How We Should Approach The Phenomenon Of Studying Hinduism

How We Should Approach The Phenomenon Of Studying HinduismPhoto Credit- Getty Images

In “Four Types of Indology,” Devdutt Pattanaik identifies four schools of Indology: European, American, Diasporic, and Indian. The most problematic of these is, without a doubt, European Indology, especially German Indology.

Applying anti-Brahmanism systematically as a methodological principle, German scholars conducted the study of India as an exercise in German national identity, framing Brahmans as “priests,” and presenting themselves as reformers and liberators, while they collaborated with the Prussian (and later, Nazi) state (The Nay Science: A History of German Indology).

I am skeptical that we can really speak of a distinct tradition of American Indology (see “The Real Threat to the Humanities Today”). That leaves us with three types of Indology: European (or, as I shall hereafter call it, German), Diasporic, and Indian.

Let’s look at what distinguishes them:

1. Discourse on Origins: Since its inception, German Indology was obsessed with origins. This interest in origins had complex causes, as articulated by scholars like Dorothy Figueira. Many factors contributed to the Indologists’ obsession with origins: the search for an Aryan homeland, German Romanticism and its faith in pristine cultures, and the Protestant emphasis on a return to the sources (ad fontes).

German scholars felt that a perceived proximity to the Aryan race gave them an advantage over British Orientalists when it came to researching ancient India (“Pride and Prejudice”). Unsurprisingly, even after the successful completion of the critical edition of the Mahābhārata in 1966 by scholars in Pune, German scholars continued this problematic approach by inventing “interpolations” and “Brahmanic” and “normative” “redactions” (Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism).

What if, instead of a search for these ideological identities and ersatz antiquities, we studied the intellectual development of Hinduism over history? What if the emergence of ideas was more illuminating? If differences were absurdly overemphasized in past scholarship, perhaps understanding continuities might lead us to areas more relevant to the living presence of the religious phenomenon of Hinduism.

Diaspora Hinduism then serves as a presentation of what is most recent, emergent, and distant from the origin: a genuine intellectual, cultural, and spiritual exodus.

2. The Confusion of History: Indologists suffer from the historian’s disease of focusing on every little facet of Hinduism, including the obscure, the marginal, and the perverse, as though everything were of equal value.

Foucault, following Nietzsche, characterizes this penchant as follows: “A characteristic of history is to be without choice: it is prepared to acquaint itself with everything, without any hierarchy of importance. . . . Historians argue that this proves their tact and discretion. . . . What they in fact exhibit is a total lack of taste, a certain crudity that tries to take liberties with what is most exalted, a satisfaction in meeting up with what is base. The historian is insensitive to all disgusting things; or rather, he especially enjoys those things which should be repugnant to him. His apparent serenity follows from his concerted avoidance of the exceptional and his reduction of all things to the lowest common denominator. Nothing is allowed to stand above him; and underlying his desire for total knowledge is his search for the secrets that belittle everything: base curiosity” (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”).

But no religion functions like this. Any system of philosophy is a value system. Diaspora Hinduism presents an example of the refreshing pruning of what is dead and the reclaiming of what is vibrant in Hinduism. Surely, Hinduism is neither only an ancient phenomenon nor only an Indian phenomenon!

3. The Reduction of Hinduism to Ethnic Categories: The Area Studies approach to Hinduism popular with South Asian Studies departments, which identifies Hinduism with a geographic area, overlooks the diversity and cosmopolitanism of Hinduism. After all, Hindu communities of long standing exist in South Africa and South America and throughout the South Pacific, not to mention the vibrant communities that sprang up in the United Kingdom and the United States in the latter half of the past century.

How should we then approach the phenomenon of studying Hinduism? I suggest a few possibilities:

(a) Focus on intellectual enrichment: By spreading to new regions and by encountering other faiths and cultures, diaspora Hinduism enriches its own potential as well as contributes to other living religious traditions. Dialogue, not essentialism, is the hallmark of diaspora Hinduism. Precisely when emphasis shifts from identities to ideas, does true intellectual growth occur.

(b) Consider its continuous reinterpretation: By empirically tying Hinduism—or any other religion—to a geographic location and/or a historical period, and especially to an unchanging and infallible Ur-text, we run the risk of fundamentalism.

Diaspora Hinduism can teach us a way to avoid this. Neither fundamentalists in India nor essentialists in the West should prescribe to diaspora Hindus as if they were mindless, disconnected, and uncritical beings lacking legitimacy and randomly trying to assemble an authentic identity. The term Neo-Hinduism with the suggestion of non-authentic, non-original, and derivative being implicit in the prefix neo is a way of delegitimizing existing Hindu communities (“The Passion of Paul Hacker: Indology, orientalism, and evangelism”), while valorizing an original that is merely historical, hypothetical, and the exclusive preserve of academic scholars.

Rather than accept such essentialist notions of what it means to be Hindu, we should instead look at the way Hindu communities have adapted, redefined, and reorganized themselves. Through employment, marriage, sexual orientation, participation in widely differing economies and communication in many different languages, diaspora Hindus add a new layer to Hinduism and constitute a self-aware dialogical partner vis-à-vis other religions.

The suggestion that “Neo-Hindus,” because they adopted ideas from the West and seek to be dialogical partners on an equal footing with their Western interlocutors, are inauthentic is the argument of a bigot, who, unable to cope with the altered reality of an articulate, responsive, and forceful minority community, longs for the days when racial speaking roles were clearly distributed and his privilege unquestioned.

The precipitous decline in the number of Indology professorships in Germany (from twenty-two and a half as recently as 1997 to sixteen today) reveals a discipline that has lost both its hold on the public imagination and its privileged connection with the state.

After raising the specter of “Semitic” corruption and promising to defend the state against the return of the priests, a narrative that was already old by the time it reached its tragic conclusion in the horror of the Holocaust, German Indology has cast about for new justifications. It now relies on a variant of this narrative for legitimacy, promoting itself as a bulwark against Hindu fundamentalism.

Apparently, without Indology to provide objective scholarship on Hinduism vis-à-vis Hindutva, we would be unable to contest the distortions of right-wing groups.

Meanwhile, the Indologists’ own distortions, record of shoddy scholarship, and collaboration with Nazism goes unreported (for the text of the German Indologists’ declaration of loyalty to the Führer, see here). This raises Juvenal’s old problem: Quis custodiet ipros custodes? Are German Indologists, with their long history of placing their “science” in the service of the state and its political aims, really the alternative to Hindutva historians? Can they be trusted not to make politically convenient arguments for personal profit?

If India goes down this path, it may yet provide German Indology with justification and a new lease of life. Alternatively, if the German far-right party, the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), succeeds in seizing power, it may once again find use for an Indology tasked with validating German national identity. In its recent electoral manifesto, the party called for the incorporation of “Prussian” values into the German school curriculum and a “firmly grounded national identity.”

In a section titled “Identity,” the party “demanded” “from individuals who wish to live permanently in our country that they accept our culture and do not seek to marginalize it.” Most problematic, the party declared in its preamble that “a one-sided focus on twelve unfortunate years of our history obscures from view centuries in which a unique body of culture and state order was developed,” thus euphemistically glossing Germany’s wartime role.

In spite of this historical revisionism, no German Indologist started a petition against the AfD. This is surprising, considering that in the same period German Indologists either started or signed on to three petitions related to India: in favor of the freedom of expression, against the restriction of academic freedom, and in favor of censorship of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (apparently, the contradiction escaped them; is this what the AfD means by “a one-sided focus on twelve unlucky years of our history”?).

With the study of literary and philosophical traditions in India dissolved into politics, diaspora Hinduism is uniquely capable of articulating an intellectual position and raising fresh questions. The alternative is a righteous republic of petitioners that profits neither Indology nor philology.

In the discourse over Hinduism, Hindutva and Western Indology are often presented as two mutually exclusive alternatives. What goes unnoticed in this dichotomization is that the two share essential features: the emphasis on history, the idealization of the past, and the intolerant condemnation of alternate views.

Even the obsession with origins is common to both: they merely disagree on who is its true spokesperson and custodian. Queerly enough, diaspora Hinduism offers a third way and an intelligent alternative.

Vishwa Adluri is Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Hunter College, New York. He holds PhDs in Philosophy and Indology and is the author of numerous books, including a recent and highly acclaimed critical history of German Indology.

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