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.
Now the people who post anti-Laine messages online can’t personally be blamed for this violence, any more than Al Gore can be blamed for ecoterrorism; but the violence certainly illustrates the kind of passions the issue has aroused. I myself ran afoul of the scholars’ critics a number of times during my graduate career; the fact that I defended Western scholars while having an Indian name appeared to rankle them a lot, to the point that Malhotra called me a “sepoy-in-training” (and that was far from the worst insult I received).
The sad irony in all this for me is that I actually sympathize strongly with what I take to be the heart of the critics’ project: to get a better hearing for Indian traditions in the scholarly community. Readers of this blog, or my dissertation, will have seen that this is a major aim of my own scholarly work – to highlight the contributions of Asian, and especially Indian Buddhist, thought to our own understanding of the world.
A key problem is that these critics’ understanding of academic work is so limited that they do this cause more harm than good. A comment I’ve heard very often: “how would you feel if scholars started saying this stuff about Christianity?” To which Jeff Kripal’s response was effectively: um, you mean like these? (See footnote 18 at the reference.) He listed a dozen good introductions to psychoanalytic sexual studies of Jesus and Biblical texts off the top of his head, and mentioned accurately that such studies number in the hundreds – far outnumbering the relatively puny number of such studies made of anything that can be called Hindu.
The critics are right about one thing: Christianity gets a much more sympathetic hearing, overall, in Western academies than does Hinduism. But why is this? Is it, as they sometimes bizarrely claim, because scholars wouldn’t dare say negative things about Christianity in the way that they do about Hinduism? Absolutely not, as even the slightest bit of research on Christian studies would confirm. Scholars of religion make attacks on Christianity that are often stronger than anything said about Hinduism. (Kripal was actually quite sympathetic to Ramakrishna, and doesn’t see sexuality as diminishing mysticism.)
Rather, Hinduism gets a worse rap than Christianity overall because scholars are too timid, often for reasons of career self-preservation, to say all the positive things about Hinduism that they do about Christianity. There are countless well regarded academic programs, articles and other institutions that specialize in Christian theology – but it is an act of courage to acknowledge that one specializes in Buddhist or Hindu theology. (Even my own milder self-portrait – that I specialize in “constructive” Buddhist studies rather than “theology,” learning from the tradition critically and thinking with it as an outsider – has cost me at least one academic job. And that was just the job where the search committee told me this fact directly; I strongly suspect there were other cases where my positive view of Buddhism got me taken off the list as well, they just didn’t happen to tell me about it.)
There are encouraging signs here. I’m happy to see the formation of organizations like DANAM, the Dharma Association of North America, aimed explicitly at learning from Indian thought. (I’m also happy to have presented at a DANAM meeting in 2004.) DANAM is an initiative that may yet help Indian thought gain some academic respectability. The verbal (and physical) attacks thrown at Kripal and Laine, by contrast, serve only to embarrass it.