Confronting Indology – Part 3

Confronting Indology – Part 3

by Ram Kumar - Jun 12, 2016 06:08 AM +05:30 IST

Confronting Indology – Part 3 Indian Hindu priests perform religious rituals at the Somnath temple
  • There are four ways through which we can confront Indology : Criticism, Rebranding, Parody and using ‘Critical Theory’ itself.

In Part 1 , we reviewed ‘critical theory’ and its five axioms. In Part 2, we demonstrated how certain Indological ‘research’ hews to these elements of critical theory and how engaging with it from outside is challenging. In this part, I will discuss some strategies and other types of critiques that have been applied to ‘critical theory.

Four different ways of confronting ‘critical theory’ can be imagined, and I will describe these ways below.


Here is meant standard criticism that identifies the leaps of logic, specious claims, hand waving, lack of empirical evidence, wrong translations, ignorance of other evidence, blatant political biases and so forth. This is the uttarapaksha demanded by Malhotra, and indeed, refuting Pollockian theories will need people well versed in Sanskrit and our traditions, as well as the literary style of the Western humanities to properly engage its ideas. Ashay Naik does this masterfully in the critique of Pollock’s essay on deep orientalism by breaking down the steps that Pollock uses to establish how Sanskrit was responsible for the holocaust. As I have argued previously, it might be optimistic to assume that a of this will convince the ‘critical theorists’ themselves, but it will certainly be useful for others to understand the maliciousness behind their approach.


Until now, ‘critical theory’ has succeeded by assuming the mantle of scholarship and what Malhotra calls the ‘neutral gaze’. Given this theory’s rejection of empirical evidence and truth claims, its embrace of a particular political project, its claim of unbiased scholarship doesn’t hold water. Hence, a relentless campaign of labeling and rebranding of this ‘scholarship’ for what it is: postmodern Marxist critique should be undertaken. The effect of branding is quite significant as anyone branded as “Hindutva” for opposing this Marxist view knows. Drawing attention to the politics behind the scholarship is a legitimate way of framing and containing it.

In fact, there is already a lot of criticism of postmodernism, for example, even from Chomsky, no darling of the right, who argues that postmodernism is meaningless. When asked about postmodernist theorists, he remarked-

I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of “theory” and “philosophy” to justify their claims - to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames
Naom Chomsky

He takes a similarly dim view of Derrida. Take a look at the assessment of postmodernism by Daniel Dennett, the “AI” philosophy professor at Tufts:

Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.
Daniel Dennett

Dennett’s article also refers to the battle between scientists and humanities from a 1959 article of C. P. Snow’s (the English physical chemist):

In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as “the intellectuals,” as though there were no others. This new definition by the “men of letters” excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.
Daniel Dennett

It is interesting that in 2016, we see the same battle lines being drawn in the debates over Indian history and culture in India: scientists and engineers on one side versus humanities and social science personnel on the other, proclaiming themselves to be the only ‘intellectuals’ and ‘scholars’ qualified to speak on the subject. But these are old debates in the Western academy, especially between scientists and nonscientists.

Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the “scientizers” (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can’t defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences
Daniel Dennett

This should sound all too familiar to those conversant only with the travails of the battle for the manner in which Hinduism is depicted in the academy. Indeed, if one has witnessed the spectacle of Malhotra being heckled and disrupted, this is quite common in the Western academy these days as this example of an entire different set of people on a different topic being sabotaged shows:

Indeed, the ‘banning’ of Malhotra from speaking at Oxford, or Subramanian Swamy from Harvard, is almost a common occurrence on American campuses where Christine Lagarde, the IMF president was prevented from speaking at Smith, Condolezza Rice, the former secretary of state was prevented from speaking at Rutgers, and the Islam critic, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was prevented from speaking at Brandeis.


The use of humor and mockery is a salient technique for confrontation that is not used as much as it should be. Critique has all of the elements necessary for parody to not only be cathartic, but highly entertaining as well. The overbearing, obscure, jargon laden verbiage, the overly earnest belief that “oppression” is being “confronted”, the lack of a sense of humor from the practitioners themselves, the specious or nonexistent logic all make it a “target rich” environment. But more importantly, since critique occupies a hegemonic perch in academia, a parody of it will also serve the purpose of speaking “truth to power” as it were, inverting the very calculus that animates critique in the first place.

Not only is critique ripe for parody, but its use in Indology is especially ripe for it. To my knowledge, no one has attempted this so far. One would be in good company here, since these parodies of critical theory and postmodernism have already been done by scientists (Kalavai Venkat’s article drew my attention to these, which I thought was worth exploring more here). This was prompted because critical theorists brought their theories to explain science, while scientists watched with bemused curiosity. The famous Sokal hoax should be studied for the masterful manner in which Alan Sokal, a distinguished physicist, trolled the social science community by writing a nonsensical paper called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.

He submitted this paper to a top social science journal called “Social text” which was an academic “journal of postmodern cultural studies” edited by Bruce Robbins (Columbia) and Andrew Ross (NYU), and got it accepted. After it appeared in print in May/June 1996, Sokal revealed that it was a hoax “designed to test the intellectual rigor” of the journal. The paper itself proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. Sokal stated

The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project’’ [sec. 6]. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.
Alan Sokal,

Later, Sokal and Bricmont wrote an entire book called “Intellectual Imposters” that discussed the vacuousness of many high sounding postmodernists and critical theorists in the humanities and social sciences. Richard Dawkins wrote a humorous review of this book , where he discusses the hilarious muddled thinking of Lacan, upon whose psychoanalytical theories the entire careers of many feminists including Doniger are built:

We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who [Lacan] is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.
Richard Dawkins

Many others wrote commentaries on this including the Nobel prize winning Stephen Weinberg.

So certainly, someone doing a parody of Indology would be in good company, Western company for those anxious about that certificate. Helpfully, a resourceful computer scientist has already developed the postmodernism generator using recursive transition networks. Each time you visit the site, you will get a new essay. For instance, this is what I got recently:

Narrativity is part of the fatal flaw of culture,” says Sontag; however, according to Drucker[3] , it is not so much narrativity that is part of the fatal flaw of culture, but rather the paradigm, and eventually the rubicon, of narrativity. It could be said that Foucault uses the term ‘dialectic postsemanticist theory’ to denote not construction as such, but postconstruction. Lyotard promotes the use of Foucaultist power relations to modify and challenge class.”


“If one examines the neocultural paradigm of narrative, one is faced with a choice: either reject Sontagist camp or conclude that sexual identity, somewhat surprisingly, has intrinsic meaning. Lyotard uses the term ‘precapitalist cultural theory’ to denote the role of the writer as reader. But the subject is contextualised into a subsemantic cultural theory that includes language as a totality.”

Critique of Indology using Critical Theory

This is the natural second way: to apply the axioms and paradigms of critical theory to itself. As we have seen, attempting to “answer” Indologists who use the tropes of critique is not going to be possible outside of the axioms of critique. However, there is nothing that prevents us from using the same tropes on critical theory itself. Some may object to this as a sneaky way of doing it rather than a head on encounter; not surprising since India is the birthplace of chess where armies meet on an agreed upon ground and fight face to face.

But as we have seen, our adversaries use these techniques all the time, whether it’s the young historian subverting our own texts via photocopier, or the suicide bomber using foreign technologies against those foreigners, or the missionaries who demonstrate the ‘impotency’ of our idols, or indeed Pollock himself who declares that he has to go through the tradition and “overmaster” it in order to subvert it. Besides, objections to rearguard actions are simply our heteronormative prejudices speaking; time to accept cisnormativity where backdoor entries are preferred and even celebrated.

Besides, Hofstadter showed in “Godel, Escher, and Bach, and eternal golden braid”, that some of the most seminal intellectual ideas in the past 400 years have been self referential: whether Bach’s meticulously constructed mathematically recursive toccatas and fugues, or Escher’s self referential drawings, or Godel’s theorem of the incompleteness of sufficiently powerful axiomatic systems of logic that use the rules of their own logic to determine the truth or falsity of propositions within.

Malhotra alludes to this when he recounts confronting Doniger in a seminar more than a decade ago and asking whether anyone has psychoanalyzed her. However, he states this idea more as a way to highlight the absurdity of her use of psychoanalysis on Hindu culture, rather than as a legitimate critique of her. But since that type of psychoanalysis is considered a valid tool to use in critical theory, there is no reason why the same cannot be done to her writings to extract “hidden meanings”.

In addition, critical theory assumes the existence of texts and writings that have attained some authority. Since the field of Indology is full of “sacred cows” in the academe, whose theories and analyses are held up as examples of good analysis and scholarship, it is time that the same techniques were applied to these texts.

As mentioned, we know from Godel’s famous incompleteness theorem that any sufficiently powerful axiomatic system must contain propositions that can be neither proven true nor false within that axiomatic system. Since ‘critical theory’ could be considered an axiomatic system where truth itself doesn’t exist as an axiom, making critical statements that cannot be falsified will be a lot easier than in other fields.

<b>Future of critique</b>
Future of critique

In the limit of course, it is likely that a critique of critique using critical and theoretic elements will be indistinguishable from parody due to Poe’s law. For instance, consider this exchange that took place on a discussion board around 10 months ago:

Kabira  in reply to Sanskrit

Go read Gramsci to understand subaltern first.

Observer in reply to Kabira

Easily done. But here’s the point:

If one examines Gramsci’s empirio-criticism, regardless of whatever El Habib Louai might propose, one must face a certain predialectic choice: either reject capitalist subcultural theory or conclude that government is capable of significance, given that truth is interchangeable with objectivism. George Sorel who deeply influenced Gramsci uses the term ‘postcultural dematerialism’ to denote a mythopoetical totality. In fact one could state with some certainty that the Marxist analysis of the ‘creation-destruction’ polarity intrinsic to capitalist subcultural theory is responsible for a certain syndicalist tendency that Bordiga famously accused Gramsci of harboring.

The central thrust of the works of Gramsci is not, in fact, narrative, but neo-narrative. In addition, the formative influence of Daniel de Lyon on Gramsci was instrumental in the notion of normative values obtaining from a cultural hegemony that is reinforced by the political and ideological superstructure.

What makes the issue even more compelling is that even though dialectic construction suggests that expression comes from the masses, the textual paradigm of modernism demands that the main theme of the analysis of modernism be conditioned around the role of the reader/ actor and indeed, the worker, as participant.

So although it could be said that several sublimations exist, Gramsci emerges as a garden variety Italian communist, with a certain amount of ideological correspondence to Paulo Freire who later theorized and practiced critical pedagogy. Speculation persists, necessarily unverifiable, that he accepted Christianity on his deathbed, rejecting his atheism and Marxist ideologies. In any case, having promoted historicism and rejected the metaphysical materialism of Engels, Gramsci had to concede that Marxism could be fed to the unwashed proleteriat only though superstition and folktales. From here to the subaltern hypothesis of Spivak is a long and hypothetical leap. I quote from Louai - “Throughout its history since the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept of the subaltern remains one of the most slippery and difficult to define. This difficulty is due in part to the manipulations of critics and writers whose, “unscrupulous, instrumental, or merely selective readings of Gramsci have been animated by the impulse to make him appear relevant to the present time, particularly when he has been used to lend authority to or legitimize a specific political stance, ideological tendency, or theoretical position” (Francese, 2009). No prizes for guessing who these unscrupulous writers might be. And let’s not even talk about Ranajit Guha.

So yes, the point about labeling this field ‘Sepoy Studies’ would seem to be particularly pertinent in the Indian context.

Observer in reply to Observer

Just a correction - Daniel De Leon, not de Lyon.

Is the comment by Observer “real” or a parody? The response that “Kabira” gives to the above, who presumably is somewhat well read in the field is :

Kabira in reply to Observer

How come an error in a copy paste?

So clearly, Kabira assumes that Observer’s comment is copied from somewhere. However, an analysis using plagiarism detectors and Google search does not turn up anything; therefore, one may assume that the comment is a uniquely expressed thought. Kabira’s comment about it being a “copy paste” assumes not only that the comment is copied from somewhere, but must have authority as one would not copy a non authoritative source. So it is certainly believed by a person who might be familiar with the field to be a “real” comment that is a valid analysis.

And yet, a person of reasonable intelligence is unable to tell whether the comment is real or a parody. Kabira himself or herself does not offer a comment either, in spite of the comment being against the political beliefs that Kabira holds, because he/she is unable to tell what the comment actually implies (other than the last conclusion that may or may not obtain from what preceded it) despite believing it to be authoritative. It is possible that “Observer” used the pomo generator and interspersed it with his own analysis as well.

Hence, persons of such ability and intellect as ‘Observer’ are qualified to either do a parody or a legitimate critique of critique using the axioms and tools of critical theory. The rest of us will be suitably entertained one way or another.

The discussion above was made on in the comments section of this article in Swarajya. The article was ‘5 Unreadable Academics & Writers You Should Be Wary Of’. The list includes Gayatri Chakraborthy Spivak (Columbia, sub-altern studies), but neglected to mention people such as Homi Bhabha at Harvard, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, among others who use arcane confusing verbiage that is incomprehensible for the most part.


This three part series of articles has examined the biases in the academy against the teaching of Hinduism. These biases have been shown to stem from a more systemic adoption in the Western academy of “critical theory” that now dominates most of the thinking in the humanities and social sciences, including in India. We have seen how Indologists who use critique as a technique for analyzing Hinduism are not doing anything novel other than applying those axioms to the conventional emic view within Hinduism.

We have also seen how opposition to critical theory comes from the science and rationalist community that finds much of that field to be academically fraudulent. We have shown how the scientific community has responded to criticisms of science from “critical theorists” by using parody, mockery, and of course, criticism. We suggest in this article that there are four possible ways of combating ‘critique’ fueled Indology: standard criticism rooted in scientific notions of evidence and logic, rebranding a certain type of Indology for what it is: postmodern Marxist critique, parody, and via a critique of critique itself.

Ram Kumar is a senior scientist in a large Fortune 500 corporation. He holds a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, is well published in his field including two monographs, more than two dozen papers in journals and conferences, and holds more than a dozen patents. He tweets at  @RamKumar1133

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