It's all about power - chapter 10

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Kripal defended his creative bending of the meaning of Bengali texts by quoting from Gadamer’s theories of interpretation. Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ is a method by which today’s scholar can reinterpret classical texts in ways that were not part of the original author’s intent and meanings. Such new interpretations are deemed legitimate by this theory. They expand the orthodox meanings with new possibilities. The theory says that the contemporary horizon (i.e. Kripal’s attitude) fuses with the past horizon (i.e. the tradition’s view) and produces a third text that ‘goes beyond its author’ and leads to new meanings. This is how Kripal justifies his application of parochial and Eurocentric lenses, to create new meanings.

Malhotra seizes Kripal’s method of analysis and wishes to apply it in the pursuit of constructive and progressive Hindu theology:

Agreeing with his principle, let us ask why, then, are Hindu scholars denigrated when they apply ‘probes or techniques of analysis’, such as the use of astronomical data in classical Indian texts, to bring about ‘fusions of horizons’ and ‘radically new visions’ pertaining to Indic traditions? Are these fresh conclusions ‘a bit shocking to someone locked into only one horizon of meaning’—namely, are RISA cohorts boxed-in mentally? Why don’t they critically examine these new claims, instead of rushing to condemn such scholarship as neo-fascist, fundamentalist, Hindu Nationalist and other assorted abuses, without any basis? Or is it that Gadamer’s theory of new hermeneutics works only in the direction chosen by the dominant culture, imposing itself to overrule the interpretation indigenous to the colonized culture? [Emphasis added]

Taking this point further, why are Hindus’ own new religious reinterpretations not given credence and why are such interpretations dismissed as being inauthentic—often by this very cult of scholars? Do non-white people have the same rights of re-reinterpretation, without supervision by the dominant culture, and not as mere proxies? Furthermore, why am I attacked when I use a method to deconstruct certain RISA members, when they use the very same methods themselves? Could it be that my conclusions are a bit shocking to someone locked into only one horizon of meaning?

Thus, these asymmetries of power can also lead to Western cultural hegemony rather than greater diversity. Ultimately, who, and on what basis, should determine which interpretations are valid and which are not?

It cannot simply be a matter of prior usage or acceptance by the power structure, for that would perpetuate hegemony and go against the very innovation that Kripal espouses. In practice, how does one avoid adhikara (authority) being usurped by a dominant coterie based mainly on power? RISA scholars have evaded debating these methods openly, with their critics. […]”

Multiple Competing Worldviews

In defending himself in Evam, Kripal noted:

I do not honestly believe that the many important differences that have become apparent through this controversy can be fully resolved here or in any other format, as many of us are clearly operating out of radically different worldviews, moral values, and understandings of human sexuality and language.

Kripal here displays a culturally myopic perspective. His principle, stated above, accepts that different views will not get fully reconciled. The problem then is that only a very tiny percentage of the core information and perspectives about Hinduism gets presented in classrooms. Given the limited time available in classrooms, it is impossible to explain Hinduism completely. Hence, critical choices are made about the academic lenses through which Hinduism is presented.

Malhotra raises a serious question:

Which of the divergent views available in the marketplace of ideas ends up dominating in the classrooms? This is where the power of the dominant culture—in controlling the distribution of scholarship, media, and classroom teaching—has resulted in Hinduism being reduced to the lower level in the spectrum of meanings.

As an example of resolving this asymmetric power over distribution, Kripal was given the opportunity to respond to Swami Tyagananda in Evam, a new journal funded by Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation. However, the diaspora did not receive equivalent access to give their views using the channels of knowledge that are controlled by the academy.

[Kripal] categorically refused to allow Swami Tyagananda’s rejoinder to get published on par with his own work, which would have enabled Tyagananda’s work to also get catalogued, indexed and distributed to the same extent as his own. This attitude is driven by 3rd chakra power obsession and is also found in many Christian positions that ‘tolerate’ other religions, but cannot ‘respect’ them, because the latter would be tantamount to legitimizing them. (For more on this, please read page 110 and 111, chapter 10)

The Khyber Pass of the distribution of Hinduism scholarship in academics consists of journals, university presses, appointment committees, curricula development, and conferences. This is carefully controlled by sepoys and chowkidars who work for a small handful of well-entrenched scholar titans.

Because of this hegemonic control over distribution channels, Doniger’s books are amongst the most widely prescribed in the college curricula on Hinduism. She is also the editor of an influential encyclopedia of world religions. And she authored Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia, which after being on the market for several years, was analyzed by Sankrant Sanu and shown to be so full of bias and stereotypes, that it was withdrawn by Microsoft.

The Colonizer’s Mentality

RISA scholars condemn their Indian-American interrogators using no holds-barred hyperbolic terms to label and silence them. They are accustomed to dealing only with certain categories of Indians, and when they meet Indians outside of these boxes, their attempts to apply their standard tools of domination fail, leading them to great frustration. Malhotra notes:

1. Many Western scholars of Indian religions are adept at manipulating and dealing with poor villagers in India, whom they term ‘native informants’, and from whom they extract research data using their own precontrived filters. This has often been done with the collusion of Indian scholars, NGOs and intermediaries. The native informants feel obliged to dish out what is expected of them by the foreign scholar, who has a lot of grant money to spread around in the data gathering process.

2. In more recent times, these scholars have also had to deal with a second category of Indians—the semi-informed and naïve diaspora youth, called ‘heritage students’. Some scholars have been able to adjust their teachings to not seem blatantly anti-Hindu. Given the power and knowledge imbalance, they often adopt deceptively friendly demeanors and portrayals and succeed in fooling the youth into imagining that these scholars genuinely respect their traditions. They convince them that what they teach must be authentic. Duplicity and ambiguity are used as strategic tools by some, because it is widely believed that Hindus are non-confrontational by nature. (For more on how other scholars like John Keay, Antonio de Nicolas, Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak And Dilip Chakrabarti look at this situation, please read page 112 and 113, chapter 10)

Under the subtitle We are Not Native Informants Any More! Malhotra explains how the power structure is shifting:

The specific kind of Indian that certain RISA scholars are most uncomfortable with, is the Indian who is already successful in a Western organization, and especially one who has managed over a large number of Westerners for an extensive period of time. Such a person is not likely to idolize them, or be easily taken for a ride. Any Indian who has succeeded in dealing with Westerners on their own turf must have enough insight into the Western mind, its strengths and weaknesses, and must be self-confident. Scholars can neither exploit such a person as a ‘native informant,’ nor patronize him in the same manner as a young NRI student looking for a good grade. For one thing, any such Indian is bound to challenge them, rather than accept their scholarship at face value, and is likely to be skilled at debate and negotiation.

An additional dimension stems from over-specialization, and the systematic exclusion from the peer-review process of experts such as traditional Indian pandits and other indigenous subject matter or language scholars. Within the Western academy, the more specialized a scholar is the less oversight and due diligence is possible, because there are fewer and fewer others who are able to challenge within that ultra specialized field. This breeds the cults of micro-specialties.

When assertive and knowledgeable Indians show up, the tables are suddenly turned. Malhotra describes three factors that work to preserve this power structure:

1. Western scholars like to prey upon uneducated Indians: The Western scholar of the humanities is sometimes unable to deal with the reality that she or he is lower on the West’s scale of rational training as compared to successful Indians who are well-educated in science, engineering, medicine, finance, management, entrepreneurship or other areas where analytical skills are critical. This business of depicting the Indian traditions as somehow irrational or backward is unsustainable in front of modern Indians . . . It is ironic that some scholars hide behind their ‘dense writings’ with great pride. Frankly, far too many writings from Religious Studies are poorly structured, loosely argued, and sometimes outright illogical. They have no
grounds for their arrogance about intellectual rigor.

2. The RISA Establishment has neutralized the most threatening Indian dissenters: Eurocentric scholars are accustomed to exerting power over Indians when they are in PhD programs, when they are seeking jobs in the academy, seeking to be included in conferences or publishing projects, and seeking favorable recommendations for tenure. Many Indians thus get reprogrammed as sepoys. However, when facing a successful Indian who neither wants nor needs their favors, many Eurocentric scholars feel powerless and threatened.

3. Empowered executive/entrepreneurial Indians are ignorant of this: Most Indians who have purely by chance encountered the kind of scholarship described in this chapter, and who are successful and assertive professionals independent of the academy, are inadequately informed and unable to deal with the scholars. This is why, from 1995 through 2000, I had to first prepare myself by devoting almost all of my time to reading extensively in a wide variety of humanities subjects. Most scholars are too busy with administrative and other routines, and their own particular line of research, to do this. This academic isolation makes any knowledgeable challenger especially threatening to their sense of superiority.

Many of these scholars of Indian Studies would love to silence the ‘threatening’ voices that call out their shortcomings. This reminds one of some corporate men who find it hard to respect a female boss. Revisiting the overblown anger of Gerald Larson and his colleagues regarding the alleged ‘hijacking’ of Hinduism Studies by Hindus, Malhotra observes:

Any attempt by Hindus to claim agency, or to take charge of their own affairs—be it looking after their own people without Western guidance, or be it doing scholarship to interpret and reinterpret their dharmas as they choose—is seen as an attack on the Eurocentric person’s domination of the world. This includes the Eurocentric person’s right to license those neocolonized persons he chooses to appoint under terms and conditions and under supervision ultimately controlled by Eurocentric people. One has to psychoanalyze the strange behavior of many neo-colonialized Indian scholars in this light.

The article RISA Lila-1: Wendy’s Child Syndromegenerated a tremendous response. Hundreds of comments were posted on Sulekha and the essay was discussed on numerous scholarly forums, including RISA. The Internet is diminishing the differential between the people on the plains (the Hindu laity) and the elite scholars of Hinduism Studies who inhabit the heights of the highly touted Ivory Towers. A paradigm shift is upon us.

Read entire chapter 10 from page 108 to 115

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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