Over the past decade, the academic study of Indian traditions has become heavily politicized. For those who haven’t been following the issue: basically, some people of Indian origin (usually Hindu), in India and elsewhere, have started finding out what North American religionists are saying about the traditions they recognize as their own; and it outrages them. Their most visible leader is Rajiv Malhotra, a New Jersey-based businessman with pockets deep enough to get his views a hearing. Most of the time the flashpoints for the critics are around sex: they are outraged at frankly sexual depictions of the tradition they follow and the gods and leaders they revere. The outrage is not so much about the obviously sexual parts of the tradition – the Khajuraho temples or the K?ma Sūtra – so much as it is about Freudian psychoanalytic depictions of beloved figures in the tradition, such as the elephant god Ga?e?a (Ganesh), the military hero Shivaji or the nineteenth-century mystic Ramakrishna. There have been calls to ban or even the offending books (respectively by Paul Courtright, James Laine and my friend Jeff Kripal). Sometimes these calls have effectively succeeded, with Courtright’s Indian publisher removing his book from circulation in India. As a result of these controversies, a group of activists from the right-wing Hindu Shiv Sena party broke into the offices of Shrikant Bahulkar – one of the kindest, gentlest and most generous men I have ever had the fortune of working with – and blackened his face, as well as destroying priceless manuscripts at the institution where he works, solely because James Laine had thanked Bahulkar in the acknowledgements of his book. Continue reading
One of the recurring, and more controversial, themes in my dissertation was Śāntideva’s strong suspicion toward political involvement, as when he proclaims that texts on law and politics (da??an?ti) are fruitless and lead to delusion. When I first presented a chapter of the dissertation at a workshop, a colleague was critical of my attempt to use Śāntideva as a resource for contemporary ethical reflection. I don’t remember his exact words, but they ran along the lines of: “We cannot today accept an ethical system that does not involve working for political change.” For him, Buddhism could only now be acceptable if it was Engaged Buddhism. You can find similar points made in many other places; my friend and occasional mentor Jeff Kripal frequently insists (in the joint article Quietism and Karma, for example) that “quietistic” ascetic traditions cannot be “an adequate resource for contemporary ethics.”
But why should this be? The most typical argument has to do with a variety of “after”s: rhetorically, it is assumed that “after colonialism, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, after Gandhi’s satyagraha…” political inaction is morally suspect or even unethical. (The quote is from Jeff’s book Crossing Boundaries, pp. 56-7.) I’m skeptical of such claims. History is full of genocides, massacres and struggles, dating back as far as it is recorded. What, if anything, makes our age different? Political quietism has been defended as perfectly ethical, for about as long as it has existed. Why shouldn’t it be similarly defended now?