Review on Indolink website

Book Counters Academic Distortions of Hinduism In America

By Francis C. Assisi

Americans have been engaged in Hindu-bashing for more than a hundred years. (I have dwelt on this aspect previously: And it’s not just writers like Katherine Mayo or films like ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom;’ the web too has a surfeit of anti-Hindu propaganda.

In recent years Indian Americans have been concerned about the stereotypes about India and Hinduism that are taught as fact in American classrooms. They know it will negatively impact students of Indian or South Asian origin who are struggling to work out their identity in a multicultural, predominately Anglo-Christian environment.

Moreover, some academicians too are engaged in Hindu-bashing. For instance, scholars have disparaged the Bhagavad Gita as “a dishonest book”; declared Ganesha’s trunk a “limp phallus”; classified Devi as the “mother with a penis” and Shiva as “a notorious womanizer” who incites violence in India; pronounced Sri Ramakrishna a pedophile who sexually molested the young Swami Vivekananda; condemned Indian mothers as being less loving of their children than white women; and interpreted the bindi as a drop of menstrual fluid and the “ha” in sacred mantras as a woman’s sound during orgasm.

This depiction of Hinduism in a manner perceived as provocatively demeaning by the Hindus themselves is the subject of a recent book: ‘Invading the Sacred- An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America.’ It is a serious and significant response to the challenge posed by Hinduphobia in America. And it now calls upon all fair minded Americans and Hindus to read the book, and take steps to bring the vilification of India and of Hinduism to an end.

The first person within the Indian-American community to bring Hinduphobia, or distortions and negative portrayals of the Hindu religion out into the open was Rajiv Malhotra. Since at least 2002, his single minded campaigning, his scholarly criticisms, and his courageous stance has brought the issue into focus – thanks to the world-wide-web. In many of these articles, Malhotra argues that misinterpretations of Indian culture, especially philosophy and religion have created a Hinduism for American society that is very different from the religious philosophy as practiced by its followers.

The core complaint that Malhotra asserts is that the current education system and media in the USA and India are deeply and unconsciously Eurocentric – a system that is breeding the next generation of Eurocentric Americans, and that many Indians have adopted this Eurocentric trend also. Malhotra, who studied physics at India’s St. Stephens College and computer science at Syracuse University, now works full time at the Infinity Foundation, a nonprofit he founded in 1995 to “upgrade the quality of understanding of Indian civilization in the American media and educational system, as well as among the English language educated Indian elite.”

In September 2002, Malhotra wrote an article criticizing the representation of Hindu religion in the North American discipline of Religious Studies on, a web portal popular among the Indian diaspora. The article, named “Wendy’s Child Syndrome,” identified a number of American scholars in Religious Studies working on Hinduism, arguing against their suitability to write or teach about Hindu religion, instigating debate within the academe. Malhotra’s summaries of the concerned writings and his evaluations of the scholars involved, caused an indignant uproar on the Internet amongst Hindus, primarily Indian Hindus, all over the world and particularly in North America. In follow-up columns, Malhotra continued with his argument about the necessity of the Indian diaspora to wake up to such misrepresentations. These portrayals, he asserts, are responsible for the negative image of Indians and Hindus, leading to their racist treatment in American society. His articles garnered some of the highest number of readers and drew the largest number of comments.

Malhotra condemned “the eroticisation of Hinduism by Wendy Doniger, who is undoubtedly the most powerful person in academic Hinduism Studies today,” and “her large cult of students, who glorify her in exchange for her mentorship.” He noted that religious studies—a field that teaches about a religion without preaching its beliefs—is rare in India, making academic discussions of Hinduism a mostly Western conversation. “Under Western control,” he argued, “Hinduism studies has produced ridiculous caricatures that could easily be turned into a Bollywood movie or a TV serial.”

Indeed, Malhotra was the first to voice his concerns regarding the misrepresentation of Hinduism in America, when he noted:

  • Hindu kids and even adults in America are apologetic about their religion, generally preferring to distance themselves from it and keep quiet about it.
  • Educational material used to teach about Hinduism focuses on caste, idol worship, lack of social values among Hindus, and other negative portrayals.
  • A major academic web site examines the Bhagavad Gita in negative terms of Arjuna killing his relatives because of his Hindu outlook.
  • Teaching grants to train secondary school teachers on religious pluralism have been used to develop material that portrays Rama as ‘oppressing’ women and lower castes.
  • There is minimal coverage given to the positive contributions by India’s civilization to mathematics, science, medicine, metallurgy, linguistics, logic, and other ‘rational’ areas; and when pointed out, such avoidance is sometimes defended.
  • Most of the educational material on Indic religions is written very authoritatively by Americans who have advanced degrees in Sanskrit and/or Religious Studies, who have spent years researching in India, and would easily impress anyone with their scriptural knowledge about India.
  • Very few Indians have gone for academic careers in Religion or Philosophy, and those in such careers must be very cautious not to step out of line in complaining about the above matters.

V. V. Raman, Emeritus Professor Rochester Institute of Technology says: “Mr. Malhotra is a serious and well-grounded scholar. He did not come to this field via the standard academic route, but his writings reflect more erudition and a greater grasp of important issues than many Ph.D.’s I know. …Because of his firm stand and sometimes angry style, he has angered the Western academic establishment on Indology, and alienated a great many, including some Hindu scholars…But he has also shaken many to look deeper into the assumptions and unrecognized prejudices which shape their interpretations. And he has served as a bold and well-informed voice for many Hindus in the West as well as in India who have often felt hurt and insulted by some of the psychoanalytic interpretations of their culture and divinities. Personally, I don’t agree with Mr. Malhotra’s style and mode, and I don’t always resonate with his demarcation lines between the East and the West, but I have great respect for his scholarship, much sympathy for the core of his theses, and I applaud his long-range goal. One more thing: To my knowledge, he is not affiliated with any Hindu ‘fundamentalist’ group.

Anant Rambachan, Professor of Religion, Saint Olaf College in Minnesota writes: “Rajiv Malhotra is a prominent and insistent voice questioning and inviting dialogue with the scholarly community, on the content and methodology of studying and teaching Hinduism at institutions of higher education in North America. This initial collection offers a salient summary of his critique and concerns, and is a valuable historical resource for those who want to understand better this debate, and those who wish to become participants in the conversation that he has passionately initiated and sustained. Scholars should welcome a critical voice from the community that is the focus of their study, for a mutually enriching dialogue.”

In his preface to the book, Arvind Sharma, Professor of Religion at McGill University, writes: ‘The book singes with the sparks that flew as the psychoanalytic approach to the study of religion became the lightning rod of the grievances of the Hindu Americans against a cross-section of the academic community in North America devoted to the study of Hinduism. It goes on to document the way these grievances were articulated and ventilated, as well as the response from the world of the Western academia and, to a certain extent, from the media, as the issue came to a head. Most importantly, the book is a pointer to the fact that the Hindu community in North America has now reached the demographic critical mass, when its reactions can no longer be disregarded.’

The book, edited by Krishnan Ramaswamy, Aditi Banerjee, and Antonio T. de Nicolas, probes the invisible networks behind biased approaches to Hinduism and the questionable scholarship of the American experts on Hinduism. Furthermore it goes on to narrate the Indian Diaspora’s recent challenges to such scholarship, and documents how those who dared to speak up – including academic scholars critical of such scholarship – have been branded as “dangerous”.

The authors of this study say that today Hinduism is under siege by forces who have found their playing fields in a section of the American Academy of Religion and the Departments of South Asia Studies. Their game plan is to denigrate Hinduism by focusing narrowly on its social ills, misinterpreting its texts and in the process overlooking the substantial content of Hinduism, its unequalled intellectual wealth, the fact that India has, by virtue of Hinduism and Sanskrit, ‘a place in the history of the human mind’ as Max Mueller once noted.

Kapil Kapur, Former Chair of Department of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, opines: “The intellectuals featured in this book, with their bold decision to take on this scholarship, have entered into a serious dialogue about motives, methodology and substance and, using their own tools, have reversed the gaze back on to the scholarly establishment to their understandable discomfort. This book is important because it records the background, the issues and the arguments in this debate, and the debate is not over. This has been a historic intervention. The record of this enterprise is a lesson for a large number of young Hindus who must learn to combat adverse western scholarship by using the weapons of the enemy.”

Bal Ram Singh, Director, Center for Indic Studies, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, points out: “The Indian diaspora of over 20 million around the world faces the acute problem that much of its civilizational portrayal has been controlled by outsiders for many centuries. However, a sharp increase in the prominence of Indians in the global scene has forced a showdown between the old guard’s established ideas and the young, vibrant community. “Invading the Sacred” is a first serious, albeit provocative, effort to challenge the parochial characterization of Hindus by western and/or westernized scholars. The book is path-breaking and takes to task those scholars who have been falsely stereotyping Indian culture, and shows the importance of challenging such biases. It will hopefully lead to more balanced and respectful discourse, debate, and discussion on many issues facing humanity as a whole, for which Indic civilization is an important resource.”

To the question as to why Indian scholars acquiesce to and even imitate mistakes committed by Euro-American Indologists, in spite of the fact that they could and should know better, one academic says it is partly due to India’s colonization and a widespread overestimation of western culture and the blind belief that anything of western or European origin cannot but be superior to the corresponding element of Indic culture. The resulting “inferiority complex” has had a shattering and traumatic effect upon Indic scholarship and academic output. Unfortunately, this trend continues even in post-independent India and among Indians living in the diaspora today, the authors of Invading the Sacred point out.

The irony is that this denigration of Hinduism is happening at a time when the widespread acceptance of many elements of Sanatana Dharma seems to point to a “Hinduization” of the American cultural milieu.

Just consider this. In 2005, roughly 18 million Americans are practicing Yoga. In multiple polls of American religious beliefs and attitudes, up to 25% of Americans believe in reincarnation. Tens of millions of Americans meditate. Over 20 million are vegetarian. Almost half the population has turned to alternative health systems, such as Ayurveda, herbal medicine and massage.

What may be happening, at least according to one American Hindu Frank Gaetano Morales, is that Americans are interested in Yoga asanas, but are not as interested in become self-realized Yogis. They are interested in meditation for its calming effects, but not necessarily as a means to achieve samadhi. Americans are keen to incorporate Ayurvedic medicine – but only as a complementary or alternative system – mostly for controlling obesity or for the rejuvenative aspect of Panchakarma. They are primarily interested in the many goodies that Hinduism has to offer, but without taking the next logical step of becoming Hindus, or in many cases without even acknowledging the purely Hindu origins of the many practices that they have derived so much benefit from.

Morales says that while elements of Hinduism such as Yoga, ayurveda and meditation become more popular in America, Hinduism itself is in danger of being assimilated into the greater cultural milieu, just another ingredient – albeit a nicely spicy one – of the great American melting-pot. “We face the very real possibility of authentic Sanatana Dharma becoming co-opted into the greater American cultural matrix as nothing more than a menagerie of disparate elements used to market New Age spirituality” writes Morales in an essay entitled ‘Does Hinduism Have a Future in America?’

As a practicing Hindu, Morales is concerned about the academic/media/education/government matrix in America that fosters anti-Hindu stereotypes. “Rather than standing up and fighting against such anti-Hindu portrayals, the Hindu community has been so slow to respond to these attacks in the past that many of the anti-Hindu bigots in academia feel they have a free reign to propagate any lies about Sanatana Dharma they wish. They also know that if the Hindu community ever even responds at all, it is usually too little, too late, and in a purely reactionary manner. We need to counter any and all attacks against Sanatana Dharma immediately, forcefully and professionally.”

This book is the first attempt at talking back to the academicians and is a must read for all people of Indian origin, especially Hindu Americans. As one perceptive observer noted: “in these jehadi times, when Islamists run around the globe killing innocent people to prove that their Prophet and their book are the best, now and forever, the Hindu idea becomes even more relevant – What grander idea of faith can there be than that everyone is entitled to their own truth?”

The contributors to the book, which is published by Rupa, are Aditi Banerjee, Antonio T. de Nicolas, Alan Roland, Arvind Sharma, S.N. Balagangadhara, Pandita Indrani Rampersad, Kalavai Venkat, Krishnan Ramaswamy, Vishal Agarwal, Ramesh N. Rao, Sankrant Sanu, Yuvraj Krishan, Yvette C. Rosser.