Beyond Batra and Doniger: Reflections on the study of Hinduism in the American academy

Posted by sanyasi on February 19, 2014 · 24 mins read

For anyone aware of the militant Hindu Right's hounding of academics whose research engages with Hinduism, the recent events related to Wendy Doniger's Book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, must appear as a predictable sequel that replays the plot of the original with minor, if equally unpleasant, variations; a Grudge or Insidious set at the intersection of the American academy and transnational Hinduism, in which, eventually, the malevolent spirits get their victims or, to put it less dramatically, the bad guys eventually wear the good guys down.

A decade ago, another book on Hinduism, Paul Courtright's Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, had similarly incensed some Hindus in the US and India. The litany of charges leveled against Courtright, a professor at Emory University, was similar to that against Doniger---disrespecting Hinduism, an obsession with sexuality, promoting a Christian agenda, and the like. And like the ominous suggestions of violence contained in the lawsuit against Doniger, some of the comments related to Courtright's book in online petitions (long since taken down) were borderline threatening.

I was a graduate student at Emory University at the time, working on a dissertation on how Hindu communities were using the Internet to articulate conservative understandings of Indian identity. I had developed an interest in the topic while working for in Bombay in the late 1990s right before I moved to Emory. rediff had tapped into, and, to an extent, shaped an online right wing Hindu culture, with star columnists like Varsha Bhosle, Rajeev Srinivasan, and Francois Gautier. Essays by Arvind Rajagopal and Vinay Lal had already drawn attention to the Hindu nationalist attempt to mark cyberspace as its own domain. Important work by Paula Chakravartty and Sunil Khilnani had mapped the complex web of relations between liberalization, diaspora, and shifting ideas of nationhood among global Indian communities. (Sorry, Indian media, your recent discovery of "Internet Hindus" is neither original nor nuanced). My argument was that there was a long and complex history of the relationship between technology and nationalism in India, rooted in the nineteenth century, that informed online Hindu nationalism and that the phenomenon, accordingly, needed to be seen in the light of both this history and the logic of online communication.

I was also, at the time, a member of the South Asian Journalist Association (SAJA) discussion forum, where, despite the best efforts of the long-suffering moderators, any number of discussions would quickly degenerate into arguments about the supposed denigration of Hinduism by secularists, Macaulayites, Western academics, and so on. It was here that I learned of the "intellectual Kshatriyas," a self-styled vanguard of Hindus out to defend Hinduism from its detractors in the American academy and elsewhere. Most of their arguments were of very poor intellectual quality, diatribes sprinkled with the odd term like "symbolic capital" drawn from social theory or postcolonial theory.

Then, as now, the actions of the Hindu Right were outrageous: attacks on freedom of expression and cowardly acts of bullying and intimidation against an individual. And, then, as now, the possible range of responses to the events was reduced to a set of two choices: a good Hindu / bad Hindu (or good Indian / bad Indian or good South Asian / bad South Asian) polarity, in which as a right-thinking Hindu / Indian / or South Asianist in the academy one had to speak up against the Hindu Right or risk being seeing as an apologist for them. This state of affairs foreclosed the possibility then, as it does now, of a genuine, much-needed, and long overdue debate about the politics of the representation of Hinduism in the American academy. The fault for this lies entirely with the Hindu Right. By queering the pitch, the Hindu Right has effectively ruled out the possibility of internal and external critiques of the study of Hinduism (and, to an extent, India and South Asia) in the American and global academy, precisely because anyone attempting to articulate such a critique is liable to be tainted as a Hindu nationalist or a closet sympathizer for their cause.[2]

But the matter of the representation of Hinduism in the American academy deserves urgent examination for several reasons, beyond the obvious right of academics to be able to freely conduct their research and express their views. For, it raises some critical issues about notions of the authentic Hindu at work in both the academy and beyond, the relationship of academics and the university to that entity called "community," and institutional practices of university departments and universities at large. In what follows, I will attempt to outline some of these issues. My goal here is to provide no more than a rough schematic as a means of inaugurating further discussion.

It is entirely legitimate to attempt to provincialize the study of Hinduism (or India or South Asia) in the American academy, to examine its origins, its relationship with colonial disciplinary projects, to examine its particular histories, to question its relationship to the area studies paradigm (itself related to US Cold War policy). I should emphasize here that I am not just referring to the study of Hinduism in departments of religion and religious studies but more broadly. It is also fair to ask whether the criteria to speak for Hinduism (or India or South Asia) in the academy-- because of historical reasons-- are de facto if not de jure, different than the criteria to speak for Judaism, Islam, or Christianity.

In the aftermath of the Courtright affair, a group of representatives of the Atlanta Hindu community had approached Emory University with a long list of demands and questions. One question they had asked Emory concerned the composition of the African-American Studies and Jewish Studies departments (and possibly, if my memory serves me right, the Candler School of Theology) specifically whether the majority of individuals teaching in these departments self-identified as or were identifiable as African-American, Jewish, or Christian. The question was presented as part of a somewhat bizarre PowerPoint presentation (apparently not on the Web anymore). As I remember, Emory University gave these community members a polite hearing but did not--rightly--kowtow to their request. Emory did not respond to their question about the various departments and schools either. Blunt as it is, and regardless of the fact that it was articulated by the Hindu Right, the question points to a deeper, discomfiting question about the logic of identity politics in the American academy: in the institutional imagination of universities, is there a consistent logic by which identity is linked to epistemological authority for different groups? I suspect this is one reason why seeking to prove the "fact" of a Hindu genocide or Hindu holocaust has been a central objective of the diasporic Hindu nationalist project--the perception, justified or not, that the right to the memory of suffering is linked to the right to speak for the community. It is in this sense that the Hindu Right seeks to argue that the writings of academics like Doniger are objectionable, in the manner that scholars at Emory who happened to be Jewish objected to Jimmy Carter's criticisms of the state of Israel.

It is also worth examining whether the study of Hinduism in the American academy has shared, and continues to share, with the Hindu Right some assumptions about Hinduism, Hindu identity, and Hindu practices. That the Hindu Right advocates for a highly reductive understanding of Hinduism and Indianness is not news. The diasporic Hindu Right, additionally, seems to have come up with what seem to me utterly bogus criteria of distinguishing between "practicing" and "non-practicing" Hindus. University departments in which Hinduism might be studied generally emphasize pluralism: both in the object of study and in their approach. After all, "essentialism" (barring, perhaps, the "strategic" variety) is the cardinal, academic sin. Yet, to what extent does the Hindu Right's invocation of the Indic draw on academic discourses about Indic civilization defined as a Hindu base, infused with Islam? One aspect of the study of Hinduism in the American academy that I have long found troubling is the neglect of many ways of being Hindu that do not seem to have some clearly identifiable "religious" core as their basis. Through omission, if not commission, the social-academic construction of Hinduism in the American academy, then, seems to echo the argument put forth by the Hindu Right that "deracinated," "non-practicing," "cultural" Hindus are not real Hindus at all, or, at least, not worthy of study. [3]

Despite the frenzy of soul-searching and reflexivity ushered into motion by Edward Said's Orientalism, I do not think departments and universities in the US have transformed their pedagogical and institutional practices significantly enough in this regard. This holds true not just for the study of Hinduism or South Asia but for disciplines like English as well. Academia, like community, is inherently conservative. There is an also opportunity here, one that has, regrettably, been endlessly suspended, for an important conversation on the relationship between text, archive, and social practice in different disciplinary analyses of Hinduism.

Finally, beyond the specific case of the Hindu Right, the question of the relationship between scholarly autonomy and obligations to the community being studied is not as simple as it might seem. This is a function of the general political economy of the circulation of knowledge in American academia at large, and, more specifically, the politics of South Asian studies in the US. [3]

Essentially, the study of South Asia (including Hinduism) in the US is dominated by a small group of institutions, the Ivy League universities, other prestigious research (or R1) universities, and a few liberal arts colleges. In terms of what one may call the global academic study of South Asia, the core network extends to Oxbridge and the London School of Economics, two or three European universities, and a couple of New Delhi-based Indian universities. The historically central role of Oxford and Cambridge regarding the production of knowledge about South Asia has shifted over the last thirty-odd years to the US with its economic-powerhouse research institutions. The study of Hinduism or South Asia, like every other field of study in the US, also has its rock stars. Beyond the big annual disciplinary conferences that are a feature of American academic life, knowledge about South Asia tends to circulate largely within this circuit.

Justified or not, there is a widespread perception among students, faculty, and observers of South Asian studies in the US (beyond these institutions but within them too) that there is a small group of scholars at these institutions who control the conversation about South Asia, whose students land the prized tenure-track Research One jobs, whose associates are able to garner cushy visiting fellowships, and whose word counts enormously in the determination of Fulbright and American Institution of Indian Studies scholarships. On the South Asian Journalist Discussion forum, two members of the Hindu nationalist brains trust-- an academic and entrepreneur, respectively--mentioned on more than one occasion that they had received enormous support from Western and non-Western academics all over the world for their criticisms of Doniger, Courtright, and others. It was a claim worth taking seriously. I do not think that these academic supporters of the Hindu Right have been personally snubbed by any of the targets of the Hindu Right. I think it is just that for the hallowed circle of South Asian Studies, these other academics just don't exist.

There is no conspiracy to exclude others at work here. It is simply the logic of one of the many ways in which the academy is hierarchical. (A renowned historian once pointed out to me that the structures of authority in the American academy were exactly like those of the medieval guild). The academy replicates and perpetuates the ideologies of meritocracy and winner-take-all that characterize the market society that is America. But the Hindu Right has been effectively able to tap into this seething global cauldron of academic resentment to mobilize its attacks on certain academics and institutions. Whatever their motivations, sections of the universe of academics who work on Hinduism or South Asia have also lent their support to the project of the Hindu Right.

Two other respects in which which community comes into play in relation to the study of South Asia involve the question of legitimacy and the question of resources.

Scholars (Western or not) who work on South Asia often seek the support of South Asian communities in the US and globally in any number of ways. Universities emphasize and value "community outreach" as one of the service obligations of faculty members and one of the strategic goals of administrators. The success of community-centered events is measured by the number of people from the community who attend these events. Scholars conduct ethnographic work among these communities, and are often involved in community and volunteer work with these communities. Scholars also often seek help from these extended networks: IAS officers or other government officials who can set you up in a guesthouse or provide security for you in India, local families that you or your students can stay with, political connections to smooth out visa difficulties, and the like. As a cynical saying I have heard puts it, "They [i.e., academics working on India] need us ABCDs [American Born Confused Desis] to get ABCDs [Ayahs, Bearers, Cooks, and Drivers] when they go to India."

For some members of these very communities, whether they are of Hindu nationalist persuasion or not, the quid pro quo for providing such support and legitimacy is an endorsement of their cultural identity from the academics in whom they have invested. The Indian or Indian-born academic who does not conform is seen as a disloyal insider; the Western academic who does not is seen as an ingrate who has betrayed their hospitality.

As a part of the larger academic pie in the US, the South Asian pie is not particularly large, though in the last few years with the supposed rise of India on the global scene, university administrations across the US have been somewhat more generous in funding India-centered initiatives and embarking on India-related initiatives in the name of global engagement. [4] Universities, as part of their constant fund-raising efforts, have increasingly sought funding from wealthy South Asian individuals and corporations. Narayan Murthy of Infosys and his wife have donated $5.2 million to Harvard for a project on translating Indian classics. The Ambanis have endowed a chair in South Asian Studies at Stanford University, currently held by the distinguished anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen, author of highly regarded ethnographic studies on the Shiv Sena and postcolonial Bombay. In this, Hindus, Indians, and South Asians are doing exactly what other groups in the US have done historically.

Donations and endowments to universities usually come with very specific guidelines negotiated between the donor and the recipient. In general, though, it is part of the culture of American public life for religious groups as well as secular groups to try and gain a voice, create a space for themselves, or shape public perception, discussion or policy through philanthropic contributions. Again, there is nothing particularly sinister about this, despite mutterings from the Indian Left about money from the Hindu Right sloshing through the global capitalist system and saffron-washing everything. The Left argument about elite American Hindus as Johnny-come-latelys seeking to rid themselves of inferiority complexes rooted in their dark skin color by buying influence also seems misguided and mean-spirited to me.

I want to just stress just a few points here. We need to shatter the myth of academics as human beings who devote themselves to the selfless, disinterested study of a topic purely out of love for it. No doubt, that love and dedication is part of why academics do what they do. But academics, like other human beings, are political animals, with ambitions and aspirations. Those ambitions and political aspirations dictate their relationships to, and entanglements with, communities, governments, and power generally, with both risks and rewards. Academics, in my view, are well-served by keeping an academic "buyer beware" in mind at all times. And we also need to think past the idea of a monolithic conservative global Hindu community of privileged elites whose intolerance is endlessly on the increase. The ludicrous and vile lawsuit filed by Dina Nath Batra with its unintendedly Shakespearean slurs (Thy approach is that of a woman "hungry of sex") draws on a cheap stereotype about licentious Western women. Its endorsement by global Hindus might reinforce the narrative of the global Hindu nationalist beast that swallows all in it sight. I have, however, heard similarly offensive stereotypes articulated by progressive defenders of free speech and critics of Hindu nationalism, specifically, the claim that all Hindu men, being inherently patriarchial, are driven to rage at the very thought of white women studying Hindu texts. Regardless of the actions of Batra and his supporters, that stereotype also deserves condemnation.

Penguin India's cravenly decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger's book from publication has rightly evoked protests from numerous quarters. It is another event in a long and shameful tradition of the censorship of speech and thought in India, and of a related, equally despicable tradition of pandering to violent religious extremists from the Hindu Right and from other religions. A heartening number of voices from global civil society have expressed their solidarity with Doniger, including on Chapati Mystery. A refusal to think about the history and practice of the study of Hinduism, India, or South Asia in the academy--in the name of solidarity or out of the fear that the Hindu Right might coopt these arguments---however, would also be an act of self-censorship and an abdication of the most precious principle of the academic vocation.

[1] Can one imagine a Hinduism 101 class in a US university that treats as legitimately Hindu those celebrations of Diwali that do not involve a puja at a temple or within a home? Or does such a celebration, having lapsed into secularism, cease to be Hindu enough to be studied? The study of Hinduism may not be unique in this regard; as one professor of Islam pointed out wryly in a talk I attended while at Emory, the "five pillars of Islam" continues to characterize much undergraduate teaching about Islam in the American academy.

[2] Another sorry consequence of the actions of the Hindu Right is that there is no recognition in an academic or a broader public sphere in the US of a legitimately conservative Hindu viewpoint that is, at the same, time not extremist. We rightly recognize that there are conservative Muslim, Jewish, or Christian viewpoints that, nonetheless, are not extremist or militant. In the case of Hindus in the United States, conservative Hindu is typically used synonymously with "Hindu nationalist" or "militant Hindu." Even in writing this piece, I have struggled to find an appropriate vocabulary to describe various overlapping, but distinct, Hindu communities within and beyond the US.

[3] I can claim a modicum of authority here in speaking of this. Given the interdisciplinary nature of my research, on finishing graduate school, I had a tenure-track job offer in South Asian History at a Research One university and a tenure-track offer in Media Studies at a Liberal Arts college centered on the study of entrepreneurship. For various professional and personal reasons, which I do not need to go into here, I chose the latter.

[4] The politics of global engagement in the current moment in the American academy--with its projects of taking Milton to the masses in Madhya Pradesh, satellite campuses, and strategic targeting of well-heeled full-paying undergraduates from Asia and Africa--deserves its own post. I hope to comment on the phenomenon in a separate reflection shortly.


mugdha karnik | February 25, 2014

Very well written. The Hindu Right is becoming a menace. So is the Buddha Right coming up in India. Absolutely intolerant of any criticism. When they reach the Western academia- imagine what may happen. Look into that. May be the roots of intolerance were lying dormant in India for so many centuries and now suddenly they are waking, sprouting and spouting venom.

Ajit | March 05, 2014

"Another sorry consequence of the actions of the Hindu Right is that there is no recognition in an academic or a broader public sphere in the US of a legitimately conservative Hindu viewpoint that is, at the same, time not extremist." Actually there are many. It is only because people like the author deem *any* such viewpoint as "extremist" that the assertion becomes tautologously true.

Aniruddha | March 05, 2014

@Ajit: What are you talking about? Can you give us some specific examples? RE. the bit about knowledge on South Asia/Hinduism circulating in R1 universities & liberal arts colleges in the US & Oxbridge, for what it's worth, I teach South Asian history at a small non-elite regional university in Pennsylvania, and I know at least one other South Asianist teaching in a non-elite univ. in Texas. Maybe things are changing on that front.

sanyasi | March 17, 2014

Thanks Aniruddha, Your point is well taken. I agree that the study of South Asia is not nearly as limited in the US academy as it used to be. It's heartening that there are many more South Asian studies positions across departments in many more universities. My argument though is about the extent to which these different centers can participate in and shape the discourse, agenda, set of interests etc. about South Asia. Hierarchies in higher education in the US tend to change very slowly. I would submit that South Asian studies is no exception. In fact, the logic by which academic capital operates may be more inflexible in the case of South Asian studies precisely because a few institutions have a historical head start, significant advantages in resources, and have dominated it for a long time. I think this is why the Hindu Right in the US has been targeting scholars from these institutions. It is one key aspect of their overall strategy to redefine and control the discourse about Hinduism in the US.

Samir Chopra | March 21, 2014

Thanks for these useful reflections on the structure of the 'South Asian academy.' Is the entrepreneur you mention above Rajiv Malhotra? Incidentally, you might be interested in this:

Karen Bennet | April 07, 2014

“Another sorry consequence of the actions of the Hindu Right is that there is no recognition in an academic or a broader public sphere in the US of a legitimately conservative Hindu viewpoint that is, at the same, time not extremist.” This couldn't be more inaccurate. In fact, the socially conservative Hindu viewpoint is the most commonly known and mainstream Hindu viewpoint in the US. These are the much loved "model minorities" of the US and there is nothing perceived as "extremist" about them.

Beyond Hindutva and free speech: Invisible Indians in the Doniger debate - Firstpost | November 25, 2014

[…] or toilet seats without being demonized as illiberal extremists. As Sanyasi writes on the blog Chapati Mystery the “possible set of responses to the events was reduced to a set of two choices: a good […]