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The Us Versus Them War Against American Scholars of India | Elizabeth Redden

22 April 2016

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Inside Higher Education - April 12, 2016

by Elizabeth Redden

Highly respected professors face intimidation, threats and smear campaigns for deviating from the views of the Hindu right.

The distrust and even disdain with which many practicing Hindus view the scholars who study their religion would likely surprise many outside the confines of the field. A cultural and religious war is raging in which Western academics are the enemy.

Cover of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History.Disputes over alleged mischaracterizations of Hinduism and India by Western scholars are long simmering and boil over from time to time. This happened in 2005-6, when Hindu groups battled with scholars over proposed revisions to descriptions of the religion in California middle school textbooks. Tension boiled over again in 2014, when the book The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and probably the most prominent American scholar working in Hindu studies today, was withdrawn from circulation in India after its publisher settled a lawsuit claiming that it defamed followers of the faith.

And now again in 2016. In February scholars in India initiated a petition calling for the removal of a major Sanskrit scholar, Columbia University’s Sheldon Pollock, from the general editorship of a Harvard University Press series of Indian classical texts on the grounds that his writings “misrepresent our cultural heritage” and that he had “shown disrespect for the unity and integrity of India” (this of a scholar who has received the Indian president’s award for Sanskrit, as well as the Padma Shri Award, one of the Indian government’s highest civilian honors). Among Pollock’s stated offenses in the eyes of the petition signers was his support for recent statements condemning the arrest of a student leader at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on the charge of sedition.

Also in February, the University of California at Irvine accepted a faculty committee’s recommendation to walk away from gifts for endowed professorships in Indian religions from donors with specific ideas about how Hinduism should be studied. The faculty committee concluded that that any association with the Dharma Civilization Foundation, which has publicly stated its views about specific scholars whose work it finds problematic and which has sought in particular to promote scholarship by Hindus, about Hindus, “is inconsistent with UCI’s core values as a public university that fosters diversity, inclusion, toleration and respect.”

And now at the K-12 level, the struggle over how Hinduism is taught in California public schools has been renewed. A new online petition that has received more than 23,000 signatures accuses a group of South Asian studies faculty who proposed changes to social studies curriculum documents of seeking “to erase India and Hinduism from California’s schools.” The Hindu American Foundation has even launched a #DontEraseIndia campaign. At issue are questions of whether it’s historically accurate to use the word “Hinduism” to describe the religion of ancient India — the members of the faculty group argue that it isn’t — and the faculty group’s suggestions that certain references to “India” be replaced with “South Asia” or “Indian subcontinent.”

These disputes about the history of Hinduism and India have frequently pitted Hindu believers against non-Hindu scholars — though some Hindu scholars have also been targets of criticism — and outsiders to the academy against insiders. They have tapped into postcolonial anxieties and puritanical attitudes toward sex. Many see the continuing rise of the Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement — a right-wing ideology that views India as a Hindu nation — as providing ideas and fuel for the struggle, but not everyone who shares in the suspicion of academe is an ideologue. The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum has written that many who join or sympathize with the campaign against academe in the U.S. are not affiliated with the Hindu right at all but rather are Indian immigrants seeking “a positive image of their tradition to present to their children” and sensitive to perceived insults to India’s history or Hinduism by (as the narrative goes) “callous American orientalist scholars.”

At the heart of all this is a widely shared sense that Hinduism and the integrity of India are under assault by Western academics. In turn scholars might say they’re the ones under attack. Academics who have written controversial things about Hinduism have reported receiving death threats and hate mail, and the overall level of vitriol in the social media sphere where many of these debates play out is high.

“The dominant narrative has led to a very, very deep suspicion on the part of the community of the academy,” said Anantanand Rambachan, a professor of religion, philosophy and Asian studies at St. Olaf College.

“The community has the impression that in the teaching about the tradition there is a deeper focus on what I may label more broadly as its problematic dimensions — on patriarchy, on social hierarchy, on caste — and somehow the claim of the tradition to offer a meaningful worldview for human flourishing does not get spoken about a great deal,” said Rambachan, who, unlike most of his colleagues at American universities, is a practicing Hindu himself. Rambachan has called for more Hindu theologians who can build bridges between the academy and the religious community.

“There is this concern — what happens to a tradition or how is it taught when the majority of its teachers don’t have an existential commitment to the tradition,” Rambachan said in an interview. “I think there’s a fair question about it, although I don’t think that justifies the sort of demonization of the academy that we get unfortunately in some Hindu groups. I think that there should be more appreciation of the good teaching that is happening in colleges and universities about the Hindu tradition — and there is a lot of that.”

Accusations of Colonialism and Orientalism

Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago and a leading figure in the humanities, is the author of the book-length study The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future (Harvard University Press, 2009) and co-editor, with Doniger, of Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right (Oxford University Press, 2015). Nussbaum said via email that the disputes over Hinduism and Indian history are not new.

Cover of Wendy Doniger and Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right.“It is a very old story,” she said. “For about 20 years at least, members of the Hindu community in the U.S. have been carrying on a well-funded campaign to substitute an ideological Hindu-right version of Indian history for serious historical scholarship.” Nussbaum said that this version of history, propagated by the Hindu right since the 1920s, overstates the age of the Vedas by at least 1,500 years and makes false claims for Hindu indigeneity to the Indian subcontinent (where, as Nussbaum summarized the narrative, they lived “peacefully, with no conflict or strife, until Muslims arrived to create strife and try to dominate Hindus” — and until the British Christians arrived to participate in the oppression of Hindus after that). This version of history also holds — again falsely, Nussbaum said — that “traditional Hinduism was highly puritanical about sexual matters, and the sexual element has been introduced by leftist and Western scholars.”

“India is one battleground for such ideas, since textbooks were massively rewritten during the first domination of the Hindu right, and they are now being rewritten again,” Nussbaum said. “But the U.S. is a particularly fertile ground for the struggle, since most Americans don’t know anything about India, and even second-generation Indians are often ready to believe what they are told. Forty percent of Americans of Indian origin are Gujarati, where the Hindu right has immense strength.”

“The other factor is that most scholars of India in the U.S. in the older generation are not from India,” Nussbaum continued.

“They are Americans who love India’s civilization and religion and who have developed great scholarly skill and knowledge, rather the way that other scholars develop knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman religion, although they are not Greek and Roman. Of course there is nothing wrong with this: knowledge is open to all, and India is fascinating, so it is natural that people not from India should share that fascination. But the fact that these people are not Indian gives an opening for the Hindu right to attack, cleverly exploiting the tropes of anticolonialism. So they say that the (correct) representation of Indian history and the history of sexuality is a Western plot, cooked up to defame Hinduism and Indians. Unfortunately, in the absence of scholarly knowledge, the public is all too ready to believe such tales. Wendy Doniger of my own university has been a particular target, because of the zest and humor with which she depicts the sex lives of the gods and heroes — following the ancient texts, but pointing to features of the texts that the Hindu right doesn’t want to hear about. The story they then circulate is that Wendy is a kind of Circe figure, luring in young scholars and getting them to say inappropriate and defamatory things about India. Of course it is not this way at all: Wendy was drawn to Hinduism because it struck her as a religion more joyful and less puritanical than the religions dominant in the West, and it’s natural that her work would emphasize that aspect.”

A figure at the center of the critique of Doniger and other Western scholars is Rajiv Malhotra, a retired information technology executive and philanthropist who in 1994 founded the Princeton, N.J.-based Infinity Foundation to support the academic study of Hinduism in the U.S. He quickly became one of Hindu studies’ most visible — and vehement — critics.Rajiv MalhotraRajiv Malhotra, Wikimedia Commons

“Not being a passive donor, I read seriously whatever was being produced in academic Hinduism studies,” Malhotra said in written answers to questions. “This engagement was my full-time work and not a side hobby. I raised issues concerning serious errors, omissions or blatant biases. I quickly learned that critical feedback of a serious nature — especially from those outside the control of the academic establishment — was not welcome. Scholars of Hinduism were accustomed to Indians acting as ‘native informants.’ I was the native informant talking back too much.”

In 2002, Malhotra published an essay on the website Sulekha titled “RISA Lila — 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome,” which the scholar and McGill University professor Arvind Sharma has called the “tipping point in the relationship between the academic and faith communities.” Sharma wrote that the paper “transformed the Hindu perception of the Western academic community from one of adulation, or at least acquiescence, to one of suspicion and even hostility.”

In “Wendy’s Child Syndrome,” Malhotra criticizes what he considers to be the “eroticization of Hinduism” and the use of Freudian interpretative frameworks by Doniger (the Wendy of the title, alternately described as “the Queen”) and several other scholars he considers to be under her influence (“Wendy’s children”). Malhotra accuses the scholars he analyzes of projecting their own psychoses on their study of Hinduism (hence, the “syndrome” with which they’re afflicted). He asserts, for example, that “Western women, such as the famous professor herself, who are suppressed by the prudish and male chauvinistic myths of the Abrahamic religions, find in their study of Hinduism a way to release their innermost latent vasanas, but they disguise this autobiography as a portrayal of the ‘other’ (in this case superimposing their obsessions upon Hindu deities and saints).” (Such language presages that of the later legal complaint in India against Doniger’s book, which described her approach to studying Hindu scriptures as “that of a woman hungry of sex.”)

“Though the academy became increasingly defensive as a response to my article, the Hindu public intellectuals and activists gradually woke up,” Malhotra said. “They started to see things differently and began speaking about experiences that validated what I was writing about. Numerous movements got started with the purpose of ‘reversing the gaze.’ Today there are a very large number of Hindu voices expressing themselves and closely monitoring whatever the academicians produce. I am no longer alone in this. These movements have taken a life of their own.”

Malhotra is a controversial figure to say the least. Some scholars have accused him of distorting or misrepresenting their arguments, and he found himself at the center of plagiarism charges last summer after Richard Fox Young, the Timby Chair for the History of Religions at Princeton Theological Seminary, issued a series of tweets with the hashtag #Message4Rajiv citing examples of unacknowledged quotations he’d identified in two of Malhotra’s books. Most of the passages Young identified involved material from a book by a State University of New York at Stony Brook professor, Andrew Nicholson, who in turn published a piece in Scroll India titled “Upset about Rajiv Malhotra’s plagiarism, even more upset about distortions of my work.”

In response, Malhotra emphasized that he cited Nicholson extensively in his book Indra’s Net and attributed cases of missing quotation marks to copyediting mistakes. He went on to say that the publisher had just issued a new edition of Indra’s Net in which he had replaced most of the references to Nicholson’s book with what he described as “references to the original Indian sources.”

Back on message, Malhotra said, “This syndrome is a subject of my research — namely, the western Indologists plagiarizing from Indians and rewriting in new clever English to claim originality.”

Malhotra can be understood as a David Horowitz-like figure, a culture warrior lacking an academic position but boasting a passionate following and bearing a sharp and unsubtle message about the lamentable state of academe (albeit a specific segment of academe in this case). As Malhotra wrote of his credentials, “My claim to be qualified is that I fill a major need felt by my community, and the people to judge me are my target readers … I am not writing for the academics. I have no academic career goals whatsoever. That system is obsolete and needs serious reform.”

Indeed, Malhotra has published multiple popular books developing his arguments about the ways in which Western academics seek to undermine Hindu thought and the integrity of India (one of his books is titled Breaking India). His most recent book, The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive? (HarperCollins, 2016) features a critique of Sheldon Pollock and is cited in the petition calling for Pollock’s removal from the chief editorship of the Harvard Press series. (Pollock declined through a Columbia departmental administrator to comment for this article.) Malhotra, who accuses Pollock of engaging in a “tendentious reading of the Indian past and of its present problems that is fixated on caste, class, race and gender oppression and regards our cultural achievements as tainted by this legacy,” faulted journalists who covered the petition drive for failing to draw attention to the more than 17,000 “votes” (that is, signatures) the petition opposing Pollock’s editorship had received compared to the approximately 170 “votes” received by a counterpetition. “This is a ratio of 100 to one. The public has spoken loud and clear,” Malhotra said, in this way making a bid for the legitimacy of a popular Internet “vote” on a question of an academic appointment that would typically be reserved for the judgment of trained scholars.

Sheldon PollockSheldon Pollock, Wikimedia Commons Here is a classic outsider/insider tension, and it plays out in these debates in two main ways — who is an outsider and an insider to the academy, and who is an outsider and an insider to the Hindu faith. Who, as a now all-too-familiar question goes, speaks for Hinduism?

Another “outsider” to the academy but “insider” to the faith who has written extensive critiques of Western scholars is Vishal Agarwal, a biomedical engineer by day and Hinduism teacher on weekends who devotes much of his free time to studying literature on the Hindu tradition. He recently published a book-length critique of Doniger titled The New Stereotypes of Hindus in Western Indology (Hinduworld Publisher, 2014).

“The departments of classical study of ancient India (Indology) and South Asian studies in the West are today the last bastions of colonialism,” Agarwal said. “Indians in general and Hindus in particular are still perceived by Western academics as the ‘exotic, erotic other’ through a very distorted and a demeaning lens. In the name of scholarship, which is really hatred and racism in disguise, Hindus are routinely characterized as misogynists, oppressive, minority killing, irrational, violent and debauched. Indian culture is reduced to ‘cows, caste, curry, sati and dowry.’ The fault lines in the Indians’ society are exaggerated in these so-called works of research, in a replay of the ‘divide-and-rule’ policies of British imperialists in colonial India.”

Paul B. Courtright, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University whose 1989 book Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings (Oxford University Press) has been criticized by both Agarwal and Malhotra (Courtright has the distinction of being one of Doniger’s metaphorical children), said the image of Western scholars as all being out to criticize Hinduism is a caricature — which is ironic, he said, because the critics accuse scholars of Hinduism of caricaturing the religion.

“This slightly paranoid notion that we just can’t find enough bad things to say about Hinduism is just nonsense,” Courtright said.

Jeffrey J. Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University — and another of Doniger’s so-called children — said he thinks the critics are sincere in their beliefs that Hinduism is being mischaracterized or misconstrued by Western scholars. “But I think it’s simply false,” Kripal said. “They’re not being focused on in any unusual way. Anyone in the study of religion knows that infinitely more has been said about the sexualities of the Bible than any Hindu scripture or Hinduism altogether. The methods and the ideas that they object to are just standard fare in the humanities and the study of religion, and they’re applied across the board, first and foremost to the Western tradition.”

“When Western, white scholars study Hinduism they do so out of love,” Kripal continued. “Nobody studies Hinduism to colonize it or to demean it. It takes decades to learn the languages and to live in India, and we do all of that with very little guarantee that we’ll ever even get a job. Scholars of religion are incredibly dedicated and study what they study out of deep, deep respect and admiration for the traditions. It doesn’t mean they believe them or agree with them, but they’re certainly not out do the things these Hindutva voices claim.” [. . .]