World and I Online-review by Deepa Kandaswamy
World and I Online
Section: BOOK WORLD – COMMENTARY
Issue Date: 2 / 2008
Author: Deepa Kandaswamy
Deepa Kandaswamy is a freelance writer. This article is special to World and I Online.
Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America,
Edited by Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas, Aditi Banerjee,
Rupa and Co., Delhi, 2007. $43.00, 558 pages. (ISBN: 978-81-291-1182-1)
In today’s global world, India is becoming a major economic player. A majority of the Indians are Hindus and Hindu-Americans are a minority in the USA. Invading the Sacred is an anthology of 29 essays by Hindu scholars and Hinduism experts who attempt to present a balanced perspective of Hinduism to the global audience as opposed to the one-sided version of what Hinduism, and Indian culture is all about by the academic scholars of Hinduism in America who refuse debate or through pop-culture images like Indians eating monkey brains in the Hollywood movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” or images of an exotic India as a land of snake charmers, sex maniacs and elephants only or Hinduism is essentially a polytheistic religion as opposed to the Abrahamic religions. When studies on Hinduism are done using an Abrahamic / Eurocentric lens of the Trinity, naturally it becomes more convenient to re-interpret or reduce it to a religion with a trinity.
However, with lots of other literature available to prove otherwise , especially the consorts of the “trinity” as well as the children which is not present in Abrahamic religions, it is easier for scholars who are non-Hindus and who have a Eurocentric filter on to interpret this “anomaly” using erotic and exotic lens as the practioners belong to a non-Abrahamic culture. This book is a call for debate and discussion of such interpretations by Hindu scholars who are also practitioners as to the accuracy of such statements and interpretations.
Inaccurate interpretations of a non-Abrahamic culture and its religion done essentially through an Abrahamic lens is easier as it is considered inferior and rescued by “civilization of savages” by translating their literature, religions and other things during colonial times by the colonizers for a mass audience in the colonized country.
This makes it easier to justify the attack on the “other” to the colonizers. However, to increase the appeal, sexual practices considered taboo in their own cultures were interpreted. While this gave the colonial writer the sense of scholarship over the “savage”
culture, it also justified colonialism. When this is sustained over a few centuries, the colonial version of the native religion is accepted as the correct one. This has been true for most countries that were colonized and cultures of the “native” people have been destroyed like in cases of the aborigines in Australia, Native Americans, etc. In some countries, where the culture of the people is continuing to be undermined where the religion and philosophical base is a non-Abrahamic religion. While “physical” occupation of these countries of the colonial era is almost over, the cerebral colonialism continues even though the countries have achieved independence.
This is because religious studies of other religions, especially Hinduism continues to be based on the works of the already published “scholars” who lived in colonial era. The various authors of the book question why this interpretation and re-interpretation of “facts” as stated by colonial scholars is essential for current studies considering the opportunity to examine the original texts and research these cultures is possible in a non-colonial era.
What is most disturbing is the psychoanalyzing of the culture or a people of over 1 billion without debate and using reductionism to write academic “scholarly” works on Hinduism today. When this percolates into pop-culture of another nation, it proves dangerous as it reduces a complex culture and people into a simplistic view of India and Indians, perverts” as that is what the Hindu gods according to Americanespecially Hindus. However, Hindus, especially Hindu-Americans are asking the question, if you define what my religion is and what I should believe, how does this affect me and my own knowledge of what my religion says. Hindu-Americans are talking back as this American minority is facing the quandary – if they criticize or question the American academic “scholars” about their various interpretations, they are labeled “religious fundamentalists” and if they accept it “as is,” they find they believe in a faith where the gods are “sexual scholars are!
Why is this happening? Take the example of the various goddesses. This is perplexing to a believer from an Abrahamic culture who also is a researcher of the Hinduism as the concept of goddesses is not present. In Hinduism, which has females as gods, the colonial scholar and the current one tends to downplay it as devil worship and/or at times use this to claim it either as the sexual deviance of the Hindus or the lowly status of women in Hindu society!
Hinduism on a couch
Even though several of Freudian theories have been disproved or rendered invalid, today’s Western scholars, especially those who belong to Religions in South Asia (RISA), which is a unit of the powerful American Academy of Religions tend to use Freudian lens to analyze Hinduism. Though several of his methods and theories have been disproved, using his methods to have successfully psychoanalyzed a religion and the culture of a billion people is amusing and horrifying.
Amusing because it is stupid as the people don’t possess a “collective” brain – akin to saying that Hinduism coagulates the brains of billion people into one massive brain that can be analyzed and makes the whole thing laughable. It is horrifying as this is accepted as “scholarly” work even in today’s America.
What is more strange is the academics not only psychoanalyze the Hindus but also the gods. This is not only absurd but derogatory when such “scholars” claim they can psychoanalyze the Hindu deities and prophets and their interpretation is the only “right” interpretation, especially when these scholars are not trained psychologists. Even if they were trained psychologists, the Hindus ask how these American “scholars” have managed to have exclusive access to god and got the god on the couch.
When such questions are raised, the scholars hide behind their “love” of Hinduism with such feats are possible. It is akin to saying the Hindus gods came to them (American scholars) for help because the gods suffer from deviant behavior and required counseling. This can be laughed off as a joke except this is not an offhand comment at a social gathering but is passed off as a serious work of academic scholarship on Hinduism by “experts” in America.
Such claims made in academic works are questioned by the authors of this book as they feel it is not just demeaning an American minority but also dangerous as it suggests that all Hindus are “savages” with pedophile prophets and worship gods who feel sexually inadequate.
Freedom of Speech and the Ivory Tower Mentality
Is freedom of speech guaranteed to all even if it is ignorant? Take hate speech for example. The authors wonder if it is okay to allow hate speech in the name of freedom of speech. Can a professor in a college indulge in hate speech and hide under the shroud of freedom of speech? The professor’s credentials or degree provides him or her privilege of knowledge, not ignorance or personal opinion but if used as a tool to teach or preach hate, then the freedom stops there.
If the professor uses the hate speech to target a minority community as inferior, especially when knowledge about the community is less known , shouldn’t the professor be questioned and penalized? Or can the professor get away with it in the name of freedom of speech and those who question the professor’s statements be termed as ignorant or fundamentalist especially if they belong to the very community, race, religion or region the professor is inciting hatred against?
This is the very tactic that is used by RISA scholars when their authority over Hinduism is questioned. They claim it is their freedom of speech to say what they wish about Hinduism, however, demeaning it is as they are the “experts” and claim they are doing so because of their love of Hinduism.
The authors ask if freedom of speech can be confined only to certain people and is not for those who have a different viewpoint, which is rubbished as lacking objectivity as it does not carry the stamp of RISA.
How can one group of scholars claim they are the only “objective” authority? Moreover, if their interpretations are not based on the religious history of Hinduism but by using Freudian analysis using a Eurocentric / Abrahamic lens to interpret a non-Abrahamic culture, religion and the gods and then claiming theirs is the only objective interpretation of Hinduism, is it objective? Can such people be allowed to define religions of “others”. If you argue, debate or criticize this version, you termed as assaulting your own history or being dishonest or labeled a religious terrorist as you refute their “objective” account. This is typical of the “Ivory Tower” mentality as one deflects criticism of one’s work by making it a freedom of speech issue while at the same time managing to accept the opposing viewpoint as non-objective.
When invited to debate, the RISA scholars refuse to do so. This brings into focus the ivory tower mentality of these so called scholars and also questions the imposition of cultural experience and telling the Hindu that the Hindu’s personal religious experience is not correct unless a Non-Hindu “scholar” who claims to know better okays it.
There is a world of difference between an off-hand hurtful comment in a social gathering and devoting one’s work to organizing and reinterpretation of a religion and making it their life’s aim to sustain their interpretation of another’s religion as correct, thus reducing a religion, its philosophy and culture to that of a “savage” group that is essentially uncivilized. Continuously refusing to even discuss such academic works with the “natives” or those who actually practice the religion that is being targeted results in a loss of objectivity claim the authors.
However, when such interpretations are questioned by Hindu scholars who are also practitioners, instead of a civilized debate, discussion or even offering clarification or explanation, the RISA scholars resort to silencing these voices by labeling these Hindu
scholars as religious fundamentalists and terrorists. The authors say this character assassination of the opposing voices by RISA scholars is akin to saying Einstein’s theory of relativity is false because Albert Einstein was a bad husband.
When RISA scholars indulge in the sensitivity tactic by saying that they didn’t mean to offend the sensitivities of the Hindu minority but were just offering their honest opinion based on “facts,” the authors reject it saying that they are not looking for sensitivity, or offending Hindu-American sensibilities but rather ask for a full fledged debate on Hinduism where there is proper procedure followed instead of passing personal opinion as facts!
It also documents how RISA scholars managed to discredit those who disagreed with the methodology. When a few of the academic insiders dare to discuss, they are disowned as being disloyal to the organization, namely RISA. The authors find this trend disturbing as
they are told they have to put up or shut up and not ask question the veracity of the theories on Hinduism that RISA scholars churn out as they are genetically fallible because they are Hindus or guilty of association as most of them are practicing Hindus.
The authors ask if this is ethical or proper academic methodologyone is a Hindu and speaks against or debates concepts put forth by non-Hindu Western scholars, is it fair to label them automatically as communalists or at times anti-Hindu and most importantly anti-free speech. This sort of demonization of an opposing viewpoint just because one disagreed is not only biased, strange but also untypical in academia, as debates should be welcomed. Instead, those who disagree are termed as attackers and this is used to sensationalize to get more publicity, media coverage and funding for further work.
The primary strength of the book is the detailed references from the ancient Sanskrit texts and pointing out where and how the misinterpretation has occurred due to cultural differences. It also chronicles improper scholarship, especially research that is not backed up by references and sources but usually personal opinions passed off as facts. While it systematically chronicles the degradation of Hinduism in America by RISA scholars which has resulted in the problems the Hindu-American minority faces and also takes on point by point the various articles and books which defame Hinduism. The authors do not resort to sensationalism or indulge in reverse character assassination of RISA scholars.
This is an important book as it both informative and educative as it quotes from the various Hindu texts and shows how certain information has gotten lost in translation and exposes the organized sensationalism of academics about Hinduism as some exotic “savage” religion with weird rituals and creepy gods through the media. To a certain extent, it also demystifies Hinduism, the religious history of the Hindus and Indian culture ending with a call for an open debate to RISA scholars and others interested in restoring objectivity to books on Hinduism and Indian culture. Hopefully, this book will result in a global discussion and better understanding of India and Hinduism.