Biases in Hinduism Studies

by Abhijit Bagal

The purpose of this essay is to highlight the growing dissatisfaction on the part of the Indian American Hindu Diaspora with the way Hinduism, Hindus, and India have been depicted and mis-portrayed in the American education system, and about the urgency to engage the system along the same lines as is already being done by other American minorities, such as the Native-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. This article also explores how Hinduism and India studies directly or indirectly forms American perceptions of India and its culture, its products and services, and of the Indian American minority, and the need to bring objectivity and balance to these studies.

I am writing this article in my individual capacity. I am not affiliated with any political or religious organization. I consider myself a part of the Indian American Hindu Diaspora; I was born and raised in India and came to the U. S. in the nineties to go to graduate school, and having successfully obtained a Master’s Degree in Software Engineering from an American university, can claim to have some familiarity with the American educational system. I practice Sanatana Dharma (commonly referred to as Hinduism), one of the world’s most ancient cultures and the religion of about one billion of the earth’s inhabitants.

Sanatana Dharma is by its very essence a term which is devoid of sectarian leanings or ideological divisions. The two words, "Sanatana Dharma", come from the ancient Sanskrit language. "Sanatana" is a Sanskrit word which denotes that which does not cease to be, that which is eternal. The word "Dharma" is a term which is only properly rendered into the English language with difficulty. Its approximate meaning is "Natural Law," or those principles of reality which are inherent in the very nature and design of the universe. Thus the term Sanatana Dharma can be roughly translated to mean "Eternal Natural Law."

There are thousands of scholars in the U. S. specializing in some aspect of India and Hinduism. The India/Hinduism Studies industry consists of the development of knowledge about India and Hinduism, as well as, its distribution and retailing and includes academic research, and, school, college, and university education about India and its culture. The study of India and Hinduism in the U. S. is spread across several disciplines such as Anthropology, History, South Asian Studies, Religious Studies, Media and Journalism, and Literature and English.

As with any large academic field, Religious Studies in the U. S. is highly organized, with prestigious journals, chairs and programs of study. To control and regulate the field pertaining to Indian religions, there is the association known as RISA (Religions in South Asia). RISA is a unit within The American Academy of Religion (AAR), which is the official organization of academic scholars of Religious Studies in the Western world. Around fifty years ago, there was a partition of the guild of scholars who studied religion, and two organizations were created: AAR and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). AAR and SBL maintain very close relations and influences, and hold their annual conferences jointly. While SBL members study and promote the insiders' view of Judeo-Christianity, AAR members are supposed to pursue the objective view from outside a given tradition and to not promote anything. With a membership of over 10,000 scholars — and growing — the AAR has enormous clout over the future direction of Religious Studies, and indirectly, over the humanities at large. Because the depictions of India in the West are inseparable from depictions of India's religions, the work done by RISA scholars has implications that go well beyond the discipline's boundaries. Religion is prominently featured in South Asian Studies, Asian Studies, International Studies, Women's Studies, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, History, Literature, and Politics, and indirectly also influences Journalism, Film, and so forth.

Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Princeton, New Jersey, engaged in making grants in the areas of compassion and wisdom, writes in an article dated December 25, 2000:

“Our US Congressman, who is a member of the India Caucus and will be part of the Congressional delegation visiting India in early January, spent considerable time with me today specifically on the Ramayana portrayal by Professor Susan Wadley. The Congressman said that he was appalled at the inflammatory approach in the Ramayana material, and was especially concerned that it was done under Federal grant money as that could give it the aura of governmental stamp of approval. While there is the First Amendment of the Constitution giving freedom of speech, it is not the job of the Federal Government to spend the taxpayer's money in support of what is essentially hate speech. He also felt that the standard in case of school material should be at a higher level of sensitivity towards minority communities in America, of which the Hindus are one. He promised to write to Washington supporting our position, and will also explore a way to get us in contact with the relevant authorities to participate in future grants of this kind. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

The above article by Rajiv Malhotra is with reference to Professor Susan Wadley's work emerging from two National Endowment for the Humanities grants (1994 and 1997) received by her to train high school teachers to teach the Indian epic Ramayana to American students. In an internet article dated September 7, 2000, Susan Wadley describes herself as the Director of South Asia Center and Ford Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies, Syracuse University, and her work that led to the creation of the Ramayana course material and workbook as “A second WEB page project emerges from the two National Endowment for the Humanities institutes for high school teachers that I taught in 1994 and 1997. These four week institutes focused on the Ramayana and its history, its relationships to changing social and cultural norms, its presentation in art and drama. Teachers at the institutes created lesson plans and instructional materials that have been added to: these are found at http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/southasiacenter/ramayana/ .”

Many have complained that the workbook developed by Susan Wadley depicts Lord Ram as an invading-outsider, imperialist, oppressor, misogynist, and a racist and that the workbook sounds more like the rant of a zealot than that of an ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ scholar.

A letter written by Dr. David Gray, protesting the biased portrayal of Ramayana by Susan Wadley, was sent on December 1, 2000, to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) with a copy to Richard W Riley, who was the Secretary of Education, U. S. Department of Education, at that time. Some excerpts from the Letter are presented here:

“While the project generated useful course material, it also included what are clearly partisan and political readings of the epic, as well as outright inflammatory 'cheap shots' at a sacred text. This complaint is on behalf of United States citizens and parents of school children. Hinduism and Sikhism (which also worships Rama) are no longer merely about a far away exotic land that Americans have little to do with. We have Hindus and Sikhs right here in our classrooms today, amongst our office co-workers and as our neighbors. It is irresponsible for any multicultural school to introduce a protest song against Hindus and Sikhs that includes hate speech alleging that "Muslims were targeted", or that certain people are "enslaved to form a monkey army" with the purported intention to "attack Muslims". What does this do to foster mutual respect and understanding among different ethnic and religious communities in America's sensitive tapestry, now represented in classrooms? Should Government funds be used to create such racially and religiously inflammatory teaching materials, denigrating to one's classmates' sensitivities, ironically in the name of multiculturalism? We understand that academic freedom, and the freedom of speech, allows us all in this country to espouse ideas that may be unpalatable to some. These ideas could be politically or culturally biased or even prejudiced. However, such bias about others' religions and religious ideals, others' sacred texts and spirituality, when it is presented to high school students by non-experts (high school teachers), would lead to a warped understanding of others' history and religions and to unintended consequences, including stereotyping and hatred of minority groups. The particular version of the Ramayana that Professor Wadley includes in the lesson plans, and that she says is her favorite version of the many songs on the God-king Rama and the Ramayana, was composed by an anti-Hindu activist. This particular "song" is included in the essay titled, "The Ramayana and the Study of South Asia" ("Education About Asia", volume 2, number 1, Spring 1997, page 36, by Susan S Wadley).”

Providing an analogy with other religions, the letter goes on to say:

“This same principle carries over to the study of other religions: for example, Christianity or Islam. Some of the scholars who have studied the Bible have read all or part of it as being patriarchal and oppressing women, Jews, homosexuals and blacks. There are others who criticize its violence and the way it is used to oppress the poor. Still others question the authenticity of the Bible and the real-life events of Jesus. Of course, most Christians see the Bible as containing God's words and would be horrified at the ‘deconstruction’ of their sacred text. Would we provide such portrayals of the Bible to our secondary school students, especially dramatized in performances of hate songs in the manner recommended by Professor Wadley? Christians would object vociferously at what they would call an unfair portrayal of their faith. Islamists and Muslims would similarly protest if one were to characterize Prophet Mohammed as a jihadist and an oppressor of women, even if that were supported by textual references. Scholars can debate controversial views on the Ramayana and the Bible all they want. We just don't find it necessary to import such debates into classrooms where children are beginning to understand the basic contours of each religion. The question that Professor Wadley should have addressed is this: if I were a Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jew, or Moslem, how would I want my faith to be understood by those outside it? We believe she has not adequately understood this problem or has deliberately chosen to ignore it. Were this simply a scholarly interpretation, this would be an unfortunate, but not a public, issue.”

The ‘song’ that the letter refers to is in worksheet 2 of the course material and instructs the students to “Read this song sung by an untouchable in north India.” Some lines from the song have been reproduced below:

“Once the Aryans on their horses invaded this land.
Then we who are the natives became the displaced.
Oh Rama, Oh Rama, You became the God and we the demons.
You portrayed our Hanuman as a monkey,
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
Muslims were targeted and "taught a lesson".
To destroy Lanka, Oh Rama, you
Formed us into a monkey army.
And today you want us,
The working majority,
To form a new monkey army
And attack Muslims.”

Lord Ram is thus depicted as an “Aryan Invader” in school textbooks for American kids. The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) itself is highly controversial with some scholars suggesting that it is a colonial and racist construct of the 19th century. Some scholars have suggested that there was no invasion but a gradual migration leading to the Aryan Migration Theory (AMT). Some other scholars have suggested that there was no invasion or migration, that the Aryans were indigenous to India, and that the term Aryan does not refer to a caste or a race, rather it refers to one with a noble behavior. There is a fourth group of scholars who say that people from India migrated to other parts of the world such as Central Asia and Europe and spread the Vedic civilization there, and, not the other way round – this is known as the Out of India Theory (OIT). Unfortunately, many scholars such as Professor Wadley often fall into the trap of labeling all of India's problems as 'Hindu', whereas they would not label the very high incidence of child abuse, rape, massive prison population, school violence and shootings, drug and other addictions, and high incidence of clinical depression in the U. S. as 'Judeo-Christian' problems.

Hinduism courses are often taught in a way so as to create a revulsion against Hinduism in the minds of the students. In Fall 2001, an Indian American student took an introductory class in Hinduism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and was shocked to hear the instructor describe the gory details of Asvamedha (Vedic horse sacrifice, also referred to as Rajasuya) in the first class. Thus, the students were told in the very first class that the chief queen grasped the penis of the dead horse and thrust it into her vulva and so on. The student was stunned and commented that this does not motivate him to take any class on Hinduism in the future, even though he was well aware that there are several beautiful things in Hinduism and that the Asvamedha rite was performed very rarely, with these gory details probably often left out. In the last 2000 years, there are perhaps no more than 6-7 recorded instances of the rite being performed.

The texts on Hinduism developed by Western scholars dwell lavishly upon a certain set of topics that are a big turn off to students interested in Hinduism – These topics are Caste Discrimination, Tantric Sex, Animal Sacrifices, Dowry Deaths, Polytheism, Hindu Fascism, Cult of Kali, naked Naga Sadhus etc. — which tend to give a biased view of Hinduism as a tribal, primitive, misogynist cult that has imprisoned millions of human beings. To add to this, many anti-Hindu texts are prescribed reading in introductory classes on Hinduism. A search on the Internet shows that there are some introductory Hinduism classes in American Universities where even books like “Why I am not a Hindu” by Kancha Illiah are prescribed reading! Will anyone recommend Ibn Warraq’s “Why I am not a Muslim” in an introductory course on Islam? Or how about Bertrand Russel’s “Why I am not a Christian” in an introductory course on Christianity?

RISA scholars often hold the Hindu Diaspora in the United States in utter contempt. Whereas the achievements, the industriousness, the intelligence and capabilities of the Diaspora and their contributions to their adopted country is being recognized and praised, the writings of RISA specialists often hold their ‘objects of study’ as inferior beings. It appears that the Indologists and RISA scholars often have a problem relating to India and Hindus in general. They seem to suffer from some kind of bias or phobia that prevents them from portraying Hindus and Hinduism in a praiseworthy, sensitive or a sympathetic manner. There seems to be this fear that if Hindus or Hindu organizations are presented sympathetically, the author might be perceived as a New Ager, a closet supporter of Hindu Fascists and so on.

Another student who took a class in Stanford University in 2002 comments:

“I took a class in Indian history at Stanford last year. After discussing the Ramayana, the instructor showed one film: “We are not your monkeys” by Anand Patwardhan. I found myself in the strange position of criticizing a film that I admire. I asked the instructor if he would consider showing the Mapplethorpe sculpture (the crucifix immersed in urine) in an introductory course on Christianity as the only example of Christian art. Needless to say, he dubbed me a BJP sympathizer.”

The film mentioned above – “We Are Not Your Monkeys” is a short music video based on a song by the late Daya Pawar, a renowned poet and activist from the western Indian state of Maharashtra. The film has been made by one of India’s leading documentary-makers, Anand Patwardhan and offers a critique of the Ramayana. BJP is an acronym for Bharatiya Janata Party, the political party that had formed the previous government in India. BJP has often been labeled as a “Hindu Nationalist Party” and along with its affiliate organizations – the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) are routinely accused for fomenting Hindu Fascism in India.

It is not the quality of the film or the quality of the song that is being questioned here, rather the following two questions come to mind:

  1. Why did the Professor at Stanford choose a film that depicts the Ramayana in a negative fashion? There are many other films that portray the Ramayana positively, such as “Warrior Prince, The Legend of Ramayana” which was awarded the "Best Animation film of the year" out of 60 competing entries at the Santa Clarita International festival — 2000, in Santa Clarita, California. As an ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ scholar, the Professor could (and should) have shown more than one version of the Ramayana and let the students decide for themselves what to infer.
  2. When the student protested, why did the professor conclude that the student was a BJP sympathizer?

Amongst RISA studies and discussions, there is an overt emphasis on the so called Hindu ‘F’ word — Hindu-Fundamentalism, Hindu-Fascism, and Hindu-Fanaticism. RISA scholars and other academics (turned into political commentators) read selective literature by Marxists, Liberals, Pseudo-Secularists, and other political commentators and churn out articles and books by hundreds every year on this phenomenon. The parties, organizations, and individuals criticized are obviously never given a fair portrayal, and their supposed misdeeds are described through critical secondary publications by committed Hindu bashers and scholars with their own political agendas. Any act of self assertion of Hinduism, or even a questioning of some paradigms of South Asian Studies or Indology is enough to draw the wrath of RISA scholars with epithets like ‘Hindutva Oppressor', ‘RSS supporter’, ‘Caste Exploiter’, ‘Hindu Nazi’, ‘Bride Burner’ etc.

Hinduism scholars often excuse themselves from social responsibility by claiming that their works have very limited readership. But, over time, their ideas and images disperse into society at large, because of the legitimacy given to them by prestigious academic voices. For example, Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, one of the foremost art museums in the U. S., features some of the rarest and most precious art objects of Asia, and its coffee table book explains the large 11th century Ganesha carving in the collection, as follows: "Ganesa, is a son of the great god Siva, and many of his abilities are comic or absurd extensions of the lofty dichotomies of his father." And then goes on to say: "Ganesa's potbelly and his childlike love for sweets mock Siva's practice of austerities, and his limp trunk will forever be a poor match for Siva's erect phallus.” Many school tours visit the museum, and through art the kids learn about other cultures. One can very well guess what the American school kids will learn about Lord Ganesha and Hinduism from the abovementioned example.

Writing about the displeasure expressed by the Indian American Community about the way Hinduism is being portrayed by scholars in the West, Rajiv Malhotra comments:

“The Diaspora is now highly aware of AAR/RISA, suspicious, and getting mobilized rapidly. They are challenging at fund raisers, and their kids are getting bolder about raising their hands to question the items selected for depiction in a one-sided manner…
If left to itself, things will deteriorate, and there may well be someone who will file a lawsuit on hate speech or something similar. This must be avoided by proactive positive thinking.“

I urge the readers to examine the topics mentioned in this article, to investigate the nature of Hinduism/India studies, and, to determine ways to bring accountability, objectivity, fairness, and balance to these studies. I also request the readers to explore ways to enable members of the Indian American Hindu Diaspora to be equal participants at the discussion tables where Hindu/Indian traditions are the topics — including schools, colleges, universities, museums, media, political think-tanks, and corporate policy meetings.

References

Bibliography
1. Biases In Hinduism Studies, by Abhijit Bagal, swaveda.com

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