Nicholson's Untruths

Nicholson's Untruths

by Rajiv Malhotra - Tuesday, July 21, 2015 11:56 PM IST
Nicholson's Untruths

American scholar Andrew Nicholson has accused noted author Rajiv Malhotra of plagiarising from his book Unifying Hinduism in his Indra’s Net. Malhotra responds.

The hard evidence that cannot be ignored

Given the media’s mediocrity in blindly repeating what other journalists say (without reading the evidence), I want to list the hard evidence from Indra’s Net and let intelligent readers decide for themselves. Everyone I have showed this to, including academic scholars with no familiarity or interest in the specific subject matter, have told me that if one has this many references to Nicholson it would be ridiculous to shout ‘plagiarism’.

Note that most of the reference to his work are in chapter 8 between pages 157-170. The references after page 300 are located in the end notes.

At most they could claim that in a few instances the quotation marks were omitted, but there is no doubt that the author is referring to Nicholson’s work.

Indra’s Net has about 450 end notes, of which about 350 are references to various works by others. There is no intention to hide others’ works at all, in fact, quite the contrary: I am often chided for over-doing references. Nicholson cites far fewer references in any of his works.

Also, less than 3% of Indra’s Net references pertain to Nicholson, because he is relevant only to minor portions of the book. Hence, he is hardly supplying anything major.

Analysis of the facts

My conclusion is that I have pumped his ego by giving him too much importance. His book came into the limelight only after Indra’s Net referred to it. Although it had been out for a few years, only after Indra’s Net his publisher put out his interviews and promoted it heavily. Rather than being grateful, he made a u-turn once I explained that my next book is a critique of his PhD mentor, Sheldon Pollock. His MA was done under Wendy Doniger.

He is extremely critical of ‘Hindutva’, etc. He gladly accepted another award given by Uberoi Foundation, a very explicitly Hindutva organization. Ehen it comes to duping Hindus and taking their money, he has done well as a ‘good cop’. His ‘good cop’ facade that had fooled me has now come off under the false pretext of being a victim.

An arrogant allegation of distortion

Another allegation he makes is that where I disagree with his stance, it amounts to a distortion – as though I cannot give my position and must always agree with him. The specific instance is where he says Vijnanabhikshu was unifying Hinduism. I cite him with agreement. Then I add that Swami Vivekananda was also doing the same thing. Nicholson is angry that I say this of Vivekananda when he meant to say this only for Vijnanabhikshu. My statement on Vivekananda is my own and I am entitled to it.

My mistake in citing his substandard work

I decided to do as new edition of Indra’s Net in which I will remove all references to Nicholson. After reflecting further on his work, I realized that many Indian writers have said the same thing he says, and in greater detail. I am better off citing them instead of him. Also, his notion of ‘unity’ is a synthetic unity whereas mine is integral unity: these are my original concepts and explained in my book, Being Different. So rather than using an unreliable and contradictory source like Nicholson, I will bypass him entirely and explain the deeper integral unity of Hinduism based on Indian sources.

Further De-colonizing myself

Why do we like to cite western sources so much? Partly it’s a colonial habit to assume that the westerner must be more reliable. But in so many cases one finds the opposite: the westerners are better at language, style, appearance of polished presentation. But the work is superficial and often hides a bias underneath. Nevertheless, more publishers and media outlets get interested if a work cites many western sources. We must become self-conscious of this colonial mind set and change it.

There is another reason as well: When I go searching for research works on some specific topic, it is the western works that are predominantly available electronically and in local libraries. Often one has to hunt down an Indian work for weeks or months to get it. Often one does not even know about good Indian works because Indians are not as effective at promoting their works.

But with the help of Indian scholars like Vishal Agarwal and Shrinivas Tilak, I have been able to cite Indian works that had appeared long before Nicholson’s, and that are far deeper and more comprehensive than his work. In fact, it’s a shame that he ignores them or gives lip service when in fact he ought to cite them as heavily as he demands of me.

List of references to Nicholson

Following is the list of references to Nicholson, each item preceded by the page number in Indra’s Net.

Indra’s Net, 15:

In his excellent study of the pre-colonial coherence of Hinduism, titled Unifying Hinduism, Andrew Nicholson explains that prior to the medieval period there was no single way to define what ‘astika’ meant.

Indra’s Net, 65:

Hacker’s suppression of this material compromised his integrity as an objective scholar, as it misled readers into thinking his writings on Hinduism were objective evaluations when in fact they were, in Andrew Nicholson’s words, the work of a ‘Christian polemicist’. [i]

Indra’s Net, 157:

I agree with Nicholson that:

Modern historiographers of Indian philosophy have largely been blind to the numerous intertextually related definitions of the terms astika and nastika. This oversight is further evidence of our own credulity and overreliance on a handful of texts for our understanding of a complex situation in the history of ideas. [ii]

Indra’s Net, 158:

[Without quotation marks but see the end note where reference is given to Nicholson]: Later still, these six got further consolidated with a shared commitment to Vedic authority, by which they differentiated themselves from Jains and Buddhists. [iii]

Indra’s Net, 159-60:

Andrew Nicholson places the growing consolidation of Hindu ‘big tent’ unity in roughly the fourteenth to sixteenth century CE period. [iv] He shows that the categories of astika/nastika were fluid previously, but in this period they became solidified and hardened. He sees the medieval consolidators of contemporary Hinduism as analogous to European doxographers. A doxography is a compilation of multiple systems of thought which are examined for their interrelationships, and sometimes new classifications are proposed. It is like a survey of various philosophies from a particular point of view that is looking for relationships across various systems. Often the bias of the doxographer is expressed by the set of schools that he includes and the ones he excludes, and the criteria by which he ranks them. [v]

Nicholson goes into great detail to show that the writings and classifications by rival Indian schools changed during the medieval period, with many cross-borrowings and new alliances. [vi] He argues that this Indian genre, akin to European doxography, served as the means to cross-fertilize among traditions, thereby making each tradition more accessible to others.

Indra’s Net, 161-62:

Nicholson’s view is that the medieval scholars such as Vijnanabhikshu became the pathway for Western Indology. Nicholson writes how a new kind of unified view of Hinduism emerged:

Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries CE, certain thinkers began to treat as a single whole the diverse philosophical teachings of the Upanishads, epics, Puranas, and the schools known retrospectively as the ‘six systems’ (darsana) of mainstream Hindu philosophy. The Indian and European thinkers in the nineteenth century who developed the term ‘Hinduism’ under the pressure of the new explanatory category of ‘world religions’ were influenced by these earlier philosophers and doxographers, primarily Vedantins, who had their own reasons for arguing the unity of Indian philosophical traditions. [vii]

Indra’s Net, 169-70:

Andrew Nicholson, whose work on the coherence and antiquity of Hinduism is the positive exception to many of these trends in scholarship, further explains this problem as follows:

In the west, our understanding of Indian philosophical schools (as the word darsana is generally translated) has been colored by our own history. The default model for the relationship between these schools is often unwittingly based on models derived from Western religious history: the hostilities between the three religions of the Book, the modern relationship of the various Christian denominations, or even the relation between orthodox and heterodox sects in early Christianity. [viii]

Nicholson is also concerned about making sure that Indian thinkers are studied as individuals and given their due, and not simply lumped together into frozen ‘schools’:

Once the theory of the British invention of almost everything in modern India has been properly debunked, we can look realistically at the ways that such thinkers creatively appropriated some Indian traditions and rejected others. This is not the only reason to study premodern India, but it is one of the most important. Sanskrit intellectual traditions should be approached not as a rarefied sphere of discourse hovering above everyday life and historical time but, rather, as a human practice arising in the messy and contingent economic, social, and political worlds that these intellectuals occupied. [ix]

Nicholson suggests that other models are available for Westerners to appreciate the distinction of each thinker, such as the one used in science. Different scientific disciplines operate in separate domains. They discover in parallel, and they continually try to reconcile their differences. But they are not mutual enemies. In the same manner, we can say that different Indian systems have focused on different domains: Mimamsa focuses on exegesis of Vedic ritual injunctions; Vedanta on the nature of Brahman; Nyaya on logical analysis; Vaisheshika on ontology; Yoga on the embodied human potential; and so on. Nicholson writes:

One of the important differences between the analytical terms darsana and vidya is that ‘sciences’ are not inherently at odds in the way that ‘philosophical schools’ are often depicted. Instead, they can represent different, and often complementary, branches of knowledge, much in the way that modern biology, chemistry, and physics are understood as complementary. [x]

Indra’s Net, 316:

Nicholson points out the huge borrowings made by Christianity: ‘Does this apply equally to the Christian theology’s illicit borrowing of the theological concepts of the immortal soul and the infinity of God from Greek philosophy? Such concepts are not found in Christianity in its pure, Semitic, pre-Hellenized form. The widespread tendency of ”claiming for one’s own what really belongs to another” is a primary means of change, growth, and innovation in all philosophical and theological traditions, not just in Hinduism.’ (p. 188)

Indra’s Net, 325:

Nicholson, 2010, p. 179: ‘”Believer” and “infidel”, though tempting, are also too fraught with Western connotations of right theological opinion (and the latter too closely associated with medieval struggles between Christians and Muslims). The terms “affirmer” and “denier” are better, since these are neutral with regard to the question of right opinion versus right practice. An affirmer (astika) might be one who “affirms the value of ritual” (Medhatithi), one who “affirms the existence of virtue and vice” (Manibhadra), one who “affirms the existence of another world after death” (the grammarians), or one who “affirms the Vedas as the source of ultimate truth” (Vijnanabhikshu Madhava, etc.). The typical translations for the terms astika and nastika, “orthodox” and “heterodox”, succeed to a certain extent in expressing the Sanskrit terms in question.’

Indra’s Net, 326:

Nicholson (2010) writes that ‘the sixteenth-century doxographer Madhusudana Sarasvati, argues that since all of the sages who founded the astika philosophical systems were omniscient, it follows that they all must have shared the same beliefs. The diversity of opinions expressed among these systems is only for the sake of its hearers, who are at different stages of understanding. … According to Madhusudana, the sages taught these various systems in order to keep people from a false attraction to the views of nastikas such as the Buddhists and Jainas.’ (p 9)

Indra’s Net, 328:

Examples of Indian doxographies named by Nicholson include the following: … [followed by a list of 11 lines not in quotation marks, but it is clear they refer to Nicholson]

Indra’s Net, 329:

Although Vivekananda was a passionate advocate of a Vedanta-Yoga philosophy and spirituality, he was not averse to drawing on elements of Western philosophy and metaphysics that were popular at his time. His predilection for Herbert Spencer and other Europeans of the time was to borrow English terminology in order to present his own philosophy more persuasively. He did so because his own philosophical tradition had been savaged by colonial and Orientalist polemics. (Nicholson 2010, pp. 65, 78)

Indra’s Net, 344-345:

This is a long end note that has Nicholson referenced in it by name 4 times; but the material is not in quotation marks.



i Nicholson, 2010, p. 188.

ii Nicholson, 2010, p. 175.

iii Nicholson, 2010, pp. 3, 5, 25.

iv [Malhotra’s comment: Though Nicholson is mentioned in main text, this end note backs up the statement by using Lorenzen’s work, because Nicholson’s work was inadequate] One may ask why this consolidation into modern Hinduism took place in the medieval period. Some scholars have theorized that the arrival of Islam might have led to a coalescing of various Hindu streams into closer unities than before. It has been surmised that the attempts by Akbar and then Dara Shikoh to synthesize Hinduism and Islam into one hybrid might have been seen threatening Hindu digestion into a subset of Islam. This threat could have been a factor in this trend to bring many nastika outsiders into the tent as astika insiders. Regardless of the causes for this, there is ample evidence to suggest that multiple movements began to organize diverse Hindu schools into a common framework or organizing principle. Each of these rival approaches had its own idea of the metaphysical system in which it was at the highest point in the hierarchy, with the rest located in lower positions in terms of validity and importance, but the point here is that highly expansive unities were being constructed. Another scholar espousing this thesis of the development of an ‘insider’ sense of Hinduism as a response to Islam is David Lorenzen. He notes that between 1200 and 1500, the Hindu rivalry with Muslims created a new self-consciousness of a unified Hindu identity. Lorenzen draws his evidence from medieval literature, including the poetry of Eknath, Anantadas, Kabir and Vidyapati, and argues that the difference between Hinduism and Islam was emphasized in their writings. This emphasis showed the growth of an implicit notion of Hindu selfhood that differed from Islam. For instance, many bhakti poets contrasted Hindu ideas that God exists in all things, living and not living, with Islam’s insistence on banning this as idolatry. Lorenzen concludes: ‘The evidence instead suggests that a Hindu religion theologically and devotionally grounded in texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita, the Puranas, and philosophical commentaries on the six darsanas, gradually acquired a much sharper self-conscious identity through the rivalry between Muslims and Hindus in the period between 1200 and 1500, and was firmly established long before 1800.’ (Lorenzen, 2005, p. 53)

v [Malhotra’s comment: The following End note is my reflection on the point made in the main text.] This method of writing is common among historians of ancient civilizations, especially when they deal with works that have become extinct, and hence there is a need to fill in the blanks with some degree of invention. For example, Plato’s book on Socrates gives the only information available today on an earlier philosopher called Anaxagoras. The same is true of the Charvakas in India: very little of their own work survives and it is only through third-party critiques that we can reconstruct what the Charvakas were thinking. In a sense, most of the known ancient history of the world is of this kind, because little is based on direct accounts written at the time.

vi Examples of Indian doxographies named by Nicholson include the following… [Malhotra’s comment: An 11-line list from Nicholson is stated, but without quotation marks because it is a summary of his text. Nevertheless, the reference to his work is clear right at the beginning of the end note as indicated above.]

vii Nicholson, 2010, p. 2.

viii Nicholson, 2010, p. 13.

ix Nicholson, 2010, p. 18.

x Nicholson, 2010, p. 163.

Postscript: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Andrew Nicholson had been given an award by the Hindu American Foundation. That sentence has now been removed.

Indian–American researcher, author, speaker. Current affairs, inter-civilization, science
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