Intl Journal Of Hindu Studies- Review- A Rambachan

Academic Journal Book Review

International Journal of Hindu Studies 12, 1 (2008)
Book Reviews


{From Pages 96-98}

Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas, and Aditi Banerjee, eds., Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America. New Delhi: Rupa, 2007. 545 pages.

Reviewed by Prof Anantanand Rambachan, Dept. of Religious Studies, Saint Olaf College, Northfield.

One of the significant features of a developing American Hinduism is the deepening concern, in many sectors of the community, over the content and methodology of
teaching about the Hindu tradition in high schools and colleges. This is, in part, a direct consequence of the increasing numbers of children of Hindu immigrant parents entering American classrooms. Parents are concerned that misleading and negative information about the Hindu tradition will lead to religious and cultural self-rejection and alienation in a new generation of American Hindus. Recent years have witnessed controversies, often bitter, over the content of school textbooks treating the history and teachings of Hinduism. The California Textbook Controversy is only the most recent example.

Hindu concern with American academia focuses on a number of broad and interrelated issues, highlighted and woven into the four sections of Invading the Sacred. Prominent among these are claims of an undue emphasis on the negative features of the Hindu tradition and its consequent belittling, insensitivity for the practitioner, and disregard for his or her self-understanding and an unwillingness to acknowledge the distinctive contributions of India to world civilization. There is also the concern that the methods and assumptions that inform the study of Hinduism in American academia are either Eurocentric or more appropriate to traditions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (123–31). Of particular concern, as far as methodology is concerned, is what Invading the Sacred refers to as the “complete Freudianization of Indological parlance, or lingo by a small band of academics. This phenomenon has advanced to such an extent that words and phrases like ‘castration,’ ‘flaccidpenis,’ ‘sexual-fantasy,’ ‘erect-penis,’ and such have become a sort of lingua franca through which the intellectual inter-course of closely-related scholars achieves effect in their academic publications” (195). These problems are compounded by the fact that most of the teachers of Hinduism in American academia are not Hindus.

There can be little doubt about the importance and legitimacy of many of the Book Reviews / 97 concerns raised by the authors of Invading the Sacred about the academic study of Hinduism in the United States. Eurocentric approaches need to be challenged, corrected, and informed by methods that are closer to the character of the tradition and better express its unique orientations and weltanschauung. In their interpretation of the Hindu tradition, scholars and teachers need to be more attentive to the selfunderstanding of the practitioner and to find ways of incorporating their experiences and perspectives. We need to acknowledge the fact that the intellectual and cultural achievements of non-Western societies have yet to be properly highlighted in high school and college textbooks and that the request from Hindus for a more affirming and accurate portrayal of the tradition is legitimate and just. At the same time, it is equally important that Hindus do not expect scholars of the tradition to represent the Hindu past and elements of the present as entirely irenic in character. Hindus, like people everywhere, are not exempt from the corruptions of power and privilege, and oppressive structures, such as those of caste and patriarchy, must not be overlooked or explained away. The voices and faces of the oppressed and marginalized must not be silenced or banished in the interest of presenting an acceptable tradition consistent with the aspirations and self-image of the Hindu community in the United States.

The challenging of the religious academy and the call for accountability will gain credibility when infused with the intellectual and moral virtue of self-criticism. Readers of Invading the Sacred need also to be aware of the enduring contributions of scholars in the academy who have enriched our understanding of the Hindu tradition through dedicated scholarship and teaching and whose work sustains an interest in the academic study of Hinduism that is unmatched elsewhere in the world.

These are researchers and teachers who balance the rigorous demands of scholarly inquiry with a deep appreciation of the tradition and respect and sensitivity towards its practitioners. It is necessary to acknowledge the fact that most scholars of Hinduism are not Hindu-phobic or committed to the intentional denigration of the tradition and its followers.

While acknowledging the legitimacy of concerns about the teaching of Hinduism and the appropriateness of articulating these in conversation with the academy,
Hindus must be careful not to look to the departments of Religious Studies for the formation and nurturing of the Hindu faith in a new generation of Hindus. There is a clearly felt need in a new context, where the transmission of the tradition from one generation to another cannot be taken for granted and the challenges of being a religious and cultural minority are acutely experienced. The study of religion in faculties of humanities and social sciences is pursued within the demands of the goals and interests of these respective disciplines and the tensions that are experienced between those who study religion in this way and the needs of faithful are not unique to the Hindu tradition. Along with engaging the academy, Hindus in the United States must work vigorously to build institutions and offer opportunities to young Hindus where Hindu identity is meaningfully cultivated and encouraged. In this task, Hinduism can learn from the efforts of other traditions facing similar challenges.

98 / International Journal of Hindu Studies 12, 1 (2008)

Invading the Sacred may be the documented response that begins a productive dialogue between community and academy about the study and teaching of the Hindu tradition. Like the dialogues of ancient India, this one also can be enlightening if sweeping generalizations are avoided, if the concerns of both sides are respected and if the insights scholarship and the fruits of practice and faith are seen as complementary and mutually enriching.

Anantanand Rambachan Saint Olaf College, Northfield