized power defends itself against external challenges. Three defense ploys that are especially being employed within Hinduism Studies are those of: (1) simply ignoring a voice, a practice sometimes referred to as ‘blackballing’; (2) alleging breach of the institution’s rituals and protocols, thereby calling a voice ‘polemical’, ‘apologetic’, or outright demonizing it – a sterile procedure if one wishes to promote dialog; and (3) claiming that a topic has already been adequately ‘covered’ and hence need not receive further treatment. I wonder if this special issue of JAAR on the subject of Hinduism is itself not representative of the third approach, and merely meant as a ploy to pre-empt a deeper and more comprehensive inquiry into the topic.
Since the AAR now has a committee specifically for ‘Public Understanding of Religion’ and also a task force on ‘Religion in Public Schools’, is it time for Hindu voices to be present at these bodies of the AAR? I am glad that the theme was given prominence, and hope that now it can be expanded to include other voices. The often heard excuse, that portraying India’s 250 million middle class Hindus would not represent the ‘real’ Hindus, is hollow, as that population is larger than all the world’s Jews, larger than all Orthodox Christians, and larger than most Protestant denominations. Hence, how could such a large number of humans be dismissed as ‘not real’, and at the same time how could Subalternists and Westernized Feminists from within this middle class be designated as the sole legitimate voices? It seems that it is precisely this group that has the self-confidence, resources and communication skills to question the academicians, and that bypassing them has been a convenient way to ignore those who would speak for Hinduism in the true sense. There are now almost two million Hindus in America who can speak for Hinduism, who speak the same language as the rest of the Americans, and who will be happy to speak for Hinduism if only the academicians would care to listen to them, instead of making omniscient assumptions about a tradition as vast, vital and diversified as any other in the world.