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[Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.]

I am increasingly getting the impression that the debates over Orientalism in Asian traditions have taken a new turn, and one very much for the better.

Few books of the twentieth century have made as much impact as Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism. It is particularly striking that even though Said’s book was entirely about the Middle East, it has been a major scholarly landmark in the study of South and East Asia. Until Said, Western scholarship on Asia was rarely viewed as having a hidden colonial agenda. The perennialism of élitist mystical schools like Theosophy was taken seriously by scholars. And the views of Asian traditions’ popular advocates – such as D.T. Suzuki, Walpola Rahula, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – were widely accepted as accurate portrayals of those traditions.

After Said, all that changed. Baby-boom scholars in their youth had been caught up in the excitement of the Asiophilia of the Beatles and Jack Kerouac. But as they became the scholarly establishment in the ’80s and ’90s, their postmodern tendencies (born out of Vietnam-era skepticism of the establishment) grew far stronger. They turned a scolding, jaundiced eye on the mystical enthusiasms of previous generations (and their own youth). Perennialism and mysticism now not only looked like a misrepresentation of Asian traditions’ history, but were implicated in Western colonial domination.

I accept a great deal of this post-Orientalist critique. While I think the colonial connection can be overblown, this line of reasoning very much underlies my article critiquing Ken Wilber. While Wilber has spent a great deal of time and effort studying postmodern thought in the past few decades, he has, as far as I can tell, missed this aspect of it: the idea that mystical experience is central to most traditions is largely an invention of the nineteenth century.

But after a while the critique does get tiresome and overblown. It leads to sneering excrescences like the critique of “Protestant Buddhism”, which in the guise of neutral scholarship proclaim, not so subtly, that modern Buddhism isn’t really Buddhism but a repackaged Protestantism – somehow never managing to turn that same critical eye on Chinese traditions like Tiantai that split far more radically from early Buddhist doctrine.

I am now feeling hopeful that the tide has begun to turn away from this critique – not back to the uncritical perennialism of the ’60s, but toward a genuine synthesis.

Before Orientalism, scholars assumed a straightforward continuity between the premodern and modern versions of Asian traditions – such that the modern Hinduism of Radhakrishnan, say, could be taken to be more or less the same idea espoused in the Upaniṣads. Such a view is no longer tenable. But these days, I see a new line of thinking emerging. This new line argues that neither was there the radical discontinuity often seen by the Saidians – where popular and nineteenth-century Western conceptions of Asian thought are taken as arbitrarily invented fictions with no significant relation to anything that preceded them. (Said’s own method was to focus entirely on Western conceptions of “the Orient” and ignore any study of the “real Orient” that those conceptions aimed to represent. He has often, and rightly, been taken to task for this. The critique of Orientalism would lose much of its punch if the Orientalist representations turned out to be accurate – and Said’s method provides no way of determining that they weren’t.)

The most exciting and polished work of scholarship I’ve seen in this new way of thinking is Andrew Nicholson’s excellent Unifying Hinduism. Nicholson’s book is a study of Vedānta, the Indian philosophical tradition that sees itself as expounding the Upaniṣads. He turns a close and critical eye on nineteenth-century scholars like Richard Garbe and A.E. Gough, pointing out their misrepresentations of Vedānta tradition and how many of those misrepresentations endure today (especially with respect to Vijñānabhikṣu, the main subject of his study). But he also points out the continuities of these Orientalists with the earlier tradition. They got it from somewhere. Especially, their views – frequently promoting Advaita Vedānta as the supreme Vedāntic tradition and disparaging others – derived from medieval Indian doxographies, like the Sarva Darśana Saṅgraha of Mādhava (which Gough translated). They misrepresented Indian tradition by emphasizing one aspect of the tradition over another, but they did so in a way that premodern Indians themselves had done. They followed a native Indian tradition; they were not just making stuff up. (David McMahan’s take on Yavanayāna is similar in many ways.)

Nicholson’s approach, I think, has parallels among modern Western practitioners of Asian traditions, a number of whom are becoming willing to affirm that yes, their tradition is different from the traditions of antiquity – but accept this newness and defend, in some way, its faithfulness to older tradiion. Mark Schmanko did something like this a while ago in his very thoughtful defence of Wilber to me: acknowledging that mysticism and perennialism were new and modern, but still tying them back to older tradition. Those who have read my own writings on Yavanayāna will know how sympathetic I am to this view: its newness does not make it bad.