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Whose Dharma To Speak On Dharma?

Author: Vamsee Juluri
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: March 19, 2015
URL: http://swarajyamag.com/culture/whose-dharma-to-speak-on-dharma/

Prof.Vamsee Juluri responds to Wendy Doniger

The Times of India recently published a piece by Wendy Doniger with the title “Why Non-Hindus Should Write on Hinduism.” These are her claims:

“The Hindus who object to the books about Hinduism by non-Hindus are primarily concerned with three problems:

1. Non-Hindus rather than Hindus are writing about Hinduism;

2. Some non-Hindus (and indeed some Hindus, too) are writing about the “wrong sort” of Hinduism; and

3. Prominent authors, non-Hindu or Hindu, are writing from an academic rather than a faith stance.”

I happen to be Hindu, and I have objected quite clearly and vehemently to at least one book about Hinduism written by a non-Hindu, so here is my response to Prof. Doniger.

1. Do I object to non-Hindus writing about Hinduism? Absolutely not. I have gained much insight, knowledge, and indeed a sense of peace and joy too, from reading the works of many non-Hindu, non-Brahmin, and non-Indian writers on Hinduism. I would not have appreciated Hinduism today as much as I do without the influence (in a kind of loose chronological order), of Edwin Arnold, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Isherwood, John Lennon, George Harrison, Colin Wilson, Diane Baskin, Phyllis Krystal, Phillip Goldberg, Steve Rosen, Bill Aitken, and many, many more who bring new eyes to the eternal in delightful, creative, and profoundly inspiring ways.  (I also would not have appreciated Hinduism today without the influence of Hindus too; most of all, my Guru, Sri Sathya Sai Baba and Mahatma Gandhi, I will add that). So, while I have indeed criticized a few books on Hindus “written by non-Hindus” it is for reasons other than their being written by non-Hindus.

2. Do I object to some non-Hindus writing about Hinduism because they are writing about the “wrong sort of Hinduism”? I have no idea what that is even supposed to mean. Do I have a normative, hegemonic, “Brahmanical” preconceived notion about the one true Hinduism? Would it be my mother’s, full of pomp and ceremony and grand pujas in ancient temples? Would it be my father’s, bursting out every day in simple gestures of kindness, delight, and love to all? Would it be my Guru’s, who made us sing of Allah, Ishwar, Yesu, Nanak, Mahavir, Zoroaster, and said most of all, simply, “love all, serve all”? Would it be my shrine, overflowing with images of many sensibilities and traditions? Would I object to saluting Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or refrain from receiving a hug from Amma because my Guru is the only one? I view religion, and most of all a cultural phenomenon as dynamic, diverse, and democratic as Hinduism as a resource, not a dogma hacked into stone. No, my critique of a certain book on Hindus written by a non-Hindu, is not because I have some canonical idea of the one true Hinduism that everyone must follow.

3. Do I object to some writers on Hinduism because they are “academic” and not “faith-based”? I am an academic, and I am a man of faith, as one might say, and I do not see the two as separate. In fact, I am proud that I see the two complimenting each other. My Guru valued the meeting of spirituality and education and built free schools and colleges to make it happen. He urged us to see education, both learning and teaching, as sacred, socially-rooted practices rather than commercial transactions. The university where I teach also happens to be part of an illustrious tradition of honoring both spirituality and education and I am happy that it is so. I therefore don’t even know what it means to have a separate “academic hat” and a separate “faith hat.” From where I come, we don’t think that way, and we don’t put on hats before seeking knowledge (if we did, it would be arrogant, a dunce hat). Instead, we bend our heads and rest them on Goddess Saraswathi’s feet. I worship knowledge, I revere it, as most of us in India do. I saw only Saraswathi even when I read Marxist cultural studies. And I see only love and sanctity when academics write about Hinduism intelligently.  I feel the same way when I read Diana Eck, Arvind Sharma, and Klaus Klostermeier, as I do when I read the aphorisms of gurus and saints. No, I don’t find a certain book about Hindus by a “non-Hindu” problematic because it is “academic” and not “faith-based.”

So, for the record, my objections about The Hindus: An Alternative History, and its author’s continuing position on it, are not for the reasons cited above.

Instead, these are my objections:

1. Insisting on the “right” of privileged metropolitan scholars imposed on readers by global media conglomerate support to ignore or misrepresent the criticism of less privileged readers and scholars from the former colonies is not an act of subaltern or “alternative” resistance but one of racism and imperialism. The privilege dimension is not difficult to verify.

- Walk into a bookshop anywhere in the world outside of India and count how many “non-Hindu writers on Hinduism” and “Hindu writers on Hinduism” have their books retailed there (in my Barnes and Noble, it’s probably about three to one, including Gandhi and Yogananda in the one).

- Study the review pages of the New York Times or the New York Review of Books, and see how many “Hindu writers on Hinduism” have had their books mentioned there.

- Look at the thousands of hours of radio and TV news programs in the US, and see how many “Hindu experts on Hinduism” have made an appearance there.

- Look at the faculty among Hinduism departments in the United States, fifty years after the US ended its racial quotas on immigration, and see how many “Hindu faculty of Hinduism” are now in place there.

In media studies, something like this would be called cultural imperialism. The same way Hollywood movies penetrate local markets in every corner of the planet, and very few non-Western film industries ever gain traction in the US, academia and publishing too sustain a neo-colonial, one-way, top-down flow of (often bad) products.

2. The main criticism of The Hindus: An Alternative History I have is not that it doesn’t present some normative “right kind of Hinduism”; it is that its premise is deeply flawed, and perpetuates classic orientalism rather than empowering some imagined alternative pluralism that we Hindus have violently suppressed. The “alternative” claim implies that there is a “dominant” story. For example, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States was indeed an “alternative” when mainstream history textbooks in U.S. schools and colleges taught a highly Eurocentric account of the Americas in which the enlightened pioneers “discovered” the “savages.” There is no such dominant history in India, or the Indian diaspora. The problematic California textbooks, the history textbooks we read in school in India, and Doniger’s book, all follow a similar structure of denying Hinduism’s organic connections to India’s past. (Doniger, in fact, compares the “arrival” of the Aryans to India to that of the Nazis during World War 2, and to the Native American genocide as well). Other writers have pointed out more detailed errors as well in terms of translations, distortions, and omissions. Surely their point too was not that it was not conforming to some “normative” Hinduism.

3. The third and last criticism that needs to be made is of how Prof. Doniger and many of her supporters have handled the controversy about her book. One obviously sympathizes with the feelings an author might experience at being “banned.” Many Hindu readers, academics and writers know that feeling all too well; after all, not one article, sometimes not even one letter even was published from a reasonable Hindu perspective in the free speech espousing papers of record like the New York Times, the Guardian and even USA Today. In our media studies classes we learn to recognize that censorship doesn’t happen only through government diktat or court orders; more often than not, it is something that exists through other channels, corporate, commercial, ideological, and most of all in the seemingly routine and professional process of constructing news stories. This is the sort of Hinduphobic censorship, hypocricy and silencing that has led to hurt, disappointment, anger, and the phenomenon of the now self-consciously and agentially appropriated appellation “Internet Hindus” (and I don’t mind saying that is only due to Hindu and Indian civilizational sensibilities that the victims of Hinduphobia have at worst become internet commenters and not cartoon magazine-office visitors).

These are the real issues with her work. It may be nominally true that some Hindus have said the three things Doniger says they have, though their problem may be a lack of intellectual capital rather than some fundamentalist fervor. But how honest have her own responses been? In an OpEd in New York Times last year she called herself a victim of a law that makes it a crime to offend Hindus? Really? Is that what the law says, and was it Hindus who used that law most of the time? And while Doniger may not be culpable for every free speech-disguised insanity that now infests our culture (like the recent article essentially equating a Tamil writer’s being upset about protests against his book with a Bangladeshi blogger being brutally hacked to death in front of his wife at a book fair), a person of her fame should rise above sly deceptions and accept the simple truth:

Some non-Hindu writers on Hinduism lack accurate knowledge about Hinduism.

 It may be so because they were trained decades ago by other non-Hindu writers on Hinduism who also lacked accurate knowledge on Hinduism and they in turn … and so on. But the truth is that the only reason we all have to hear about them and talk about them today is because what they lacked in knowledge they made up for, geo-historically speaking, in power.

However, as I would not like to end on a note of condemnation, this is what I will say. I am reminded of an incident on a train when I was very young. My father was taking me to Vizag to see my grandmother, and in the morning just after Rajahmundry, a gang of boisterous and macho college students without tickets jumped into our non-smoking compartment and lit up their cigarettes. My father requested them to stop. They glared at him. I was scared, given how angry and tougher than him they looked. The other passengers got scared too and tried to convince my father to let it go. But somehow, he kept at it in his own dignified way. In the end, the leader of the group threw his cigarette out of the train -with tears forming in his eyes.

Then my father said something that he needn’t have said, but it was probably the most important thing someone so desperately clinging to a sense of power and superiority needed to hear: “Thoti maanavula ibbandini teesesi sukha pettadamulo eppudu meeru chinna varu avvaru, babu.”

You never become a smaller person for recognizing the pain you are causing others, and choosing to end it.
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