Prejudice in Hinduism studies: The case of Microsoft Encarta - chapter 16 part 2

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More ‘Blood’ and Animal ‘sacrifice’

The presentation of ‘Gods’ is not the only place in the article that Encarta is interested in gory descriptions—of ‘blood’, ‘skulls’, ‘ordure’ and the like.  Yoga, arguably the most popular contribution of Hinduism to the West is mentioned in two places—both insignificant, as we see later on. Other than the quote above, let us see where else Encarta mentions themes related to ‘blood’ or ‘animal sacrifice’ in the article on Hinduism.

Holi, the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid, symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries.

Let us start with factual inaccuracies—Holi is celebrated with all the colors of spring—green, yellow, red, pink, not just ‘red’ as the article states. It celebrates the coming of spring with a riot of colors. Factual details aside, for Encarta the suggestion of ‘cascades of red powder and liquid’ works well to further the theme of blood and gore prevalent in the article. This goes on in the description of ‘Worship and Rituals’.

In many temples, particularly those sacred to goddesses (such as the Kalighat temple to Kali, in Kolkata), goats are sacrificed on special occasions. The sacrifice is often carried out by a special
low-caste priest outside the bounds of the temple itself.

Similarly, the majority of Hindus living today have probably never seen an animal sacrifice in their life. Why is this rare practice chosen when we don’t find mention of commonplace practices like ‘satsang’ (literally, company of truth, or good) meetings where people congregate to communally chant or read from scriptures in orders of magnitude more prevalent? The comment on ‘low-caste’ that rounds out that quote above is obligatory to keep the ‘otherness’ of Hinduism on centre stage—a technique we find employed elsewhere in the article. (For more on how the subject of sacrifice is treated in the case of Islam, please read page 181, chapter 16)

Would an anthropologist probing the Bible many millennia from now condemn Christians as cannibals when reading of Christ’s disciples being asked to partake of Christ’s ‘blood and flesh’? If approached from the point of view of the Encarta article on Hinduism, devoid of either sensitivity or an understanding of symbolism, this would probably be the case. Surprisingly, the author chooses this approach to Hinduism, which is a living contemporary tradition rather than simply an anthropological reconstruction of relics and past rituals.

Where is the real ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Yoga’?

Now that we have read the description in Encarta of Aghoris, ‘to whom nothing is horrible’—yogis who ‘eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their complete indifference to pleasure or pain’, we look around for the yogis we have seen or known. Unfortunately, with the concern of the Encarta article on Hinduism in looking for scatology, it completely misses the highly refined theology and practices like Raja Yoga or Hatha Yoga or Patanjali or yogic meditation. In fact, the word ‘yoga’ has exactly two occurrences in the article (other than the one description of ‘Aghoris’ as yogis above):

Many elements of Hinduism that were not present in Vedic civilization (such as worship of the phallus and of goddesses, bathing in temple tanks, and the postures of yoga) may have been
derived from the Indus civilization, however. See Indus Valley Civilization.

The philosophies of Shankara and Ramanuja were developed in the context of the six great classical philosophies (darshanas) of India: the Karma Mimamsa (‘action investigation’); the Vedanta (‘end of the Vedas’), in which tradition the work of Shankara and Ramanuja should be placed; the Sankhya system, which describes the opposition between an inert male spiritual principle (purusha) and an active female principle of matter or nature (prakriti), subdivided into the three qualities (gunas) of goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas); the Yoga system; and the highly metaphysical systems of Vaisheshika (a kind of atomic realism) and Nyaya (logic, but of an extremely theistic nature).

The first reference serves to separate Yoga from Hinduism. In the second reference, it is buried in a list of themes, each of which is probably more significant to describe than long-winded descriptions of Kali. Note that this list of classical philosophies is the only significant
description o f these philosophies in the entire article on Hinduism – that too not in the explicit section for Philosophy, but embedded in the ‘Rise of Devotional Movements’ section of History’.

To be fair to Encarta, there does exist a separate article on Yoga that the article on Hinduism does not directly reference. That article states:

As a system of practice, Yoga has from the beginning been one of the most influential features of Hinduism.

Surely, as one of the most influential features of Hinduism, Yoga merits more than a single word (with no link or reference) mention in the article on Hinduism.

Contemporary growth of the religion

There are other differences in detail that consistently add an unsympathetic flavor to the reading on Hinduism. We will end with some examples relating to the contemporary spread of these religions.

The Muslim community comprises about 1 billion followers on all five continents, and Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world.
Today about 1 billion Muslims are spread over 40 predominantly Muslim countries and 5 continents, and their numbers are growing at a rate unmatched by that of any other religion in the world.

Both in the introduction and conclusion, the article on Islam repeats positively how Islam is growing, almost from the point of view of an evangelist. Let use see how Encarta covers the spread of Hinduism.

In more recent times, numerous self-proclaimed Indian religious teachers have migrated to Europe and the United States, where they have inspired large followings. Some, such as the Hare Krishna sect founded by Bhaktivedanta, claim to base themselves on classical Hindu practices. [Emphasis added]

As is consistent with the tone of the article, notice the deprecating use of ‘self-proclaimed’ and ‘claim to’, words rarely used in similar ways in the other articles. The author also fails to mention the fast- growing ‘Yoga’ movement (which Time magazine reported as having over 15
million practitioners in the US) and the large influence of Hindu thought on the ‘New Age’ movement. The article completely misses movements like ‘Transcendental Meditation’ of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Self-realization fellowship of Parmahansa Yogananda, or the influence on Americans of the beat generation or the 1960s culture (Swami Satchitananda was called the ‘Woodstock guru’), people like George Harrison, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Mia Farrow, or Madonna. To do that would bring Hinduism in, leave it less ‘other’.

The article on Hinduism ends with a bang—something that can aptly demonstrate that deep-seated prejudice and even, perhaps, a political agenda. After failing to have links for ‘yoga’ or ‘Indian philosophy’ in the Encarta article, at the very end Encarta discovers the power of links.

For information on religious violence in India, See India. Is this an appropriate ending for the article on Hinduism? We first surmised that this might be due to some current events (even then it would not be an appropriate ending for an academic article on Hinduism, other than motivated by considerable prejudice). But we find the same ending, for the same article, as far back as Encarta 1999! As a crosscheck, let us look at the other articles on religion.

For additional information, see articles on individual Christian denominations and biographies of those persons whose names are not followed by dates.

No link suggested at the end

Given the thread of negativity that permeates the Encarta article on Hinduism, it comes as no surprise when, in the end, it suggests the topic of ‘religious violence’ as additional reading.        

Analysis of Cause

We have established a significant difference in the treatment of Hinduism versus other religions, notably Christianity and Islam. In this section, we look at probable causes for the difference in treatment.

Selection of Authors

Encarta provides the following names and biographical information for the authors of the three Encarta articles in question:

• Christianity. Prof. Jaroslav Pelikan, B.D., Ph.D. Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, Yale University. Author of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine,
Historical Theology, and other books.

• Islam. Ahmad S Dallal, B.E., M.A., Ph.D. Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Yale University. Author of An Islamic Response to Greek Astronomy: Kitab Ta’dil Hay’at al-
Aflak of Sadr al-Shari’a.

• Hinduism. Doniger, Wendy, M.A., Ph.D., D.Phil. Mircea Eliade Professor of History of Religions and Indian Studies, University of Chicago. Author of The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, Siva: the Erotic Ascetic, and Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities.

Emic or Etic?

The first observation we make is that scholars who profess those faiths have written the articles on Christianity and Islam; this is not the case with Hinduism. While the topic of emic (insider) and etic (outsider) study is often debated within academia, we would expect Encarta to choose uniformly either the emic or etic view of the major religions. In the Encarta article on Christianity, Prof. Jaroslav Pelikan strongly defends the emic viewpoint:

Like any system of belief and values—be it Platonism, Marxism, Freudianism, or democracy—Christianity is in many ways comprehensible only ‘from the inside’, to those who share the beliefs and strive to live by the values; and a description that would ignore
these ‘inside’ aspects of it would not be historically faithful. To a degree that those on the inside often fail to recognize, however, such a system of beliefs and values can also be described in a way that makes sense as well to an interested observer who does not, or even cannot, share their outlook.

The same logic, apparently, does not apply to Eastern religions. In general, though not always, we would expect the ‘emic’ view to be more sympathetic than the ‘etic’ view, particularly when the ‘emic’ author is a practising member of their faith.

Areas of interest of the authors

While the orientation of study of Prof. Pelikan and Dallal is towards the philosophical, scientific and theological aspects of the religions they write about, Prof. Doniger’s orientation is more anthropological—studying rituals and myths rather than philosophy and theology. Even within that field, Prof. Doniger’s dominant area of interest, going by the books she has authored, is in the exotic and erotic aspects of these rituals and myths. Thus the study of Prof. Pelikan and Dallal is a living, practising view of the religion, including theological, metaphysical and scientific issues that would positively engage contemporary audiences; Prof. Doniger’s appears to be an archeological dig, turning over quaint specimens that strike her fancy for examination. While this is certainly a valid field for study, it is clear that it leads to very different viewpoints
and results in the articles.

Acceptability of the authors in the represented community

The third aspect of authorship is the broad acceptability of the author in the religious community they purport to represent. In general, it is more likely for emic authors to be acceptable, though not universally so. Research on the web shows that while Profs. Pelikan and Dallal are not regarded as controversial, Prof. Doniger has come in for considerable criticism for her lopsided portrayal, and unsubtle understanding of Hinduism. While Hindus, in general, are known for their tolerance of criticism (which is probably why the Encarta article has survived, without protest, for several years), we wonder why Encarta, as a mainstream encyclopedia, would deliberately choose to continue with authors that are highly controversial within the communities they write about.

Deliberate Prejudice or Error?

While there is some evidence of prejudice on the part of Encarta’s author on Hinduism, it is not clear whether prejudice also exists in Encarta as well. Certainly, as the ultimate editorial authority, Encarta cannot evade responsibility for the situation, at the very least in the
selection of authors and editorial oversight over prejudiced treatment in a sensitive topic like religion. However, Encarta may well have, knowingly or unknowingly participated in an environment of bias.

An Eastern graduate student of Hinduism at a US university suggests a broader prejudice:
“. . . in American academia it is politically incorrect to treat Hinduism in a positive light and it is taboo to deal negatively with Islam”.

Certainly, the comparison of the articles in Encarta would validate this thesis. However, more study of this topic is clearly required.


We have not studied the effects of such negative portrayals of Hinduism on Hindu children growing up in America. We can speculate that derogatory mainstream portrayals of Hinduism, quite different from what they have seen or experienced first hand, would at the very least be confusing, and ultimately damaging to the self-esteem of such children. In the author’s personal experience, many Hindus are reluctant to identify themselves as such publicly, even when they are practicing Hindus—we conjecture that this may result from unconsciously accepting the negative portrayals of their religion. Such articles in ‘Encarta’ also get used by various religious fundamentalists and hate groups to label Hinduism a ‘cult’ —the Encarta article serves as a good ‘objective’ reference to make their point. Inaccurate, negative mainstream portrayals of a religion can ultimately only prove harmful to the community. Clearly much more work is needed to study the exact effects and consequences of such portrayals.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In this article, we compare the treatment of different religions in Encarta. We find that there are significant differences in the treatment of Hinduism vs. the treatment of Islam or Christianity in both, the selection of content and the attitude displayed in the writing—resulting in a distinctly negative portrayal of Hinduism vs. the other religions. We conjecture that the reason for this difference is related largely to the differences in choice in the selection of authors—whether they are emic or etic, and their area of interest or specialization in the religion they study. We also find that Prof. Doniger, the author of the Encarta article on Hinduism is controversial within the Hindu community.

While we believe that Prof. Doniger is certainly free to pursue her specific areas of interest and scholarship in Hinduism, we do not believe that her article represents the mainstream of Hindu thought in both the selection of content and its interpretation, which would be appropriate for a widely read source such as Encarta.

Given that Prof. Doniger’s specific interests and attitudes strongly influence the article, it would be insufficient to simply remove a few of the most glaring examples of negativism, while leaving the rest of the article unchanged. We recommend instead that an article written by someone ‘emic’ to the community, who can represent Hinduism in a positive, mainstream viewpoint, promptly replace the article on Hinduism in Encarta.


As a result of the reasoned arguments above, and community activism spurred on by the publication of this article, Microsoft Corporation decided to change the article on Hinduism in Encarta. This change is reflected in its 2004 edition. The larger problem of prejudice in Hinduism studies in academia remains unchanged.

Read chapter 16 part 2 from page 180 to 189

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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