Why is "Invading the sacred" an important book?

Pdf of book is available for free download here.

From the foreword by S.N Balagangadhara

Non-white and non-Christian cultures will increasingly have a significant impact on the affairs of the humankind in this millennium. Here, India will be a global player of considerable political and economic impact. As a result, the need to explicate what it means to be an Indian (and what the ‘Indianness’ of the Indian culture consists of) will soon become the task of the entire intelligentsia in India. In this process, they will confront the challenge of responding to what the West has so far thought and written about India. A response is required because the theoretical and textual study of the Indian culture has been undertaken mostly by the West in the last three hundred years. What is more, it will also be a challenge because the study of India has largely occurred within the cultural framework of America and Europe. 

What our text books say:

The standard textbook story, which has schooled multiple generations including mine, goes as follows: caste system dominates India, strange and grotesque deities are worshipped in strange and grotesque ways, women are discriminated against, the practice of widow burning exists and corruption is rampant.

Where were our thinkers before:

If these properties characterize India of today and yesterday, the puzzle about what the earlier generation of Indian thinkers were doing turns into a very painful realization: while the intellectuals of European culture were busy challenging and changing the world, most thinkers in Indian culture were apparently busy sustaining and defending undesirable and immoral practices. Of course there is our Buddha and our Gandhi but that is apparently all we have: exactly one Buddha and exactly one Gandhi. If this portrayal is true, the Indians have but one task, to modernize India, and the Indian culture but one goal: to become like the West as quickly as possible.

However, what if this portrayal is false? What if these basically Western descriptions of India are wrong? In that case, the questions about what India has to offer the world and what the Indian thinkers were doing become important. For the first time, the current knowledge of India will be subject to a kind of test that has never occurred before.

Why “for the first time”:

Why ‘for the first time’? The answer is obvious: the prevailing knowledge of India among the English-educated elite was generated primarily when India was colonized. Subsequent to the Indian independence, India suffered from poverty and backwardness. In tomorrow’s world, the Indian intellectuals will be able to speak back with a newly found confidence and they will challenge European and American descriptions of India. That is, for the first time, they will test the Western knowledge of India and not just accept it as God’s own truth. This has not happened before; it will happen for the first time. Generations of Indian intellectuals have accepted these descriptions as more or less true. The future generations will not be so accommodating
though: they will test these answers for their truth. More than most, they realize that answers to these and allied questions about the nature of Indian culture have the potential to ignite an intellectual revolution on a world scale.

From the preface by Arvind Sharma

On relations between academic community and the Hindu Community in the US.

The relations between the academic community and the Hindu community in North America have recently come to be characterized by a sharp debate, which has also spilled over into journalism and on to the Internet. It was prompted by the reservations expressed by a significant number of Hindus in North America over the way Hinduism is portrayed in the Western academia and by the vigorous response of the academic community to such criticism.

What defines the book:

This book singes with the sparks that flew as the psychoanalytic approach to the study of religion became the lightning rod of the grievances of the Hindus, particularly those residing in the United States, against a cross-section of the academic community in North America devoted to the study of Hinduism. It documents the way these grievances were articulated and ventilated, as well as the response from the world of the Western academia and, to a certain extent, from the media, as the issue came to a head.

How should the book be viewed:

It seems to me that the issue first needs to be viewed on the broadest canvas possible, namely, that of history, before one turns to the details.

Such a historical perspective is best developed by utilizing the distinction regularly drawn in the study of religion between the insider and the outsider, notwithstanding some problems of definition involved in invoking this distinction. From the point of view of this distinction, the study of religion, in the intellectual history of humanity, seems to exhibit a fourfold typology in terms of the modalities of transmission involved, in the context of the various religious traditions over the past few centuries: (1) insider to insider; (2) outsider to outsider; (3) outsider to insider and (4) insider to outsider. (For further expansion of this idea, please read page XII, preface)

Where are we now:

If the perspective presented above possesses some measure of verisimilitude, then we are now at a turning-point in the relationship among the interlocutors in the study of religion. Historical changes, however, are not linear, even when their direction is discernible. Historical changes are more like the changes in ocean flows caused by tides. It is sometimes not apparent that the tide has begun to turn, even when it has. And even as the tide advances there are backflows, which tend to confuse the onlooker. Such a tidal shift generates eddies and undercurrents. The going is not as smooth as at high tide, when the scene takes on a serene aspect and the ocean seems to bare its bosom to the moon, as Wordsworth might say.

The four encapsulating expressions:

• The response threshold
• Cognitive versus non-cognitive approaches
• Bias and error
• The genetic fallacy

What is the response threshold:

We owe this expression to Prof. Eric J. Sharpe. He writes: A “response threshold” is crossed when it becomes possible for the believer to advance his or her own interpretation against that of the scholar.

The response threshold (in today’s discourse on the study of religion) implies the right of the present-day devotee to advance a distinctive interpretation of his or her own tradition—often at variance with that of Western scholarship—and to be taken entirely seriously in so doing.

What one is thus experiencing now in the academic world is the crossing of the response threshold by the Hindu community in North America. This Hindu community in North America has now reached the demographic critical mass, when its reactions can no longer be disregarded. This raises the question: How are we to react when members of the faith community, and not just members of the student community or colleagues in the academic community, cross the response threshold?

What is Cognitive Vs Non-Cognitive Approaches:

It is clear from the documentation provided in the book that the protest is not always about facts which may be adjudicated on the basis of evidence but often about interpretations, especially psychoanalytic ones, which do not seem susceptible to such verification. The main achievements of modern science proceeded from the falsifiability of its hypotheses but such does not seem to be the case here. We thus need to distinguish clearly between cognitive and non-cognitive approaches to the study of religion. (For more on this, please read page XV and XVI, Preface)

What is Bias and Error:

In this book, the critics of the academics claim in essence that the academics are either biased or in gross error when dealing with some aspects of Hinduism. However, fallibility is a human condition—no one is either infallible or capable of achieving Archimedean objectivity.

Both common sense and humanity demand that some procedures be devised in our field for distinguishing between random human error and error caused by bias (conscious or unconscious). Only a person guilty of the latter should reasonably be put in the dock, as it were.

The task might appear insurmountable on the face of it, but there is good news. Statistics as science is concerned with, and indeed has, evolved ways of distinguishing between random error and systemic error (or bias) through the process known as hypothesis-testing. (For more on this please read page XVII, Preface)

What is Genetic Fallacy:

Members of both the Hindu and the academic community have expressed deep distress at the ad hominem nature of the attacks leveled on or by the members of the two communities. This book, to which this preface is being written, itself attests unabashedly to such a state of affairs. The Hindu community wonders if the academic community can ever evoke Hinduism without condescension and the academic community wonders if the Hindu community can evoke Hinduism without sentimentality.

One scientist offers the following telling if homespun illustration of the genetic fallacy: the theory of relativity is false because Einstein was not a good husband or a mere clerk. Character assassination can kill the person (metaphorically speaking) but not the proposition.

This is not to say that a person’s background has no bearing on the discussion, for, after all, an expert’s statement may not always be treated the same way as that of one who is not. But such background only affects the credibility of the proposition, not its falsity. After all, experts can also commit mistakes.

As the book is primarily concerned with psychoanalysis and its application to Hinduism, it may not be out of place to cite the following comments of Erich Fromm on the genetic fallacy (sometimes alluded to as the psychogenetic fallacy in certain contexts):

Freud himself states that the fact that an idea satisfies a wish does not mean necessarily that the idea is false.

The criterion of validity does not lie in the psychological analysis of motivation but in the examination of evidence for or against a hypothesis within the logical framework of the hypothesis (For more on this please read page XVIII, Preface)

For About the contributors, please refer pages XIX, XX and XXI of the book

Chapter 1: Why this book is important.

Indeed, hateful speech and false information can create a climate in which . . . violence is to be expected . . . So how long will it be before a crazed gunman attacks a crowded Hindu temple in America, believing, . . . that Hindus are possessed by demons? How many children will grow up believing Hinduism is a ‘filthy’ religion, or that Hindus worship the devil? When they grow up, how will such children treat their Hindu co-workers and neighbors? Will they give them the respect due to a fellow citizen and human being?

Jeffery D. Long, Chair, Department of Religious Studies
Elizabethtown College

This book is a chronicle of an important attempt to start a new kind of dialog in India-related cultural and post-colonial studies. Unlike the debates internal to the academy which privilege Western theories, institutions and networks of influence, this dialog brings practitioners of Indian traditions as equals at the table. Each side (the ‘outsiders’ and the ‘insiders’, respectively) has its limitations and blind spots in examining the traditions, and each is burdened by its baggage. Yet each view has merits and deserves to be considered with due respect.

The debate challenges Western portrayals of India, her religions and problems. Indian culture is defined by a series of abuses, such as caste, sati, dowry murders, violence, religious conflict, instability, immorality, grotesque deities and so forth. The problems in India are not seen as historical and economic in origin, but as essences of the traditions, cultures and civilization of India, making it a ‘chaotic and even desperate country’. In its most insidious form, this view implies that unless Indians are rescued from their culture by external intervention, they are doomed. Indians simply lack the agency to chart their own destiny and are in need of foreign care in their own best interest. What is startling is that these ideas which formed the keystone of moral rationalizations offered by the British for colonialism and exploitation continue to enjoy wide academic respectability in the West today. What has changed over time, as other scholars have noted, “is the intellectual jargon that clothes these ‘analyses’”.

The starting point of this book is a searching analysis of how elements of the American academy, notably the powerful American Academy of Religion (AAR), like to imagine India and Hinduism. In contrast to how American Business Schools view India—as a place of opportunity, problems and problem-solving creativity—these scholars project a generally negative, chaotic and backward view of India.

The problems of India are seen by Americans as inseparable from the problems of Hinduism. Attempts by secular Indians to distance themselves from Hinduism have led to an academic vacuum about Indian traditions which has been filled by external voices which often have their own agendas.

The research and writings of religion scholars go beyond the discipline’s boundaries, penetrating the mainstream media, and directly impact the American public perception of India via museum displays, films and textbooks. AAR’s Religions in South Asia group can be identified as a key source of Western academic influence over India-related studies.

Input from these scholars can also have an impact on US foreign policy. For instance, a recent conference at the University of Chicago featured Wendy Doniger, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, among others, talking about generic ‘Hindu groups’ as being the most serious threat to India’s democracy. Indeed, in the conference announcement, Nussbaum claims that Americans are wrong to be focusing on Islamic fundamentalism as a threat to democracy. She alleges that “Thinking about India is instructive to Americans, who in an age of terrorism can easily over-simplify pictures of the forces that threaten democracy . . . In India, the threat to democratic ideals comes not from a Muslim threat, but from Hindu groups.

Unlike in India, the academic study of religion in the USA is a major discipline involving over 8,000 university professors, most of who are members of the AAR. Within this organized hierarchy, the study of Hinduism is an important and influential discipline. This book argues that the discipline has been shaped by the use of preconceived Eurocentric categories that are assumed to be universal by Western syndicated research. Most internal criticism or ‘peer-review’ comes from among scholars who are interrelated in different ways, and it largely excludes practitioners of Hinduism. The producers and distributors of this specialized knowledge comprise a sort of closed, culturally insular cartel, which has disastrous consequences for original thinking about India and Hinduism.

This book is about a recent intellectual challenge to this state of affairs, and the responses and counter-attacks from the academic Religious Studies establishment in America. As a result of this debate, Indian-Americans and others have started to systematically critique the misrepresentation of their traditions with the hope of widening the range of ideas presented in the academy. This generated a groundswell of support among Indians worldwide and appreciative participation by many academic scholars. At the same time, however, it has brought anger from many entrenched academicians who see the status quo of power being threatened.

Section I is a summarization of Rajiv Malhotra’s path-breaking paper critiquing the academic study of Hinduism, an event which many academicians have recognized as a ‘tipping point’ in opening up a serious debate. The problems he exposes and the evidence he cites are extensive and worrisome. The evidence shows serious problems with the training and competence of academic scholars of Hinduism, and raises questions about parochial lenses and sloppy methodology. Most troubling are the questions he raises about the rigorousness of peer review, and about whether scholars are in fact free to publish critiques of powerful living academics without fear or favor. Malhotra has argued that these mechanisms of quality control and self-correction which the academy relies upon have corroded into ineffectiveness in the case of Hinduism studies. These issues should deeply concern anyone who cares about the health of our academic programs. (For more on this, please refer pages 4 and 5)

Section II contains various other scholarly and thoughtful essays, many of which resulted from Malhotra’s attempts to start a critique of academic Hinduphobia. Included are essays and summarization of papers from noted academic scholars like Prof S.N. Balagangadhara, Dr Alan Roland, Prof Somnath Bhattacharya, Yuvraj Krishna and Yvette Rosser, among others. These essays by experts in various fields highlight serious problems with the use of Eurocentric lenses and methodologies to Indic thought and culture and also raise questions about the level of scholarly training in the academy.

Section III chronicles what transpired in the wake of all this intellectual ferment. It describes both the community activism by the Indian-American community and the actions and reactions of many scholars from the academic establishment.

Section IV examines how this debate played out in the American mainstream media—such as in Washington Post and New York Times—as well as niche publications like the diaspora press and alumni magazines.

It provides an account of well-entrenched stereotypes and tropes as well as of attempts to challenge them. (for more on sections II, III and IV, please refer pages 5, 6)

We wish to be clear that the entire blame of biased and selective portrayals of Hinduism and Indian Culture cannot be laid at the doorstep of the American Academy of Religion or even of biased scholars within it. Indians themselves have contributed to the problem in significant ways.

In order to engage in a serious academic study of Hinduism, Indians have to go to American, British or Australian universities because there are hardly any opportunities available for such study within India. In other words, unlike all other major world religions, Hinduism does not have its own home team, by which we mean a committed group of academic scholars who are both practitioners of the faith and well-respected in the academy at the highest levels.

Authenticity of representation and full participation in shaping the understanding of one’s culture has implications beyond the fields of anthropology, cultural and religious studies.

For one, Indian-American, and especially Hindu-American children are often the target of cultural and racial bias in the classroom. By and large the civilizational achievements of India in science and technology in its long history, or its contributions to modern American lifestyles like yoga, vegetarianism, non-violent political protest and the like are largely ignored in the classroom setting. When academically licensed misportrayal of the oppressiveness, weirdness and dangerousness of Indian culture and religions is added to this mix, it has a powerful impact on Hindu-American children, many of who try to hide their religious identity. The pride that Christian-American children take in their civilzational contributions to the world is lacking in many Indians, and this leads to emotional pain and self-alienation.

Furthermore, as numerous American historians point out, the control of ‘others’ depictions by white Americans has led to their ethnic cleansing, incarceration, enslavement, invasions and genocides. Native Americans, Blacks, Jews, Gypsies, Cubans, Mexicans, Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese and now Iraqis have suffered brutalities that were legitimized by depictions of them as primitive/exotic, irrational, heathen, savage and dangerous and as lacking in human values. Malhotra has raised the alarming possibility that the failure of Indian-Americans to translate their personal success into respect for their cultures and traditions is a condition paralleling Jews in Europe not so long ago, and that in an economic downturn, they could become scapegoats in America.

The view from the business world and from top business schools is increasingly upbeat. It sees Indians as problem-solvers and the Indian economy as a positive engine for the world. While keenly aware of numerous Indian problems, this view does not see them as being inherent pathologies of Indian civilization and therefore unchangeable. Rather, these problems are the result of historical and economic forces, and Indians are seen as having the necessary civilizational creativity, will and wherewithal to address them. This view is counteracted by academic Hinduphobia.

“A country is like a brand because it has a reputation, and because that reputation partly determines its success in the international domain. The ability of each country to compete against others for tourists, for investment, for consumers, for the attention and respect of the media and of other countries is significantly determined by the power and quality of its image . . . What seems certain is that India’s brand new image is a fragile one, based on a couple of prominent sectors and a handful of globally successful entrepreneurs: . . . but it isn’t yet clear how ‘Capitalist India’ fits together in the public imagination with the ‘Indo-chic’ of music, fashion and movies, and with the ‘Traditional India’ image of a vast, mysterious, culturally rich but chaotic and even desperate country. A clear, single, visionary national strategy is badly needed—but one that is, of course, rooted in truth and not in wishful thinking.” [Emphasis added]
Simon Anholt
Diplomat and public intellectual

Anholt’s point is that unless Indian’s take charge of engaging with the world concerning how their country and its culture are portrayed, the economic future of all Indians may be at stake.

As Anholt notes,
“Just like any other country, India needs to consider perceptions alongside reality, and recognise their almost equivalent importance in today’s globalised world. India’s brand image may not be complete, up-to-date or even very fair, but so much in the modern world depends on what people believe to be true, that a good twenty-first century government must learn to be as good at branding the country as building the country. [Emphasis added]

Anholt is dead right when he says that unfair perceptions can have serious economic consequences for India. Even the most successful and admired Indians can be affected in surprising ways. For instance, in the recent acquisition of Arcelor by Mittal Steel, the culture, race and religion of Mittal Steel’s principals, specifically its chairman Lakshmi Narayan Mittal, played an important role. The New York Times reported that Arcelor’s principals initially ridiculed the idea of a merger with ‘a company of Indians’ and it was only after shareholders threatened to revolt that they backtracked. The Times also reported that the offer by Mittal was originally mocked as ‘monkey money from an Indian’. Mittal was viewed as “Attila the Hun attacking from the east, taking over an iconic company from the west.

This book is also about another major development of our times: the use of the Internet to bypass old channels of information flow that tend to be controlled by established power structures. Sulekha.com was merely one of many web portals catering to Indian interests on the Internet, until the diaspora challenge to the academic scholars arrived at its doorstep in 2002. This controversy became the focal point of an energetic and often learned debate on Sulekha, converting it into an important forum for a large number of immigrants and others disenfranchised by the existing discourse. The articles on Sulekha have also been used as reading material in several courses in Hinduism Studies, South Asian Studies, History, Cultural Studies and Anthropology.

We hope that this book will make a contribution to understanding what happens when those who know Indian culture best sit on the sidelines and allow its portrayal to be controlled exclusively by others i.e. by the dominant culture

(For the entire chapter 1, read pages 1-12 of the book)

Pdf of book is available for free download here.

Go to chapter 2

No comments:

Post a Comment